05 January 2010

What Did I Teach Today?

During this Winter Recess at the college, I am teaching a business writing class. There are fourteen students. Two took other classes with me during the fall and another was in a class of mine two years ago. Then there's another student who, while he has never taken a class with me, seems as if he's one of my students. And I'm not the only faculty member who feels that way about him. Now, as he's about to embark on his final semester at the college, I'm actually teaching him.

So far I'm liking the class: It's small, the students seem receptive and the course will be an intense experience. I know that because I've taught winter session and short summer session courses. Each lasts about three and a half weeks, so every day is like a week of the regular semester.

Anyway...Today we were discussing some of the "do's and don't's" of writing a cover letter for a job application. Somehow the subject of whether to mention church memberships came up. I told students they should mention such things in a resume or cover letter only if they're relevant to the position or the organization. The same thing for organizations that have to do with race, ethnicity or politics: You don't mention them unless they have to do with the requirements of the job or organization. "And they're not allowed to ask about those things in an interview," I said.

A few jaws slackened. I could tell that one woman had been asked about such things during an interview; the others came from other countries where laws against such questioning don't exist. I turned to one student, a Bengali woman, and said, "You don't want to announce that you're Muslim unless you're applying for a job in a mosque."

"A lot of people assume that I'm one," responded a male Hindu student from India. Then I talked a bit about some of the things that happened in the days just after 9/11/01, when people were harassed and beaten because someone thought they were Muslim or Middle Eastern. That happened to a taxi driver just three blocks from where I was living at the time: A group of men surrounded his cab when he stopped for a traffic light, pulled him out of the car, and beat him on the pavement. As it turned out, the driver was a Filipino Catholic, if I remember correctly.

"So there's really prejudice out there," commented one student, who works in the college's day care center.

"Yes," I said.

"What do you think, prof?" a young man wondered.

"I know it exists because I've experienced it firsthand."

I could hear that same man breathing. Everyone in the class stared at me. I figured that at least half of that class knew my story, so I told them about the time I went to an old supervisor of mine, who had become the department chair in another college, to ask about working there. It was just before the beginning of the semester, and the department was hiring adjuncts to teach a few newly-opened sections.

When that department chair was a coordinator at the college in which I used to teach, I had nothing but excellent reviews and he praised my work and professionalism. However, when I saw him again, about a year after I'd started living full-time as a woman, he somehow recalled that "there were problems" with me. He said I was "erratic" and that there had been complaints about me.

"Well, I never heard about them then. Why are you bringing them up now? And, as coordinator, you wouldn't have dealt with them."

"And your reviews were very inconsistent."

"Who told you that?"

"I can't talk about that."

When I finished telling the story, I could feel the eyes upon me. Then, one of the students I had last semester said, "Well, at least we have you here."

For a moment, I couldn't say anything. Then, after the student who works in the day care center gave me a "thumbs-up," I implored the students to remember, if nothing else, that trying to "fit in" or imitate those who have power does not work if you do not have the privilege they have. "All you can do is to be your absolute best self, whatever that is. Know what you are, and be the best of that you can be."

Don't ask me where that came from, much less whether it was the right thing to tell them. But, really, it was all I could say. I'm not sure what, if anything, I taught the students in that exchange. But it was all I could offer before we got on to the business of the rest of the day's class session.