Teaching and race subject of faculty emerita’s new book

Drew Wilson -

Irene Lietz

PITTSBURGH — During 12 years as a member of Carlow University’s English faculty, Irene Lietz, PhD, taught professional writing and first-year writing, but her students learned more than how to create grammatically correct sentences.

“Students need to be prepared to live and work with all kinds of people,” Lietz said, who was awarded faculty emerita status when she left Carlow in 2013. To that end, her classes always focused on social justice issues, like anti-racism and domestic and dating violence, in addition to teaching writing.

“Despite the many gains made in race relations, we still have not resolved problems that result from racial inequity,” she said. “The pandemic and deadly police incidents have made that clear. Still, people have trouble talking about race, racism and privilege, which interferes with true communication and effective problem solving with sustainable solutions.”

Her commitment to social justice, particularly anti-racism, led her to research and write a new book, published by Peter Lang Publishers, titled, “Teaching and Race: How to Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk.”

To promote her book, Lietz led a virtual interactive workshop at Carlow on October 2, sponsored by the Department of Art, Communication, and English, and the Women’s and Gender Studies program.

Discussing issues surrounding racism, privilege, and the inequity that results, can be fraught with challenges, and often can lead to emotional exchanges between students and professors.“I find teaching about racism to be a tough task, and it still makes me nervous at times to feel its unpredictability. But practice helps, as does building trust in the class and with colleagues who are also trying to do the same,” she said. “It is in our mutual interests to figure out how to make society and our government work for everyone.”

Figuring out how to make such difficult discussions work for everyone is the reason that Lietz decided to write this book. It provides four in-depth case studies of common student talk about race, its flavor, character and interdisciplinary sources, with manageable tools for response. Narrating common, sometimes offensive, language from student interviews that betray confusion, denial, guilt resistance and more, the book recommends an accessible two-step-compassionate listening followed by critical challenges-- to connect emotion and evidence and transform the moment. Teaching and Race answers the teacher’s perennial question, “What do I say when this situation arises in the classroom?”

“The college classroom is an ideal site to raise these issues, examine them from multiple interdisciplinary perspectives, consider the implications for our respective fields of study, develop new methods and approaches and learn to work together better,” she said. “This puts a tremendous challenge before the teachers at all levels who must first educate themselves on these longstanding inequities, particularly how they impact our professional knowledge bases and the biases inherent in our current practices. Then we teachers must learn how to teach from that new space in ways that sometimes feel really uncomfortable because they have not been our habit.”

Lietz acknowledges that such discussions can be uncomfortable, especially for White people who, while decrying that blatant racism that exists in other places, have grown accustomed to ignoring the subtle ways that racism can cause injustice in their own communities.

One of the defenses frequently offered is “I’m not a racist because I have friends who are Black.”

Lietz counters that defense by saying, “Individual friendship does not address the bigger social problems that people of color suffer simply by being not-White: racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, health care, policing and the courts. Friendship doesn’t address why environmental hazards are often located in low-income neighborhoods where more people of color tend to live than Whites. Friends of different races have been affected with deadly difference by the effects of Covid-19 and the friendship could not stop that.”

While the subject of racism can arouse deep emotions in a classroom or audience, Lietz believes it is essential that these discussions take place in university classrooms. It may not offer a perfect solution, but there is a recipe for constructive discourse.

“Honesty, patience, willingness to make your own mistakes, commitment to doing your own race homework all pay off, even if you don’t get it all right every time,” she said. “The trend is towards increased awareness and greater justice. But this is our job and our gift. We can do this together.”

For more information or to order Dr. Lietz’ book, please visit: https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/72087

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