“My adjunct teaching job wound up being a lot more than I bargained for.”
by Jonita Davis
My job in 2017 was to teach Composition I to new college students, showing them how to express themselves through writing. My role quickly became that of social ambassador to kids who, raised in homes blaring Fox News 24/7 and Confederate flags flying high (yes, even in Indiana), were about to be unleashed onto the world.
It didn’t take long to figure out that aside from bigoted ideas, there was another problem the students had. It came down to simple language. These students still used words to describe Black and Latinx people that hadn’t been acceptable since the 1960s.
I once assigned the fiction story, “Waynes vs. Johnsons of Albemarle County” by Tyrese Coleman. Before the assignment, I had spent the semester teaching the writing process, including how to synthesize a reading into an arguable issue. The students were to find an issue to argue in Coleman’s story and write a short essay argument. The story was heavy with social issues. The one that most of the class — 13 out of 22 students, to be exact — chose to write on was police brutality.
I was momentarily floored by the rampant misinformation and bigoted, anti-Black statements. But, Indiana, outside of the Northwest corner abutting Chicago and a few spots near Indianapolis, was a red state.
Within those 13 essays, students argued that racism should not be tied to police brutality. All 13 used language proclaiming the “race card” was used or the issue at hand was that “the liberals” were trying to “race bait” the right wing voters. Three essays argued that “colored people” or “coloreds” were simply being shot because they were criminals. One essay used the term “fairies” in a homophobic jab at Black Lives Matter.
I was momentarily floored by the rampant misinformation and bigoted, anti-Black statements. But, Indiana, outside of the Northwest corner abutting Chicago and a few spots near Indianapolis, was a red state. I graded those essays with a raging headache that would not subside despite my attempts to treat it. I took walks, cleaned my house, baked pies (lots of pies as it was apple season), and even drank a little wine to loosen my nerves and relax. But, every time I returned to that stack of essays my blood boiled.
The head of the English department at the time was a Black woman. This was a sensitive topic, so I didn’t want to email her. However, I chased her for days and could never set up a face-to-face meeting. Instead, I went to the director of the First-Year Writing program. This tenured professor was the woman who taught two of my courses in grad school. She taught me how to teach writing. I was naive to think that that connection alone would make this White woman listen and advise me, a Black woman complaining about her White students.
She did listen intently as I explained and then showed her the essays. Then she took a beat to think before issuing solutions, which felt more like judgments. First, she posited that I could be to blame for the problem altogether because I assigned such a racially charged text. I listened, bewildered as she suggested that I should stick to the less charged texts that we used in my practicum course.
I blubbered a moment, unsure of what I was hearing. Somehow words rebutting her stance fell out of my mouth. I asked her to advise on the language alone. The police brutality stances and misinformation aside, the language is not something that I, an English instructor could let pass.
The second piece of advice: correct the language and move along. None of that woman’s responses made sense. The idea that I created the problem dogged me. Making it through my typical Sunday grading session each week was becoming a chore that left me exhausted before my work week even began.
I stood in front of the class the next time we met (after grading the essays and meeting with my program director) and tried to keep my anger from slipping out with my carefully chosen words.
My lecture was about appropriate language. It was from the textbook, but first, from my experience as a Black woman in America. I would address that anti-Black rhetoric in their writing as well. However, my emotions defied me, and before too long the bass in my voice had dropped. Soon, I was speaking from a hurt heart and not my notes. By the time I was done, the class was in shock, but at rapt attention. When I asked if there were any questions, as I usually end each lecture, the 22 “no” headshakes were almost in unison. They were afraid. I knew from years of navigating White spaces that this fear was a bomb waiting to go off… and I would be the casualty.
So, I took a breath and apologized for my anger, adding, “I will not apologize for my words. You all needed to hear and see firsthand how these words hurt. I am just sorry that you had to experience that from me, your professor.”
The whole classroom unclenched its collective jaw muscles. The worst was over. Time for some cleanup work. I went over to the door that was slightly ajar and closed it all the way. I then turned to the class and told them that the classroom was a safe space, and if they had questions about appropriate language, they had a person of color to ask. “Let’s do it in an environment of learning,” I said. “Does anyone have any questions?” No one moved. I stood there and scanned the room. “I’ll wait. Remember, I’ve read your writing for weeks. I just know there are some questions here. It’s better to ask me now than to let something slip on the job and get fired.”
After another few minutes of silence, one student raised his hand. “So, if we can’t say that, um what you said was the wrong word, what do we call them?”
“Who’s them? Black people? Like me?” I offered.
Another male student joined in, “Yeah, I was told we can’t say Black.”
“So, in this case, look at who is giving you the information. Is the person who told you not to call Black people Black… a White person.”
“I don’t mean to embarrass. I’m just asking.”
“Okay, look at it this way, do you want to get baking advice from a dentist?” Nervous laughs throughout the room. “Well, it’s the same thing. If you want to know what to call a Black person, ask one! Do it politely and not just at random, okay. Use this time to interact with people you never have before. Talk to a Black person or Latinx person or a person from the LGBTQ community. Just please, if you need info about that community, go there. Don’t go to your uncle George and ask him why some Latinx people use Hispanic over Latino. The answer you get will not be credible.”
That opened the floodgates. The rest of that class became a Q&A about appropriate language. I even traced the N-word back to slavery and told a kid who played basketball with his Black friends once a week why they got mad when he tried to use the word. I assigned a Ta-Nehisi Coates video to drive the point home.
I left class feeling an ease of sorts, but I was so exhausted. It was only 10 a.m.
I resigned myself to the fact that my job also came with the duty to challenge and correct their alt-right, anti-Black (and one semester anti-Semitic) home training. In addition to the “appropriate language lecture,” I created a reading list full of texts that targeted the concepts they needed to learn most. The texts were written by women, women of color, Black women, LGBTQ writers, and other writers of color. Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” coupled with Gina Corcoran’s “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person” addressed the topic in a way the students could absorb. It was counter to their parents’ view, which made most take the texts home to teach mom and dad.
I added the NPR investigative article about tracking fake news creators so that they could see how the right is targeted with misinformation. I used the Media Bias Chart to show them where their usual news choices actually fell on the “factual and unbiased” news. I even pointed out how Fox News wasn’t even a news channel. It changed classification in 2018. That one blew a few minds. Rahawa Haile’s “Going it Alone” and the New Yorker article on an ICE agent resigning because of the brutality to immigrants showed them the harm that their “innocent” terms and ideology were doing to real people. By the time the students left my class, they could write a complete essay, form a solid argument, and debate any ignorant bigot on racial, classist, and other biases in our society.
I had been teaching my course for three semesters and living in constant fear the entire time that one of the students would complain about my class. Professors get common complaints all the time. I just knew that a parent of a student would come into the dean’s office with Corcoran’s essay and demand my resignation. Or, they would hear about my showing Ta-Nehisi Coates on video explaining why White people couldn’t say the N-word and my job would be over.
I didn’t expect what actually happened. There was a student complaint, but it was not about any specific reading. They complained about a grade. My program director used that to segue into a conversation that ultimately ended my time at this school.
We talked about the complaint on the phone. It was about a grade that the students thought was unfair. I agreed to drop that grade to keep this from escalating. She then mentioned that they said some things about my classroom. They were not comfortable in my room. The students also felt that they couldn’t ask me for help or come to me about my assignments. The program director said I had to address this. The students also mentioned the readings, Haile’s specifically.
My blood rushed through my veins so loudly I could hear the pumping in my ears. My chest started to hurt as she told me that I needed to make myself someone they could be comfortable coming to if they had questions. I asked her to clarify. She told me to step back and look at myself and see what things I could do to make my students more comfortable around me. All I could see was my short natural Afro, my usual attire of comic nerd tees under blazers, Converse shoes, and my Black skin.
I reminded her that my class was almost completely White students. That semester, I had a Black student, a Latina, and two biracial students on my combined roster of 44 students. At that point, she lost control. She shouted, “I’m trying to help you understand…” and the rest was about how she had my best interests in mind and was saving me from a complaint escalating higher than the dean of students.
Before the end of the call, she promised to check in with the students periodically to see how I am doing. To meet with them to see if they had indeed become comfortable with me and my classroom.
Were my efforts to tackle the problem doing any good anyway?
It hit me like a ton of bricks that although she trained me, this woman, and probably the department, did not support me. The call ended and I cried angry tears for a while. That anger ate me up inside in the form of heartburn so bad it was still raging while I slept. I woke up in the middle of the night choking on bile. I saw a therapist who told me that my workplace was toxic and I needed to get out of there.
I did file a formal complaint within the department. The new head was a White man who was very hesitant at first but eventually advocated for me. He stepped in to supervise me for the rest of the semester, and actually took my concerns about freshmen entering the school with unchecked bigoted ideas and language into consideration.
Unfortunately, by the time he stepped in, I was done. My mental health could not withstand another semester, let alone another year. I hated leaving. I felt like I was leaving my post as a guard at a gaping hole in our society, through which ignorance flowed into civilized society. But my classes were two of several freshman Composition I classes. Were my efforts to tackle the problem doing any good anyway?
I am now at a school that serves a large marginalized community. I am doing a different type of instruction here with my writing courses. Instead of correcting ignorance, I am giving students who are first-generation and melanated the support they need to keep going. They love my class because it shows them that people of color are successful and stories like theirs do make a difference.
There are hundreds of professors like me working in the middle of America to challenge MAGA ideas in the freshmen students as they enter the university environment. Probably thousands if you count White ally professors fighting as well. There are never enough of us to reach all the students who need it, however.
So, those MAGA households are like “the Upside-Down” on the Netflix show Stranger Things. They keep leaking ignorance into our society and poisoning our ecosystem. I am the guard who freaked out and left her post but can never shake the fear that abandoning my post was not the right thing to do. My mental health has recovered, but my conscious is still vexed. The problem is not new, nor is it mine. I just stumbled upon it, probably like many professors of color before me. I just can’t help but think there could’ve been more that I could do.
Thinking about it too long it still makes me so damn tired.