Thoughts about Teaching – Teaching about Race – Starting the Conversation – 6/27/2020

I am going to talk about teaching about race as a relevant topic in today’s world. Teaching about race has been a primary part of my own American history classes and of both my undergraduate and graduate studies.

I was first introduced to discussions of race in American history during my time studying history at Rice University. The courses taught by Dr. Edward Cox there opened my eyes to a whole new sense of the world that I simply did not have from my K-12 experience. Although I went to diverse schools overall in K-12, being in the honors/gifted program meant being primarily around whites. I had never even thought of why that was or what might be wrong with that model until my undergraduate studies.

Courses in the history department at Rice in the African American experience, in Caribbean and Latin American history, and in the history of the Civil Rights Movement all served to provide me with a broader understanding of the history of race. History put me on that path to understanding, and it is a path that I am still on today.

While Dr. Cox was certainly not the only one at Rice from whom I learned about the history of race and racial issues, his courses were so crucial to my growing understanding that I still look back fondly on him and his classes today (over 2 decades later). I took every class that he offered while at Rice and only wish I could relive some of those classes now, knowing what I do, as I think I could get even more out of them in the current era.

In graduate school at Penn State, I did not have as much exposure directly to African American history or the history of race overall, but I still was able to read a diverse set of materials in my classes, and the Civil War focus of a number of my graduate courses did give me a good background in the ideas of slavery and emancipation.

While I had many strong history professors as a graduate student at Penn State, the one who still sticks out to me is Dr. Thavolia Glymph, who is now at Duke University. Her Slavery and Emancipation class was transformative for me. It was certainly one of the most difficult classes I had at Penn State, with a reading load that was astoundingly high on a weekly basis (think between 600-800 pages a week with over 1000 pages a week a couple of times). It was also a strange class, as there were five of us in the class, all white men from the South and West, who were taking a class on slavery from a black woman. I admire her patience and understanding with us, and I still remember the class today as a key one in my education. The amount of information in the class was so high, that I do wish that I could go back and take the same class a second time, this time without the time pressure and cramped setting of a full graduate semester, just so that I could delve deeper and understand the concepts, theories, and ideas with more time for consideration.

I did not set out to be a historian of African American history (although I strongly considered that as a focus while an undergraduate), and I still am learning all the time about issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. I feel moderately educated in African American history, and I have often regretted not going into that as a specialty going into graduate school, as it has become more and more of a field of strong interest for me. I am still woefully undereducated in many other fields of the history of race, have taken almost no courses on Mexican-American or even broader Latin American and South American history. I also never once took a course on Native American history or many other specific ethnic groups in the American history experience. So, for much of what we might consider the history of non-white American history, I am still very much a beginner.

I wish I knew more, but I bring what I do to my courses and to my life. In the context of a national conversation about race, I do my part by staying current and applying the lessons of history to what is going on around us today. I hope to show some of these things about how I think about and teach race in American history as I move forward in this series.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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