Race and Power

I think professor Claire Potter knows how much I and the rest of the academic community thinks of her. Right, Claire? What a profound and ubiquitous point by her: “For those of you who seem gobsmacked about what students of color at Yale are complaining about, drawing on my years at Wesleyan, I would say this. Imagine: getting into a great college or university, the college of your dreams, being really excited, being wooed at events where there faculty and students of color have been recruited to woo you. Then you get there and find out, if you are a Black man, that there are fewer than two dozen other black men in your class. Or that the faculty of color are all leaving, or have already left, because they are so frustrated by the lack of support for their work. Or that white students tell you that you got to college by a “special” route, and that the college of your dreams isn’t where you belong. Or that white students and faculty say breathtakingly racist things in class is if you were not even there — except that you are and they know it. Or that you are the first Black/Latino/Asian American person your white roommate has ever met. Or that you go to a party and someone white is dressed as “black.” Because this is the daily condition of being a student of color on an elite campus. It really is. Take my word for it, and then try believing them.”


The situation at the University of Missouri further denotes students as social activist when it comes to race. Hence, forcing out the university president. The football team sit out threat was brilliant. The student athletes had the power of the mighty dollar and used it with appropriate force. They got the support of their head football coach too. There is a circa 1960s feel to this.


Academically Adrift

While leading a history institute in the state of Oklahoma, a friend and colleague informed me of a work I gathered: Academically Adrift. The work discusses how unprepared mentally students are when they leave for college. We both agreed that America’s commercial culture regarding college is to blame. Now, we did not place absolute blame on that. But most colleges seek to appeal to the message that college is the BEST four years of your life. First, that is a lie. Life gets much better after college. It is a great experience, but it is one of many. I would not go back. Like high school, there comes a point in which a student is ready for the next journey. That is normal. Think about how colleges recruit students. Brochures show the fun life of college. There might be a few images of the library, or a students talking to a teacher, but very little about the day-to-day grind.

American culture perpetuates the idea that once in college it is time to drink and party. Many head to school with an immature image shaped. Fraternities and Sororities are trying to fight this image by establishing GPA requirements. Many now have service requirements. But in the end, it is all about socializing. In the work Academically Adrift, it is pointed out that students fail to make any true gains during those first two years.

The work goes on to say:

The book cites data from student surveys and transcript analysis to show that many college students have minimal classwork expectations — and then it tracks the academic gains (or stagnation) of 2,300 students of traditional college age enrolled at a range of four-year colleges and universities. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other “higher level” skills taught at college) at various points before and during their college educations, and the results are not encouraging:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.

The book blames the ultimate problem on rigor. 32% of students fail to take any courses that require at least 40 pages of reading assigned per week. I can attest to the fact that my students have been assigned that amount in most given nights. The work also states that students spend only 12 hours studying per week– and most of that is done in groups. It also states that:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.

Academic Changes: Good & Bad


One of the many academic journals I receive is the Intercollegiate Review. It is published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I believe they have been publishing this journal since 1953 — but I could be wrong. The institute is pretty conservative. Case in point: The above issue that just arrived on my campus desk ran a piece on the changing tide of academic studies. The author noted that schools — particularly universities — once served as the model for academic excellence. Students sought to be more well-rounded. They had a greater investment in their education and were intellectually curious. Thus, it was not unheard of for a business major to study the American Revolution; psychology majors took courses in the studies of Shakespeare and Milton; future politicians thumbed through the King James Bible. I will admit, I agree with the author in that a tide has shifted students away from being seekers to just being done. A few years ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Houston Christian’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. In my speech, I stated that W.E.B. Du Bois used the term “the talented tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in ten blacks becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. He believed they needed an education to reach their true destiny as what would in the 20th century be called public intellectuals. Du Bois stated:

We shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

I do sense that society has shifted away from training people to be thinkers; in truth, it appears that we are training people to make money. And, I suspect that is the direction of the modern economy. Here is where I disagree with the premise of the article: It blamed the radicalism of the 1960s for destroying the traditional cannon of knowledge taught on campuses across the country. It ridiculed the notion that single-sex schools vanished. Now, in this new age, schools are teaching courses on gender and sexuality. Race and culture courses now dominate history, English, and political science departments. I suspect the author feels that the academy should reflect the white man theory on education. Forget about changing demographics and pluralism. Though the author makes a number of great points…as I noted above, I feel the attack on changing group dynamics as reflected in academic curricula is silly.

Here are a few courses being taught at various universities that the author took aim at:

Yale University — Humanities and Arts Requirement: US Lesbian and Gay History          

University of Texas — Science Requirement: Animal Sexuality

College of Holy Cross — Religion Requirement: Gardens and World Religions

I must point out that I do not know if the above courses are really required; I am simply stating what I read in this journal piece. I would not be shocked to learn that this is all for shock value.

I would love to get your thoughts on this.

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to College by Guest Author Katheryn Rivas

The post below offers some great insight for many high school students making the shift to college. This guest contribution was submitted by Katheryn Rivas, who specializes in writing about online universities. Questions and comments can be sent to: katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

As anyone who has attended college knows, it’s a completely different experience when compared to high school classes. This is so for several reasons, not least of which if having an enormous amount of freedom after having virtually none. But more than just managing this newfound personal freedom, something many freshly matriculated college students struggle with, there’s getting used to a completely different classroom experience. Of course, classes and schools vary, but looking back on my college years, I wish I was more prepared for the transition. Here’s a few things I wish I knew before going to college.

1. Many professors will have an axe to grind.


Whether or not professors should voice their opinions on various topics, it’s common practice in the college classroom. Of course, no professor can pretend to be completely disinterested in teaching, and many professors will more objectively treat several modes of thought in tandem with their own. Still, it came as a surprise coming from high school, where a teacher can say what he thinks only to a certain degree.

2. Learning and growing intellectually is completely your responsibility. You can still get good grades without learning anything.


One of the biggest myths that I had bought into before going to college was that it was somehow some bastion of the Mind, where intellectual pursuits were vigorously pursued by students, professors, and the administration alike. Call me cynical, but my experience was far removed from this Elysian ideal. Still, that doesn’t mean that you won’t learn anything or you won’t develop your ability to critically analyze, think for yourself, etc. It does mean, however, that you have to make this an object of pursuit yourself. And this pursuit is not to be confused with earning high grades. I received many as in classes in which I learned absolutely nothing, and this was both my failing and the failing of a system that encourages grade inflation.

3. Visiting professors during office hours is always a good idea.


One aspect of the college classroom experience that differs from the high school one is that the college class can be extended through what’s known as office hours. Of course, good high school teachers will be open to talking to students outside the classroom, but in college, it’s a requirement that professors make themselves available. More than answering students questions about course material, professors can serve as counselors about professional pursuits after college as well as advisors who help you unravel wider intellectual inquiry. Although I eventually took advantage of office hours, I did so much later in my college career only because I didn’t know initially, based on my high school experience, what a wonderfully enriching opportunity it could be.

4. Going to class is important for several reasons, even if there’s no attendance requirement.


Unlike high school classes, many college classes will have no attendance requirement. Some students can take this as free license to skip class when they can’t wake up in the morning, or when they have other activities that grab their attention. Going to class regularly, even if it isn’t required, will save you a lifetime’s worth of trouble and worry. For one, attending class will indicate to the professor that you have interest, something that does count in the professor’s sometimes subjective grading criteria. Another reason to attend each and every class is that if you don’t, you’ll miss out on things that can’t be replicated by merely doing makeup work, like interesting classroom discussion.

They say that college is an experience of a lifetime. After graduating and moving on to the working world, I’ve found this to be completely true. But it’s the student who decides what constitutes that experience. And being prepared to take advantage of everything that academic institutions of higher education have to offer is important in enhancing that experience.

Interracial “ness” and the “Academy”

Janette and I caught one of many Little Rock Travelers baseball games while I was delivering a week-long history presentation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I started thinking about this post while at this conference when the topic of race, religion, and academics emerged. Moreover, I could not help but notice the number of interracial couples at the ball park and while back in Houston at the above July 4th volleyball tournament, which got me thinking back to my undergraduate days at the conservative Harding University. Thus while at the ball park in the historical civil rights city of Little Rock, I pondered the nature of race and academic institutions; I will admit that I have given this some thought in the past, though it has been a while. In general, places that value ideas, knowledge, and social progress tend to favor racial diversity, gender equality, and an understanding of one’s sexual orientation. However, I have discovered that places can be rather liberal on matters of race and dating, but less so on matters of sexual orientation and gender equality.

The above pictures were taken of us while out for wine and dinner at an upscale Houston restaurant. Though my current city of Houston has a reputation for being very conservative, it does offer some semblance of public acceptance when it comes to interracial couples.This tends to be the case for many large cities; it is the fourth largest city in the country… one that recently supported a democrat (Obama) for the presidency, elected Anise Parker who is openly gay for mayor, but is a bit divided along class lines. In Houston, I have never felt out-of-place while experiencing the night life or interacting in various public venues. But, there is an element of class that portrays a far more negative notion of interracial couples.

If one were to watch Jerry Springer, the natural image of the “typical” interracial couple is one who is not highly educated nor middle class. The Springer Show tends to play on race in what black liberals call the ghetto image: An obese uneducated white woman dating a skinny black man who recently discovered that English might be a language. This perception is what the black bourgeoisie notes as the typical perception of interracial couples.

But, it is the conversation about race, religion, and academic institutions that encourages the most discussion among academicians.  Attending a conservative college upon graduating from a conservative private upper school might not seem like a big deal to many, but coming from Montgomery, Alabama where the racial and class tension is clear, the thought of crossing both class and racial lines seemed daunting. Yet, on many college campuses today, this is not an issue for the youth of my classes who interact and date frequently in an interracial fashion. Recently I had dinner with a former student who informed me that this seems to be a topic for my “generation.”

I must admit that I was taken a bit by how open Harding University was to interracial couples; it was a first for me, though I have always interacted with friends from various backgrounds. The most interesting element about the academy and interracial ness comes not from those on its campus, but those left at home. Students who attend schools dominated by one racial group often find themselves meeting, liking, and interested in others who are of a different race. Harding University is a predominantly white college; it does attract a number of talented minority students who find themselves choice less when it comes to dating within their own race. In my case, I had a huge ego and just assumed most girls would want to date an athletic academic star. But in truth, it is not this simple. Parents of both white and black students warned them of the consequences of dating beyond the confines of their race. The contradiction emerges among two population of people: Christians who contend that Jesus is the saviour of all and loves all; he sees no color but the human soul as it warns off sin daily; however, at times there are those who belong to this population that embrace segregation and to en extent, promote a sense of inferiority. Thus, it is not unusual to discover what writer Toni Morrison calls the segregated church; it is Sunday that most divides Christian America.

Then, there is the other population: American liberals. This population talks a great deal about tolerance, understanding, and acceptance of those who are different in terms of race, religion, class, and sexual orientation, but only do so to promulgate their own agenda. Political motives are usually involved here as they dismiss the religious/Christian right as being composed of racist bigots and homophobes. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who is considering removing her teenage children from a private Christian school in hopes that they might have dating opportunities during their formative upper school years; she stated that the climate at her Christian school is not conducive enough from the parents’ side to promote such a healthy environment. Of course, this is not true of all religious schools.

On the campus of Houston Christian or at one of its functions, it is not unusual to find interracial high school couples. Though the faculty and the school is categorically conservative, it does teach from a Christian perspective of loving and respecting all people.


Above: The late actor John Belushi portrays the typical image of college in the comedy Animal House. Belushi plays a college student who skips classes, parties, and drinks too much beer.

I like to re-post this article about this time every year. I was talking to an old student the other day when he mentioned all of the misperceptions he had about college while in high school. Because of that conversation, I decided to write a post regarding 10 things high school students get wrong about college. This list is not a top ten list nor is it in any particular order. Essentially, it is what came to my mind at the time.

10. Classes are easier since I am taking only courses that I care about. There is a problem with this statement. One would naturally assume that students who do go to college care about ideas and knowledge; however, I knew plenty of students who went just to make lots of money. The tables have turned over the past 15 years. The saying used to be that students should expect to make more than their parents; however, economists now contend that wages are not keeping pace with inflation. Students should use college as a time to develop new ideas while formulating an analytical mind that will help them move in a number of professional directions. Students who take easy high school classes or did not have challenging instructors struggle the most. Furthermore, students who concentrate in easy fields tend to have more free time. These same students tend to lack the analytical skills needed to do complex job related work.

9. Everyone goes to college. This is true. 76% of people do attend some form of post secondary training; out of 76%, roughly only 34 – 35% matriculate. The two major reasons have to do with finances and/ or poor preparation.

8. I do not have to attend classes since teachers will not take attendance. True; I had instructors who only took attendance on exam days; I also had a few who took daily attendance. This is the biggest freshman trap. Too many students sleep in with the assumption that it is just one or two skips. Remember, most classes only meet two – three times per week. You do the math. Think about how you feel when missing one class under the block scheduling system. It is easy to miss a class. Thus, it becomes a very easy and bad habit.

7. I will be granted special privileges since I was a 1300 SAT kid or an ALL STATE athlete/ band performer in high school. The biggest mistake students make in college is assuming that other college students, teachers, coaches, and directors care what they did in high school. People do not care about your SAT scores or rushing yards. College athletes face the toughest challenge here. Many teachers have already decided that you are only in school to play sports. I recommend that you get off to a good start. And if you are a black athlete, you are marching uphill.

6. If the coach and/or teacher make me mad, I will complain and have my mommy call the school and complain. By law, teachers cannot talk to anyone but the student. This is according to the Family, Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. These students usually do not last very long. This is a great reason for one to become a researcher and work at a university. No parents!

5. Teachers will teach to my learning style. Yeah, good luck with that. There are programs that assist students with learning needs; however, the extent is usually taking an exam in a supervised learning center. Due to the number of large classes, the primary method of delivering information is via lecture (more seminar style at small colleges or in upper level courses). The expectation is that students who make it to this point are independent learners. They know how to write essays, read tons of pages, take class notes, and deal with complex examination questions. Moreover, students can take an assigned reading and address its contents on an exam, although the instructor never discussed it in class. I found this to be true in chemistry, history, and English.

4. I am going to college with my high school boy/ girl friend. Or, we are going to different schools but will always be in love and together. Sure, believe this if you want to. Note: Bigger pond with more fish. Focus on yourself and your overpriced education.

3. I was a poor student in high school because nothing interested me; now that I am in college, I will do much better. This can and does happen; however, usually not the freshman year. Statistically speaking, poor high school students usually do poorly during their first year. A large number of them drop out at the end of their first year. Think about the number of HCHS students who came back home. Also, a lot of this has to do with poor skill development. I often hear students talk about being a lawyer. The problem here is that many of these students did not take any advanced courses in high school to prepare them for the amount of reading and writing they will face. This is also true of engineers. How can one go to college to be an engineer without taking any advanced math class in high school?

2. Once I am in college, I can drink all of the beer SPECs has to offer. I do not know where this comes from amongst students. Most likely, you will be under age thus making it against the law. Also, I am not sure what beer has to do with college. I do know that a number of women are date raped on campuses due to too much alcohol consumption. Sexual promiscuity increases causing the STD rate to increase. And, too many men prey on young co-eds, especially naive freshman.

1. Because I am in college, my teachers will be great. Again, good luck here. I have found that teachers at smaller liberal arts research schools tend to be the best. Remember, unlike Carson who writes and presents various academic papers as part of his academic inclination, I am not paid to do that. I am a teacher. The term teacher offends many college instructors. Teaching for some is secondary. Their job and academic reputation is based according to the number of papers they write, publish, and present. I have found that the best teachers are those who do research. This is driving my former student, Alejandro, crazy. He just graduated from American University.

College Letters

I have been very busy of late finishing college letters of recommendation; I actually enjoy writing them; it gives me time to reflect on why I like teaching students. A former colleague, Joy App, sent this to me after a recent conversation we had about this topic. By policy, I do not write negative letters; however, if I cannot write one for a student, I will tell that student to seek another member of the faculty. Case in point: A few years ago I had a student that earned the highest marks on both my AP US and AP European history exam; she was bright and did good work. But, she never engaged herself  during class discussions, nor did she take time to visit me or chat with me outside of class. Because of these factors, I told her I could not write her a letter. If I did, it would say the exact same thing as her resume.


• Make the recommendation as specific, personal, and anecdotal as


• Qualify your adjectives

• Provide specifics but not as much related to the paper he wrote on the

civil war, but rather about how he bounced back after a bad test or helped

out a sick student

• Make the recommendations more evaluative than descriptive

• Tell us what the student is like outside of class as well from your


• Feel free to add a hand-written note at the bottom of the letter,

specifically addressing the candidacy for Middlebury

• Tell us how the applicant stacks up in the class or in your teaching career

• Relay the student’s involvement in class discussions and the role that s/he plays—does s/he take discussions

to the next level or play the devil’s advocate?

• Give us a reason why we should admit the student

• Maintain your credibility by not going overboard

• Include a couple of weaknesses (to make him or her sound real!)

• Take the time to write at least a page


• Spend half your letter telling us about your course or your credentials

• Mention the physical appearance or attractiveness of the student

• Send the same letter for many kids

• Merely provide a list of adjectives

• Write us three pages

• Report a list of the applicant’s activities since we know them already from reading the application

• Make sweeping generalizations that you do not substantiate

Remember, writing can always be misinterpreted. We leave you with some humorous one-liners we have seen

in past letters.

“I look forward to John’s final term at the school.”

“This young lady has no problems to speak of.”

“No one wants to play soccer worse than he does.”

…but are they happy, caring and well-adjusted human-beings?