I am a non-tenure-earning instructor at my institution which means that I am evaluated based on teaching and service, and not based on my research. In my department, evaluating teaching seems to come down to how well students rate a course and instructor on evaluations. As a WOC teaching at a predominantly Euro-American institution in the South, this focus on student approval puts me in a precarious position. I was given a list back in May of reasons why my contract will not be renewed (despite the fact that this was supposed to be determined by full department review in the fall). The list included unsatisfactory student evaluations (mine have been mixed-not all bad, but not all good), failure to turn in the annual review form on time (it was due during a week in which I had major surgery for a reproductive health issue and spent time in the hospital and several weeks at home), and that some of my students had made formal complaints against me.
About these formal complaints, in the spring of 2013 I taught a few texts related to Africa (Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa and Dilemma of a Ghost). Over the course of our class discussions a handful of the students expressed various opinions that I found disturbing: that African people are not fully evolved, that the Belgian colonizers couldn't be held accountable for failing to treat the Congolese people as human beings because they were not recognizably human, that African people are less rational than "Westerners," and that "Westerners" improved Africa by colonizing it. I presented my usual passive dialectic response, asking them to consider their own ideas in a different way rather than telling them that they were wrong. However, these ideas kept coming up later in the semester even when it seemed we were beyond discussing any text that related to them. Finally, I said to my students, very gently I think, that I could not allow my classroom to be used as a platform for the defense, promotion, or perpetuation of racist ideas. A few students became visibly angry. One man gave me such a look and was hopping in his seat so much that I think if it were not for the tables between us he would have been at my throat. Three students angrily objected to being called racist, which I realize I implied perhaps but I had been very careful not to do explicitly. I calmly reminded them that I had not said that any of them were racist. I reiterated that my goal was to get them to consider whether the ideas could be viewed as defending racism, and if so, to please save those ideas for some venue outside of my classroom.
A week later I was called in to meet with my college's Affirmative Action officer to address complaints that I had called students racist. I explained what went on in the class and heard nothing else about it until I got the letter at the end of the semester telling me that I had a month to clean out my office. Until then I had no idea that racism was protected under Affirmative Action laws. My department chair wrote in his letter “You are aware that we have investigated several student complaints of “unwelcome behavior by you toward your students in your classes, including suggestions by you that certain students are ‘racist.’” He wrote that our university and department faculty handbooks “require that faculty members respect the rights of students, including to hold views different from those of the instructor. I do not believe that your behavior has shown this respect.” It is hard to know whether to laugh hysterically or weep at these words. It implies that the fundamental humanity of African people is merely a matter of opinion. It suggests that showing “respect” for student opinions means never challenging them. It says also that my decision to speak out to protect my few African-American students from having to hear almost daily that, because of their African ancestry, they are to be deemed less human and less capable of rational thought than their “Western” classmates, that my decision to speak calmly and professionally and reinforce classroom rules stated on the syllabus (“no derogatory language or hate speech”) can be considered “unwelcome behavior.”