The Progressive Stack and Standing for Inclusive Teaching

There are two fundamental truths about Inclusive Pedagogy: it is an eminently desirable set of practices for teaching in higher ed, and it is an eminently difficult set of practices for teaching in higher ed. To teach inclusively is to swim against the powerful tide of “conventional wisdom,” internalized biases, and socio-political pressures. For those of us who try to live out the ideals of critical pedagogy in our own practice, inclusive teaching is a sine qua non. Teaching and learning cannot be liberatory, cannot be a “practice of freedom,” if any students are excluded from, or prevented from acquiring the full benefits of, their educational environment.  Yet, we also know that any attempt at inclusive practices that does not acknowledge the structures of inequality in which we, our students, and our institutions operate cannot be successful. To acknowledge asymmetries, however, does not mean to legitimize them. Rather, it should be a necessary first step in undoing them to create a vital, democratic classroom.

Recent days have brought one important inclusive teaching technique-the Progressive Stack-onto center stage in the higher ed community, within both publications like the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed and the larger social-media sphere, particularly academic twitter. Put simply, the Progressive Stack is a method of ensuring that voices that are often submerged, discounted, or excluded from traditional classroom discussions get a chance to be heard. We all know that classroom discussions, without mindful guidance and a commitment by participants to fairness and inclusion, are often dominated by those with the loudest voices and quickest at raising their hands–or, in too many cases, those most willing to interrupt others. Cathy Davidson identifies the problem:

If you do not structure a way for each voice to be heard–quite literally–only about twenty percent of the people in any class really contribute and as little as 5-10% control 95% of the dialogue.  There is significant research on this.  Nor are the silent ones usually the ones with least to contribute and the least prepared.

There are personal, cultural, learning, and social reasons people don’t speak up in class.  Students of color and women of all races, introverts, the non-conventional thinkers, those from poor previous educational backgrounds, returning or “nontraditional students,” and those from cultures where speaking out is considered rude not participatory are all likely to be silent in a class where collaboration by difference is not structured as a principle of pedagogy and organization and design.   Who loses?  Everyone.  Arguments that are smart and valuable and can change a whole conversation get lost in silence and, sometimes, shame.  When that happens, we don’t really have discussion or collaboration.  We have group think–and that is why we all lose.

So the question for anyone committed to inclusive teaching and meaningful classroom discussions that actually promote all of our students’ learning, is how to level the playing field in our classrooms. In this leveling process, we are working against powerful structures of inequality where gender, race, and other aspects of identity often prevent voices from being heard. White male privilege, the customary assumption that these voices are the norm, that they “speak for us all,” is a powerful driver of this exclusion–and it’s not often often something many teachers or students consciously recognize. The Progressive Stack is an explicit methodology meant to neutralize the operation of that privilege by naming and rejecting the explicit and implicit biases that have traditionally allowed it to flourish. The best description I’ve read of how it operates comes from Danica Savonick:

Recently, I have been involved in several efforts to create spaces in which meaningful conversation can happen–spaces that don’t reproduce social hierarchies of privilege and power and instead welcome everyone’s contributions…

While we often think that question and answer sessions just magically happen, these conversations often reproduce dominant hierarchies of privilege and power, especially in terms of who gets to speak and have their voice heard…

Taking “stack” just means keeping a list of people who wish to participate—offer a question or comment—during the Q & A. Rather than anxiously waving your hand around and wondering if you’ll be called on, if you would like to participate, signal to me in some way (a gesture, a dance move, a traditional hand-in-the-air, meaningful eye contact, etc.) and I will add you to the list.

However, we’re not just going to take stack, we are going to take progressive stack in an effort to foreground voices that are typically silenced in dominant culture. According to Justine and Zoë, two self-identified transwomen who were active in the movement, progressive stack means that “if you self-identify as trans, queer, a person of color, female, or as a member of any marginalized group you’re given priority on the list of people who want to speak – the stack. The most oppressed get to speak first.” As I take stack, I will also do my best to bump marginalized voices and those who haven’t yet had a chance to participate to the top.

As with any tool that confronts the effects of privilege and power head-on, the Progressive Stack makes some people uncomfortable. Indeed, Davidson herself has dismissed it in a recent interview, which is striking given her eloquent identification of the problems it is designed to address. Moreover, its recent emergence into the hot-take limelight clearly demonstrates that it is often misunderstood. For the self-appointed Guardians of Educational Integrity and The Way Things Should Be, the Progressive Stack has become the avatar of PC silliness run amok, or even (GASP) “reverse racism,” rather than one tool in the inclusive pedagogue’s toolbox. For this sector, the Progressive Stack’s identification with the Occupy movement simply confirms its insidiousness: anarchists and dirty hippies want to hold the oppression olympics to bash white men and turn any discussion into a gathering of triggered snowflakes. Lest you think I’m exaggerating merely for comic effect, google “progressive stack.” Almost every result you get will take you to the fever swamps of right-wing Reddit and warmed-over piles of gamergate droppings. The common denominator is that “Progressive Stack” is simply anti-white “racism” dressed in fancy intellectual clothes. You’re the real racist, they wail; consciously excluding someone from a discussion because of their race or gender is outrageous and unfair (they’re not very good at irony). Giving the platform to someone merely because they claim “oppression” is actually oppressing white people.  

WHO WILL SPEAK FOR THE WHITE PEOPLE??

As the increasing number of targeted online harassment campaigns has shown us, once a concept or issue has traveled through the right-wing Outrage-Distortion Complex, there is little hope of reclaiming rational discussion. It’s been permanently stained. One might dismiss the frothing lamentations of white-genocide-via-classroom-pedagogy that bubble up from a subreddit, but the insidious trope of “reverse racism” has put its thumb on the scale enough to have distorted the conversation around the Progressive Stack. With its recent re-emergence into the higher-ed conversation, we’ve already seen this phenomenon play out in the comment threads of IHE and Chronicle articles. I would never exclude students from discussion so arbitrarily, ostensibly well-meaning educators proclaim. Well, *I* don’t even pay attention to my students’ identities, the white male teacher of the year smugly assures us; I don’t see race or gender in *my* class’s discussions. All of my students are individuals to me.

And there it is: the proposition that Progressive Stack is inherently unjust, a misguided attempt that hurts more than it helps, has entered the mainstream.  Who needs 4chan trolls when allegedly serious academics will do the work instead?

I’m going to argue that  we should tap the brakes on the “I-value-all-my-students” concern trolling, and actually take a closer look at both the Progressive Stack and its critics’ arguments. First, we know beyond a doubt that power imbalances shape what happens in our classroom, particularly when it comes to the type of faculty-student and student-student interactions that are the root of any class discussion. [1] Research has clearly established, for example, that gender dynamics have a dramatic effect on classroom interactions. Students of color have told us repeatedly [2] that the classroom environment is often rife with microagressions and other frustrations that often prevent full participation or equitable treatment. None of this stuff is secret; there is a body of research that demonstrates that inclusive teaching, particularly specific techniques that intervene in and disrupt established hierarchies of power, improves student learning. [3] Any techniques that call attention to how these structures of inequality function and then specifically abnegate that functioning are invaluable tools for engaged, critical educators and their students. And the Progressive Stack is most certainly one of them.

The problem, though, is that because the Progressive Stack calls attention to existing structures of inequality by replacing them with another structure entirely, it forces those of us who identify as white (and, particularly, male) to confront the ways in which we have been complicit in maintaining inequality. For those of us who see ourselves as teaching with a strong commitment to justice and inclusion, this can be a fraught process, and make us feel defensive or alienated. And for those who do not value justice and inclusion–or even value the enterprise of teaching to begin with–the idea of being intentionally de-prioritized or temporarily excluded from a community space is so foreign as to seem like a deep and abiding injustice. When you’re accustomed to privilege, even the suggestion of equality will feel like oppression.

Moreover, how can those who normally exist on the margins of that space be oppressors? As Paulo Freire argues, “Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons–not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized” (emphasis added). [4] It’s as absurd an argument as “reverse racism.” In a complete social and historical vacuum, level-playing-field equality is an excellent proposition. But in the actual lived world of our history, experiences, and interactions the idea of treating everyone uniformly “regardless of gender” or without “seeing color” simply strengthens already-entrenched inequalities. And it does so all the more insidiously because it pays lip service to allegedly shared ideals. [5] The Progressive Stack disrupts that process by highlighting existing inequalities through its mandate that those who usually enjoy the benefits of those inequalities cede them to others who have usually not.

This is the crux of the issue for those who impugn Progressive Stacking’s status as a legitimate pedagogical technique. It’s one thing to condemn the existence of structural inequalities in the abstract; it is something else altogether to remove those structures–especially when doing so only serves to underscore how they’ve benefited and privileged you. And if you are so fragile as to equate someone else acquiring power with the specter of your losing that power forever, then that’s a “you problem,” not an invalidation of pedagogical tools. It’s not as if Progressive Stacking enslaves white people. A Progressive Stack during a classroom discussion does not constitute Jim Crow against whites. White males will not be neutered by a woman of color stepping up to the mic before they have their turn. Yet the fulminations and denigrations and ignorant overgeneralizations continue. Why?

Let’s look at how a Progressive Stack might actually look in, say, a university that professes to value inclusion and sees diversity as “fundamental to the education we provide.” In this university, let’s say, hypothetically, that its student body is split almost evenly between male and female in student-reported gender identity. Let’s also hypothesize that the undergraduate student body is predominantly white, maybe….oh, I don’t know, around 7% black, and maybe 10% or so Latinx. And let’s pretend we’re in a tutorial of about 30 students that’s using Progressive Stack for discussions. If that class of thirty is anywhere near representative of the overall student demographics at our completely hypothetical university, then at least half the students are white. And let’s say that the instructor for this class determines their stack will give priority to women of color, then black and Latino men, then white students. That means that white male students will have to wait their turn, and listen to the contributions of MAYBE one or two (and I am definitely rounding up) women of color, and MAYBE one or two black or Latino men before they are called upon. THE HORROR. Surely you can imagine what a slippery slope this can become. Before you know it, instructors will be socially-engineering their discussions in all sorts of crazy ways: calling on quieter students to “make sure they contribute”; asking for students not in the front row to participate; not always calling on that one dude who always has his hand up; maybe even discouraging interruptions. OMFG WHERE WILL THIS INSANITY END?

Giving up power, it turns out, is hard for some people. Especially when that power has been historically-constructed to be so pervasive as to render it unquestioned and indeed unseen in its hegemonic sway. Pierre Bourdieu calls this symbolic power: “For symbolic power is that invisible power which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it” (emphasis added).[6] The point of the Progressive Stack is to name that complicity, to put it in the center of the classroom, and require us to decide for ourselves–in light of this new awareness–whether or not we will remain complicit. And some people are so afraid of making that decision, or even contemplating a situation in which they might have to do so, that they would rather muster up hyperbolic misrepresentations than face either scenario.

But for anyone, whether that’s an individual instructor or an entire institution, who values inclusive teaching and learning, it is an ethical imperative to commit to meaningful praxis. Mission statements and diversity creeds, statements of inclusion on a course syllabus–none of that means jack if those values are not lived out in the classroom. To teach inclusively is to commit to doing that hard work. It is to live out a pedagogy of justice, equity, and critical reflection either in one’s own practice or in the institution’s ethos. It means there will be times when people who are not accustomed to their identity being a source of discomfort and exclusion will have to learn–in a managed and intentional space–what that feels like. It means there will be friction and messiness and uncomfortable adjustments, because any education worth the name involves friction and messiness and uncomfortable adjustments.

To pre-emptively surrender the point, to dismiss that with which we are not familiar, is an abdication of our responsibilities.

To do these things, instead of supporting someone enacting a meaningful pedagogy, is administrative malpractice.

To wave all this away, to abjure a pedagogical technique designed to meet those imperatives because it makes some white men pouty, is to cravenly avoid the responsibility that rests upon higher education and its caretakers.

If you think you’re better than that, prove it. Stand for Inclusive Teaching, and stand behind those who practice it.

 

 

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  1. [1]For a good overview of factors shaping classroom climate, see Susan Ambrose, et al., How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010), 153-187
  2. [2]See To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching (Michigan State University/Read the Spirit Books, 2016), esp. chs. 7, 8, and 10, and Mark A. Chesler, “Perceptions of Faculty Behavior by Students of Color,” CRLT Occasional Papers, University of Michigan CRLT. No. 7. 
  3. [3] For example, Walton, G. M.; Cohen, G. L. (2011) “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students.” Science, 331, 1447-1451; Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Cohen, G. L. (2013). “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
  4. [4]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed. (Continuum, 2011), 55.
  5. [5] Leslie G. Carr, Color-Blind Racism (Sage, 1997) and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Inequality in America . 5th ed. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).
  6. [6]Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Harvard, 1991), quoted at 164.

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