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Evaluation — Students on the sociology programme at the University of Copenhagen say they are being forced to offend minority groups in a compulsory course where they act out excerpts from a book about life in a poor American city area. The head of the study programme defends the subject’s methodology.
Can you feel what it is like to be a victim of racism by dressing up like an Afro-American man from Harlem with a bandana and a gold chain, and then being called a racist term?
No, says a group of students at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.
But this is precisely what students have to do as part of the compulsory course ‘Critical Reading and Re-Analysis’, which is currently being taught for the second year in a row. At least, if they want a degree in sociology.
A part of the course consists of a number of so-called re-enactments. Here, groups of five to seven students, in front of more than 100 of their student peers, re-enact excerpts from the book ‘In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio’ by anthropology professor Philippe Bourgois. The book, which has won several awards, is about life among poor families in the 1990s East Harlem district of New York. It is an ethnographic study of how people from minority groups are ostracized from the rest of society and stuck in a life of violence and drug crime.
The re-enactments are filmed so that the students and the instructor can study the characters and their actions up close. Videos from the 2018 programme have been posted on YouTube, so one may see sociology students from Denmark acting as African Americans and Latinos. The University Post has received a link from a student source to a selection of such videos.
They are not large-scale, advanced productions, just a camera, and some students who, with different attempts at a suitable dialect, play out long English-language (and Spanish-language) text pieces that they have memorised. There is hardly any staging and props. Some students move eagerly around the stage and gesticulate, while others stand still. Some of the students attempt to get in character by putting their
Maria Tilsted Mumba, Maja Saabye and Franciska Dis Brodersen are three of the students who are taking the course in the Spring 2019 semester. They say that the re-enactment method does not work. On the contrary, they say it is offensive to the minority groups that it attempts to portray:
»Let us say that we are trying to understand the Jews under Nazism,« says Maria Tilsted Mumba, »to use the words that were said about them, or to dress as they were dressed – I do not think this is understanding them. I think that it’s ridiculing people, if I delude myself into thinking that I now understand how you feel after someone has acted out doing something to me that you have experienced.«
It just appears as parody, and as stereotypes, and it seems quite ridiculous.
The three students say that their impression is that everyone makes an effort to memorise their lines and play as well as they can. But the presentations often end up taking on the nature of a parody.
»We are not good at it, because we are not actors,« says Maria Tilsted Mumba. »People often end up laughing.« She says that she herself accidentally laughed nervously about what took place in the room, when she saw her fellow students perform.
»Yes, and this is also the feeling on stage. People find it difficult to stay in character,« says Maja Saabye. »With all due respect to my fellow students, their re-enactments have not made me feel what I think they (the department, ed.) want us to feel through this course.«
»None of us are actors, and none of us have been out doing a lot of background research, where we have talked to these people. We have just read their words in a book,« says Franciska Dis Brodersen. »It just appears as parody, and as stereotypes, and it seems quite ridiculous. There is no learning outcome at all – neither from looking at it, nor from acting it out yourself.«
Anne Gertsen is also a student of sociology and did the class in the spring of 2018. She says that she was enthusiastic at first about the course because »the syllabus was really good,« saying that Philippe Bourgois’ book was »absolutely amazing« .
She got nervous, however, she says, when the instructor told them to do ‘theatre’ based on the book.
»We end up spending most of the teaching time on these re-enactments. And I get the feeling that things go really badly. [The instructor] requires us to dress up and use props, and it ends with a lot of white students dressing up – with large hoodies and caps – as people who are really poor and racialised,« says Anne Gertsen, who remembers people both laughing and drinking beer during the shows, which by many was considered »a pleasant Friday activity«.
The sound on the YouTube videos from 2018 is not too good, so it is difficult to determine just from seeing them what the general atmosphere has been like. On one of the videos from 2018, you can, however, hear the student that is operating the camera giggling, just as there is audible laughter when one of the students with a loud voice mentions a person as a »fucking drink Budweiser be fat motherfucker« and pretends to throw up in a dustbin. Later, the hall breaks out into laughter, when one of the performers accidentally smiles as a new character makes an entrance.
The teaching also constitutes a transgression of their own limits, not just the limits of the minority, according to the critical students from this year’s and last year’s class.
Shortly after the introduction to the re-enactment process in the beginning of 2019, Maria Tilsted Mumba wrote an email to the course instructor.
In the email, Maria Tilsted Mumba asks whether there will be times when her white fellow students will be asked to use the word ‘nigger’. The instructor responds that students are not asked to use the word, but instead must ‘re-enact’ how the word is used by ‘people of colour’ in the book. Maria Tilsted Mumba and the instructor subsequently have a meeting.
»It is no secret that I have a slightly darker skin colour, and that I have been subjected to racism. And it was this that I also talked to the instructor about. [The instructor] told me that the purpose of the course was that my white fellow students should be able to feel how I felt,« says Maria Tilsted Mumba.
[The instructor’s] argument, when we say that we feel extremely uncomfortable doing this, is that it is ‘the embodied experience’.
Sociology student Maja Saabye
Maria Tilsted Mumba’s group was to play a scene where the word ‘nigger’ was used several times. And she did not want to say the word as a part of the re-enactment. According to Maria Tilsted Mumba, the instructor’s proposal for a solution was that she was allowed to switch groups, so she got a scene where she did not need to say ‘nigger’ herself. This was not a solution that worked, however, because the rest of her group did not want to say the word in the show either, she says.
Franciska Dis Brodersen also had a meeting with the instructor, where the head of studies at the Department of Sociology Charlotte Baarts also took part.
Charlotte Baarts, who is an ethnographer herself, is the person who is responsible for the academics in the course, and she has been present at lectures, where the course has been criticised. According to Charlotte Baarts, the department perceives it »as a management task to shed light on the case, as it is about the extent and methods of teaching through which we confront students with things that can be controversial and unpleasant.«
She says that the format of the teaching is independent of who is teaching the subject in a given year, and that she should therefore respond to the criticism. It is for these reasons that we have agreed to the request from the instructor not to appear in this article by name.
Franciska Dis Brodersen was offered the same type of solution as Maria Tilsted Mumba. She says that she, at the meeting with the instructor and the head of the study programme, objected in particular to the students being filmed. Her group had agreed that she should take part in the meeting on behalf of the whole group. But Sunday night before the scheduled meeting Monday afternoon, the instructor wrote that if there were others in the group who were also concerned, then they should also take part in the meeting because each person had to speak for herself/himself.
Franciska Dis Brodersen says that only one other student from the group was able to participate, and the person backed out when she did not have the courage to face up to this conflict after all. As a result, Franciska Dis Brodersen, was the only one at the meeting. She says that she objected to them being filmed, and the instructor suggested that she could be cameraman for her group, so she would not be filmed.
»Then I try to say to the [instructor] that this does not solve the problem, as nobody in my group wants to be filmed. Then the [instructor] says again that I cannot talk on behalf of other people than myself,« she says.
The book ‘In Search of Respect’ is very interesting, according to the students, and they say they would like to work with it. It contains many racist, sexist and homophobic phrases, but the students reject the idea that it is the utterance of the words in themselves that is the problem.
»It’s not because we don’t want to talk about it. It is about the way it is done,« says Maja Saabye.
Head of Studies Charlotte Baarts says that it is not hard for the students to exert an influence over how they do the performances.
»The proposal in the teaching is that if there are words that you do not like or do not want to say, then you can replace these words in dialogue with the instructor. Nobody is forced to say something they do not want to say, but this is done in a dialogue, so you are aware of the academic consequences of replacing the words,« says Charlotte Baarts. She refers to the dialogue about the use of words as a teaching situation.
An email correspondence between the student and the instructor, which the University Post has seen, shows that the question of changing the words in the text is disputed. When the students informing the instructor by email that they intend to change several words and sentences – and swap, for example, the derogatory term ‘wetbacks’ with the word ‘Mexicans’ – the instructor rejects the change and says that changes have to be made in dialogue with the instructor. It may not be a ‘unilateral’ decision.
This is what is amazing about this subject. It is actually made clear what kind of glasses the students see through. This goes for when they see these people, and when they see the world in general.
Charlotte Baarts says that ‘nigger’ is the word that the students primarily react to.
»If they say the word in re-enactments, it does not come from the student herself, but from a group of people where that word is actually used against others. Our students are so privileged that they can just replace it and say ‘we will not say this word.’ But the groups of people (from the book In Search of Respect, ed.) do not have this privilege. If we want to make a world where people are met with respect, then we also need to deal with the use of this word. If we do not have the opportunity to discuss it in a teaching context to talk about it, then this becomes difficult,« she says.
The students say, however, that they may well use expressions in the book, for example ‘nigger’ if they have to discuss the text and are therefore reading up from it. But they will not use it on the stage during their performances.
Charlotte Baarts says that she is aware that some of the students are afraid that others at some time in the future will use a video where they say ‘nigger’ against them. But she also criticizes this consideration:
»This expresses the fact that the students here are more concerned about the risk they are taking themselves than the everyday life and history behind this word for the people the book is about, and for the stigma embedded in these concepts.«
»If you read this book, there are lots of other words that are derogatory, for example about women, but the students are able to stand up and say these words. It is not words like ‘bitch’ and ‘motherfucker’ that they point to. I also think that, when it comes to the n-word, there is political correctness in showing that they have understood that this word cannot be used. And our sociology students would like to, of course, be politically correct. This goes without saying.«
Charlotte Baarts also says that she knows that there are students on the course who, on their own and without entering into a dialogue with the instructor, have replaced words when they do re-enactments.
The students say that there was a group that, on their own initiative, chose not to act, but read up the text instead to avoid parodying. »The [instructor] really criticised their group,« says Maja Saabye.
Maja Saabye, Maria Tilsted Mumba and Franciska Dis Brodersen say that it oversteps boundaries to carry out the presentations on the course and to witness them.
[The instructor’s] argument, when we say that we feel extremely uncomfortable doing this, is that it is ‘the embodied experience’,« says Maja Saabye.
»I would say that the discomfort I feel, is partly also a feeling of embarrassment,« says Franciska Dis Brodersen, »and this is not similar to the unpleasant feeling you have as a socially excluded person who has to sell drugs in order to survive. These are two very different feelings, and I simply can’t see how you can equate them.«
You have got to question the department's handling of the students' criticism and personal concerns when things have gone so far that they have contacted the University Post.
Maria Tilsted Mumba and Maja Saabye say that they involuntarily create stereotypes when they play out roles from the book, which they and their fellow students try to resemble with inverted caps, hats, a necklace, a learned accent and so on. However, according to the head of studies Charlotte Baarts, the subject fits exactly in terms of exposing stereotyped ideas that the students may have so that they can learn from them:
»This is what is amazing about this subject. It is actually made clear what kind of glasses the students see through. This goes for when they see these people, and when they see the world in general,« she says. »In other courses, the students sit and read texts about this group of people or others. Then they have these mental images of the people and their lives, and this remains their mental image. Here we get the stereotypes put on the table, and this makes it possible to talk about the learning situation as a part of the learning,« she says.
Charlotte Baarts says that she, until now, has read 65 written evaluations from students who completed the re-enactments in 2019. They are mainly positive, and the students indicate a considerable learning outcome, at the same time as they themselves are challenged. Only a few students indicate that they are challenged by the use of different terms in the course material.
(Note: In a letter to the editor, student Franciska Dis Brodersen has questioned the validity of viewing the above-mentioned evaluations as indicative of the students’ true opinion, as they have to be signed by the instructor and are not made anonymously).
»Of the 65 evaluations I have read through, two people mention that it is challenging to use the word ‘nigger’. And then there are some who mention that it is difficult to have to do these re-enactments, and that there is nervousness associated with it. You are not a trained actor, and so you feel uncertain and nervous, and do not feel competent. But about 60 out of 65 say that they have learned from getting a bodily experience from doing these things. These words were no longer just words and lines to be said, but they got an ‘embodied feeling’, a perspective that you could not acquire through any other way,« she says.
Charlotte Baarts also says that the inspiration for the re-enactment method comes from related teaching approaches, for example from performative pedagogy, where you learn to use the body to explore the social world and to feel and express different emotions. A total of approximately 220 students have completed the course to date.
The students who are critical of the course say that they are worried about where the video recordings from the course end up.
»We are several people on the study programme that would like to go into politics – some of us may have done so already – and I just think that it could be taken out of context and used against us if there is a recording where it looks as if we are making fun of minority groups,« says Maja Saabye.
This criticism has been partly by accommodated by the management at Sociology. Video is still being recorded, but the videos will be shared with fewer people – and not posted on YouTube as in 2018.
»On the course this year, the videos are only shared between the instructor and the individual group (five to seven students, ed.). Last year, the videos were shared between the students, so you could see the other groups’ videos, and this had a learning purpose,« says Charlotte Baarts:
»When you see a re-enactment afterwards, you can discover some things you weren’t aware of. So when you’ve become more knowledgeable about the subject, you can go back and see how the video was. It is clear that we wanted the learning to be even better by giving access to the others’ videos. Last year, the students did not have any comments about the videos. But this year, it has been something that they have commented on a lot and have been nervous about. This has led to us acknowledging that the students do not like this.«
I explained in a direct way to students that we do not have, and we do not stimulate an anonymous approach culture
Head of studies and associate professor Charlotte Baarts, Sociology
Charlotte Baarts says that she has not seen or heard about anything inappropriate going on in the videos. And if the students laugh, or make outbursts in the videos, it may be because they are making the material ‘their own’:
»When this succeeds, the body reacts to it, and there may be emotional outbursts like laughter and gasping, or you may feel, for example, nervousness, excitement or joy. The students are being challenged in new ways through this learning approach, and the emotional outbursts can both reflect it being a well-executed re-enactment, the students’ commitment, and anxiety. The whole point of learning through this approach is to use the body as a method and as a place of learning, in contrast to other pedagogic approaches, where learning takes place through the head through thinking.«
According to Charlotte Baarts, the University of Copenhagen’s data protection officer has indicated that it is in accordance with the rules to record videos of the students, and also that they last year were posted on the internet.
It is not only on this year’s ‘Critical Reading and Re-analysis’ class that students are critical of the subject and its methodology. When the course was held for the first time in 2018, a group of students sent a critical letter to the instructor, which the University Post has seen.
The letter, which was anonymous, states that it is sent on behalf of 20-30 students who have expressed concerns. Some of the points of criticism are about practical matters due to late changes in the course. The re-enactment element in the teaching makes up a good portion of the letter, and is called racist, non-academic and too time-consuming considering the fact that students only have two teaching hours a week.
On receiving the letter, the head of studies Charlotte Baarts showed up in class and, according to one student, scolded them.
Baarts explained it this way herself: »I explained in a direct way to the students that we do not have, nor do we stimulate an anonymous approach culture,« and that you need to be able to stand up and be accountable if you criticise something. »After I had communicated this in the lecture last year, some students turned up at my office and regretted the wording of the letter in question. They had re-read the letter and could see that it had not been formulated constructively, even though this had not been their intention.«
The Academic Council (a student organisation) at Sociology has discussed the subject last year, where they also talked to Charlotte Baarts about the criticism, according to Tobias Gårdhus, who is the chairman of the Academic Council.
This year, the Council has received a number of critical enquiries about the subject, and is now working on an academic criticism and discussion paper. Charlotte Baarts confirms that she is in dialogue with the Academic Council about the subject.
»We wonder about the academic benefits of this re-enactment element that is part of the way in which you pass the course. In particular, a lot of student time is spent on looking at other groups’ re-enactments. We are not one of the study programmes that has the most time for instruction already, so we would very much like to have the time for the lectures spent on activities with a greater academic benefit,« says Tobias Gårdhus.
This discussion will however only be taken after the summer recess 2019 and after the end of this year’s course. The Council has also discussed whether the department listens enough to its critics:
»You have got to question the department’s handling of the students’ criticism and personal concerns, when things have gone so far that they have contacted the University Post,« says Tobias Gårdhus.