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UNC professor accused of ignoring students of color's concerns over role-playing class


Hamilton Hall, home to many Social Justice classes, pictured on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

A UNC sociology professor is under fire for the use of role-playing pedagogy in his classroom after a student went public with allegations that he created an unsafe learning environment for students of color within his Sociology 274: Social and Economic Justice class last semester.

Aneesha Tucker, a student in the class, tweeted about her class experience and her efforts to report associate professor Neal Caren, who also serves as director of the social & economic justice minor and graduate studies for sociology, to UNC in early June. Specifically, Tucker alleged that Caren did not appropriately address issues of race and allowed blackface and minstrelsy to occur through the role-playing nature of the class. Minstrelsy refers to racist theatrical performances popularized in the United States throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, which featured white actors in blackface depicting negative stereotypes of Black Americans.

At the time of publication, her original tweet has received more than 500 retweets and likes each.

In an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel, Caren said he is committed to including issues of diversity in all his courses and structures his courses to create an inclusive environment. Caren said that he finds role-based learning to be more effective for students in “envisioning and advocating for a just society” than a standard lecture. 

De’Ivyion Drew, a rising junior and member of the Campus Safety Commission, met with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on June 16 to discuss a series of COVID-19 and Black student demands, including Caren's employment.

Drew wrote in a Twitter thread about the meeting that the Chancellor had spoken to the University Ombuds Office about the situation, and it is “being handled.”

‘Unsafe learning environment’

While Tucker declined to be interviewed by the DTH due to the emotional trauma the experience caused her, she described her experience in a Google Doc that she shared on social media and with the DTH. The document includes a timeline and documentation of the events of the semester. Tucker wrote that she and other students of color felt uncomfortable with the role-playing game setup of the class, in which students played the roles of historical figures.

Two students of color who were enrolled in the course and were mentioned in Tucker's Google Doc declined to be interviewed by the DTH.

Caren’s Social and Economic Justice course focuses on two cases, Greenwich Village in 1913 and India in 1945, and covers the theory and practice of social and economic justice, according to the course syllabus. Students in the class learn by assuming roles that are informed by texts in “elaborate games set in the past,” the syllabus states. 

In an email sent to Caren on Feb. 26., Tucker said that allowing white students to play Black historical figures in class was problematic.

“Although not the intent, without critical and constant conversation, these role-playing scenarios border along minstrelsy and have thus created an unsafe learning environment,” Tucker wrote.

She also said she felt her issues with the class were at times “blatantly ignored and unaddressed” and that Caren didn’t initiate conversations regarding her and other students’ concerns.

In addition to exchanges with Caren, Tucker said she and other students of color repeatedly reached out to and had communication with UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, Ombuds Office and Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, regarding her concerns about the class. 

Tucker said the only option she was given was a “facilitated dialogue” with Caren, which she declined. She spoke to Rhodes on April 13 about the situation and said she was told removing Caren was unrealistic, and that Rhodes could not update her on an investigation into Caren.

On June 8, Tucker sent an email to Guskiewicz and Rhodes that included demands for Caren to be suspended for a year and be removed from his positions as director of the social and economic justice minor and director of graduate studies for sociology.

“This problem expands long past Neal Caren, as students have had similar experiences across departments and administrations with white professors,” Tucker wrote in the list of demands. “If Carolina is to be the ‘best public school’ in the nation, it must hire more Black and brown faculty and value its Black and brown students.”

In her response to Tucker’s demands, Rhodes said in an email on June 9 that the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office had determined that Caren hadn’t violated any University policies and that the official inquiry into the issue had been concluded. She again suggested Tucker have a "facilitated discussion with Professor Caren, moderated by a third party."

According to UNC Media Relations, the University is unable to comment on the existence or nonexistence of any Equal Opportunity and Compliance inquiries or other University inquiries because of federal and state privacy law.

Rhodes provided a statement to the DTH through UNC Media Relations.

“We are fully committed to a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus that respects all members of our community,” she said. “We want to ensure everyone feels safe and valued so they can truly thrive at Carolina.”

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The demand to fire Caren was one of many Drew discussed with the Chancellor during their June 16 meeting.

Drew said that defending Caren’s alleged conduct as free speech is problematic, because such language threatens the safety of Black students. She said she believes the severity of the situation resonated with Guskiewicz, including the option for termination.

“It’s so important that we really bring that across — how dangerous it is to essentially be subject to anti-Blackness every day,” she said. “People need to be very clear about what’s an opinion and what’s a violation of human rights and something that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

Class pedagogy 

Caren said via email that role-playing pedagogy is used in college classrooms across the country in several disciplines.

He said students in his classes are assigned roles as intellectual exercises, not theatrical entertainment.

“I do not and would never permit or encourage blackface or minstrel performances,” he said in the email response. “What happens in the course is not reenactments or attempts to simulate people's lived experiences.”

He also said that diversity and inclusion are central to the social and economic justice minor.

“I take every report of racist or harmful comments seriously,” he said. “I address each issue seeking to create a positive learning environment for all students.”

Alanna Gillis, former assistant director of the social and economic justice minor, said she was a teaching assistant in Caren’s Social and Economic Justice class twice during her time as a graduate student.

She said she has used similar role-playing pedagogy in classes she has taught, and she believes it can be helpful for students to take on new perspectives. However, she said it’s important to have conversations to ensure students are being respectful.

Based on Tucker’s allegations, Gillis said she thinks the handling of the situation, not the pedagogy itself, was problematic.

“It sounds like he was unwilling to talk about the fact that students were engaging with racial stereotypes and were perpetuating them,” she said. “To me, that’s the biggest problem that I see in what I’ve seen documented from it.”

In the Google Doc, Tucker said she felt Caren placed additional emotional labor on her by assigning her a role that required her to guide class discussion and hold white students accountable, which she says he denied. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild first addressed the term "emotional labor" in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart," as the additional work beyond the physical or mental labor of a job involved in a person's capacity to evoke and suppress feelings. The term has also been applied to describe the expectations of education and management of emotions for people of color within white spaces.

“I accepted the role, even though it was not my choice and I felt unfit for any role, to do the labor of having those conversations since to me it seemed like he was clearly unable to and the racism would continue unaddressed if I didn’t take this on,” Tucker wrote in the Google Doc.

Caren said he cannot address questions about specific student interactions due to FERPA regulations and because he believes every student has an expectation of privacy. 

He said although he is not committed to any particular exercise or book, he changes each of his courses based on student input every semester.

"For example, this semester, we dropped our second scenario and focused on US movements for social justice," Caren said.

He also said that the social and economic justice course “does not avoid difficult issues.”

“If achieving social and economic justice were easy, we would already have it,” he said. “The courses (sic) uses historical tension and conflict as ways to understand competing methods and visions of social justice.”

As remote learning continues, it will be critical to develop inclusive codes of conduct for class discussions online, he said. 

Next steps

Sociology graduate students are developing a teaching equity workshop in direct response to the allegations against Caren, Gillis said.

“They are hoping to use this as an opportunity to make sure that, in the future, all of us who are instructors learn from this to make sure we don’t repeat these same mistakes, that we all know that we can improve our teaching and that there are ways that we might be unaware of racial bias that might be in our classroom or in our pedagogy,” she said.

She said she was disappointed but unsurprised with the University's response to Tucker’s complaints.

“The cynic in me is not surprised that they didn’t do more with it,” she said. “I do know that conversations are happening, but it’s really disheartening that the student couldn’t be included in more of the conversations.”