Briana Toole: Teaching every student

In June, CMC announced its Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience in America. As part of this ongoing effort, individual CMC faculty, departments, and institutes are addressing race and racism through various curricular and co-curricular actions. We asked faculty members to share their work in these areas, and what they will continue to do to promote sustained and substantive engagement with issues of racial inequality.

Prof. Briana Toole is an assistant professor of philosophy at CMC

Why are more diverse approaches to teaching important to you?

I taught high school English in Baton Rouge through Teach for America.

One aspect of that experience that I took on wholeheartedly was that you have to teach every student. Not everyone will respond to the same approach. There’s a benefit to having a diverse set of students, who have different attitudes and perspectives. I am doing what I can to make every student feel valued and included in class. I vary it up so no one is ever disengaged.

For me, the “Sage on the Stage” model doesn’t work, so instead I try to prioritize group interactions. I start with what the students know already and build what they’re learning into that real-world framework.

For instance, a few weeks ago we were studying John Locke, the 17th century philosopher. We were looking at his analysis of material substance, which is not that student-friendly. It’s reasonable for them to think ‘Why does this matter?’ So, rather than just read it and ask what it means, I showed them a picture of an optical illusion, and I had them reflect on how they interacted with that picture. And then more seriously, how do we interpret what we perceive is there, how the concepts we possess-- how much we know-- has a bearing in how we perceive something.

And then we extended the discussion to talk about how eyewitness testimony is not reliable because our apparatus is influenced by our community. If your community is homogenous, you aren’t going to have good facial recognition of those outside of your community, so therefore it is not reliable.

In addition, I think all students connect to someone when someone tries to respond to their needs. I conduct an anonymous survey mid-semester, to assess what students are responding to, so I can make changes in real-time. I model my teaching to the student.

How have you incorporated teaching diversity into your classroom and beyond?

I think as faculty, we can try to bring these perspectives into our classrooms. There are very few topics to which you can’t apply a discussion of diversity. If I can do it an abstract field such as philosophy? Then it’s doable. But it might be the case that we need to work harder as faculty on these issues.

Because I’m teaching the academic canon of philosophy, all of the philosophers are white men. It’s worthy to draw explicit attention to that fact. I ask my students, ‘Why is that the case that women and people of color are excluded?’ Faculty needs to model what these conversations look like.

In the spring semester, I am offering two awesome classes: “Feminism for Men” and “Philosophy Through Black Literature.”

I taught “Feminism for Men” at Baruch College and it was so much fun. It’s open to everyone. Among the topics we’ll discuss is if feminism is oppressing men. This will be an “Inside-Out” course, comprised of half CMC students and the other half incarcerated students.

I’m really excited about the reading list for the Black literature course. My husband is an education researcher. One of the things he has looked at is how Black authors are rated as “lower reads” even though they tackle difficult themes. The system for evaluating what students should read is marred by bias, so not as many Black authors are represented on classroom reading lists.

How do you think your approach can have a broader impact on CMC and society?

CMC students and colleagues are collaborating with me on Corrupt the Youth [a philosophy outreach program that Toole founded to work with high school students in under-resourced schools]. It’s really fun to work alongside them. Rima Basu [CMC professor of philosophy] recently started a chapter in West Hollywood for LGBTQ youth. Our aim is to bridge the gap between what students are learning in high school and what they will be expected to do in college.

I would like to see more minority students from low-income backgrounds attend college.

As part of our program, we host a college prep series, a seminar for students on how to select colleges. We also host one for parents on navigating the FAFSA. Sometimes parents are anxious and need an intermediary to help them help their kids.

I would love to see Corrupt the Youth come to CMC. We could host a camp every summer. Having taught high school in a similar situation, I know it’s not that kids aren’t capable of surviving in college, they literally don’t even have the basis for imagining what life is like on campus. Being able to bring students to a campus like CMC -- so they could see what it feels like and imagine themselves with a future here-- is really vital to bringing in more low -income minority students.

How else do you plan to lead and contribute to these efforts?

I would love to work more with the Ath. I miss it so much! It’s such a significant part of the CMC experience for all of us. I would love to see more of our own teachers talk to each other at the Ath, for instance. I would love to hear four professors talk about their teaching and their research and have difficult conversations with each other. I would love to have more talks with students speaking. In the fall, faculty could model the approach, and then in the spring we could have students try.

We need to find ways to have conversations about diversity with faculty, staff, students, and alumni more organically.