Education

University of Iowa redesigning assignment that asked students to be 'a slave or slave master'

Black student airs concerns via Twitter: 'Yes this woman is white'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa professor and scholar in U.S. slavery and emancipation is redesigning an assignment after one of her students took to social media with concerns that “a professor at UIowa actually asked me to decide between being a slave or slave master for a 12 page paper.”

“When I brought this up with her, she said to be a freed slave to lessen the trauma,” according to the student’s Thursday post on Twitter. “And yes this woman is white.”

The student, who is listed in the UI directory but did not respond to The Gazette’s email request for an interview Friday, identified the UI professor as Leslie Schwalm, a professor and chair of the UI Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies Department.

Schwalm, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of History, in an email to The Gazette said she’s had the fortune and responsibility of teaching on the subject of U.S. slavery and emancipation since joining the history department in 1991.

“It is both the most important, and hardest course I teach,” she said, noting her aim through the course is to empower students with knowledge and prepare future teachers with an “accurate and deep” understanding of the violent history that has “profound implications today in the lasting structures of racial inequality and anti-Black violence.”

Schwalm said she aims in her instruction to “challenge our nation’s failure to come to terms with what I believe to be one of the most ignored and misrepresented feature of our nation’s history.”

But the UI student, who is Black in a classroom of mostly white students, critiqued Schwalm’s technique and said via social media, “Apparently this woman has continued to give out this assignment for years. She got this idea from another professor at iowa who did the same assignment for the holocaust.”

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In response to the student’s grievances, the UI via its Twitter account requested the student make it possible for direct message communication by following UI.

“We’d love to connect over direct message and share resources available,” according to the UI tweet. “We are sharing this with our Campus Inclusion Team right now.”

The student then wrote on Twitter later Thursday that Schwalm had seen the social media and email communication and suggested “the solution was writing in third person!”

UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett on Friday confirmed the student met with the professor Thursday to discuss her concerns.

“The professor is redesigning the assignment, and all students in the class will be engaged in an open dialogue when the assignment is reintroduced and their feedback will be incorporated moving forward,” Bassett said. “This is an opportunity to continue the important conversation about how student voices are critical in helping make sure things move forward in a racially just and equitable way both inside and outside the classroom.”

Schwalm told The Gazette via email that, “Even with the deliberate care I take in teaching this course, I am always learning from my students, and one of those learning opportunities occurred this week.”

“I have taken her feedback seriously,” she said. “I am reconfiguring the writing assignment.”

Schwalm stressed students should be challenging universities and teachers “in the instance of racist or traumatizing pedagogies.”

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“I think the scrutiny is appropriate, especially in a white-majority university like ours,” she said. “I look forward to learning with my students this semester, doing this hard work.”

Iowa State concerns

Iowa State also this month responded to criticism of one of its English professors, accused of crafting a syllabus unaccepting of all beliefs and viewpoints.

ISU Professor Chloe Clark, who’s been with the institution since 2016, made news for the “GIANT WARNING” in her English 250 class syllabus advising intentional “othering” — like racism, sexism, homophobia, or the like — would be grounds for dismissal. She also warned students could not, for any papers or projects, “choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e. no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.)

“I take this seriously,” Clark wrote in the syllabus, which captured widespread attention — particularly among right-wing and conservative media outlets.

In response, Iowa State released a statement reiterating its commitment to “a learning environment where ideas and perspectives can be freely expressed and debated” and advising the syllabus “did not comply with the university’s policies or values.”

“Corrective action to revise the syllabus was taken on Monday, August 17, which was the first day of the fall semester, as soon as this issue came to our attention,” according to the ISU statement.

Clark — and all other ISU faculty — have received guidance on First Amendment protections and student expression, per the statement.

“Instructors are prohibited from using teaching or grading methods that prevent students from full participation, including expressing their beliefs and viewpoints in assignments or class discussion,” according to Iowa State, which told The Gazette it was “unable to comment on personnel issues related to this matter.”

Clark no longer is listed in the Iowa State English faculty directory, where she was included in June. But an ISU spokesman Friday told The Gazette she is “currently in employed status.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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