Evaluating My Own Privilege as an Online Educator

As dialogues across college campuses seek to heal the divide that exists as we anticipate what may come as president-elect Trump prepares to take office, I have done nothing additional for my students. I haven’t held any additional office hours. I haven’t altered my lessons plans to include additional talks on diversity. I haven’t engaged with students on a one-on-one basis to help them navigate their emotional responses.

While I applaud my professor friends and college professors across the country who are doing these things, I simply haven’t had to. It’s not that I don’t care. In fact, quite the opposite is true. You see, I’m an online instructor and there is simply no room for me to do these things.

Not all online institutions are the same. I’ve worked for a few. On many occasions, the curriculum is pre-determined. Yes, I can add my two-cents from time to time, but the ability to do so is largely dependent on the course that I am teaching. If I were teaching political science, history, or may even communication, I may be able to speak on the current political climate. However, if I am teaching a course with a stringent curriculum that focuses only on texts and topics that were previously approved, my hands are pretty much tied.

Naturally, I want to let my students know that they are in a safe space. I tell them this every term when I offer my discussion board expectations. In fact, the discussion board may be my only loophole. If a student poses a question in regards to post-election uncertainties, I can respond guilt free. Otherwise, all I can do is hope that my silence does not speak volumes. My only hope is that my students don’t take my silence for indifference.

My students can look at my profile and see that I am an African-American Muslim. Clearly, this election has affected me. It has affected many who are marginalized and underrepresented.  Working in the online environment as afforded me convenience, but I have also sacrificed visibility.  Unless I am feeling extra profound and make a video to expound upon something within the curriculum or schedule a Skype session for a student who is particularly struggling, my students will see my profile picture, and that’s it. That’s the extent of my visibility.

My on-campus colleagues, however, are in the trenches. They are face to face with students who want answers, acceptance, and understanding. Traditional students are typically younger. My students are mostly older adults with work experience. More often than not, they are parents or grandparents. They are accustomed to life bringing the unexpected and sometimes inexplicable. A 17 or 18-year-old does not usually come with the same degree of seasoning.

Simply because of demographics and course structure, I have been issued a platter of privilege. I don’t have to address or heal the hurts of my students. I don’t have to stay at the office longer in order to accommodate their needs. They don’t present these types of needs to me.

Plenty of my colleagues in traditional classroom settings do have to do these things. Otherwise, they’ll be teaching to a disjointed and disheartened bunch.  I envy just how life-changing they can be at a time like this.

And while my voice may not ring across a classroom of hope-thirsty young adults, I have not accepted this as a time to remain silent outside of the classroom. You see, these issues were not born in the classroom, and that’s not the sole place where they will be fixed.

Just because you have a privilege pass doesn’t mean you have to accept. This is the point that I want to stress to my fellow online colleagues. What we can do in the classroom may be limited when compared to what our colleagues working in traditional environments can do, but that does not mean that we can’t do anything. Our lives, just like our students’ lives extend beyond the classroom. We have a voice, and we can find spaces to use it.

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