Managing fragility in 17 easy steps

It’s all well and good to have the theoretical understanding that systemic racism exists, and to be enthusiastic about reading How to Be an Antiracist with your office book club. But actually dealing with race-related feedback might be a whole other thing. 

As a part-time university instructor, I recently received feedback from the winter semester (don’t get me started on why this takes so long, considering students filled out the surveys in early April).

I opened the emailed attachment from my associate dean, thinking it would be another set of feel-good results that I’ve quickly (and too easily?) become accustomed to receiving in my short time as an instructor. Since I regularly seek input from students during the semester and had done my best to adapt my style and course plans to their suggestions, I wasn’t expecting any surprises. 

But I guess there’s a reason that the definition of a surprise is something you’re not expecting. 

As I reviewed the quantitative scores, I saw positive results from all respondents but one. When I got to the qualitative comments, there were several compliments and a few generous ideas for how I might improve next year. And then there was one lengthy piece of criticism. 

It began with the following sentences: As a person of colour, I didn’t feel safe in this class. Kelli has her favorite people who are white. Really tried to have an open perspective, but she only favored the responses by white students and their friends.”

I’ve been sitting with these remarks for the last few days and trying to process them. In doing so, I’ve made some classic mistakes. As both an attempt to poke fun at myself and a list of what not to do if/when you find yourself in a similar situation, I’ll share those missteps here. 

  1. Get defensive. This step involves telling yourself things like, “No one else said those things, and there were plenty of other non-white students in the class.”
  2. Sigh, as you remember that defensiveness is a rather fragile, immature move. Get curious. Maybe other students did feel the same way, but only one person was brave enough to say it. And even if that’s the not the case, the one student’s feelings are still justifiable for that person. 
  3. Blame the students. This step sounds like: “I wasn’t playing favourites! I was just talking to the students who had their cameras on. It’s hard to engage people online who are just a series of faceless squares on a Zoom call!”
  4. Sigh again. Remember there were good reasons that students’ cameras were off: Zoom fatigue and the monotony of doing most of a degree online during a pandemic. Desire to protect the privacy of family members. Not enough bandwidth in homes where multiple people were doing school or work online. And so on. 
  5. Assume you know the anonymous complainant, and dismiss their views because they must have an axe to grind (in my case, I assumed the feedback came from a student who I’d corrected after she insisted on using the wrong pronouns for a trans person).
  6. Roll your eyes at yourself. The survey is anonymous and it doesn’t matter who wrote the comment; it’s feedback regardless. 
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 6 while honing in on other specific excerpts of the critique. 
  8. Feel sad. Wonder if you should stop teaching.
  9. Tell yourself that it’s only one negative comment compared to several positive comments. 
  10. Wonder if Step #9 is what tenured profs who are terrible teachers once said to themselves. 
  11. Remind yourself that imposter syndrome and perfectionism are not helpful to anyone. 
  12. Consider calling or texting some friends who would hear this story and reassure you by saying the student doesn’t know what they’re talking about. 
  13. Abandon Step #12 because it’s self-indulgent.
  14. Briefly consider writing to the Associate Dean to defend yourself. Immediately revisit Step #2. 
  15. Realize if you’re going to talk to anyone, it needs to be a particular white friend who will be honest, kind, and refuse to let you off the hook for any necessary introspection. Think about how she’ll probably laugh when she realizes you wrote this blog post before talking to her. 
  16. Feel lucky that you have another five months to absorb and learn from this feedback before being scheduled to teach again. 
  17. Ultimately, know it’s okay to have an emotional roller-coaster ride, but there’s also a lot to be said for experiencing the full cycle and getting off the ride calmly before taking any kind of action. 

8 thoughts on “Managing fragility in 17 easy steps

  1. Brenda

    Love this! I’ve had similar experiences, but I’m not as self aware as you and able to write out my reactions so succinctly (with humour). The journey is never over, or easier!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bwkyyc

    I really appreciate this as well. Especially the way you framed something quite heavy with a bit of humour. I am not a teacher, but I raised four children. And no matter how many people tell you that you did a great job raising wonderful people, I know I can not relax and believe that because on any day, one (or more) of them can (and have) drop a bombshell along the lines of believing the earth is flat, or some similar alternate theory. Staying humble while trying to listen politely to their ‘discoveries’ is tough, sending me down rabbit holes of trying to figure out how, and when, I failed them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How about:

    #18 The comments say more about the commenter than the commentee. Feel a little sad they have to internally justify their failure by taking on victim status and carry on being a good person.

    You’re not racist. I can’t remember the last time I actually met somebody who was. Probably the East End of London, circa 1989.


    1. You’re not the first person to message and say the person is a failure, which is interesting. Instructor feedback is written (but not shared) before grades are finalized and I’m not a very easy grader, but they all did well in that department.

      So, this person had some kind of issue other than literal pass/failure (which I realize is probably not what you meant). At the end of the day, I’m not sure the detail or the person matters. While I’m perfectly comfortable in the knowledge that I’d never fit in at a neonazi gathering, I’m also open to the idea that there’s probably always something I can do better.


      1. How about they should do better?

        We all have agency.

        I’d just move forward. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. If the overwhelming feedback across all demographics is positive, take the win.

        People can have issues unrelated to their immutable characteristics.


      2. Sure, maybe they could do better. I have no control over that. And of course I’ll move forward, that was never a question.

        I can move forward. I can take the win(s). I can prefer to read the comments from people who made clear suggestions for improvement in kinder and more generative ways.

        And on top of all that, I can also still say to myself “Wow, that comment was a doozy” (you should see the rest of it) and “why was I so quick to feel super defensive when I like to think I’m a person who’s more rational than that?”


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