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Students and administrators discuss Native American curricula, role of student feedback

CHARLIE CURNIN / The Stanford Daily

Five students met with Native American Cultural Center (NACC) director Karen Biestman and Native American Studies (NAS) chair Teresa LaFromboise on Thursday to discuss ENGLISH 43A: “American Indian Mythology, Legend and Lore” and the importance of student feedback to Stanford courses.

ENGLISH 43A’s former professor Kenneth Fields stepped down from teaching the course last month amid student criticism over offensive remarks he made during class, though he refuted many of their claims. Sha’teiohserí:io Patton ’22 wrote a petition alleging Fields’ teaching was culturally insensitive, often off-topic and included inappropriate language.

“I know there have been over the years Native students who had problems with this [course] but didn’t voice them,” said Carson Smith ’19, Stanford American Indian Organization co-chair.

NAS is no longer cross-listing the course, which was previously also known as NATIVEAM 143A.

Biestman told attendees of the meeting that she, Patton and other former ENGLISH 43A students had spoken with English department chair Blakey Vermeule on Wednesday. Biestman said their meeting was “designed to be candid and confidential”; she and Patton described it as productive.

“The faculty made it clear that they were there to hear our concerns,” Patton said. “They made it clear that we as students have resources to go to if we ever encounter a situation like this. They also made it clear that they would be taking more precautionary and additional measures to reassure incoming and current students.”

“We were really happy about being able to sit with faculty,” Patton added, expressing her gratitude toward Biestman and LaFromboise.

Meeting attendees offered different assessments over how systems for processing student feedback had functioned in the case of ENGLISH 43A.

“In this situation, I think the protocol was followed pretty quickly,” Biestman said. “Students were heard.”

Patton told the group about initial difficulties in registering her feedback. She said she had “vocally” raised objections to ENGLISH 43A’s teaching assistant (TA), who declined to escalate them to Fields.

“I remember her saying she was not going to do that because she didn’t want to criticize the way he was teaching the course,” Patton said. “Right off the bat, from there, I didn’t feel comfortable voicing my concerns with Professor Fields because even she wasn’t comfortable.”

“Often a TA should be the first line of conversation, but it shouldn’t be the only one,” Biestman said.

Meeting attendees discussed in more general terms the importance of student feedback to course teachings.

“We need to be more diligent in educating students in pathways,” through which students can provide feedback, Biestman said. “Faculty, department chairs and deans really want to hear these concerns.”

Challenging faculty, she acknowledged, “may be a little intimidating,” but she told students, “that’s what faculty wants.”

LaFromboise praised the School of Education, which employs an associate dean responsible for processing student concerns.

She suggested adding a “standard” notice to course syllabi, encouraging students to come forward with concerns. One student at the meeting said that professors should provide verbal affirmation as well.

“There needs to be one announcement or iterations of faculty saying if you have concerns, please come talk to me,” he said. “Especially in this class, I think that should be reiterated. It needs to be a very open conversation.”

Discussion also turned to insights gained from the response to the course, with Biestman describing “real interest” in Native American literature.

“We need more Native faculty here, clearly,” LaFromboise said. “Definitely in the area of literature, there’s so much talent that it wouldn’t be impossible to find people.”

 

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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