'Progressive stacking' teaching technique sparks debate

Penn teaching assistant claims she is 'under attack' for calling on historically marginalised groups first

October 23, 2017
White man with hand up

Anyone who has ever taught a university class knows some students say more than others. And most lecturers eventually develop some way of encouraging quieter students to contribute. In one more formal discussion management technique, called progressive stacking, professors call on students who may be – for a variety of reasons – less likely to have their say. While every student is different, the reasons typically reflect the implicit biases observed outside the classroom, such as those related to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability status. So, according to progressive stacking, a professor would call on a black or Latina woman before a white man, for example.

There’s the rub, at least, in one class at the University of Pennsylvania. Stephanie McKellop, a graduate teaching assistant in history, says she is under attack by fringe-right groups for using progressive stacking in her classes and then tweeting about it. Worse, she says, the university is cowing to such groups instead of supporting her. She’s claimed on social media that her classes were cancelled this week and she may be asked to leave her programme.

The trouble apparently began with a post in which she wrote: "I will always call on my black women students first. Other [people of colour] get second-tier priority. [White women] come next. And, if I have to, white men." In a later post, she wrote, "Penn thinks I'm racist and discriminatory towards my students for using a very well-worn pedagogical tactic which includes calling on [people of colour]."

Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, refuted some of those claims in a statement, saying that Ms McKellop has not been removed from her programme and that Penn has “and will continue to respect and protect the graduate student’s right to due process”.

Penn knows and values the “importance of ensuring that students in groups that were historically marginalised have full opportunity to participate in classroom discussions”, Professor Fluharty added. “Penn is strongly committed to providing respectful work and learning environments for all members of our community.”

Yet Professor Fluharty seemed to validate Ms McKellop’s claim that Penn has taken issue with her teaching style, saying that Penn is “looking into the current matter involving a graduate student teaching assistant to ensure that our students were not subjected to discriminatory practices in the classroom and to ensure that all of our students feel heard and equally engaged”.

A spokeswoman for Penn said that Ms McKellop has not been barred from teaching, but she provided no further details. Ms McKellop’s adviser did not respond to a request for comment.

A number of academics expressed support for McKellop on social media and for progressive stacking. In general, it doesn't mean excluding men or white students from conversations, or forcing underrepresented students to talk. Instead, it means calling on students who want to talk in the reverse order that one might predictably do so, based on social biases.

Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said progressive stacking has been around at least since she was in graduate school in the 1990s. She still uses it informally, to right her own tendency to call on men more frequently than women.

“If I have a class of 40 students, since Hunter is predominantly young women, I may have four or five young men in class,” Professor Daniels said. “There’s still implicit bias, where we value men’s voices more than women’s voices, or men’s voices are deeper and carry more in a class. So I’m always trying to overcome my own bias to pick on men in class more than the women.”

As to whether purposely asking a woman to answer a question over a man was a kind of discrimination, Professor Daniels said: “That gets it the wrong way around. This is a way of dealing with discrimination that we as professors can introduce into the classroom. It’s a good strategy, if you can do it.”

Professor Daniels said she thought that the online backlash against Ms McKellop seemed ripped from the “playbook” of the far right, which has attacked numerous professors involved in issues of race in recent months. Worse still, she said, Ms McKellop, as a graduate student, is a particularly vulnerable target.

Cathy Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative at CUNY’s Graduate Center, has long advocated for inclusive teaching methods, including via the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, which she co-founded. Professor Davidson said that she didn’t particularly like progressive stacking, and that other methods seem “far better to me than making judgments on others’ privilege”.

Professor Davidson instead recommended "inventory" methods that require participation by all students in the classroom, such as thoughtful "exit tickets" from a session, think-pair-share exercises or asking everyone to write down and then share a memorable sentence from a given reading.

Professor Daniels said she didn’t know how pervasive progressive stacking is, but underscored that it’s nothing new. As for the situation at Penn specifically, Professor Daniels said it would be unfortunate for the university to punish someone trying to “uphold its values. It would be a very misguided step on the part of Penn.”

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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Reader's comments (1)

Possibly the problem is the phrase 'And, if I have to, white men' That makes it sound as if she is reluctant to ask white men to speak, rather than trying to ensure that everyone is treated fairly. Discrimination, and positive action, are always difficult to balance, but if the same thing is done every time then people may well feel they are being discriminated against in that class and the end result isn't equality.