SHIFT-ing the Conversation: An interview with Jakub Burkowicz

SHIFT 2021 aims to explore and uncover the wide-ranging social impacts of COVID-19. Panels and community dialogue sessions will feature stories, lived experiences, arts, and culture. This event series will zero in on sexual and gender-based violence, mental health and well-being, anti-racism and decolonization, and what we as individuals and a society can – and should – do in these novel times.

Jakub Burkowicz, a sociologist and faculty member at Douglas College, will be a panelist for the Teaching Showcase. (March 4, 2021, 10:30am)

We chatted with Jakub about why he got involved with SHIFT, what he thinks about systemic racism and how to create anti-racist virtual classrooms.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in SHIFT

I first learned about SHIFT when I started working at Douglas College in 2017. I was in the same department as Lisa Smith, Chair of Anthropology and Sociology, who is on the organizing committee, and I accepted her invitation to moderate a SHIFT panel that year called Women’s Sport as Politics. This time I will be presenting at the Teaching Showcase where I will give a talk on how white educators like me can implement anti-racism in the classroom. My teaching and research areas are race and ethnicity, social movements and social theory, and I am excited to draw insights from all three for this event.

  1. SHIFT is about tracing the social impacts of COVID-19 and places a focus on dialogue and conversation. Can you share with us a social issue (or two or three) you feel needs to be brought to light and why?

The social issue I will be tackling is racism in the classroom. In an obvious sense, racism itself is spotlighted in the media as movements push for social change. If movements like Black Lives Matter indicate anything, it is the growing willingness in the general population to recognize systemic racism as a social issue, especially as it concerns police brutality. While that is important, Canadians are less willing to recognize systemic racism in other institutions, like education for example. That’s where I come in. I see myself, especially as a white person, as being responsible for doing something about it. Systemic racism doesn’t just affect police departments – it’s endemic to social institutions in general.

  1. For you, what does equitable, anti-racist teaching look like in a virtual classroom?

You don’t get to read people the same way in a virtual classroom. I remember teaching a class on white privilege before the pandemic and seeing one of my students tense up. I was able to say to them, “You look uncomfortable with this.” I could address that, and I can’t do that in a virtual classroom. My lectures are all asynchronous, so there is also that lack of real-time interaction with students. 

What this means is that now I focus exclusively on the discussion boards and written assignments. If students embody racial prejudice, I see it as my job to point it out to them. But it’s never that straightforward. Students do not tend to openly announce their biases. This means that I must read between the proverbial lines and look for unconscious biases reflected in things like denying or downplaying racism or taking Eurocentrism for granted. It also means extending that invitation to my students to call me out if they ever see me engaging in those kinds of behaviours. Normalizing this is, I think, quite healthy. 

Besides that, anti-racist teaching in the virtual classroom also means creating space for BIPOC students. I do so by encouraging students to share how they identify, and acknowledging and examining how our social identities shape our perspectives.   

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