As a student at UC Berkeley, I, as well as many other students, have personally dealt with the ramifications of having unqualified professors. When a professor teaches about a subject matter that’s outside of their scope of knowledge, it can truly be damaging for students. As a student of an already grossly misrepresented minority community, qualifications are crucial. A lack of knowledge is no excuse for the teaching of inaccuracies and damaging biases.
Last semester I took a class in the Near Eastern studies department called Abrahamic Religions. The class was about the three “Abrahamic religions” of the world: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. When I stated that I was a Muslim, the professor admitted that he had studied Islam significantly less than the other two religions and said I would be able to help him teach the class.
The issue is that I was not able to. Anytime a question about Islam came up, I felt like the professor looked at me expectantly, as if one student can represent the religious beliefs and values of a demographic of 1.8 billion people across the globe. Professors should not rely on students to do the emotional work of explaining a religious identity that they do not understand themselves. Students of minority groups already have a representational burden placed upon them, especially at UC Berkeley, where so many of these groups are underrepresented within the student population. There is no excuse for teachers placing this burden on us during class, when our job as students is to learn, not to teach. It is the job of a professor to be knowledgeable enough about a subject to teach about it; if not, then there is no reason they should be hired for the position.
UC Berkeley needs to re-examine its hiring methods and vetting processes to ensure that faculty have qualified backgrounds in the subject matter of the classes they are teaching. If an incumbent professor would like to teach another class, there must be an organized system within each department that confirms the professor’s skill set and ability to teach such a class.
Furthermore, there needs to be a push for hiring more faculty of minority communities within departments, particularly those that pertain to teaching about other cultures, religions, and identities. In 2013, 77 percent of UC Berkeley faculty were white, in comparison to 29 percent of undergraduate students. Evidently, the demographics of faculty are highly unrepresentative of undergraduate student demographics. Having professors who teach about topics outside of their own identity is acceptable, as long as they have demonstrated advanced knowledge about the subject. It is essential, however, that qualified professors who actually belong to the communities discussed in the course are prioritized in the hiring process. The existing faculty equity advisers within each department are a helpful step forward, but we must recognize the value of lived experience. Anyone can gain knowledge from a formal education, but wisdom is gained from experience.
Beyond the step of hiring faculty based on their knowledge and wisdom, it is also essential to consider professors who will further their students in their thinking and help them expand their mind. Criticism is important for increasing dialogue and creating new ways of thinking, however, it must not be used to justify bias. When the “criticism” is disproportionately on a single topic, it becomes an excuse for an attack. The excuse of “dialogue” and “criticizing our own views” is of a hypocritical nature when you attempt to undermine student experiences by calling them “dramatic,” spinning yourself out to be a victim, and refusing to further respond to other critiques and address students’ concerns.
Moreover, as — to my knowledge — I was the only Muslim student in the class, I felt as if he not only expected me to answer questions for the religion but also forced me to defend my identity by attacking my morals and values. Because I felt that my faith was being misrepresented and was aware that none of my classmates would have known that if I chose to stay silent, I felt like he left me with no other option than to engage. It seemed necessary for me to constantly have to voice my concerns with what felt like inaccurate and biased information being presented. What made the situation even worse was that even when I did engage in dialogue, I was constantly shut down and my concerns throughout the semester were often undermined and overlooked.
Fellow students, we need to be allies for one another and speak up against professors when we know information is being presented inaccurately, especially when it targets people’s communities. It’s hard enough for a student to stand up to a professor; there is no need to make it harder on our fellow classmates by attempting to silence them and their concerns. Instead, we should uplift diverse voices, and if that’s not possible, then the least we can do is stay silent regarding that which we do not know.
Sabreen Abdelrahman is a sophomore majoring in political science and is the associate legislative director at the office of the ASUC external affairs vice president at UC Berkeley.