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U of Iowa teacher redesigning assignment that asked students to be either a “slave or slave master”

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) -- A professor at the University of Iowa is redesigning an assignment that asked students to imagine themselves as either a slave or slave owner.

A student, who spoke out on Twitter, identified the professor as Leslie Schwalm, who works in the Department of History and is also the chair of the UI Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies Department.

“When I brought this up with her, she said to be a freed slave to lessen the trauma,” the student posted to Twitter.

"The University of Iowa is committed to maintaining an environment that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as well as one where ideas and perspectives can be freely expressed and discussed," Anne Bassett, a UI spokeswoman, wrote in a statement.

In a subsequent Tweet, the student noted that Schwalm told her that she got the idea for the assignment from another professor at the university who used it to teach about the Holocaust.

She noted that the professor and student met to discuss concerns over the assignent. Schwalm is now redesigning the assignment and "all students in the class will be engaged in an open dialogue when the assignment is reintroduced and their feedback will be incorporated moving forward," according to Bassett.

"I hope, through this course, to empower students with new knowledge, to help prepare future teachers to bring an accurate and deep knowledge to their own classrooms, and to challenge our nation’s failure to come to terms with what I believe to be one of the most ignored and misrepresented feature of our nation’s history," Schwalm said in a statement shared with KWWL.

Her full statement is as follows:

I am a scholar of U.S. slavery and emancipation, and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity and responsibility for teaching on this subject since I joined the Department of History in 1991.  It is both the most important, and hardest course I teach.  The history of slavery is one of brutal violence and exploitation (as well as Black resistance and agency), and it has profound implications today in the lasting structures of racial inequality and anti-Black violence.  These facts make it a difficult history to engage with, and a challenging history to teach.  I hope, through this course, to empower students with new knowledge, to help prepare future teachers to bring an accurate and deep knowledge to their own classrooms, and to challenge our nation’s failure to come to terms with what I believe to be one of the most ignored and misrepresented feature of our nation’s history.  I believe that as a nation we will not be able to redress racial inequality and racism until we come to terms with this history.  Even with the deliberate care I take in teaching this course, I am always learning from my students, and one of those learning opportunities occurred this week.  I have taken her feedback seriously.  I am reconfiguring the writing assignment.  And, I believe that students should be challenging universities and teachers in the instance of racist or traumatizing pedagogies.  I think the scrutiny is appropriate, especially in a white-majority university like ours.  I look forward to learning with my students this semester, doing this hard work. 

Professor Leslie Schwalm

Bassett said this is an opportunity for the university to continue the discussion on how "student voices are critical in helping make sure things move forward in a racially just and equitable way both inside and outside the classroom."

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Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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