The Chauvin trial is a teachable moment

Some USC professors are using the trial to foster conversations on race and policing in the classroom.

As the world waited for the verdict, many USC students took a break from virtual school to watch coverage of the trial from their cell phones and laptops. Some professors even took advantage of the moment to teach a vital lesson on race, culture and society.

Dr. Allissa Richardson is no stranger to uncomfortable conversations. As a professor of journalism at USC and researcher with New York University’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, Richardson has a long career of engaging in conversations on race and culture – especially in times of crisis.

On Tuesday afternoon, Richardson was 15 minutes into a lecture (in) her Engaging Diverse Communities course. She had been following coverage of the trial and it seemed like the verdict would be announced any minute. She suggested taking a break to watch the moment privately but one of her students, who is white, had another idea.

Her student suggested the class watch the live stream together via Zoom.

“That alone made me start to cry,” said Richardson. “Here I was thinking that, again, this is something that only African Americans were holding their breath for and the summer was true – people from all walks of life cared about this.”

The rest of the class agreed. Richardson quickly searched for the live stream on Twitter and shared her screen for the entire class to watch as former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for killing George Floyd last May.

“A lot of students were crying, some students turned their cameras off and private messaged me,” she said. “I totally shifted out of super professor mode.”

After watching the live stream, Richardson moderated a discussion with her students about how they were feeling following the verdict. Her students even turned the conversation around to dive deeper into how Richardson, a Black woman and mother to two Black children, was coping with the announcement. A feeling that Richardson described as “rough,” given not only the news of the trial but of several other police interactions with Black and brown men and women – many of which resulted in their death.

With the intense minute-by-minute coverage given to Derek Chauvin’s trial, it’s impossible, and some educators may argue, irresponsible to not discuss the case and its impact on the future of policing. While Richardson does not encourage live-streaming a moment like this for all professors, she does hope that educators will give themselves and their students the space to get emotional and react authentically.

“If they’re going to do that kind of thing, they need to make sure that they’re ready for where the conversation goes and don’t be defensive,” she said. “So what I was trying to do, as I finally gathered myself, was make sure that there was a lesson in it and that it was a teachable moment.”

Richardson was not alone in this decision to swap out the syllabus for a more intentional lesson plan.

Jay Clewis is a lecturer teaching a business design course at the USC Iovine and Young Academy. Clewis, who is white, was teaching his class just a few hours after the verdict was made. Regardless of the outcome, he said he had always planned to discuss it in class.

“As an instructor in a classroom, I think it’s important to be a little bit vulnerable and not to pretend to have all the answers but to be willing to talk about these things,” said Clewis. “It’s a difficult conversation but I think it’s really important.”

Clewis said it wasn’t hard to make the connection between social justice and business design.

“I realize that some folks, some students may not see this as being a part of the curriculum of the class but I don’t quite see it that way,” said Clewis. “I mean, in our program, we’re designers, we’re trying to make the world a better place through our design and the things that we build, the companies we build, the services we build – we need to design for everyone, right.”

Clewis said these conversations with his students are a teachable moment for both himself and his students.

“We’re in this together,” he said. “I just think it’s too big to ignore or not acknowledge.”