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Read the Fall 2017 Access & Excellence Cover Story: Talking it Out

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It’s midway through a lecture in the signature first-year course Race in the Age of Trump, and Dr. Leonard N. Moore is growing frustrated.

Moore paces for a moment before settling behind the lectern to collect his thoughts. With a preacher’s cadence and inflection, he raises his arms and directs them toward his students.

“To be successful, y’all have to think,” says Moore, interim vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement and George W. Littlefield Professor of American History. “You’re acting like tape recorders. We have done a disservice to you, if you believe that all you need is a good memory to get through college.”

The course covers a range of political, social and cultural issues in light of Donald Trump’s presidency. Regardless of personal opinions, students – of all ethnicities and backgrounds – are expected to come prepared for a critical dialogue about issues they may not otherwise approach. Moore strides over to the blackboard at the rear of the lecture hall and searches for chalk. He writes “BLACK” and “WHITE” in oversized letters then pauses before dramatically scribbling the space between the words.

“Most things in life are going to be gray,” Moore intones. “Life is not memorizing, it is the application of knowledge. Now you got all this knowledge—what are you going to do with it?”

His words hit a chord. Hands quickly extend into the air and the discussion takes off. Using the Socratic Method, Moore prompts students to share their preexisting ideas and assumptions about race, class, politics and other topics that are commonly left untouched in polite conversations. Knowing their professor may call upon them at any moment,
students stay alert throughout the entire 50-minute lecture.

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“When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t like sitting in a lecture for an hour,” Moore says. “I never want students to be bored and I believe they learn best from each other.”

Through the years, Moore says he has learned to separate most of his students into two groups: Those who are open to speaking their minds, and others who are apprehensive about sharing their opposing viewpoints. This tactic has proved to be quite effective in both of his fall undergraduate courses, Race in the Age of Trump and History of the Black Power Era.

“Students who disagree with me politically really enjoy the class because they know I’ll allow them to express themselves,” he adds.

On any given class day, the discussion can start with an open-ended question about the African American experience then branch off into different directions—from nature vs. nurture to historical voting patterns to right-wing evangelical Christians. As the lecture concludes, Moore ties the threads together and reels the discussion back to the original topic.

In the end, Moore wants his students to see how all of the topics are interconnected. Designed for incoming freshmen, the course is a component of the Gateway Scholars Program, a student success initiative within the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence that prepares students for their first critical year at a large university. Grey Gamboa is one of the many Gateway Scholars who have learned how to navigate robust classroom discussions in this signature course.

“His style brings people’s stories out because he is always asking us open-ended questions,” says Gamboa, a Radio-Television- Film freshman. “People are questioning Dr. Moore, but he will question you right back.”

Moore has found that many of his students find comfort in discomfort. This has been the case for William Ntsoane, a mechanical engineering freshman and Gateway Scholar, who has ventured into uncharted territory in Moore’s class.

“He makes things uncomfortable—but in a good way,” Ntsoane says. “He asks the question, waits for you to think about it, then asks why you feel that way.”

Even when he’s not in class, Ntsoane stays on top of current events to prepare for the next lecture.

“When I watch the news, I know we’ll talk about it in class and I find myself wondering what Dr. Moore will have to say about it,” he says.

Javier Wallace, a graduate assistant and doctoral student in curriculum and instruction, says the class gives students a space to challenge each other’s preconceived notions about divisive issues. He recalls one memorable group discussion in particular, in which one of his fellow students made a rather presumptive remark about a man pictured in a photo display of the differing ethnicities of Mexico.

“One picture in particular featured a man with more indigenous features,” Wallace says. “And one of my female students, who is of Mexican descent, responded that it looked as though, ‘he didn’t speak any English’ and that ‘it looked like he cut grass.’”

Wallace said he was floored by the response, but rather than chastising the student, he challenged her beliefs and moved the discussion into an exploration of privilege and identity.

“A week later, the student raised her hand during one of Dr. Moore’s lectures and started to talk in a personal manner about how she recognized at times that she benefited from being a lighter skinned person,” Wallace says.

Moore says this anecdote exemplifies what he’s trying to accomplish in class. He strives to challenge his students, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper, more profound discussion. The goal is to get them to see the aforementioned grayness in every argument.

“Maybe there is a middle ground that most people don’t see until they actually break down both arguments,” says Sierra Quarzaza, an art entertainment freshman and Gateway Scholar.

Intrigued by Moore’s charismatic style, students often bring their friends to class, where participation is mandatory and political correctness is jettisoned—with the exception
of a few ground rules. To keep the class as interactive as possible, Moore follows his tried-and-true four-step formula.

“First, I’m going to talk about subjects in a way that most professors won’t. That is key as it opens and challenges their minds,” Moore says. “Second, I work hard to develop my lectures to create real impact. Third, I’m never boring. And fourth, they connect with the course content because it covers topics that everyone thinks about, but rarely discuss.”

Moore pauses before adding a final point.

“Plus, you know with me it’s always going to be unfiltered and straight forward.”

Photos by Bret Brookshire