What We’re Learning About Learning: Teaching Georgetown’s Slaveholding History

“In terms of anti-racist pedagogy,” says GU History professor Adam Rothman in the most recent episode of our What We’re Learning About Learning podcast, “There’s two levels to it. One is just paying attention to the needs of students of color in our classes, like just being attentive to their concerns. And then, the other is teaching material that sheds light on racism and anti-racism, today.” For Rothman, as well as faculty and staff across Georgetown, this means contending with Georgetown’s history of benefiting from the enslavement of human beings. 

As he summarizes, “Georgetown is…a school founded by a Catholic slaveholding elite in which slave labor—the whole idea was that slave labor would help to subsidize the education of free white boys and men.” 

In Rothman’s teaching experience, the process of creating assignments that capture students’ imagination is key. He shared with us that, “[Students] just need to understand what [history] means to them.” He also underscores the importance of learning from the descendants of enslaved people, understanding their stories, and exploring how those stories are fundamental to Georgetown’s history.

In fact, Georgetown students helped to shape the curriculum and the direction of the university more broadly. “Students were part of the [Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation] working group in 2015-2016. Students protested during that year in ways that really highlighted the fact that this history meant a lot to them…So, students have been very involved with this history for the last five years. And that is reflected in the experience that I’ve had in my classes, where the students taking it have been really curious, really interested in the subject material.”

According to Adam, there is always the “tension […] between seeing the past as something that’s quite different from today and, at the same time, seeing the past as something that shapes our present, every day.” This challenge animates the research students conduct and leads to powerful questions and insights. 

Check out the current episode of What We’re Learning about Learning to learn more.