Interview with Dr. Paul Croll

I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the most influential educators at Augustana, Dr. Paul Croll. Dr. Croll is an associate professor and head of the sociology, anthropology, and social welfare department at Augustana. I got to sit down with him in his office, filled with books, papers, and drawings from his children, to ask him about all Augie, Trump, and race in America.

What exactly do you do at Augustana?

I’m a professor of sociology. I teach about sociology, race and inequality, white privilege and power, and social problems. I am also currently the department chair and do active research, scholarship and write articles and books as well.


What role do you have at Augustana that goes beyond teaching?

I think the thing for me that goes beyond, and has also been rewarding, is helping students as they deal with lots of things on campus. Being a place where students can come and talk, when they are struggling, on campus and in their lives and being someone they can talk to when they’re working on how to make things better here has been really exciting.


How does the current racial climate of the United States pour into the Augustana community?

It is very different being on campus and teaching, post-Trump election. It’s just a different climate. There are types of racial extremes that I used to just talk about hypothetically. I used to be in the classroom and I’d say things like, “Just imagine, for argument’s sake, there was a white supremacist rally.” or, “Just imagine that people were flat-out racist.” Obviously, there were always problems with race, but it wasn’t so in your face. So, it does change the climate in the classroom and on campus when the national conversation is like that. When the president of the United States says things that students would get in trouble, if not suspended or expelled, for saying, in terms of language and sentiment, that raises some challenges.


How do you deal with that in the classroom?

I’ve not had anyone who talks like him, which I’m thankful for. But it’s terrifying that I just said that I’m thankful I don’t have students who talk like the president of the United States. I mean… that’s… that is… stupefying that I’m thankful for that. But, it’s true! Think about that. It is absolutely horrifying. But when people have opinions that Trump or other groups have, that’s why we have academic classrooms. I’ve actually worked hard for years, and still do, to make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable, regardless of your political affiliation. In my classroom, I say, “I don’t care if you’re right or left or voted for Trump or Clinton or Bernie or none. I don’t care.” Whatever you think, we should be able to talk about in the classroom. To me, the college classroom is one of few spaces where we can still do that. So it’s even more important than ever to build that environment where we can have those conversations. And even if there isn’t someone with that certain perspective, I bring it in. I say, “We heard on the news today…” Because we have to talk about it. People not talking to each other is a problem. So if I can encourage a space in the classroom where we can bring those opinions in, and we work through it as a class, that’s important.


How does your identity as a white man contribute to your classroom dynamic?

A couple different ways. One, it’s complicated, right? Because I’m lecturing and teaching about the problems of privilege, as a privileged person. So for me, it’s always a reminder that I kind of need to check myself and think about what I’m saying and doing. I try to have readings and videos and multimedia clips where people of color are giving their own life experiences. Students read personal narratives of people of color, marginalized groups, so it’s not just the white guy telling how it is. The other thing, which is sad but true, is that because I come from a place of privilege, our students push back a lot less. So there’s this irony, this contradiction that I’m teaching about the problems of privilege, and because I come from a place of privilege, students listen better and push back less. And that’s problematic.


That’s interesting, I thought you would get more "push back" because of that.

No. Which is telling, right? So I’m teaching about these problems and I’m taking advantage of my privilege to teach about privilege, ironically. Granted, I’m comfortable with that because I might as well. But I know my colleagues at other institutions who teach the exact same material but aren’t white men, are either faculty of color or women, have a much harder time teaching the exact same things. They get push back, they get attacked. It’s assumed that they have a chip on their shoulder and it comes across as, “Oh, you’re just bitter and angry.” So it’s incredibly ironic because it’s their stories that need to be told, but we have such a bad race problem, that a white guy telling their stories goes over better than them telling their stories themselves. It’s awful but it highlights what we need to change.


If any, what’s the biggest obstacle of teaching race and ethnicity at a predominantly white school?

Simply getting white students to realize how big of a role race plays in their lives. Because if you’re white in the United States, especially if you’re white, suburban and middle-upper class, you might not think race affects you. There are minority groups and disadvantaged groups who have been negatively affected by race, but the white people genuinely think they are unaffected by race. So the challenge, but the opportunity is to help them see that every day of their lives, they’ve benefited from the system. So for white students, the challenge is making them realize the “what if”. “What if my life had been different?” “What if I was a person of color?” Whenever I hear a student say, “Well I don’t get it. I would have just done what the police officer told me to do.” That’s when I know I have work to do. That’s living in a white suburban existence for 20 years. When police officers have always been friendly to you, of course that’s your response. Making them realize they worked hard to get where they are, but if nothing else, a lack of barriers is a key to their success. A lack of having to prove themselves, walking into a job interview or college interview and not having to convince someone that they’re worthy. Walking in the door and having the assumption be that you’re competent, unless proven otherwise, is a huge advantage.


What have been your most rewarding moments as a professor thus far?

Teaching about privilege is a very long, deep process, so it can take a long time to fully sink into some students. So when I have a student who graduated years ago, contact me and say, “You know what? I was at work today and you’re right. I saw it. I get it.” Helping students find their voice is really rewarding. One of my measures of success, ironically, is that students upset their friends. Part of speaking out is speaking out to your friend groups and families. So I have this track record now of students saying, “My friends say I’m not as fun anymore.” “I got into a huge fight with my dad.” And that’s ironically evidence of success because it means they’re seeing things that hadn’t bothered them before, that they now speak out against. Making progress with your close friends and family is probably more important than taking on arguments on the street. It’s those close, personal networks where you actually make progress.