Professor Victor Ray wants his classroom to be a space where students can engage in difficult conversations about race and express their opinions.
“Being able to have hard conversations that make people uncomfortable—that is the heart of intellectual pursuit,” says Ray, an assistant professor of sociology.
Ray teaches courses on race, gender, and economic inequality to both graduate and undergraduate students. His critical research recently earned him a place among 24 academics from around the US chosen for a yearlong fellowship from the Ford Foundation, while his public writing has been featured in Newsweek, Gawker, the Boston Review, and the Washington Post.
Ray takes his scholarship into the classroom, where he provides students an environment in which they can talk about sensitive topics, such as an incident of racial discrimination in a business or the emergence of nationalist movements that threaten to harm large demographic groups.
Of course, navigating these conversations can be challenging.
“We have a few ground rules,” says Ray. “Students are not allowed to denigrate each other. The conversation must be respectful and nonjudgmental. And their opinions must be grounded in empirical research.”
Jamie Thompson, a first-year law student from Nashville, had Ray as a professor during his undergraduate years. He is grateful for the time Ray took to speak about topics that extended beyond class assignments and into his own research and experiences.
“His classes had an academic and historical focus, but many times students asked questions that tied in current events,” Thompson says. “He frequently drew upon his own experiences through anecdotes. This helped students to grasp important sociological theories and concepts that are initially difficult to understand. After every class, a group of classmates and I would stick around to continue the discussion.”
The impact Ray makes in students’ lives is not limited to the classroom. He provided the academic and career guidance Thompson needed when he received a congressional internship offer and again when he was admitted into both UT’s Master of Public Policy and Administration and law programs.
“Even today, he is my friend, advisor, and mentor,” Thompson says.
In March, Ray was honored with the Southern Sociological Society’s inaugural Junior Scholar award. He continues to publish academic and public writing as editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” a column published by Inside Higher Ed. He plans to write a book developing his theory of racialized organizations, first published in American Sociological Review in January.
What Ray hopes students take away from his research and conversations in his classroom is that racial inequality puts everyone at risk.
“Race is a national issue that has been polarizing for much of American history,” Ray says. “Divisions lead to less stability overall; they are dangerous to our society. Our students need to understand how to navigate these divisions to become informed citizens and educate the next generation.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Amanda Womac (865-974-2992, email@example.com)