Reading the Room –> Responding to Crisis

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As teachers who rely on discussion and dialogue as pedagogical tools, we are often put in the position where we have to “read” the classroom–figuring out, for example, when it might be time to move on to a new topic or when there are questions or confusions about the theories or vocabulary we’re encountering in the readings. At these moments, we try to read the mood of the individual students in the class as well as of the class as a whole, sometimes deciding to surface questions and concerns that the students themselves seem hesitant to voice. Beyond helping us develop more effective discussions and learning spaces, this work of “reading” the room also helps us decide whether and how to respond to events–local or not–that potentially impact our community. For example, after an accident that killed three Carleton students, Anita decided to open her class sessions by giving time for students to share anything they wanted to. In one class, that discussion took up the entire class session and in another, the class felt ready to move on to the activity she had planned before the accident happened. And on the day after U.S. election day 2016, Adriana made space in her class for a discussion of students’ reactions to the results. She noticed that many of the students seemed depleted and others seemed numb, so she let them know that if they wanted to remain quiet, they could. While the discussion began slowly, eventually all the students were engaged in an emotional and honest conversation about their hopes and fears. She made sure to check in later with one student who was particularly upset; that person was grateful for the space to talk, saying it had been strange to walk through campus as if their lives were the same as yesterday.

While we believe it is the shared responsibility of the teacher and the students in any classroom context to create the classroom culture, we do feel that we are in a position of power and responsibility as “leaders” of the classroom. Just as we work hard to read the mood of and needs within our classroom, we think that larger institutions should be trying to do similar work at a macro level. Over the years we have heard several of our students voice their desire for the college administration to speak more often and more powerfully and clearly about particular kinds of issues; they perceive that deans and presidents are the “leaders” of campuses and therefore have a unique responsibility to speak up and speak out. Most recently, the members of the editorial team of Carleton’s student newspaper noted that students “look to our administration for direction and support.” They called on the administration “to have strong, clear responses when events, both local and national, threaten students.” Carleton’s administration doesn’t even have to read the room here; they just have to read the newspaper.*

One of the administrative responses mentioned in the editorial was the one to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this summer. Given that Carleton was not in session at the time, we thought it would be interesting to read the responses of President Sullivan and the University of Virginia (UVA), since her administration needed to put out several statements in real time as events unfolded. In this way, these communiques give us a chance to see a college administration “reading the room” and adjusting their language and tone to–we presume–the needs of the community.

The first statement, put out a week before the expected Charlottesville rally, emphasizes First Amendment rights to free speech and rights of assembly while noting that the groups marching represent groups that contradict UVA values. However, we noticed that President Sullivan didn’t use the terms “race,” “racism,” or “white supremacy.” 

The set of responses that immediately followed the Friday night march described the “hateful behavior” of “torch-bearing protestors” and understandably emphasized the safety and security of the college community. In one of these statements, Pres. Sullivan labeled the protestors “alt-right,” which at that time still occupied liminal status as a “good enough” word to name white supremacy. She continued to emphasize First Amendment rights, though she did note that acts of violence are not protected.

On August 13, that Sunday, she releases two statements after the death of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia state police. In one, addressed to the university community, she expresses sympathy and condolences but doesn’t name the specific racial violence. In the statement to alumni and “friends of the university,” she notes that there were “racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and misogynistic chants.” The difference between these two statements is intriguing to us. We lean towards thinking of it generously; keeping the university calm must have been a priority at the time. Yet on the same day, the university rector sent out a statement where he uses terms like “evil” and “white supremacist”; his particular religious standing gives him, we think, a way to denounce the gathering that might not be open to President Sullivan at that moment.

A week later, a community message is sent by President Sullivan, emphasizing that she has heard her community’s concerns about safety. She delineates a number of steps to achieve it, like hiring additional people for the “Ambassadors Program” and reviewing and adjusting policies about public gatherings. Finally, though, and importantly to us, she assures that the university is reaching out to those students and employees “injured by white supremacists.” This is the first time she uses this specific term, indicating with this usage as well as with other language about listening, that she is “reading the room” and figuring out what her community needs from her.

At the end, reading the room is only the beginning of the process. As teachers and leaders, we strive to read our classrooms and campuses in order to provide guidance and we try to be as transparent as possible about what those next steps are. Reading the room is nothing without clear follow through. Calling something “white supremacy” isn’t going to end white supremacy but it’s a start. Developing a common language and set of values makes possible the imagining of common futures. 

Notes

[*]After we wrote this post but before we published it, we received a campus-wide email from college administration, letting us know that a swastika had been found in a classroom. The email named the symbol as an expression of hate and justly pointed out that this kind of speech does not further anyone’s goals of intellectual exchange. It also detailed the steps the college is going to take to investigate the incident and to create a culture where we all are more respectful and inclusive. (Indeed, for those of you on Carleton campus, please consider attending this panel discussion “Responding to Charlottesville” Wednesday, October 18th.)

Just last night an update was sent, letting campus know that the swastika had been drawn in the course of a class discussion. While we’re both glad to know that there had been no actual hateful graffiti, we were also glad to see that the administration still plans to continue with the steps outlined in the previous email, promoting dialogue, reflection, and proactive deliberation about how we might/should/could deal with hate in our community.

Reckoning with Institutional Histories of Racism

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The last couple of years have seen a number of colleges and universities reckon with their institutional histories of racism. Inspired in part by a comprehensive history of St. Olaf institutional racism researched and written by St. Olaf students, we wanted to compile here a links round up that recognizes the complicated and challenging work of institutional reckoning. One central theme we see is that are students definitely driving these conversations with their demands that their institutions live up to their current mission statements and educational ideals. We also note that figuring out what to do in the wake of seeing the depth and persistence of institutional racism is no easy task.

Georgetown University, notably, has made commitments to offer preferential admission to descendants of the slaves sold to benefit Georgetown, as well as “offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution…In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.”

At Rutgers University, distinguished from other schools that have done this kind of work in that it is a public university, student organizing around improving the racial campus climate eventually led to a commision of a committee to examine and publish a report on the history of both the slave-owning founders of the university and the displacement of Indigenous committees on the land that was given to the university.

Christopher P. Lehman, a professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, presented his findings on Governor William Aiken Jr.’s contribution to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1800s, which show that Aiken’s money came from the slave trade. At the time of his presentation in the fall of 2016, the Social Concerns Committee of the U. of MN questioned the findings; a follow-up letter from Professor Lehman argues that U. of MN should take these issues seriously. He suggests that the committee reconsider their decision not to pursue the question and, in particular, asks, “what will the University do to let its students, faculty and staff know this—students especially? As a professor, I teach my students to pursue the truth and present it with thoughtful and careful analysis, even if that truth is unpleasant and painful to read and is contrary to traditional narratives. The fact that the University is not discussing this matter further only highlights how much the University community at large needs to know what the University refuses to discuss.”

One of the considerations that makes it complicated to figure out what to do with the historical unearthing of violence that led to the creation of universities is the form of reparation that should be made. We appreciated the point made by R.L. Stephens on this issue: Harvard has a $37 billion endowment…[and yet] dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves. The university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.”

An interview with MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which examines the relationship between the slave economy and history of higher education in the United States serves as a sign of the increased attention to and need for historical reckonings, which makes us wonder:

How are your institutions dealing with their histories of racism, collusion with the slave trade, and/or displacement of Indigenous communities?

Being In and Not Of the University

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For your reading pleasure this week, we present you with a forum published in the Boston Review that highlights contributions from Robin Kelley, students activists, and other faculty. Titled “Black Study, Black Struggle,” the conversation aims to consider whether or not universities are appropriate or adequate sites of activism.

Kelley’s description of the kind of “betrayal and disappointment” that Black students experience once getting to the colleges they were heavily recruited to resonated with what we have heard from students of color on our campus.

Indeed, to some extent campus protests articulated the sense of betrayal and disappointment that many black students felt upon finding that their campuses failed to live up to their PR. Many students had come to the university expecting to find a welcoming place, a nurturing faculty, and protective administration. If they believed this, it was in no small part because university recruiters wanted them to: tours for prospective students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy.

Kelley argues that students need to be careful about how they deploy “the language of personal trauma” in their activism and cautions student activists that “managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault.” He also calls for the creation of intellectual spaces on campuses that use the resources of universities without being a part of them. He asks black students “to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.”

The student respondents usefully take up and push back against Kelley’s critiques of their activism, demands, and framing of their experiences. Especially powerful was Charlene Carruthers’s argument that for today’s black student activists, “trauma is inseparable from the love that motivates activism. It is love in the face of repeated trauma that governs my work and the work of so many young black folks with whom I organize in communities across the country. We cannot separate our pain from our resistance.” Aaron Bady reminded us, two tenured professors, of the positions we occupy on our campus: “…if professors are in danger of acting on behalf of the institution—of mistaking its identity for their own—students tend to understand their place in this machine with much more clarity. Theirs is the exploited labor that makes the university operate; theirs is the debt that funds professorial salaries and endowment; theirs is the place that must soon be vacated to make room for fresher meat.”