Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Teaching is political. Even when it's not.

It's been a week, and I'm still grappling not just with anxiety but actual grief at the outcome of the election. But if there's an upside--and it's my own special form of negative capability to exist simultaneously in optimism and despair--it's the sense of feeling responsible, in a new way, for the causes that I care about.

I've always donated to charities that protect the vulnerable. But like most people I know, this week has inspired me to give more--and to give it in the form of recurring monthly donations--to organizations ranging from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center to my local foodbank. And I've always taken an interest in state and local politics, but that interest has mostly taken the form of voting and occasionally-but-rarely calling or writing my elected representatives. Now I'm calling their offices about everything. Tomorrow I'm attending a community meeting with the new county prosecutor (a/k/a the guy who replaced the guy who was voted out over Tamir Rice). And you'd better believe I'll be looking to volunteer for the Democratic campaigns for governor and senator in 2018.

But my greatest contribution will probably always be at my job, because my classrooms are much more diverse than my social circle and I spend much more time with my students than I spend with my neighbors. My classes reflect "the real America," if by that we mean all classes but the top, with veterans sitting next to immigrants sitting next to kids who've barely been outside the city, much less the state.

Does the election mean I'll teach my students differently? No. But yes.

I never talk about politics in the classroom. That won't change. But I've already started to make small changes around the edges, making explicit statements in my syllabi and policy documents about nondiscrimination, valuing and welcoming diverse viewpoints, and that kind of thing. I spend a lot more time making myself available to students and being proactive when I sense something is going on that's affecting their schoolwork. (And then there are the damn stickers.)

I'm also more mindful about inclusion: if humanly possible, I include writers of color on the syllabus. If not, I include texts that at least engage with issues of race, nationality, gender, and class. That's not some multi-culti sop: it's a way to highlight a more complex view of the past than many students (heck, many Americans) are familiar with. They're surprised that Medieval and Renaissance Europeans knew about Islam, that Europeans traveled to the Middle East, that there were sub-Saharan Africans in London. They're interested to learn that homosexual acts were rarely punished in early modern England, or how class conflicts expressed themselves.

But these days I'm thinking about what more I can do, inside the classroom and out. Would a class on early modern encounters with Islam make enrollment? What can I do at the curricular or advisement level? What kind of outreach can we do into local schools and the community?

I don't know. Maybe it's just an excuse--retreating into work rather than increasing my engagement with the world--but for now it's what I've got and what I know how to do.


Janice said...

I agree heartily - teaching is political and there's so many myths to explode about the historical culture that nostalgia paints as unchanging and homogeneous.

Bardiac said...

All teaching is, indeed, political! Good work!

(I would have thought teaching Milton is pretty expressly political, inasmuch as he asks his readers to think about power relationships and authority.)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I typically don't get into politics in class. Last week, though, I had a really hard time being a professional. I feel kind of bad about it, but I don't think it will cost me my job. To be fair, students asked me about the election and how I was feeling, but any moron could tell I was so depressed I could literally barely speak. So when they asked me how I felt, I said "terrified," because that was true. I made clear that the election had less chance of affecting me than others, but I was scared nonetheless.

It was probably the wrong thing to indulge in my misery and not hide it. The only way I could have hidden my depression would have been to cancel class. Once I figured out a strategy to move forward, I was able to control myself better. But for the first day, I was completely unable.

Flavia said...


Okay, you got me! Better to say I don't talk about *contemporary politics* in the classroom.

(Or at least not explicitly. I mean, to the extent that I suggest that nonconsensual sex is not high-larious, that homosexuality isn't a sin, and that kind of thing, I guess I could be considered to tip some of my political hand.)

Contingent Cassandra said...

Given what I heard alt-right/white nationalist leader Richard Spencer say on NPR last night (, I'd say that any reminder that people of varying ethnicities and "races" (however defined) have been interacting, intermingling, intermarrying, and generally doing business together for thousands of years would e useful information. I doubt that most of our students would find his contention that people of different backgrounds can't get along plausible, or his vision of a European-only state/enclave/whatever desirable (or even easily definable; at the very least, I suspect his idea of who is "white"/European-descended and therefore "in" and able to interact easily with those of similar background would be very different from that of a KKK leader 100 years ago), but they do have a tendency to see multiculturalism as a modern thing rather than an ongoing process by which, at least in the U.S., groups that were once defined as different/outside gradually become part of the mainstream (and, come to think of it, that process might be very visibly continuing now, in Trump's combined rejection of Muslims and other (mostly Hispanic) "aliens" and his at least lip-service embrace of African Americans. It's hard to believe the U.S. will move beyond the black/white divide, and the tendency to interpret other intergroup interactions in terms of that divide, anytime soon, but surprising things happen).

Fretful Porpentine said...

We're reading The Merchant of Venice this week. It feels ... different than it did before. Rawer, edgier, too close to our world.

Julius Caesar after break. That one is going to be weird, especially at this particular historical moment, with all the anxiety about what Caesar might become in the (very near) future.

Anonymous said...

I can’t help but wonder if this “inclusion” includes those with viewpoints different from your own. For example, many Christians see homosexual behavior as sinful. What about Trump supporters? Will you be tolerant, understanding, and accepting of the beliefs and values of people with whom you disagree? Or are you going to use your classroom to surreptitiously advance your ideological agenda?

Flavia said...


I'm guessing you're not a regular reader, if you're asking that question (and you are certainly not a very attentive reader of this post, if your big take-away is that I'm promoting a political agenda in the classroom).

I don't teach courses that involve contemporary issues now, but when I did I made a concerted effort to include all sides. I've always helped conservative students make the best possible case for positions they believed in, from gun rights to pro-life arguments. And I know that I do have (at least a couple of) Trump supporters in my classes. The day after the election I told my students, explicitly, that we were not going to be talking about the election, partly to respect the diversity of views and partly because I didn't think it was appropriate in a poetry classroom--but also because I believe that the intellectual and the creative life are what we have when the heat and dust of the present moment settles, and that art is what helps us to make sense out of change, whether that change be welcome or unwelcome (and in the class where we're reading Paradise Lost I pointed out that Milton had experienced both sides: once on the winning side of revolution, and once on the losing, and that we could see the poem as a complex reaction to both experiences).

Again, since you obviously do not read me regularly, let me note that my specialty is religion and literature in post-Reformation England. That means that my courses do, in fact, create an environment where religious students (whether those be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim--and I have notable numbers of all three), as well as formerly religious students and secular humanists, can think deeply about theological and existential questions. I also happen to be a practicing Catholic, though my personal beliefs are also not something I discuss in the classroom.

If any of this seems radically ideological to you, then you don't know very many ideologues.