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.
[*]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.