Crisis pedagogy

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.

“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.” 

Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”

While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis. 

While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic? 

In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”

Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)

Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]

Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.

Adriana: YES. 

Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.

Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea. 

Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.

Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.

Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?

A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.

Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?

Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!

Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it

Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.

Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!

Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.

Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?

Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors

Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.

Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it. 

For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis

We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?

Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.

We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do. 

We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.

More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions

Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at auntylectuals@gmail.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!

In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas. 

In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline. 

As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia. 

We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions. 

As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege. 

As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms. 

In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.

Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.” 

The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars. 

The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.

Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals

Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy

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Reimagining K-12 schools in Minneapolis and beyond

Center High School students protesting mistreatment by school resource officers in May 2016. Photo credit: Andy Rathbun, Pioneer Press.

In this post, we want to signal boost a statement issued on June 7, 2020, by Education for Liberation, Minnesota Chapter, in support of the Minneapolis School Board’s recent decision to end their contract with the Minneapolis School Board. As this statement makes clear, taking cops out of schools is just a first step in moving towards developing curricula, pedagogy, and practices that truly educate and nurture Black and Indigenous students and students of color. 

Anita is a member of Ed Lib, MN Chapter, the first-ever local chapter of the Education for Liberation Network. Our chapter was started by core local organizers of the 2019 Free Minds, Free People Conference. Our goal is to be a network to bring together various constituencies in MN toward organizing for educational justice. Our membership consists of about 100 teachers, youth, activists, and academics. Our current emphasis is on designing a statewide mentorship network for BIPOC educators who are or want to teach Ethnic Studies.

Schools without police: Our vision for liberatory education in Minneapolis and beyond

The Education for Liberation Network, Minnesota Chapter, stands in solidarity with the youth, families, teachers, and community members who organized to push the MPS School Board to vote to end the district’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. We specifically want to lift up the Black youth who led this effort despite being constantly targeted by police in schools. The vote was a testament to the will of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth in organizations like Black Liberation Project, Youth Political Action Coalition (YPAC), Young Muslim Collective, and YoUthROC, among others, who strive, each day, to implore the district to live up to its rhetoric of equity and to truly serve the children of Minneapolis by providing an education they deserve. Ed Lib Minnesota recognizes that the termination of the racist MPD is just one stretch of a long road to justice that will take courage, imagination, humility, and will among the district’s leadership and its communities.

Simply removing police from MPS, alone, will not ensure the safety and well-being of Minneapolis’s BIPOC youth and families. The path forward must take into account the educational paradigm that allowed for police to have a role in schools in the first place. MPS must question the nature of educational structures that seek to justify notions of meritocracy, standardization, ability, and competition. Ending the contract with MPD should not be seen as a way to save money. The money needs to be reinvested in programs that nurture BIPOC youth. MPS must take bold steps to center trauma-informed practices and ethnic studies, and address racial disproportionality between teacher and student demographics in order to create an ethic of care across the district. The district must take a reparational stance to address the decades of racial animus faced by generations of youth of color, including making substantial financial investments in historically underfunded neighborhoods and funneling the most effective educators to the students with the most need.  In addition to the elimination of police in schools, the district must terminate teachers who consistently remove youth of color from classes, and administrators who ignore the data showing the evidence of racist practices occurring each day.

The district must fundamentally change its curriculum across all grade levels to center the histories, cultural practices, knowledge, and skills of its diverse constituency. No longer is it acceptable for students to graduate without a deep and profound understanding of Indigenous, Pan-African, Pan-Asian, and Pan-American studies. No longer can multilingual youth be treated as though they are deficient against a monolingual English standard. No longer can racialized disparities in discipline continue to push students out of schools. Youth who consciously or unconsciously resist racist educational contexts are not behavioral problems. They are the barometers who measure the toxic atmosphere of a district with a deep history of anti-black and white supremacist logics. 

Ed Lib Minnesota stands with the people of Minneapolis, and other communities, to demand that the cops who are being kicked out of the schools be replaced with BIPOC counselors and educators, rich and vibrant ethnic studies curricula, transformative justice practices, and translingual classrooms. Our organization would like to be a resource to help MPS transition toward this vision. Every child deserves to be the subject of their own educational journey, and not the object of an imaginary white norm. Police in schools are just one piece of a much larger white supremacist puzzle that must be taken apart and exposed for the lie it is.

In Solidarity,

The Education for Liberation Network, MN Chapter

minnesota@edliberation.org

Divestment and (Re)investment

Photo by Anita; on Chicago Avenue between 37th and 38th streets, South Minneapolis. 

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective. This post is by Anita. 

They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible. Concretely, it’s putting investment in things like making sure everyone has food, making sure everyone has housing…being in process together so how do we want to keep each other safe? How do we want to address harm? Because harm will happen. How do we do that without sending racists with guns who have no accountability? Kandace Montgomery, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block.

Two weeks ago, an unarmed Black man was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. Murdered brutally, casually, for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. 

Since then, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and cities and towns across the U.S. have erupted in protests against police brutality, calling for an end to racist policing and more importantly, an end to policing. Minneapolis is leading the country in reimagining community safety and community health and resilience beyond police. Thanks to the decades of organizing by Black activists and communities, especially Black youth, the Minneapolis School Board voted to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department and nine out of twelve City Council members have pledged to “dismantle the police department.”

During the first week of the uprisings in Minneapolis, I had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking about all the ways in which we need to divest and reinvest as we collectively imagine and build futures of justice for Black communities and for all of us. There’s the concrete divestment of money and resources from harmful institutions and the reinvestment of money and resources into community-led, justice-oriented solutions. What is also necessary is the divestment of my own thinking and ideas about safety and order. Or as Kandace Montgomery put it in an interview with Unicorn Riot after the community meeting on June 7, 2020, where the nine city council members announced their pledge to dismantle the police department, “We need to change our imaginations.” 

During a phone call with a friend the day after the 3rd precinct and many nearby buildings had burned down, we talked about how my first reactions watching buildings in South Minneapolis burn down were shock and horror. I talked about how I was raised to believe in the politics of respectability, to obey laws, to follow the rules, and to believe that the police were there to help us. I needed to be honest in naming that my first reactions might have been shock and horror, rather than pretending like I didn’t have those initial reactions. I needed to acknowledge that I needed a moment to reframe what was happening. That I had to understand what we were seeing through a different lens than the ones given to me as a child of South Asian immigrants to this country. That I needed to shift my focus to the kindling from the flame, as historian Carol Anderson described it. That I perhaps needed to learn more about what it means to abolish the police if I am to truly divest from what I have been taught to believe. 

To that end, a partial list of resources that I’ve found useful if perhaps you too need to divest from some of your previous ideas about what keeps us safe:

MPD150’s frequently asked questions page that answers questions such as “Won’t abolishing the police create chaos and crime? How will we stay safe?”

The first eight steps of abolition–what do we divest from, what do we invest in.

How to talk to children about the idea of abolition: a Woke Kindergarten reading of Wings by Christopher Myers 

The end of policing Alex Vitale

Are prisons obsolete? Angela Y Davis

Throughline podcast episode about the origins of American police

P.S.: Yeah, we’ve been on hiatus for a while…but we’re back at least for now. Given everything happening in our world today, we won’t promise that we’ll be blogging regularly or all the time, but we’ll try our best to put out posts on somewhat of a regular basis. As always, if you have a question about a race-related topic, particularly one pertaining to how we can imagine different, more just, more anti-racist ways of living, working, learning, and teaching on a college campus, you can write to us here.

P.P.S.: We’d love to have folks do guest blog posts for us around the theme of “changing our imaginations,” especially in the realm of education/higher educational institutions. So BIPOC folks interested in doing so, hit us up! 

Reality checks and necessary laughter

Reality check: it is the eighth week of a ten-week Carleton term, which means that it’s time to hang up the blog for a bit so that we can come back renewed and ready to write a whole bunch in mid-June.

But we wanted to leave you all with a lil’ something before this hiatus, an elliptical preview of some of our coming posts. We record some of our conversations, particularly when it feels like we’re getting somewhere good in our thinking. The cut below comes from a meandering convo about the concept of the marketplace of ideas, which quickly turned into a lot of laughter and tangents. If you want to hear us invent, play, and laugh–and we all need laughter–here you go. (It’s about 4:30 long.)

Shout out (and congrats!) to the Yale Ethnic, Race, and Migration studies faculty

Image source. Stanford students striking in 1989 to call for Ethnic Studies programs. Ask Adriana about her role in it if you know her IRL!

In April this year, 13 faculty with appointments in Yale University’s Ethnic, Race & Migration studies program withdrew their labor from the program. These faculty, who represented 13 out of 19 faculty associated with the program, made clear that their decision came after years of trying to get the Yale administration to support the program more robustly. All 13 faculty hold positions in other departments and were doing the work of the program without any pay or recognition. They argued that while such programs face challenges in most institutions for reasons that include racism, the difference at Yale was the vast amount of resources that Yale has at its disposal, with its $29.4 billion endowment.  We wanted to highlight this move by Yale faculty as we appreciate deeply this collective action of the Yale faculty to push their administration to make true commitment to a program that has enormous intellectual, social, and political value at Yale and to many students and faculty elsewhere, especially those of color.

Earlier this month, the faculty announced that they were recommitting to the program, following Yale administration’s move to provide concrete support to the program’s status and permanence on campus by allocating five faculty positions to the program.

Congratulations to the Yale faculty and students on their accomplishment!

Shout Out to the Black Latinas Know Collective

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On April 30, the Black Latinas Know Collective emerged publically into the world through a tweet:

Proclaiming that Latinx Studies is nothing without Black Latina experiences, their website offers an inspiring and challenging manifesto, a collective of impressive scholars in a range of fields, and a blog. When they burst into the world on twitter, they invited people to retweet their favorite lines from the manifesto, and wow, did people respond!

We’re both delighted to be able to signal boost the BLKC and the amazing work they’re doing.

And a couple more places to learn more about AfroLatinidad:

Lessons from serving on the Community Board on Sexual Misconduct

Image source. The Green Dot Bystander program is a national skill-building program used across college campuses in the U.S., including at Carleton, that allows students and others on campus to learn how to intervene safely when they witness instances of power-based violence.

Note: We are excited to present our first guest blog post! This post is adapted from remarks made by our friend and colleague, Dr. Mija Van Der Wege, during a presentation for Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center. This presentation featured faculty, staff, and students who have served on Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct, which is the board that adjudicates cases of student-to-student sexual misconduct. The four presenters spoke about the impact of their service on the board on their teaching and learning, their relationships with students/peers, and the skills they have learned from that experience they find useful in other contexts. Take it away, Mija!

When I first came to Carleton, I used to try to build and maintain strong personal boundaries between me and my students. These boundaries helped me maintain authority, which could be challenging as a young, female, Asian faculty member.  It also allowed me not to worry about what was going on in my students’ lives outside of my classes, which made my job seem a lot easier. Students could be vessels into which I could impart my knowledge, and I just needed to figure out the best way to impart that knowledge. However, since then, I have learned that I can be a better teacher by knowing more about student lives. And being a member of Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct (CBSM)  has really enhanced that knowledge. So I’m going to talk (briefly) about what I’ve learned from being on this committee and doing this work.

First, I am a role model for my students. Being on this committee is modeling good citizenship for my students.I feel like I am doing vitally important work. And I constantly remind myself: if not me, who; and if not now, when.

Second, trigger warnings help some students embrace and learn material that is personally challenging. Like many women, I have my own history of sexual assault. Going through training to be on CBSM and reading the investigative reports was quite hard. I needed to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the homework and for the meetings. The work took an emotional toll, even when I was not actively engaged in reading or thinking about the cases.

My experiences on the Board have made me more reflective and thoughtful about how I include and approach sensitive materials in my classes. I remember that a few years ago, I assigned a chapter on eyewitness memory in one of my classes. It contained a first-person narrative account of a sexual assault. After the class discussion on the topic, one student talked to me about how she had PTSD following a recent sexual assault and was caught off guard by this section of the reading. I felt terrible and realized that a simple content warning would have helped her manage how and when she approached that section. And I felt terrible thinking about  the other students who may have had similar reactions but didn’t talk to me about it.

Sometimes, I hear talking heads, or op-ed writers, or even other faculty argue against trigger and other content warnings, the so-called “coddling” of the student mind. And I want to tell them that these warnings are not coddling; they are not an opportunity for students to skip vital opportunities for growth. They are granting these students an opportunity to embrace the material in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. Certainly, going through the training on sexual assault was challenging for me, and being able to set the time and place where I engaged with it was invaluable and helped me engage with, rather than ignore or dismiss, the materials.

Finally, being on the Board has helped me practice compassion, empathy, and listening. As members of the CBSM, we spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand why people might behave the way that they do.I like to think that I am becoming better at understanding  why people behave the way that they do in the kinds of situations that the panel hears. It’s never been as simple as just perpetrator and victim in any case I’ve heard. It’s mostly just people fumbling around, usually drunk, trying to figure out what the rules of the game are.   I feel that many of our students are doing that, not just socially, but also in class and in other arenas on campus. They are just fumbling around trying to figure out what the rules of the game are, increasingly so as our student body becomes more diverse and as many traditional social norms are being challenged and changed.

Having been on this committee, I pay more attention to this fumbling, trying to identify it, and talk to the students that are fumbling in one way or another in my classes and in my role as advisor.  Rather than just a pep talk, I try to ask about what’s going on. I let them sit in my office and cry. I tell them that they don’t have to be perfect all the time, or even some of the time. Many of our students are struggling, and they can also succeed, sometimes with a little positive encouragement, a friendly ear, or a little extra leeway. Our students look up to faculty and staff on campus.  If we present ourselves as monoliths of expertise and authority, that’s what they think that they need to be. I’m learning that letting students see the nuances and cracks and glorious imperfections that we all share is, in many ways, as valuable as imparting knowledge.

 

Racially charged words in the classroom

Image source

In this blog post, we want to signal boost a podcast episode where Professor Koritha Mitchell (Ohio State University) talks about her approach to racial and other identity-based slurs that appear in the materials she teaches in her courses. She discusses her policy of developing a class “covenant” that expressly forbids students from using the N-word or other slurs. She talks about how having a clear policy allows her and her students to read parts of texts where slurs are used without avoiding those passages and most importantly, she argues that not saying the slurs do not prevent the students from being able to analyze the texts deeply and critically. In fact, she posits (and her students featured in the podcast affirm) that such a policy allows for deeper engagement because students are not worried about how to approach these texts. Her approach allows us (as teachers) to consider more carefully our learning goals and how the diversity of student identities, experiences, and backgrounds in our classrooms changes how we reach those goals.

She repeats a phrase often in her explanation of why White teachers, in particular, are not more thoughtful about how they approach this issue, especially as it might impact Black students and other students of color: “White people are not being special or unique when they hold themselves to incredibly low standards in their interactions with people who are not White.” She repeats this idea of “low expectations” a few times, including how such low expectations apply to people of all kinds of majority identities (including race, gender, and sexuality). She also explains how the everyday violence of our institutions become normalized in moments where racial slurs are read or used in classrooms and workplaces: “When institutions are literally built on the denigrating and diminishing people of color, White people do not have to seem aggressive in order to do great violence. Denigrating and diminishing people of color might be said to grease the wheels that make our institutions and our country function.”

In the episode, Professor Mitchell starts by describing her experiences both with her students and with colleagues around the use of the N-word in classrooms and at her workplace, which, as she importantly points out, includes the classroom. As she notes, she has the right to expect a different standard of conduct in her workplace and for her students to have a different standard of conduct in their learning environment than at a hip hop concert or out on the streets. She then discusses specific passages from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native son,” which include the N-word and another racial slur, and how her policy allows students to read these passages without re-creating the violence of such words by speaking them and to dig deep into the meaning of those words.

The latter part of the episode features a thoughtful discussion among three of her students who talk about their experiences with the policy and the impact it had on their learning experiences in the classroom.

We recommend a listen whether or not you’re teaching texts with the N-word or other racial slurs. We found Professor Mitchell’s approach and her explanations useful, especially her reminders about how everyday experiences in White institutions can feel violent to students and faculty of color.

Finally, a shout out to our awesome colleague and friend, Marty Baylor, for telling us about the podcast!

Musings on socially just decisions

As many of you who read our blog probably know, Carleton College decided this past January to NOT close during the polar vortex. There were impassioned debates about the decision on Facebook, in editorials in The Carletonian, and at formal and informal faculty gatherings. We’ve already discussed on this blog what our stance is about weather-related closings, so in this post, we wanted to expand on our ideas about how differences in experiences and power might be taken into account as institutions try to make decisions.

When we got the email from the administration about the decision not to close the college, it was mentioned that the administration had heard from many members of the community. It was not clear to us from the email how many community members had expressed their views and, among those who had, how many had been in favor of remaining open and how many had been in favor of closing. The first suggestion we’d have to make decision-making processes more just is to make them more transparent.

Getting information about a simple breakdown of how many were in favor of one option over the other is a start towards having more just and transparent processes. For example, considering only faculty perspectives for now, say 100 faculty wrote to the president to express their views on the issue. Let’s imagine that 50 faculty wrote in favor of remaining open, and 50 voted for closing.  The first question we would ask is be how representative were those 100 faculty of the faculty in terms of rank (e.g. tenured, untenured, tenure-track, visiting). Was there a preponderance of tenured faculty expressing their views, for example? If fewer untenured or visiting faculty expressed their views, we would think about how we can ensure that all faculty felt comfortable enough writing to express their views. As tenured faculty, the two of us do not worry much about writing an email to the Dean or the President to make clear our positions on any issue at the college, but we’re not sure that all faculty feel this way. Having channels for honest feedback from those who are vulnerable in terms of job security is an important issue in any hierarchical institution.

Next, if there is relative representation of all ranks of faculty among the 100 faculty who expressed their views, we would consider if there are patterns among those who argued in favor of one option over the other. For example, did more faculty who live close to campus favor staying open over those who would have had to travel longer distances? How about faculty with young children? Since the decision to remain open or close likely had differential impact on faculty depending on their life circumstances, it seems important to consider such impacts.

Third, paying attention to and acknowledging differential impact of such decisions is important if we are to make decisions that do not assume that the status quo is a just one. Martha Minow, a legal scholar, notes that we often encounter “the dilemma of difference” when trying to make decisions based on differences in status, category, or identity because both ignoring differences or taking into account differences can (re)create the stigma of difference. She notes that this dilemma partly is created because of how we think of differences. As she describes it:

We can treat differences as the private, internal problem of each different person, a treatment that obviously depends on communal agreements and public enforcement. We can treat differences as a function of relationships and compare the distributions made by different people to the costs and burdens of difference. Or we can treat differences as a pervasive feature of communal life and consider ways to structure social institutions to distribute the burdens attached to difference.

Taking that last approach can help us move towards a more equitable institution and one important aspect of that approach, Minow argues, is that we need to tilt the balance towards previously marginalized voices and perspectives and towards those people who are negatively impacted disproportionately by the status quo. Minow’s exhortation mirrors what we can learn from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work in Silencing the Past: “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production,” or, as Adriana paraphrases for her students, we need to think about which voices and perspectives have no chance to be heard. Have we set the table (our decision-making process) in ways that everyone who is impacted by the decision is invited and able to attend? And of course, there’s still the question to ask about who gets to set the table in the first place and “invite” others. While ensuring that diverse, marginalized, and minoritized voices are represented at the table is important, there is still power in being the ones to invite those voices.

Bringing it back then to the example of how to make a decision about whether to close the college during inclement weather, we’d argue that paying attention to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students who would be negatively impacted by the decision to stay open or to close should be given extra consideration. We might want to consider (dis)ability, access to proper wear/gear, family and child care responsibilities, travel distances…and, of course, which members of the college community even have the chance to express themselves. We would want to make sure that our assumptions about people’s statuses and abilities don’t get in the way of listening to their professed needs. We’re thinking, for example, of possible assumptions  that all 18-22 year olds are non-disabled and can, say, walk really fast to avoid frostbite.

Hopefully, our previous paragraphs make clear the complexity of decision-making processes at a college and the effort it takes to do it well, i.e. making sure that diverse, marginalized, minoritized voices are able to participate. We’ve focused on the role of faculty, because ours, like many institutions, maintains the desire to drive decision-making through shared governance, where faculty expect and are expected to have a say in important institutional decisions. While we support a strong faculty voice and a robust shared governance model (something we’ll write more about in a future post), we also want to point out that as faculty, even with our different ranks, our voices and perspectives are generally given more weight and consideration than staff members. This privileging of faculty voices, no matter the history or rationale for them, means that when faced with a decision such as what to do when a polar vortex comes to town, insidious inequities (of voice, of autonomy) between staff, faculty, and students can get masked.

In other words, when the institution opts to stay open, but invites individuals to make the “best choices” for their individual safety, the impact falls differently. Faculty are empowered to cancel classes if they want (or not); students’ freedom to make a choice probably depends on class attendance policies; and finally, staff members may not always feel like they can make decisions that might go against supervisors’ explicit or implicit expectations about whether they should come in to work on a -40 degree day. These variations in how “empowered” we may feel to make our own best choices need to be accounted for in how institutions make such decisions.