Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Relevant Resistance in the Classroom

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There has been a meme going around Twitter and Facebook, one version of which says: “Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘if I was alive then, I would’ve …?’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.” The new academic year is starting. Surely I cannot be the only professor finishing up my syllabi and wondering how am I supposed to follow my regular lesson plans while there are literal Nazis marching on university campuses? What do we do now as teachers in this moment?

Look, if you follow my blog or my Facebook page, you know where I stand politically. In 2004, Stanley Fish wrote in The New York Times: “Don’t confuse your academic obligations with the obligation to save the world.” He was wrong. My position is: We as citizens wanting to live ethically in a community — academic or not — have to speak up, push back, and resist the fascism that is on the precipice of becoming the new normal.

Lots of campuses are having working groups and/or teach-ins to talk about the issues of teaching in the era of Trump. I think it’s imperative that you engage these issues in your classes, with your students. It is more obvious (to me) how to do that if you teach in the humanities or the social sciences.

Today’s political and media landscapes offer up plenty of opportunities to practice the tools that are at the heart of a liberal-arts education: critical thinking, deconstruction, cultural relativism, and discourse analysis. Anthropologists (my field) can dig deeply into the identifying markers and practices of emergent alt-right communities and counter their claims with decades of scholarship on race as an evolving and unfixed construct. History, historiography, and public history all have a thing or two to say about the politics of commemoration, in confederate monuments and otherwise. The last seven months have been a macabre real-life lab experiment in the American system of checks and balances — so political-science professors certainly don't have to stretch to find relevance between current events and their subjects, and relevance is the inroad to starting these conversations in the classroom context. Communications courses can engage with “fake news.”

Such “prompts” — and the class discussions that arise out of them — are not for intellectual entertainment. They are essential defenses of “fact,” “reason,” and the values of inquiry in the current “post-fact” era.

If you are in the sciences, technology, engineering, or math, your classroom is equally relevant. As we careen toward irreversible climate change, the relevance of the sciences is obvious — especially as professors are being asked to take the word “climate change” out of their research proposals. But everyone in the academy can also confront the topic of white supremacy. How does a math or engineering professor raise that issue in the classroom? I know that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a statement in response to Charlottesville:

We are deeply disturbed and concerned by the acts of terror displayed by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hate and white supremacy have no place in our communities, schools, and classrooms. For many of you, the academic school year has started or will start very soon.

“Many of you will be in classrooms in which your students watched the events in Charlottesville unfold on television and on social media, and your students will be affected by those events. The trauma of hate speech and terror has an impact on the classroom environment and on the social and emotional well-being of students and teachers. Last December, NCTM argued that “We Teach More Than Mathematics” and that as teachers we must stand against any act that threatens the well-being of students.

“... As educators, teachers of mathematics, and a Council, we support the use of mathematics as an analytic tool to challenge power, privilege, and oppression. We encourage all educators to challenge systems of oppression that privilege some students while disadvantaging other students.”

That is inspiring and encouraging. In this historical moment, I would very much like to learn from faculty across the disciplines: How do you talk to your students about white supremacy? I would love for the comments section of this column to be a forum where STEM instructors can offer suggestions on this front.

Academics have already been making an effort to aggregate resources. Earlier in August, a group of graduate students at the University of Virginia circulated “The Charlottesville Syllabus,” a list of resources that academics can use to discuss the history of white supremacy. Likewise, here is a list of 16 books on white supremacy. And here is a #CivilWarMemorySyllabus that includes many op-eds and video links as well as academic articles on the issue of Confederate monuments and the American Civil War. Share you own suggested resources and your thoughts in the comments below.

A practical note: While (I hope) all of us are unified on the side that is not the Nazi side, readers’ circumstances vary from campus to campus. Public colleges and universities may have limits on what is construed to be “political speech” in classroom settings. The administration of the university may be more sympathetic to this kind of teaching intervention in New York or California than in the states where the battles over Confederate monuments are playing out right now. My advice:

  • Know what you can and cannot say, and how to work around it. Confer with sympathetic colleagues on this.
  • Know what protection and recourse you have.
  • Know that it is all the more your duty to talk to students about fascism and white supremacy if your own position in academia is privileged; in particular, if you are tenured. Tenured folk: This is literally what tenure is for.

The American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure held, as its second condition of academic freedom, that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” That clause was amended by the AAUP in 1970 to clarify: “The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.”

While one hopes that in our shared “reality-based community” a critical engagement with the concepts of white supremacy and an informed condemnation of fascism are not “controversial,” the politics of the language of “relevance” is precisely why my call here is for faculty across all fields to think of — and share — ways to situate the discussion of rising levels of white supremacy and nazi activity within your discipline.

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