Tag Archives: protest

Listening, Hearing, Changing

Steven Volk, November 30, 2015

Some people find this moment of  ferment on our nation’s campuses confusing, particularly as important principles that have defined the academic community are seemingly under assault. Safe space competes with academic freedom, intellectual diversity with political orthodoxy, and so on and so forth. It will take some time to sort it all out, particularly as not every protest seems well thought out and students, like all of us, are learning from their mistakes. But tumultuous moments such as the present also provide a way to hear things that, previously, we might have ignored. This week’s “Article of the Week” offers two such learning moments, one arising from the protest demands and the second, from a teacher’s reflections on her own practice.

Renaming: The Case of Woodrow Wilson

I am no longer surprised with how quickly protests have jumped from one one campus to another, for the underlying causes of concern and anger have been present – and unheard – for a long time. Student protests that recently have called our attention to the stubborn persistence of racial injustice both on campus and off have hopscotched from Yale to Ithaca,  Occidental to Princeton, Amherst to Brandeis, Lewis and Clark, and Western Washington. What started at the University of Missouri did not stay at Mizzou, as students, faculty and staff seized on potentially the most promising opening for change in a generation. Among demands that have been raised by students of color are for the renaming of buildings that honor individuals who were particularly notable in their defense of slavery or, after the Civil War, segregation and racism.

Protesters at Princeton University  (Photo by Mary Hui for The Washington Post)

Protesters at Princeton University (Photo by Mary Hui for The Washington Post)I

Among these, the case of Woodrow Wilson and Princeton stands out. President Wilson’s relationship to Princeton was anything but casual. He was an undergraduate (class of 1879), a professor (hired in 1890), and finally the university’s 13th president (1902). The deep identification of the university with Wilson can be seen all over the campus. Now, many students are questioning this relationship.

Wilson’s well known reputation as “the architect of a lot of modern liberalism” stands in stark contrast to his record on race relations which, in the muted terms of PBS’s “American Experience,” was “not very good.” In point of fact, it was a lot worse than that. Wilson was an unrepentant racist, a segregationist whose actions as President reversed the halting advances made by Black Americans in the years after Reconstruction. (For more on this see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Univ. of North Carolina, 2013).

With this history in mind, in mid-November, the Black Justice League, a year-old group of concerned students at Princeton, announced that they would occupy the office of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber until he agreed to a set of demands, including the following:

“WE DEMAND the university administration publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture. We also demand that steps be made to rename Wilson residential college, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other building named after him. Furthermore, we would like the mural of Wilson to be removed from the Wilcox dining hall. We understand that a name change does not dismantle racism, but also know that the way we lionize legacies set precedents.”

Calhoun College, Yale University

Calhoun College, Yale University

This call at Princeton was preceded by a similar demand at Yale that Calhoun College (i.e., residence hall), named for John C. Calhoun, a congressman, senator, vice president, secretary of state and war, as well as a staunch defender of states’ rights and an outspoken advocate of slavery, be retitled. A similar call was issued at Amherst College to retire Lord Jeffery Amherst as the college’s sports mascot. It was Amherst who wrote, in 1763: “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

There is no simple answer to how colleges (or countries, for that matter) should deal with a past that is less than exemplary, and I don’t propose one here. But if some agreed that it was time for Yale to remove Calhoun’s name, the parallel demand to oust Wilson from Princeton seemed a bridge too far for many. Where, after all, would it all end. The editors at the New Jersey Star Ledger seemed to have this in mind when they wrote in their November 22 editorial that individuals such as Wilson were only part of the times in which they lived. “If we were to erase tributes to every historical figure with a repellent quality,” the editorial continued, “there would be no names left on any building, bridge, airport, school, river, park, statue or boulevard in the land.” Perhaps we should pause for a moment to let the full weight of that sink in. In any case, the editorial concluded, “The students at Princeton are right to acknowledge that the 28th President was a fierce segregationist, but to expunge the entire legacy of this transformative figure is historical myopia at its worst.”

Yet what students and their supporters at Yale and Princeton are saying is not that the “entire legacy” of these figures be “expunged,” but rather that the universities should stop and consider exactly what it means for the children of slavery and segregation, who you have invited to become a part of your community, to have to live, study, and work in buildings that celebrate the figures who were not just “at one” with their times, but staunch, active and outspoken proponents of slavery and segregation. This is not, in the end, a debate about whether the “repellent” acts of the past are to be deleted from historical memory, but whether those responsible for them are to continue to be honored in the present.

Was anyone listening to what the students are saying?

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s (New York Times)

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s (New York Times)

Yes. On November 24, the New York Times published an informative and moving op-ed by Gordon J. Davis, a lawyer and the grandson of John Abraham Davis. In “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather,” Davis describes how, early in the last century, his grandfather rose from being a laborer to a mid-level manager at the Government Printing Office only to be demoted, with countless other African Americans, by Wilson’s systematic purge of the African Americans from the Federal civil service. As Davis concluded, “Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”

The same day, the Times editorial board threw in their lot with Princeton’s Black Justice League. “The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist,” the Times wrote. This is not about removing those aspects of history which current undergraduates find abhorrent; it is about no longer honoring those individuals for such actions. While the Times is hardly the avatar of progressive thinking, it is gratifying that its editors could hear.

Emily E. Smith

Emily E. Smith is a fifth-grade teacher at the Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, TX. She was hired as a language arts and social studies teacher, although she now calls herself a “teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.” The journey she took to her new identity was one that involved considerable listening.

Smith was just awarded the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award given at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English held in Minneapolis. (My wife, Dinah, a professor of early childhood education, was at the conference, heard Smith’s acceptance speech, and brought it to my attention. Strike that: insisted that I read it.) Parts of Smith’s acceptance speech circulated in an article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, and I quote from that article here.

Emily Elizabeth Smith, fifth-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. (Erich Schlegel, Washington Post)

Emily Elizabeth Smith, fifth-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. (Erich Schlegel, Washington Post)

“I’m white,” Smith began. “My classroom is not. Sure, it’s been my dream to work at an ‘urban’ school. To work with kids whose challenges I could never even fathom at such a young age. And changing at-risk lives through literature is almost a media cliché by now. These were, however, how I identified myself at the beginning of my teaching career. I was a great teacher. I taught children how to truly write for the first time and share meaningful connections on a cozy carpet.”

Yet Smith also understood that “something was missing.” Slightly more than 80 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States today are white. About half of public school students aren’t white. “That means,” she observed, “America’s children of color will, for the majority of their school years, not have a teacher who is a reflection of their own image. Most of their school life they will be told what to do and how to do it by someone who is white, and most likely female. Except for a few themed weeks, America’s children of color will read books, watch videos, analyze documents and study historical figures who are also not in their image.”

Smith’s understanding of what she was doing in her own classroom changed the day one of her students told her she “couldn’t understand because [she] was a white lady.” I don’t know why we are able to hear things at particular moments when the same messages has probably been delivered countless times without any effect. But sometimes we just do, and at that moment Smith heard. As she describes it, she went home “and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.”

From then on, she wrote, she chose to shift the curriculum she taught her class. Her 5th graders now are reading the issues that they want to explore. As they studied Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan and Gary Soto, she saw a “light in their eyes I had never seen before.” TamalesThey read Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again” from “the lens of both historical and current events and realized that the United States is still the land that has never been. The land that my kids, after reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son that connected so deeply to their personal experiences, decided they still wanted to believe in. The land they decided to still hope for. The land that one of my kids quietly said would be changed by her generation. A generation of empathy.”

After reading about the Syrian crisis, Smith’s students “wrote poetry of hope, despair and compassion from the perspectives of the migrants. Many of my kids asked to write about their own journeys across the border and their [dreams] for a better future. One child cried and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.”

Smith concluded, “So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.”

“Looking back,” she continued,

I think that my prior hesitation to talk about race stemmed from a lack of social education in the classroom. A lack of diversity in my own life that is, by no means, the fault of my progressive parents, but rather a broken and still segregated school system. Now that I’m an educator in that system, I’ve decided to stand unflinching when it comes to the real issues facing our children today, I’ve decided to be unafraid to question injustice, unafraid to take risks in the classroom — I am changed. And so has my role as a teacher.

I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of color deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of color, be the teacher America’s children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.

Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, ‘Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.’ I know I’m going to continue to ask the bigger questions of myself and seek the answers that sometimes feel impossible, because my kids deserve it … you’re welcome to join me.

The Lessons of Mizzou

Steven Volk, November 15, 2015

From the University of Missouri to Yale to Ithaca College and campuses beyond, this has been a momentous week of protest. While many of us are still processing these events, it’s not too early to ask: What have we learned from them? What are the lessons of Mizzou?

For this week’s “Article of the Week,” I’ve curated a number of articles and other resources to provide context and framing for a few of the issues that surfaced in the past few days and weeks. While far from exhaustive – and I encourage you to add others via the “comment” function below – hopefully these can inform and encourage a broader conversation.

The lessons to be learned from Missouri and elsewhere are broadly applicable on all our campuses. Resources aren’t actions, but they can frame and inform actions.

Separate-Unequal-CoverDiversity: Racial Disparities in Higher Education

Race and racism were at the center of the uprising at the University of Missouri-Columbia and other campuses. Protests by students, faculty, and staff of color highlighted not only the fact that stark disparities persist at white-majority colleges and universities decades after the formal end of Jim Crow, but that, as Faulkner reminded in Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Will black students feel truly a part of Yale when they walk by Calhoun College every day? To suggest that no college would imagine hosting a “Himmler Hall,” as one writer cited below has argued, is a fair analogy and underscores the nature of the protests.

Each fall, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a special report on “Diversity in Academe.” The latest, which includes a searchable data base on “Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Full-Time Faculty at More Than 4,000 Institutions” can be found here. For data on students, see: “Student Diversity at 4,725 Institutions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 27, 2014).

Beckie Supiano highlighted some important parts of that larger data set which help illuminate campus protests in “Racial Disparities in Higher Education: An Overview,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 10, 2015). The article points out, among other things, that African Americans make up just 7 percent of students who enter a college or university ranked in the top three tiers of selectivity. On the other hand, more than half of football players at colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision are African-American and 90 percent of their head coaches are white, as are nearly 90 percent of recently hired college and university presidents.

Separate-Unequal-Admissions_9For a fuller background on racial disparities in higher education, see Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s highly useful report, Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege, published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in 2013.

Finally, for the latest data weighing in on the debate over how testing shapes admissions, see Saul Geiser’s work at Berkeley: “The Growing Correlation between Race and SAT Scores: New Findings from California,” Center for the Studies of Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley (Oct. 2015).

The Impact of Black Lives Matter

There is little doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement had a tremendous impact on shaping the protests at the University of Missouri, so close were they to the events at Ferguson.

Professor Frank Leon Roberts is offering a course on Black Lives Matter at NYU’s Gallatin School. The syllabus is online (and most of the links are hot) and can provide essential background: Black Lives Matter Syllabus (Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest), Fall 2015. Frank Leon Roberts is a professor, sociopolitical commentator, and veteran community organizer based in New York.

An earlier “Article of the Week” (“Black Lives Matter and the Start of Classes”) called attention to a Penn State website, “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson. Learning from Faculty, Students, and Community Members, from Penn State and Beyond as they Engage the Events in Ferguson, MO,” and, on Twitter, the #FergusonSyllabus and the follow-up #CharlestonSyllabus that was put together by Chad Williams at Brandeis. See, as well, the #Charlestonyyllabus produced by the African American Intellectual History Society.

The University of Missouri

The events which led up to the resignations on November 9 of Timothy Wolfe, the system president of the University of Missouri, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of its flagship campus in Columbia, have been widely reported, even though most reports tend to focus on the impact of the football players’ decision to boycott all football related activities until Wolfe left his position and the hunger strike begun by graduate student Jonathan Butler on November 2. Both are important (see below), but the history that informs the Missouri protests stretches further back and includes the fact that Wolfe, as one article put it, “should never have been president of the University of Missouri.” As with an increasing number of presidential hires (e.g., Iowa), Wolfe was a corporate executive with no advanced degrees or experience with students or academic governance. One of his first decisions on coming to Missouri was to close the University of Missouri Press, the press responsible, among other notable publications, for the definitive edition of Langston Hughes’ collected works (a move that, he stressed, would save the university an estimated $400,000). At the start of this academic year, he announced a plan to end subsidies to the health insurance plans of graduate students, also a cost-saving move. And yet, at the same time, he championed a $200 million plan to bolster Missouri’s athletics facilities.

Here are two accounts that provide a background on race and racism at Missouri.

Marcia Chatelain, “What Mizzou Taught Me,” The Chronicle Review (November 12, 2015). Chatelain begins her article, “As the chair of the women’s- and gender-studies department introduced me to the audience gathered at the University of Missouri’s Ellis Auditorium, I tried to hold back tears. Eighteen years earlier, I had enrolled at Mizzou as a bookish teenager. On this spring day, I was now a tenured professor and a published author returning to my alma mater to talk about my new book. The sight of an audience full of old classmates, former mentors, and the current students I had met through social media was so overwhelming I had to take a deep breath and steady myself as I approached the podium…”

Eyder Peralta, “READ: Two Personal Statements That Help Explain The Situation At Mizzou,NPR: The Two-Way (Nov. 8, 2015). Peralta includes accounts by Alexis G. Ditaway, a Missouri student majoring in journalism, and Dr. Cynthia M. Frisby, who teaches strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Sports and the Role of the Missouri Football Team:

Pinkel-Tweet-FootballOne of the most widely publicized aspects of the Missouri protest was the decision by football players and coaches to boycott activities until Wolfe was no longer president of the university system. It was a stunning turn, but not the first time that sports teams have put forward political demands and, according to many sports writers, probably not the last. As mentioned above, nearly 60% of football players at colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision are African-American. Of $83.6 million in median total revenues at the highest-resource schools in the five highest resources athletic conferences, 89 percent was generated by the athletic department. In other words, high revenue-generating teams can command a lot of attention. Sports writers and others are looking at Missouri to predict whether their success (both in maintaining unity and in achieving their goals) will make players, particularly in the biggest conferences, more likely to use strikes as a bargaining tool, much as it is used by labor unions.

Thabiti Lewis, “Enter the Real Power of College Sports,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 11, 2015). Lewis is an associate professor of English at Washington State University and the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press, 2010).

Bill Littlefield, “Only the Beginning? College Athletes Unite Against Racism,” Only a Game (NPR), Nov. 14, 2015). NPR’s weekly sports broadcast.

Dave Zirin, “The Missouri Tigers and the Hidden History of Black College Football Activists,” The Nation (Nov. 12, 2015). The strike against racism by Mizzou football players was brave, historic, and profoundly significant—but it wasn’t unprecedented. Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation.

Dave Zirin, “Why They Refused to Play: Read the Grievance Letter of the Grambling State Tigers Football Team,” The Nation (Oct. 21, 2013). The grievance letter sent out by the Grambling State Tigers football team reveals the conditions they faced two years ago.

Louis Moore, “Players Strike Back: Howard’s 11 Goes on Strike,” The Professor and the Pugilist Blog (Louis Moore), Sept. 22, 2013. Louis Moore is a professor of history at Grand Valley State University.

Media and the Free Speech Question

no-mediaWhen Tim Tai, a student photographer at Missouri, was blocked by protesters from taking pictures of a protest encampment on the campus quad, the issue of a reporter’s First Amendment right to report on events entered the discussion. Because many saw this as another example of protesters’ “totalitarian” tendencies to shut down free speech and to control what can and can’t be said on campuses, the photographer’s story became part of that larger, on-going debate. Here are a few articles that offer additional perspective on the question. One can also find a helpful framing on this question in Jennifer S. Simpson, Longing for Justice: Higher Education and Democracy’s Agenda (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Simpson points out how liberal theory and critical race theory will approach this question in very different ways.

Jelani Cobb, “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion,” The New Yorker (Nov. 10, 2015). Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.

Catherine R. Squires, “Young Black People See the News Media’s Double Standard,” New York Times – Room for Debate, Nov. 12, 2015. Catherine R. Squires is a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also the director of the Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative.

Anzel Herst, “A Few Thoughts About Those Missouri Protesters Blocking that Student Photographer,” The Stranger (Nov. 10, 2015). Anzel Herst is a staff writer at The Stranger, Seattle’s independent newspaper.

Terrell Jermaine Starr, “There’s a Good Reason Protesters at the University of Missouri Didn’t Want the Media Around,” The Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2015). Terrell Jermain Starr is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes about U.S. and Russian politics.

Lydia Polgreen, “What’s bugging me about the media chest-thumping.”  Twitter feed from Lydia Polgreen, the Johannesburg bureau chief for the New York Times, covering southern Africa.

Karen Grisby Bates, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot: Thoughts From The Mizzou Photog Blocked During Protest,” NPR Code Switch (Nov. 13, 2015). Karen Grisby Bates is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News. She contributed commentaries to All Things Considered for about 10 years before she joined NPR in 2002.

Yale University

Arnold Gold/AP

Arnold Gold/AP

Events at Yale University were touched off by an email sent by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Council suggesting students avoid culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween and the response by a professor, who is the wife of the “master” (yes, that’s what they are called) of Silliman College, who observed that culturally insensitive costumes should be allowed because they spark healthy, intellectual dialogue. What the articles below point out is that the costumes controversy — catnip for most of the media that portrays undergraduates at selective colleges as largely infantile and coddled — may have been the latest incident on that campus, but it was hardly the first or, for that matter, the most important.

Bruce Shapiro, “Don’t Tell the Students at Yale to ‘Grow Up’,” The Nation (Nov. 13, 2015). Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, ”Injustices at Universities Run Deeper Than Names,” The Atlantic (Oct. 26, 2015). Tressie McMillan Cottom is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Rachel Wilkinson, “Trying Times,” Yale Daily News, November 9, 2015. Rachel Wilkinson is a senior at Silliman College, Yale.

Aaron Lewis, “What You Don’t Know About the Protests at Yale,” Huffington Post, Nov. 9, 2015. Aaron Lewis is a senior at Yale studying cognitive science and design.

William Jennings, “To Be a Christian Intellectual,” Yale University: Notes from the Quad, Yale Divinity School (Oct. 30, 2015).

Courtney McKinney, “I’m a Black Yale Grad, and Its Racial Firestorm Doesn’t Surprise Me. Now It’s Time for the Administration to Act,” Salon (Nov. 11, 2015). Courtney McKinney is a Yale graduate working at a public policy center focusing on legal and social justice in the United States.

Gillian B. White, “The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale,” The Atlantic (Nov. 10, 2015). Gillian B. White is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Hunger Strikes

Hunger strikes as a political weapon are hardly new, although Jonathan Butler’s decision to adopt the tactic until Missouri’s president step down was unusual. Here’s one article about a hunger strike and education in Chicago from this past summer.

Eve L. Ewing, “We Shall Not Be Moved”: A Hunger Strike, Education, and Housing in Chicago,” New Yorker (Sept. 21, 2015). Eve L. Ewing is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

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