Tag Archives: responsibility

“Choose your Own Adventure”: New Approaches to Assignments

Wendy Hyman, Associate Professor of English (Oberlin College), April 17, 2017

"Macbeth," Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

“Macbeth,” Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

Like most teaching faculty, I’ve experimented with an array of strategies for augmenting (and evaluating) student learning over the years. Some have been fairly conventional: response papers, short quizzes, class reports, blackboard posts, final research papers, cumulative exams, and the like. Others have been more creative and comparative: writing “biographies” of books in Special Collections (trying to discern something like the “life story” of a 400- or 500-year old object), curating an exhibit in the Allen Memorial Art Museum  (although a literature professor, my scholarship sometimes delves into visual studies), writing imagined dialogues between literary characters, selecting among textual variants in order to create mini “editions,” or creating “liner notes” to speculate whether Petrarch or Dante is the mysterious “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”

But until recently, one thing I had never experimented with was giving students a choice about which assignments to complete or when to complete them. After all, standardizing the “what” and “when” of student work not only enables one to anticipate the grading tsunamis, but also ameliorates the grading process itself (read a few essay-based exams in a row, and you quickly develop a rubric for what “A” or a “B” answers looks like). Plus, as a female—and, for a while there, young—faculty member, I worried that I needed to be stringent in order to be taken seriously. Like developing a cherished reputation as a hard grader, I thought of inflexible deadlines as my friend. My reasons for keeping things simple and keeping them on a set schedule were not entirely self-interested, however. Like many professors, I found myself persuaded by the oft-repeated truism that it is part of our job to teach our students respect for deadlines. Surely it is the rare academic who has never turned in an article, book review, or assessment report after a promised deadline, and I admittedly felt a bit hypocritical playing bad cop. But we hear again and again that the work world, unlike higher education, will not tolerate the foibles of the disorganized and dilatory; in order to best prepare our students to flourish after graduation, it thereby seems like it must be our mandate to keep them on schedule.

A Midsummer Night's Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

A Midsummer Night’s Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

But over the years I began to resent occupying the role of the disciplinarian who insisted on calibrating demerits for each day of lateness. In terms of contact with students, deadline management also places inevitable emotional friction into the least edifying part of the student-teacher relationship. I’d so much rather talk about how my student’s thinking is evolving than adjudicate whether they really needed another 24 hours to turn in the essay reflecting said thinking. More important, the rigidity seemed inimical to the kind of creative, inventive, higher-order thinking I wanted to foster in both my students and myself, and the impression I wanted to leave of their encounter with the material. Do I want them to remember that I was the person who taught them to turn in an essay on time even if they have the flu? Or the person that enabled then to do their best work because I had not discouraged self-care?

Stepping Gradually into the New Assignment Waters

A few years ago, a new class gave me a chance to test out doing a few things differently. It was a new lecture-style course, a 100-level Introduction to Shakespeare directed at non-majors. I therefore anticipated many first-time visitors to college-level humanities courses: opera singers and oboe players, geologists and mathematicians, pre-med students taking a required English class, or first-years who had promised a grandparent they would try out Shakespeare. I wanted to signal my understanding that each of these students would bring different interests and strengths to the table, and I also wanted the “opportunity costs” of trying out something new to be low. At the same time, with 50 students in the class (and half that many in another that was writing intensive), there was a limit to how much I could really personalize things. So I considered a compromise. What if, in addition to short quizzes and a final exam, I gave students a menu of 4 choices for the remaining 10% of their grade? And what if I allowed them to turn in or perform their student-choice assignment whenever they chose?

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

To my delight, the experiment went very well. Most of the students chose to do a recitation (option: to perform a soliloquy or group scene either in class or in my office), while others cheered them on. Several chose to analyze a film adaptation, while another analyzed a performance of the opera Otello. A few discussed a scholarly article about one of the plays, and a couple others even examined primary sources reproduced in our textbook. While a few did treat the assignment as peripheral, most really relished the opportunity to take agency in their choice, and to round-out the course’s approach with something more personal. Certainly, the recitations animated the classroom, and created a sense of mutual respect and group bonding that made the lecture hall feel more intimate. But best of all, I was enabling a kind of multi-modal learning even in a lecture course, and in a way that I think increased the student sense of buy-in.

All In: Choose Your Own Adventure

I was pleased enough with how this went that, last semester, I decided to radically increase the student-choice component of an upper-level course, giving students what I described as “choose your own adventure” approach to the majority of assignments. It took a good amount of planning to set up, a significant amount of flexibility to administer, and a willingness to take a real leap of faith in my students. But if it enabled me to focus less on my role as Keeper of Deadlines, and more on my role as enabler of scrupulous analysis, elegant expression, and metacognition, how could that be bad? It certainly seemed like a class called Shakespeare and Metamorphosis, which read Shakespeare in conversation with classical Ovidian myths about transformation, was an ideal place to ask for more self-direction from students—and to try out something new myself.

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV.... Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV…. Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Of course, the details of any such experiment would need to be adapted to the learning goals of the course, the skill level of the students, and the exigencies of the professor’s schedule (full disclosure: I am not doing anything like this now, during my hectic 3-course semester). But for me, it looked like this: all students were required to write one analytical essay (6-8 pages) worth 25% of the grade; and all students would receive 15% of their grade for their attendance and participation in discussion. Beyond this, it was up to each student to determine the means by which they would find it most beneficial to be evaluated according to a menu of options that I provided. Admittedly, this took me some time to work out:

 

 

 

5%:    Start off class discussion with a substantive response to something we’ve read; pose         questions.

10%:  Oral presentation (5-10 min) of an article—summarize, analyze, point to ideas it raises;

          or Visual analysis (3pp) of an object in the AMAM in relation to Ovid/Shakespeare;

          or Response paper (3pp.) analyzing any primary or secondary reading for the day.

15%:  Annotated bibliography of 3 articles not on the syllabus (one paragraph per source);

          or Analysis (3-4pp) of a translation of one of our primary texts.

20%:  Attempt to create your own myth (!);

          or Continue the story of any Ovidian character.

25%:  6-7 pp. analytical essay on any primary source from the second half of term;

          or an Ovidian Shakespeare text (e.g. Venus and Adonis) not on the syllabus;

          or one or more myth(s) from another culture/linguistic tradition, etc.;

          or a Final exam comprising discussion of terms, passage analysis, and one essay.

50%:  Final original research paper, 16-20pp.; requires 6-8 secondary sources and a consultation with a librarian.

?%:    Online virtual exhibition/web page: let’s discuss what you envision, and agree on scope.

          or? I am open to other unconventional approaches.

This menu of options was followed by five samples of how a student might get to 100 points, and some ground rules: All students had to submit a personal plan by week 2 for how they intended to meet the course requirements (they were allowed to modify the plan after this date if their interests changed, as long as they submitted a revised plan and explanation). I stipulated that no more than three of any element could be submitted, urging that in most cases two would be better to expand the skill set developed. All students had to earn at least 20 “student choice” points by the end of week 10, unless writing the research paper, and all were required to turn in a sheet showing their “accounting” at the end of the semester.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, "Minerva at the House of Envy," 1664 - 1700

Ovid, Metamorphoses, “Minerva at the House of Envy,” 1664 – 1700. Public domain

There were scheduling issues I had to think through. I needed to allow only two discussion starters per day so as to not take too much time away from class discussion; that part was therefore handled by sign-up sheet. I had to take into account the registrar’s rules for the submission of final projects. And I had to help the students, primarily through one-on-one conversations, think through how to figure out their rubric. But here is where the somewhat dizzying logistics made way for intentionality and responsibility: because each student had to give serious thought to what their aims and intentions for the course were. Is this a semester, I asked them, in which you really want to work on your writing by tackling a series of short essays with ongoing feedback? Is this the semester in which you want to try bringing together your English and Creative Writing majors by writing your own myth? Are you interested in working on your research skills, and therefore want to develop an annotated bibliography? Do you need more practice giving in-class presentations, and can we set up a schedule for those? It almost goes without saying that by asking them to take responsibility for what they most wanted to work on, they were more likely to achieve it. And far from thinking that flexibility was a synonym for slack, the class truly set itself wonderfully high expectations: from a scholarly 20-page research papers for a graduate-school bound student, to a site-specific installation by a TIMARA major in Tappan Square, replete with an original score, which reimagined the town green as an allegorical landscape.

And what about those deadlines? As you might imagine, students were initially a bit overwhelmed by this array of options. They did their earnest best to come up with plans they could stick to. But as they kept learning, their interests changed, and so did their intentions. I accepted every revision. Likewise, as deadlines piled up, many students had to revise their own due dates. I accepted every new date. Each time, the students seemed apologetic that they had fallen short in some way, but I told them that, instead, they could use this as a wonderful opportunity to self-reflect about how they worked best, what they might need to prioritize differently in the future, and how much time they required for various tasks. Because in reality, the world of work very rarely dictates singular deadlines that can be tackled one by one. Instead, we all must learn to multitask in increasingly complex and demanding environments that reward us more for nimbleness than for rigidity. And that, too, is something that my Shakespeare and Metamorphosis students so deftly taught me.

“You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

Steve Volk, November 14, 2016

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

More than 250 black faculty members, administrators, graduate students and allies gathered in Columbus a day after Election Day to offer their perspectives in a long-planned session titled “Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education in Challenging Times: A Conversation for, by, and about Black Faculty, Graduate Students, and Staff-Administrators.” In response to the question, “What has it been like to be a black faculty or staff member on a predominately white campus in the era of Black Lives Matter?” one professor responded, “You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

I wasn’t at that conference but I was thinking about the strong backs we will need as I drove down to Louisville, KY, on Wednesday for the annual meeting of the POD Network, a group of some 1,000 “faculty developers.” I’ve never much liked the concept of “faculty development,” mirroring my objections about “developed” and “undeveloped” countries, as if some countries — or some faculty — just needed to be “developed.” But that’s what our job is called, those of us who run teaching and learning centers, work in instructional design, and generally collaborate with faculty, graduate students, students and staff around issues of pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Truth be told, I hadn’t wanted to go. I just wanted to sit in a dark corner of my house. But I figured I could get something out of it, and, now back at home, I realize that I did. It was healing to be in a room of hundreds and hundreds of people who care about the values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and, frankly, education.  It was healthy to be at a conference where the president of the POD Network used every opportunity to remind us of the values of the organization:

  1. Collegiality
  2. Inclusion
  3. Diverse perspectives
  4. Advocacy and Social justice
  5. Distributed Leadership
  6. Innovation
  7. Evidence-Based Practices
  8. Respect/Ethical Practices

It was good to sit  with so many others who care about their students and their colleagues and their country and to ask: what do we do now, where do we go from here? For thousands and thousands across the United States, the answer has already come in the streets. Some of my answers emerged in Louisville.

This posting is coming long after you have taught your first “morning after” class, long after you’ve figured out what you need to do to reassure many of our students that we are there to honor, uphold and protect the values that serve as the foundation of higher education: diversity and inclusion, social justice, respect, evidence, truth and fact. So all I can do now is tell some stories of the last few days, and suggest ways to uphold our values in our classrooms and on our campuses. In storytelling, many have said, is the process of healing.

DividerI served as a poll observer on election day at the Mt Zion Mission Baptist Church in Lorain, OH. About 75% of the voters who came in were Spanish-speaking, largely of Puerto Rican and Mexican ancestry; a large number were black. A few were illiterate, a chilling observation for the United States in the 21st century. More than anything, I was taken by the seriousness with which they approached the responsibility of voting. One image in particular will long stay with me. An older African American woman came to vote with her husband. She walked slowly and with considerable pain, it was clear, and we helped her over to the voting station. She remained for about an hour standing at the voting booth; her husband had long since taken a seat to wait for her. She read every word of every issue (I could see her mouthing the words) before she checked a box, and then used the “back” button to read them again before finally casting her ballot. I, of course, have no idea who or what she voted for, but voting was her right and damn if she wouldn’t take it seriously.

DividerAt the POD conference, I sat in on a number of sessions on diversity and inclusion in higher education. Most in attendance were still processing what had just come down and the implications for those of us in education, both higher education and K-12. Underlying all the conversations were deep concerns for students of color, immigrants, foreigners, and undocumented who were scared and already witness to a racist “whitelash.” One black faculty member from Northeastern remarked that faculty of color are even more frightened by the educated, white faculty who make them feel unwelcome on their own campuses. And an African American faculty developer from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville talked about the fact that all day on Wednesday white faculty were in her office crying and she’s thinking, “I can’t be positive for both you and me. What about the faculty of color who by virtue of the fact that they are pushed into this position of being there to support not just faculty and students of color but everyone?” (On this, you might want to take a look at Christine Malsbary’s “The Passionate Ethnographer” blog, “Dear White People: Things you can do instead of cry or try to hug us. Sincerely, People of Color.”)

“How do we welcome the future?”

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

We at the conference were fortunate to be graced with a fierce and funny keynote by the poet Nikki Giovanni who began by wryly observing that “One of the advantages of being black is that so much shit has happened to us that this is just one more. We just make up a song and go on.” And she reminded us of what it is we teachers do by reading some stanzas from her poem, “Always There Are the Children,”

 

and always there are the children

there will be children in the heat of day
there will be children in the cold of winter

children like a quilted blanket
are welcomed in our old age

children like a block of ice to a desert sheik
are signs of status in our youth

we feed the children with our culture
that they might understand our travail

we nourish the children on our gods
that they may understand respect

we urge the children on the tracks
that our race will not fall short

but our children are not ours
nor we theirs they are future we are past

how do we welcome the future
not with the colonialism of the past
for that is our problem
not with the racism of the past
for that is their problem
not with the fears of our own status
for history is lived not dictated

we welcome the young of all groups
as our own with the solid nourishment
of food and warmth

we prepare the way with the solid
nourishment of self-actualization

we implore all the young to prepare for the young
because always there will be children.

It was Giovanni who talked most about storytelling and healing: we sit together, we listen to each other, we have to talk to each other, share with each other. “There are stories,” she told us. “Don’t be afraid to tell them.” And she concluded in her inimitable fashion: “Either learn something or shut the fuck up. We’re going to be alright.” I figured that I never need to listen to another conference keynote: I had already heard the best.

As a break from the conference – and who doesn’t need a break from a conference? – I walked the few blocks to the Muhammad Ali Center. It seemed the right thing to do and I wasn’t disappointed. The center is organized around Ali’s six core principles:

  • Confidence: Belief in oneself, one’s ability, and one’s future
  • Conviction: A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise
  • Dedication: The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
  • Giving: To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
  • Respect: Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
  • Spirituality: A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

As I was making my way through the museum, I latched onto a group of some 15 students and their teacher; all were black. The kids were about 8-12 years old. The teacher was an inspiration, a magician, a ball of fire, telling her students that they had to believe in themselves and “never, never let anyone tell you that you can’t be great.” She read them the wall text at the start of the exhibition: “Know who you are and believe. Trust yourself: let yourself take the steps that get you where you want to go. Sometimes this requires a leap of faith…The self-confidence that Muhammad Ali showed the world irritated some people. But it inspired – and empowered – many, many others.”  “OK,” she said, “I want you to take a picture of that. Did you take a picture of that? I want you to look at it and not forget it.” These are the teachers who will heal the world.

DividerBack to the conference where POD’s president, Kevin Barry, was remembering the words of Christian Moevs, a professor of Romance Languages and Literature at Notre Dame, on receiving the “Sheedy Award” in 2006, an honor given to an outstanding faculty member. “In a human being,” Moevs began, “generosity and love are one with consciousness, with awareness. I began to learn how much students will give, how much they will give of themselves, how they will respond, come towards you, if you step towards them. Any success of any teacher,” he continued, “depends on that light, love, generosity in our students. I learned then that the key to all teaching is: You must love your students with a deep, self-giving love. There is a famous phrase in Dante, about how no one loved can escape from loving in return. That is not actually true with sensual love. It is true with selfless, self-giving love. That love is the bond, the link of communication, through which real teaching and learning happen.”

His words recalled to me what bell hooks said in Teaching to Transgress: “To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.”

And how do we do that? We begin with ourselves. James Baldwin argued in 1948 in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” that a “rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”  We carry out our work in our classrooms, and it is in those spaces above all that we pledge to look into ourselves to ask if we doing all we can to insure that all of our students can thrive and are supported. It is in our classrooms that we can make the greatest difference, where we must insist that everyone’s presence is valued and that all our students can achieve their goals. It is in our classrooms that we “prepare the way with the solid nourishment of self-actualization.”

leonard-cohen

Guillaume Laurent, “Leonard Cohen, Nice Jazz Festival 2008,” Flicker CC

The great Leonard Cohen, who passed this last week, has been quoted much in the last few days, particularly his observation that “there is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” I can do no better than close with his song, “Democracy.” Written in 1992, it seems to have uncannily predicted this moment:

 

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the Squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA

[Democracy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.

divider

An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.

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We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.


[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

Rove and Responsibility

How can we as teachers help our students think about contentious events on campus in a productive and useful fashion? I hope I’m not being totally naïve when I ask this question, because I do believe faculty have a serious responsibility to engage these issues. Not only are we members of this community with standing, but we carry a considerable amount of moral authority. Here, then, are some suggestions. If you have more, as well as contrary opinions, please post them to the blog or send them to me.

1. Provide context. As an historian, I always find context is important. We live in an increasingly contentious time in which speakers and viewpoints out of favor with legislators, administrations, faculties, or students are being outright banned or prevented from being represented on campus at a growing rate. The poster child for this is Bill Ayers, a (recently retired) education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was banned from the University of Wyoming, Boston College, Georgia Southern, and the University of Nebraska, among others. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage during a commencement speech at Rockford College (an event described in the local paper under the Orwellian headline: “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation”). Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was continually disrupted as he attempted to speak at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010. [For more, see the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/free-speech) and FIRE (http://www.thefire.org/cases/topcases ).] Of course, the highly contentious “town hall” meetings of the summer of 2009 stand as a backdrop to the present moment, even if they took place in a different sphere than the academic. Nor is the banning or disrupting of speakers on U.S. campuses a new occurrence (think back to the many bans on left-wing, radical, and communist speakers in the 1950s and 1960). But I would suggest that the context of Mr. Rove’s talk is one in which the space for civil discourse has been narrowing, and it is useful for students to consider how their actions on one campus can become a part of a chilling trend in which debate is replaced with shouts.

2. Of course, the heart of the discussion one can have with students has to do with not just the first amendment right to free speech, which is extremely important in and of itself (even in its breech), but of the particular rules of discourse and behavior in our own educational community. These are not easy discussions to have with students, but they are important ones. Stating the obvious – that we are a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas – is useful but insufficient. Is it never right to disrupt a speaker, however uniformly hateful he or she may be? Unwilling to play the “Hitler card” so soon, I would raise a less significant straw man: what about Florida pastor Terry Jones? Once given a forum, should he be prevented from speaking? Allowing students to discuss these issues in class can provide them with a somewhat sheltered space to think about these questions – unlike what they are likely to find in Finney on Tuesday. I say that the rules of our community are useful but insufficient because our students (indeed we, ourselves) find these inadequate to solve the question by themselves. Otherwise, we could just pull out our JS Mill and leave it at that. So I do believe we should discuss the behaviors which bind us as a community as a starting point, including the right for many to speak, but also would argue that we have to go beyond that.

3. Help students think things through to the end. Full disclosure: I participated in a few confrontations at my graduate university when we prohibited speakers from speaking. I felt deeply, passionately and personally convinced that these individuals were criminals (and while my views have hopefully become a bit more sophisticated over the years, I still see them as exactly that, criminals). And yet I wonder to this day whether my tactics (not my beliefs) would have been different had members of the faculty I respected encouraged me to think the matter through to the end. Yes, you can prevent “x” from speaking here, and students at the other university down the road can do the same, but what is it you want to accomplish besides denying him a stage? Disruptions turn conversations around to the issue of disruption, not the presentation of the political or humanitarian matters that you want to call attention to.

4. As students who are, hopefully, training to be more than chemists, historians, or oboe players – who are training, in fact, to be citizens, we can help them ask questions about the events that they will confront. Why, for example, is a particular speaker invited to speak on campus? Without impugning the motives of the College Republicans in this particular case, I would suggest that at least one purpose of the invitation was to be provocative, i.e., to challenge or test the campus by showcasing a lightning-rod figure whose views are likely to be generally unpopular to the majority. (There are other purposes as well, of course, but this is the one that is important to our discussion. The others are subsumed under Mill’s observation that one reason for free speech is that you can actually learn from what you hear.) One can probably say similar things about other speakers from different viewpoints, but as teachers we ask our students to be smart, not naïve, and one way to be smart is to question motives, and not accept arguments on face value. What, then, is the purpose of this invitation from the perspective of those who are suspicious of it, and how should one’s actions be guided by one’s reasoning? You can point students to some ways of answering the question, including research (e.g., New York Times, “Rove Returns, With Team, Planning G.O.P. Push,” Sept. 25, 2010).You might point out to students that they can think more effectively about any response by considering the purpose of the visit. If you think, for example, that by disrupting a speech you will allow some to claim that free speech only exists for progressive causes at Oberlin, and that this will then become part of a larger argument about how colleges and universities have become hostile to conservative views and that this is more reason why voters should turn out of office those who “pal around” with “extremists,” – if you believe this, than it would seem rather foolish at best to willingly walk into a trap that has been set for you. And this is the case for arguments on either side of the political spectrum – our task as teachers is to help students ask the kind of questions (and then determine the kinds of responses) that are most likely to be informed, informative, and productive.

5. Help your students think about what interest they have in this event, what interests the community has, and the dangers of assuming that one is acting in the “best interests” of the community even though you may be in the majority. Democracy, after all, is about more than majority rule; it is about minority rights.

6. Help your students clarify what they want to accomplish? Small (or large) groups can disrupt audiences. We’ve seen that play out in U.S. politics over the past two years (“You lie!”). Shutting down speech with which you disagree is an easy act, not a difficult one. Determining how to insure that your point of view is heard (and not just the disruption that you have caused) is much harder. As faculty, we need to help students accomplish what is difficult but productive, not what is easy and damaging.

Your role as a teacher and mentor is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think through issues and consequences and, if useful, arrive at alternatives. The fact that you teach math and not politics is irrelevant to the fact that we are all members of this community, charged with helping our students think not just as mathematicians and politicians, but as citizens.