education

Empathy and the Danger(s) Disengagement

 

 

 

For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping a list.

Admittedly, it’s not an original concept, being a mental exercise adapted from one of many optimistic Pinterest boards encouraging meditative mindfulness and gratitude in the upcoming New Year. Instead of coming up with a soon-to-be neglected resolution, this effort at self-improvement requires little more than keeping a record of positive memories, noteworthy events, or otherwise “good things.”

In addition to brown paper packages tied up with strings, my list of “Good Things to Remember from 2016” ranged from personal achievements, to exciting sport victories, cultural and artistic high points, and celebrated milestones: in February, the Carolina Panthers – my home state’s football team – made it to Super Bowl L, where a spectacular halftime performance by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter called attention to the Black Lives Matter activist movement on the biggest stage in televised sports. In April, Knowles-Carter released her powerful visual album, Lemonade, an unflinching tribute to black women, honoring their voices, and acknowledging the struggle of living while black in the United States. My sister was married in May, my brother graduated from high school in June, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative musical, Hamilton, was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, and won eleven. After nearly eight months of intensive study, at the end of September I successfully passed my department’s Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Exam, and I subsequently took an impromptu celebratory trip to visit an old friend in Halifax.

Looking back, however, it’s easy to see the gaps in the record. Sometime around early June, the number of items in the list began to dwindle, and around mid-November, the documentation completely stops.

2016

Unsurprisingly, as pieces of cultural commentary, Internet memes are more productive and illuminating than many realize.

To say that the year 2016 has been fraught with tension is a tremendous understatement.[1] As Thomas Paine wrote, these are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls, and in these past twelve months, it seems like we’ve run the gauntlet, a hundred times over. This is the year that Taiwan may be the first East Asian nation to achieve marriage equality, and the year that the deadliest shooting in American history was carried out against LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse Club in Orlando. This was the year of the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, of the spread of far-right populist fervor across Europe, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies in the highest political offices and pulpits in the United States. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team competing as independent participants, and this is the year that the Syrian Refugee Crisis reached its most desperate peak.

Political forces and governmental stratagems seemingly out of control dominated the domestic and international landscape, plaguing media outlets with misinformation and fake news. We watched tragedies unfold in real time,[2] counted the deaths of too many beloved and inspiring figures, and anxiously waited for the other shoe to drop, and keep on dropping.

In the face of all this, we have prepared to resist, and continue to call others and ourselves to higher standards of vigilance and accountability. We must continue to read, to think, to create, to teach and engage. This month’s series on empathy and education has attempted to provide a space for admitting our fears, confronting difficult questions regarding possible failures, and supply encouragement for the task now, and ahead.

Every winter, my family stages a viewing of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the scene captured above, from The Two Towers, has always proven to be enormously compelling. Coming at the end of one of the film’s two climactic battle scenes, Frodo’s haggard vulnerability and Sam’s motivational speech resonates with pathos, and displays the power of oral tradition, the written word, and the driving force of narrative in general.

While stories may drive us, oftentimes, “most fantasy provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual.”[3] Following the Electoral College’s dispiriting conformity to historical tradition, and several weeks after the initial shock, we find ourselves now couched in the festive spirit of holiday celebrations, and all-too-ready to turn over a new leaf. It may be tempting to “get on with our lives,” as the president-elect lately urges, and to pull back from the front lines, and not necessarily forget, but forgive and quietly disengage.

In times like these, although stories remain important, I think more often of the impassioned plea Merry issues to the Ents on their decision to abstain from action, to “weather such things as we have always done.”

“You are young and brave,” the hobbit is told, by much elder and wiser folk, then cautioned, “But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home.” His friend Pippin tries to reason with him and says, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end?”

Fiction can no longer serve only as an escape from reality; academics can no longer afford to distance themselves from that which appears too startling, too surreal,[4] too beyond our capabilities to successfully engage. My list of “Good Things to Remember from 2017” may be a bit more difficult to attend to, but one of the first things at the top of that list will be the opportunity to keep on teaching, and to lead students through learning about race and literary texts, to seek out difficult yet productive discussions, and to foster communication and understanding.

There is good to look after, and our part in this tale is never too big to fight for.

[1] For those in need of hopeful optimism, it is equally important to recall that a lot of positive changes have been put into effect this year. To begin, here is another list, this one detailing “99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year” (https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.6zrnibfvu)

[2] In an insightful piece on the consciousness of language use and suicide, Chinese author Yiyun Li complicates the concept of a tragedy in terms of private pain and public acknowledgement: “That something is called a tragedy, however, means that it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others” (“To Speak is to Blunder.” The New Yorker: Personal History. 2 January 2017 Issue).

[3] This fascinating article analyzes the differences of empathetic and intellectual effort necessary when engaging in the genres of science-fiction versus fantasy, and analyzes the models of resistance offered up by key texts from each genre: https://godsandradicals.org/2016/12/03/models-for-resistance/

[4] Ultimately, instead of “fascism,” Merriam-Webster selected “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year.

 

Empathy and Education: Fight or Flight

“A good teacher will lead the horse to water; an excellent teacher will make the horse thirsty first.” – Mario Cortes

Inside the academic classroom, we instructors face a number of pedagogical challenges, ranging from constant apprehension regarding proper time management, to confusion over how to best incorporate new media technologies in diverse lesson plans. If the multitudes of our profession may be encompassed by so simplistic a maxim, a good amount of the efforts toward leading our students toward the proverbial well of knowledge involves acknowledging the limits of our ability to engage, and the students’ ability to stay engaged.

Try as we might to liven up lectures on nineteenth-century textual portrayals of class and gender struggles, or lead animated discussion on symbolic content and elements of stylistic form, just to name a couple of personal examples, the passion of an instructor may not always yield a similar investment from those they teach. Here, the learning curve inherent in pedagogy applies to us as well. We acknowledge that students may have chosen to take our course for the purpose of filling out credit hours, anticipate the potential difficulties of teaching the disinterested, and yet do our best to construct inclusive syllabi, encourage open discussion, and foster an environment defined by dialectical learning.

Even in the face of such apathy, within the classroom setting, an instructor retains the authority to insist on certain standards of behavior. Students are expected to pay attention to the material, despite their personal level of enthusiasm for the subject, or lack thereof, and often must display their acquired knowledge through active participation.

Outside of the classroom, however, the authority to instruct has always been a tenuous thing at best, undercut by the style of one’s delivery, the power of one’s rhetoric, and the ongoing struggle to make one’s voice heard at all. There are no quantitative grades to earn in what so many have termed the “real world” outside of academic institutions; no controlled learning environment in which anyone is obligated to respect the notion of a “safe space,” and certainly no imperative to engage in critical discussion or any measure of empathetic self-reflection.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S. Presidential election, the anti-intellectual impulse now seems to be morphing into a frightening American norm. Never mind leading horses to water – in a “post truth” world, if words aren’t enough, what is left?

fine

Artist: K.C. Green, 2013 Source: Gunshowcomic.com

Empathy, many say. Following a seemingly never-ending election season distinguished early on by threatening speech, stunningly vitriolic ideological premises, and outlandish promises now turned very real dangers, those grieving for the loss of a democratic ideal were told to empathize with those we had grown to view with fear, anger, and even disgust. Among increasingly convoluted dissections of what the concept of empathy means,[1] voices from all over the political spectrum, mainstream news outlets, and media platforms urged those on the “losing” side to swallow the bitter pill – at least for the next four years – and unite. Accept. Get over it.

In other words: don’t fight.

But for many of us, there is no other choice. At the end of the day, we are thinkers. Letting things go unquestioned, unexamined, and unanalyzed is something we cannot do. Easy acceptance and complacency go hand-in hand, joined together in a desperate flight from grappling with our own mistakes, and pushing to change what we cannot tolerate, much less endure.

Instructors, researchers, public thinkers and scholars affiliated with the academy have all been students at one point or another. As such, we consider the intellectual process as one requiring constant and self-conscious revision – not only must we often admit our own shortcomings, but we must also anticipate learning from those we may initially oppose.

Crafting a common vocabulary is perhaps the first step toward building a rapport with bored or uninterested students, but deconstructing the complexities of hegemonic ideology and the semantic battle over what has been fashionably debated and dismissed as “identity politics” takes the concentrated work of months, if not years. Effective communication becomes much more difficult with the assumption that empathy and cooperative understanding rests upon mutual mute compliance, instead of examination and accountability. Engaging in productive discussions with political opponents is far from impossible. Historically, however, conversations require equal measures of willingness to listen and learn from all those involved.

How do we reach those who see no reward in critical reflection, and harbor no desire for intellectual engagement? To what extent are we meant to empathize and “break bread” [2] with those who would much rather imagine the well of knowledge empty, than deign to be led anywhere?

In an Op-Ed piece from The New York Times, R. Derek Black shares another personal narrative tracing the unlearning of hatred-driven ideology through experiences at a liberal college:

“Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there – people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me – I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…

People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me…

I never would have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with. Now is the time for me to pass on that outrage by clearly and unremittingly denouncing the people who used a wave of white anger to take the White House.”[3]

On one hand, there are no easy answers. But on the other, admittedly, easy answers aren’t our forte. We press for deeper truths than that.

Buck up, Academics. We have our work cut out for us.


[1] In this short interview promoting his new monograph, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom attempts to distinguish between what he terms “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy.” The former, he argues, is a mental exercise based upon rational thought; the latter is based solely in affective feeling, and actually “distorts goodness” in “direct[ing] our moral decision-making [and] reflects our biases.” Bloom’s argument, as presented in this interview, contradicts itself when he disparages empathetic feeling, yet then doubles back and claims “We need love, compassion and kindness.”

[2] In what has since been criticized as a short-sighted commentary reflecting a lack of knowledge on the lived experiences of Black (and fellow minority) Americans, Trevor Noah’s Op-Ed piece boldly states, “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters. We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve opposed us.” (“Trevor Noah: Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule.” The New York Times. 5 December 2016.)

[3] “Why I Left White Nationalism.” Black, R. Derek. The New York Times. 26 November 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part II)

In the numerous fields comprising that artistic and cultural field we call “the humanities,” we who self-identify as scholars must constantly be on the defense regarding our own choice of profession. An increasingly corporatized world sees banks encouraging ballerinas and actors to become engineers and botanists instead, and federal agencies such as the CBO actively suggesting reducing federal funding for the Arts and Humanities, since “such programs may not provide social benefits that equal or exceed their costs.”

This cacophony joins with countless other voices in our own lives: those cautioning us about the shrinking opportunities of the academic job market, who gently chastise us for dabbling in a passion instead of pursuing a career that will prove economically viable, and otherwise reminding us that the humanities are not where the dollars – or pounds or euros, among other forms of financial credit – lie. There is no Wall Street of literature, no actual stock market of philosophical ideas, and little funding to be found in dusty bookshelves and puzzling over words, ideas, and their meanings.

Why even bother?

As the old adage goes, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” A bastardized proverb, perhaps, with uncertain origins, and appropriated right and left – often by the political and ideological Left and Right – for various ends. The myth of linear progress haunts us with these lessons of the not-so-distant past. Especially in the awareness of unavoidable pitfalls, regressions, and obstructions in the hard-fought effort forward and upwards, we take into consideration the wisdom of looking over our shoulders and consulting voices that tell tales of suffering and horror never to happen again.

For those of us working in the fields of analyzing literature and encouraging critical thought, our reasons for choosing to engage with such materials on a day-to-day basis have long found ethical expression in empathy. We aim to broaden awareness of self and others, and to celebrate multicultural differences by considering multiple avenues of theoretical exploration. This is why we construct syllabi with an eye toward incorporating more writers outside the realms of canonical literature, the majority of these names belonging to women writers, and writers of color. For many of us teaching at the collegiate level, or in higher education in general, critiquing the norms of institutions, modeling thoughtful self-reflexivity, and teaching students how to close-read all goes hand-in-hand.

On some level, either personally or with boisterous confidence, we all wish to believe in our role to “Make America Smart Again.” Our faith in education fueled our optimism in a future defined by intelligence and inclusivity, and many a liberal-leaning Op-Ed piece declared the one advantage of Britain’s recent referendum to leave the European Union as both instruction and a tale of warning:

“One of the few good things about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the rich curriculum of lessons it offers leaders and electorates in other democracies…

Across Europe and in the United States, politicians can either respond to these cries of protest or face something worse than Brexit.”[1]

Was such belief a stroke of overconfidence?

Following November 8th, with electoral results and statistics rushing in from all sides, bleak disappointment followed closely by crushing realization began to settle in. These gut-reactions mingled with irritation at the instantaneous, yet contradictory impulse to assign blame:

“Why Did College-Educated White Women Vote for Trump?” (The New York Times)

“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working-Class” (New Republic)

“Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch” (The Washington Post)

Such was, and still is enough to shake one’s faith in purposeful education. In the face of all this, what is the point of what we teach? These are the questions to haunt us now: does the work of our lives actually take any root? Should intellectuals shoulder the blame of having morphed into snobbish cultural elites?

Does investment in efforts toward empathy really yield any ideological change?

merriamwebster

 

In the days and weeks that have followed the 2016 Presidential Election, attempting to navigate and teach in this new reality has proven unsettling. All of a sudden, we have swerved from the academic postmodern into a maelstrom of media-influenced misinformation, Twitter rants, and unprecedented threats against freedom of speech, critique,[2] and intellectual or creative expression.

Welcome to the new American age, where everything about knowledge is made up, and apparently, points of truth and facts no longer matter. While Merriam-Webster considers its top result of 2016, The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year. As NPR reports, “The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election…feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that’s what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

Perhaps this struggle we now face started long before Election Day; now, it seems more urgent than ever. From a fake news epidemic of so virulent a strain that that Pope Frances felt compelled to condemn the “sin” of perpetuating misleading information, to a linguistics battle over how to address the Ku Klux Klan-backed “Alt-Right” White Supremacy movement, words, ideas, and the ideological weight they hold have become weapons and flashpoints.

Caption: “Hey! A Message to Media Normalizing the Alt-Right”

Source: Late Night with Seth Myers, 7 December 2016

Speaking truth to power has never been an easy task, and the struggle against the normalization of silencing dissent is, and will remain difficult. While we elegize and self-reflect, we also turn to writers such as Zadie Smith to remind us that “history is not erased by change…progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”[3] Likewise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the dangers of complacency and neutrality – and goes a step further to remind us of the boundaries of empathy:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”[4]

Words can obfuscate, enlighten, and entrap – and these complexities are elements we anticipate and enjoy when working with literary texts and critical theories. Although the questions surrounding a liberal or humanities-affiliated education may still haunt us, nowhere else can one find a space more prepared for the deconstruction of flashy rhetoric and the unpacking of ideology. Beyond the humanities, critical engagement with disparate voices, texts, and the ideas they represent pertain to disciplines all across the board, and intellectual endeavors of all stripes. We have many more lessons to teach, and much left to learn. This is our task, and may we rise to meet it.

[1] “Learning from Britain’s Unnecessary Crisis.” E.J. Dionne Jr. The Washington Post. 26 June 2016.

[2] Most recently, the union president representing workers at the Indianapolis branch of Carrier Corp. criticized the business deal the President-elect enacted late last month. Chuck Jones, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, challenged Trump to authenticate his claims, and soon afterwards began receiving anonymous death threats.

[3] “On Optimism and Despair.” Zadie Smith. The New York Review of Books. 22 December 2016 Issue.

[4] “Now is the Time to Talk About what we are Actually Talking About.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The New Yorker. 2 December 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our class’s unit on “Thrills, Sensations, and the Ethics of Nonfiction,” I assigned my students the University of Chicago’s Welcome Letter to the Class of 2020 alongside Sara Ahmed’s thought-provoking “Against Students” (June 2015). The former, a document separately decried or praised as patronizing and oppressive or timely and appropriate, comes from a private University that prides itself as “one of the world’s leading and most influential institutions of higher learning,”[1] and has a notorious reputation among academics for fostering an ultra-competitive – and potentially hazardous – environment for its students.

Following a word of congratulations, the letter states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

A number of think pieces had their say, and the talking heads gave comment. In response, educators and administrators from various institutions defended their policy of creating safe spaces and giving trigger warnings; using the same terminology, they all argued for the same purpose: academic freedom and “moral responsibility.” Proponents of the University of Chicago’s pedagogical stance lauded this strike against so-called “political correctness,” insisting that incoming students should stop expecting a protective safety net to cushion controversial speech and difficult issues. Safe spaces, it was implied, or outright declared, are a cocoon of muffled sensitivities freshmen ought to have outgrown by their first semester of college.

Ahmed’s piece, while predating the University of Chicago’s letter by almost a year, exposes similar “sweeping” generalizations made in critiques of higher education, while laying bare the ideological contradictions the letter claims to espouse. Students who are often blamed as oversensitive, coddled, and otherwise too entitled to address “difficult issues” bear the brunt of critique in the wider battle of, and backlash against the dreaded brand of PC-neoliberalism. In actuality, those who oppose trigger warnings often do so at the expense of marginalized groups and students as a whole, and not in service of a wider range of critical discussion.

“The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive…

This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.”

Rhetorically, those who use this toxic, masculinist mantra to “man up and quit being so offended” imagine its directed audience as a bunch of whiny, thin-skinned spoiled brats. It has become a “no guts, no restriction of hateful speech, no glory” approach modified for instructional spaces. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another attack upon we Millennials of the generation of participation trophies; we special snowflakes-turned-Social Justice Warriors; we who dare protest for a minimum wage of $15/hour, refuse to consider any human being “illegal,” and demand equal rights under the law for an ever-expanding catalogue of identities, intersectionalities, and sexualities.

PC.png

The thing about we who make it our job to deal in words is that we know what they say about us. Sometimes, we respond with sarcasm and memes.

Apparently, to many, intellectual boldness – or the tricky concept of free speech in general – is incompatible with thoughtfulness, compassion, or the necessity of imagining and reflecting upon the consequences of such speech. But at its core, intellectual efforts rest upon a foundation of empathetic engagement, curiosity, and responsible efforts to give voice to those who have previously been silenced.

For the most part, we who teach are expected to keep personal politics out of the classroom. Each student ought to have their say, and must not fear their grade may suffer due to a difference of religious, political, or personal ideological belief. The classroom is a place for critical engagement and analytical inquiry, but it should not act as a place of conversion, or the base of any particular soapbox.

On the other hand, we introduce students to the concept of ideology, and invite them to critically question previously held beliefs; we encourage students to critique ideas, and not the individual espousing them. Disagreement should not deter discussion, so long as speech remains respectful and productive. We are all here to learn, is the unspoken catchphrase of the liberal arts education, and we learn best when we question what it is we think we know.

I presented the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to my class without trepidation – not because I expected every student to agree with the material, or to contest it straight away; rather, their job was to consider the rhetorical strategies being employed, and foster an interpretive reading based upon textual evidence. Thus far, we had studied texts through the framework of social critique and purposeful writing, interrogating the usefulness of nonfiction texts that have outlived their writers. We questioned the boundaries of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and spent a good portion of the semester discussing the importance of readers’ ethical responses to texts presenting themselves as unproblematic, factual, and objective. They held productive class discussions on tone-policing, white privilege, and the conflation of violence with sensational journalism and the commodification of wartime horror. These students, most of them incoming freshmen, rose quickly to the challenge of tackling these subjects, with vigor and great respect for the material, and one another.

The students of this generation “aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt,” Yale professor Steven Berry writes, in admiration of the resiliency of students who were still able to attend class and complete an exam the morning of November 9th. The same resiliency we admire in our students becomes so much more difficult to embody when we, students and scholars and educators alike, consider how much more dangerous our world has suddenly become.

Ten days after the U.S. election, eight hundred sixty-seven hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these occurring in K-12 schools. Since then, an organization named Turning Point USA, which purports to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” has created a Professor Watchlist, with profiles of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” – the majority of those listed professors being women and persons of color.

post-election-hate

“Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

Without giving into paranoia, the project of providing safe spaces appears more daunting than ever. Despite this, while the classroom may not be a pulpit or a soapbox, it nevertheless remains a platform for instruction. Our determination to forge ahead despite fear and anger represents both the privilege and the burden of educating with empathy, and an ethical responsibility we owe to ourselves, and those we aim to instruct.

[1] This quote comes from the University of Chicago’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago); the university’s homepage and admissions proudly greets visitors as “a private, nondenominational, culturally rich and ethnically diverse coeducational research university…committed to educating extraordinary people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial ability.” (http://www.uchicago.edu/)


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history serves and in whose interests it is often purveyed. For example, who has the privilege of having a history in the first place? On the flip side, who has the privilege of forgetting (or at least selectively choosing) moments of historical importance?

This has become a particularly pressing question in light of the recent attention being paid to the long history of police violence and brutality against people of color, as well as the deeper, far more insidious racist histories of which said violence is but the most recent manifestation. The protests of Colin Kaepernick and others expose these histories, forcing all Americans to take a piercing look at the ways in which racism and the exploitation of bodies of color has structured and undergirded the entire expanse of American history.

Those who strenuously condemn Kaepernick continue to insist that those who are protesting lack an awareness or a proper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who have served. Embedded within this criticism is an assumption that somehow those who kneel for the National Anthem are either ignorant or dismissive of a history that should make them proud and willing to uncritically accept American society as it is, rather than dare to raise the specter of criticism.

Naturally, those who make those claims conveniently overlook and ignore the deep roots that make systemic racism and exploitation possible  Just as importantly, these also critiques also overlook the fact that, as Jason Johnson has observed, the song in question (unsurprisingly) contains racist lyrics (that are, it has to be said, frequently not sung during performances). History, in this instance, troubles the very stability that it purportedly supports.

All of which leads me to ask again:  who has the privilege of ignoring history? Who has the ability to pretend that somehow the unpleasant realities of the past several hundred years have not taken place? Who benefits from the ability to pretend that the past is safely buried and has no bearing on the present and the structures that currently impact the daily lives of people everywhere? Who gets to pretend, who is able to pretend, that we somehow live in a perpetual present?

The easy answer, of course, is those who benefit the most from forgetting about the past so that they can go on about their everyday lives as if they do not and have never participated in the racist legacies that remain baked into the collective social, cultural, legal, and political DNA of the United States of America. For them, this colossal act of forgetting is in some sense necessary in order for them to continue going on about their daily lives. Confronting these realities in any meaningful way would, in most cases, simply be too painful, too complex (or so the argument goes) to be adequately addressed.

It is much harder for those who continue to live with the legacies of slavery and genocide that have so profoundly influenced America’s sense of itself to ignore those histories or to pretend that they don’t exist. America’s institutions, its structures, its ways of being are so reliant upon and indebted to a racist and colonialist past that it is hard to imagine an America without them. It is this vast, almost incomprehensible scope and depth that, I suspect, lead to inability of many to even begin to acknowledge, let alone accept, their complicity and their benefit from these histories.

Thus, when I ask my friends and family back home in Appalachia (West Virginia, in particular), about how they think about race and the fact that so many people of color remain systematically cut out of the benefits that American life seemingly offers all of its citizens, they really struggle to understand how the actions and structures of the past continue to exert a smothering pressure on the present. For them, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to think outside of the twinned epistemologies of presentism and individualism that structure their way of understanding and being in the world. For them, they cannot understand how it is that their present position near the bottom of the economic latter constitutes a privilege, nor can they see beyond the fact that their ancestors did not own slaves.

If, as I have repeatedly asserted throughout this month, we are truly invested in making the world a better, more just place for all of its citizens, we must continue to press against and challenge this kind of inherently privileged thinking. We have to recognize and come to terms with the conflicted and painful histories of which we are a part. Continuing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of history and pretending that it hasn’t happened is itself a form of violence, a violence all the more pernicious in that it masks itself as innocence rather than complicity.

As Vann R. Newkirk II remarks in The Atlantic, the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC offers a rare opportunity for America as a whole to meaningfully contend with the painful legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the other aspects of American history that have proven so intractable in our attempts to make sense of contemporary race relations. While I agree that there is something deeply and powerfully symbolic about erecting a museum devoted to African American history in a city founded upon and built by slave labor, I also think that it will take a great deal more on the part of each and every American citizen to make progress.

It will require frank and uncomfortable conversations within and among our various communities, both in person and in digital spaces. It will require frank and unambiguous acknowledgment and acceptance of the darker parts of history. Going to a museum devoted to the experiences of people of color is definitely an important first step, but it must be followed by an actual change in the way(s) that we collectively think about our past. It will require actual changes in our everyday lived experience and ways of being in the world, actual changes in what we think and how we do it.

I see these posts as one part of the larger cultural conversation. Hopefully, they will resonate with those who, like myself, desire to make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for everyone.

Don’t Eat The Flatware: Balancing Instruction and Interpretation in the Classroom (5 February 2016)

For this month’s posts, I will focus on how engagement with social media, popular culture, film, and video games can inform the work we do in humanities classrooms. This week, I look at how criticism of humanities instruction on Reddit might help us understand why the practice of interpretation leaves some students with a negative impression of this field.

To do this, I want to examine one particular Reddit thread about the Oscars that quickly segued into a discussion about students’ expectations of interpretative arguments and pedagogical assessment in humanities classrooms. Initially, this forum comments on a controversy among Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Janet Hubert, Smith’s co-star on the ‘90s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This disagreement concerns celebrity reactions to the despairing lack of nominations of people of color for marquee positions at the last two Academy awards, which in turn has engendered the resurfacing of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as an attempt to return public awareness to Hollywood’s historical marginalization of people of color. In their own call to action, Pinkett Smith, Smith, and Lee have advocated boycotting the award ceremony. However, this decision, in turn, has been met with resistance by actors of color such as Hubert, who claimed that Smith’s boycott was a temper-tantrum over not being nominated for 2015’s Concussion rather than an expression of race solidarity (for more on this debate click here).

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith and Aunt Viv (Hubert) in Fresh Prince (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

 

This celebrity pseudo-family feud has promoted discussion of the institutionalized racism that persists in US culture, but I am particularly interested here in how one Reddit discussion connects the #OscarsSoWhite debate with the institution of the university, a dialogue that I think can offer those of us instructing in humanities classrooms a unique window into students’ experience.

Commenting on Hubert’s response to the Academy Awards boycott, Reddit user “hashbrown” associated her reaction with their own experience of receiving a disappointing grade on an interpretive community college essay assignment.

Hashbrown writes:

“I have a story that relates.

Last year I had an English class at the biggest community college in California. My African American teacher made the topic of the entire class revolve around black literature. One of the videos we watched talked about how African Americans need to start “helping” and empowering each other out [sic] by only watching black television, shopping at black stores, and volunteering in black communities.

I wrote my paper on how self segregation was a form of racism itself. Why should black people not shop at stores because of color of the owners skin? Why should people not watch white or asian actors?

In the end my teacher ended up giving me a C and wrote that I wasn’t understanding the material.

A year later and I’m still bitter about that class.”

Hashbrown articulates a common misconception about the value placed on interpretive analysis in the humanities—the notion that any ideological position on a text, regardless of its merit, is valid if properly argued. Missing from this perception is an important aspect of the interpretive process, in which students must take into account the contexts that inform their claims. In this case, hashbrown’s assertion that African American engagement in community activism equates to “self segregation” fails to account for the history of structural racism in Hollywood cinema, and the result of this lack of context was a C grade–hardly a failing score and a nearly universally accepted marker of “average” work in undergraduate study, indicating a need for improvement. Despite hashbrown’s possible “bitterness” over the grade itself, it seems to me that their frustration also might indicate a miscommunication in the instructor’s expectations.

While one could easily dismiss these kinds of complaints as quests for minor revenge by disengaged students turned internet trolls, the sheer number of responses that echo hashbrown’s frustrations suggest there may be something more here. Coming to hashbrown’s defense, other Reddit users noted how experiencing an instructor’s criticism to their subjective interpretations of texts left them with a cynical outlook on the project of humanities instruction at large. Reddit user Rainator writes, “I learned in English that the way to get a good grade was to just parrot whatever nonsense the teacher said.” User OneFatGuy described a similar experience, commenting, “I had a professor that would only agree on arguments based on his ideas, and anything other than his ideas were wrong or weak arguments.” From the perspective of the frustrated student, these users articulate a fundamental miscommunication that can occur between students and teachers concerning the pedagogical interplay between instruction and interpretation.

I believe that effective pedagogy embraces a dialogue between instruction—the teacher’s role of providing proper historical and cultural contexts that inform effective humanities study—and interpretation—the practice of synthesizing information from texts and developing an understanding of its meaning. This allows students to form interpretations that are unique, creative, and grounded in an enriched understanding of the text rather than construed from initial, unexamined reactions or previously fortified ideologies. However, when the prioritization of one element leads to the neglect of the other, the result can be the regrettable alienation of the student and/or the demonization of the instructor.

For Hashbrown and many other students with similar experiences, pedagogical focus on subjective argumentation is understood as a license to assert any of all possible readings of a text, even those that do not account for the specificity of material histories and social contexts. To be fair, the focus on rhetoric in many humanities classrooms makes this an easy misperception, even for advanced students. It is especially common in lower-level composition and survey courses, where the responsibility for providing such contextualization usually falls solely on the instructor. This problem is magnified in English and Literature Studies, where students are encouraged to form nuanced interpretations of texts that deal in complex and even contradictory aspects of culture and society, such as racism. However, focusing too much on contextualization over interpretation can be a problem as well. As Rainator’s response points out, when teachers over-prioritize instruction, students can feel that they have no agency in the discussion and simply parrot back information rather than engage in a critical practice.

This experience can be as frustrating for instructors as it is for students. One instructor in particular voiced on this thread their frustration at students’ mishandling of the “tools” provided by instruction claiming, ”It’s like I prepared you dinner and you ate the cutlery.” Engaging critically with such issues often involves confronting unsettling aspects of culture, society, and even our own experiences—a prospect that can be difficult for students and instructors alike. However, by providing historical and cultural context for the texts students read, and setting clear expectations about how student interpretation will engage with this context, instructors can prevent turning students off to the valuable practice of critical analysis and perhaps even help our students to have their cake and eat it, too!

Next week I will continue to think about how engagement with the public can inform humanities research and instruction, so grab your knives and forks and let’s eat!


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.