Teaching in the Aftermath

Stephanie Frank, Columbia College Chicago

Editor’s note: Stephanie and David Albertson (University of Southern California) have begun a facebook group for discussion about and resource-pooling for humanities teaching in the wake of the election. Please message Stephanie if you would like to be added to the group.

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When the election results began coming in, Tuesday evening, my thoughts went immediately to my bright, curious students, who had just voted in their first national election. Even then, before we knew the statistics about demographics and voting patterns, I had the sense of owing them an apology, as though the premise of liberal-arts education had been exposed as a lie, as though liberal-arts education itself was part of the counterfeiting of society, which (as Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert wrote more than a century ago) “always pays itself in the false coin of its own dream.”

Some colleagues were cancelling classes, and I understood the impulse—I was dubious that my students would be prepared for class. In fact, having a sense of the political temperature among my students from asides over the course of the semester, I was skeptical many would show up for class. More to the point, if I felt uncomfortable about standing up in front of my classroom in general, it seemed absolutely absurd to stand up in front of my classroom and carry on as planned—talking about practices of self-formation in Buddhism and early modern Christian monasticism.

At the same time, to cancel class seemed like giving up, like abandoning education just at the very moment that its necessity had just been underscored. So I wrote to my students, urging them to come, telling them that we could use class time to talk about whatever seemed relevant to them. I bought all the donuts at my local bakery and picked up a box of tissues.

I was not confident, travelling into the office loaded down with pastry, that I was doing the right thing. I generally maintain my classroom as a neutral forum—a space for students to learn how to advocate for their views more effectively. I don’t know how many times I have announced, in class, “I do not care what your politics are–you can have any opinion you want, as long as you are prepared to support it with an argument.” But clearly by abandoning my syllabus I was sending to my students a signal that I thought we were in the space of crisis. I was, after a fashion, taking sides. And I knew that this effect would be underscored by the fact that most of my students had views broadly similar to my own. One of my gravest fears about the result of the election was that our country would become a place where dissent was stifled; was I knowingly allowing my classroom to become such a space?

Further, I have always—and this comes as much from the University of Chicago as from anywhere—recoiled from the model of the classroom as a space for self-expression. The academy, for me, has been about critical discourse. I have refocused conversations when they have veered off into the personal; I have pushed students volunteering their experiences, in discussion, to analyze them. I have often defended the humanities against the charge of ‘softness’ as teaching skills of argument-making.

In my teaching statement, I name those skills as reading, writing, and speaking.

Critically, I forgot listening.

And it occurred to me that a failure of listening was at least a major part of why things had happened as they had, on Tuesday.

So I decided, on Wednesday morning, that listening would be the theme for the day. On the one hand—though I do not kid myself that my students did not discern my political sentiments—this was a strategy that would allow me to lead a discussion that would necessarily be political without politicking myself. (When a Trump supporter spoke up, I took it to mean that I was successful in cultivating an open discussion, even if the classroom environment could not be described as ‘neutral.’) But more importantly, it would be beneficial for my students: the students who were hurt needed to be heard, and the students who were oblivious to those pains frankly needed to hear them.

I had prepared some notes to connect the things that I thought would come up in discussion to conversations we had already had, over the course of the class—for instance, the matter of the mobilizing power of the demonization of others, or the question of whether complicity in oppressive systems constituted a kind of violence. But I said very little, ultimately. I offered my students donuts and reminded them of the rules of our classroom. I asked them how they felt about what had happened. And then I listened.

My students were, as usual, candid and smart. A couple of students spoke about their immigrant parents and undocumented immigrants in the communities they lived in. One student spoke movingly about her severely disabled brother; her presence in that classroom was made possible by Obamacare. Many students spoke about their concern for queer friends and loved ones. One student spoke frankly about her rape.

All of these students spoke, in some way, about their sense of vulnerability, in the wake of the election results. Then a young black man gently pointed out that this sense of vulnerability had been his daily reality for years, and that that would not probably have changed if the election had gone the other way.

The tissue box made the rounds.

I cried with my students.

I do not regret that.

In one sense I did little ‘teaching’ on Wednesday. Mostly, I made sure everyone who wanted to talk had a chance to say their piece. When I intervened, it was to try to connect students’ comments to each other—to show them that apparently disparate experiences might not be so disparate after all. Most of the teaching was done by my students, sharing their experiences. And I am confident that this was a kind of teaching—that my students learned in the sense that their moral horizons shifted, in the process of listening.

I suspect that surrendering the notion of education as ethical formation, over the last generation, has contributed to our current political predicament. So I think, now, that I was wrong to be so skittish about the sharing of feelings in the classroom. I thought of it as a kind of ersatz therapy, a form of adolescent self-involvement to be guarded against, but I see now that the pedagogical value is not for the speaker but the listener: truly attending to the experiences of someone else—particularly someone whose experiences one might not otherwise encounter—is powerfully transformative.

I am unsure if humanities teaching changed last week, or if it was revealed to have been all along something different than what we have been doing. And I am unsure what all of the contours of the new project are. But I am sure that the pedagogy of listening is one of the things we must cultivate in the days ahead.

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