A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What Scares Me

Years ago, when I was still a Ph.D. student, I was teaching a first year writing course. I'd assigned students to write a "position paper," in which students were to take a position on a contemporary issue and argue for that position. Most papers made familiar arguments on topics that 18 year olds are invested in--violent video games don't make people more violent, schools should eliminate standardized tests, etc. But one student's paper--conveniently, the bottom paper of the stack, which I read late into a long evening of grading before returning the papers the following morning--was an argument that opposed covering birth control under the Affordable Care Act. This was during the height of debate over the ACA, and unbeknownst to me before reading this paper, this particular student was a deeply conservative Catholic. His paper was an utter mess--though initially framed as an argument about the need for religious exemptions to birth control coverage, the paper quickly descended into a unfocused rant about the evils of contraception, highly confrontational and lacking any coherent organization. Trying to control my own offense at the paper's tone, I gave the paper a low C (which felt generous), and provided a brief, carefully worded end note about the paper's tonal and organizational issues. A few days later, the student came to my office hours to discuss his grade, though it was unclear whether his intent was to get a better grade, or further litigate his argument. Repeatedly, I would attempt to turn the conversation to the rhetorical and analytical content of the essay, only to get pulled into an argument about contraception itself. I could feel that I was being cast in the role of the stereotypical liberal university teacher; the conversation was an exercise in trolling more than a discussion of academic writing. But the sad thing is, I genuinely sensed that the student didn't realize there was a difference; to this 18-year-old, argument was argument.

I eventually let the student rewrite the paper on a different topic and raised his grade slightly, an outcome motivated by exhaustion rather than a sense of fairness--he had successfully worn me down, and as a grad student it wasn't worth it for me to fight for him to keep his C. This would not be the last time that I would feel like I've failed as an educator to adequately confront a student's ideological entrenchment--the student who, when asked to bring an example reading to class, picked a 10-year-old climate change denying editorial from a right wing magazine; the student who wrote a paper critical of Western medicine whose only sources were anti-vaxxer websites; the student who, in a discussion of violence at Trump rallies, insisted, "to be fair, there's been violence on both sides"--these examples all stick with me for the way they've left me feeling blindsided.

I don't believe teaching can or should be an ideologically neutral act. However, nothing in my training as a teacher of writing and literature has prepared me to handle overt ideological conflict. I've acquired some basic skills on my own, but for the most part, the material that I cover as a humanities teacher presupposes a certain amount of common ground, and I no longer believe we can or should assume that such common ground exists.

Here's what scares me: I know that a year from now, or two years from now, there will be college students citing Milo Yiannopoulos's new book as if it is an academic text, citing statements from the new president as if they are authoritative truths, and many of the people on the front lines in confronting those ideas--the teaching assistants and writing instructors--will be ill equipped to handle it, just as I was and largely still am. We train instructors on how teach evaluating sources, we train instructors on how to teach rhetoric, but we don't train instructors on how to teach ideology. At least not directly--certainly, by training instructors on how to teach sources and rhetoric, we are indirectly training on the teaching of ideology, but I don't believe we can afford to be so indirect in the future. Teachers need the equipment to confront racism, misogyny, homophobia, and science denialism when and where it shows up in their classrooms--to confront it with the compassion, empathy, and respect befitting an educator, but to confront it nonetheless. I have decent improvisational skills, but I need more concrete strategies--we all do.

Of course, resources providing these strategies already exist, but they're more important than ever before. Here are a few questions I've been mulling over, pertaining to specific teaching scenarios that I've encountered in the past that I suspect will become more common in the future:

  • How do you grade and comment on a paper when the fundamental problem with its argument isn't the rhetoric or the sources or anything you covered in class, so much as it is the first premises from which the paper is arguing, e.g., an unexamined assumption about biological race?
  • How do you diffuse an encounter with a confrontational student in office hours?
  • Is there such a thing as a student who is a "lost cause"? That is, how do we identify and deal with students along a spectrum of ideological entrenchment, from those who simply have never examined their problematic beliefs before, to those so steadfast in their bigotry that there is little to nothing productive we can do with them in the course of a semester?
  • What role do facts play in an ideological discussion, and how should an instructor handle a situation where they don't have the relevant facts at hand? If one student peddles false or misleading information in a classroom discussion, but the instructor doesn't have the resources to fact check in the moment, how can the instructor effectively debunk the misinformation while maintaining authority?
  • How do you manage sensitive discussions in an ideologically diverse classroom? That is, in a hypothetical classroom comprised of 2 or 3 students from vulnerable populations (e.g. queer or POC students), 5 or 6 students who consider themselves allies, a dozen or so indifferent or politically disengaged students, 5 or 6 international students without the same background in American political discourse, and 1 or 2 right wing students who might be inclined to be more confrontational, how does an instructor manage conversation so as to provide an education to everyone at once (this is, in my anecdotal experience, a fairly common demographic breakdown of a ~25 person class at Michigan)?

Obviously, no two scenarios will ever be the same, so none of these questions have easy or universally applicable answers, which makes ongoing teacher training that much more important. I honestly don't even know if I'll still be teaching in a year or two, but I'll still be in academia in some capacity or another, and whatever I end up doing, I hope I'll have a network of colleagues with whom to explore these questions. We'll need each other as resources now more than ever.

We also need institutional backing, since those on the front lines are also those with the greatest professional vulnerability: graduate students and non-tenure track faculty. We shouldn't have to risk our jobs confronting ignorance and bigotry, but if we don't confront the ignorance and bigotry, I don't believe it's a job worth having in the first place.