often, when we teach, we take risks. we do this with the hope that something beautiful will happen-the dawning of understanding, conceptual clarity, anything meaningful. these risks cultivate growth-either in the students who make meaning or in the instructor who learned that ‘this is not the way.’ to further complicate matters, the student-teacher cocktail is wildly different every semester. risks-proven-worth-taking in october might crash and burn in february. this is the nature of the beast.
today, i had no choice but to take a risk.
because this happened. on our campus. on tuesday of this week.
i have been heartsick thinking about my students who may have strolled past this defacement [i use defacement because, in this moment, i am unable to find language powerful enough to match the brand of hate splayed across this wall]. i have been unable to think about much else. i have been proud of the student response. i have found the administrative response lacking. i am horrified at the idea that any student might make it through the day without finding space in a classroom to speak on this, to be heard.
i teach writing. these words were written.
and so we spent time talking. and listening.
[there is a nervousness in opening up these discussions. although i have no reason to believe this to be the case, for all i know the perpetrator could have been sitting in my classroom that day.]
the first student to speak was quick to dismiss the message as part of a political agenda. in some ways, i was grateful to have the opportunity to remind the class that, although we were going to engage in a rhetorical analysis of campus events, we would not trivialize the message as anything less than what it contained-a clear articulation of hate, and a call for the removal of black bodies from campus. i pointed out the role that white privilege plays in such circumstances. it allows some of us to sit back and talk about this like it is just a ‘thing.’ meanwhile others of us are busy fielding phone calls from loved ones with safety concerns, glancing over shoulders while walking across campus, looking at classmates with wonderings of ‘are you the one that hates me without even knowing me?’, and perhaps even being pulled back home out of fear.
this seemed to resonate. set a tone.
what followed was an empathic and intellectual discourse surrounding the grafitti-event. some spoke. some asked questions. some listened. all were edge-of-the-seat present.
we compared rhetorical maneuvering on the part of the vandal, the department of africology [who was, incidentally, blanketing our campus with BLM posters in response to the shooting in tulsa that also took place that morning], and the university president [who first sent a problematic email via the campus communications figurehead before finally facing students after they had filled the lawn of his residence, demanding answers]. but more importantly, students were heard.
this may have been my best teaching day. not because of some brilliant lesson plan or anything i did, really. but because my students were invested in the conversation as participants and change-makers. they led a brilliant and compassionate analysis of campus culture in that moment.
while i am devastated by the impetus for this conversation, my students restore my hope.
and remind me of the value in giving up the floor to assume the position of listener/learner.
[the following are a few samples from the students’ ‘public writing’ activity in response to the event [[shared with permission]]. i am lucky to spend time with these folks every week.]