Sunday, December 14, 2014


It's been tense on campus since the Eric Garner verdict.

A panel discussion on socioeconomic diversity, scheduled long before the grand juries convened and sponsored by a group that bills itself as promoting constitutional history, ended in a heated debate about affirmative action and racial diversity at the university, and with a gaffe that left the many in the audience furious.

Two protests were organized: the first, along our equivalent of "fraternity row" just before Thanksgiving, on a night referred to as "Dranksgiving" when most students were out getting plastered before the holiday weekend, drew a small crowd of mainly students of color; the second, a die-in two days after the Eric Garner verdict (though it was initially organized to respond to the Michael Brown verdict), drew a much larger and more diverse crowd, but also made more evident--in the days that followed--the dissent among the organizers about the purpose and direction of their activism.

There was a public statement from the president, sent to university email addresses via one of his administrative staff members, decrying "unfairness that persists" despite our nation's "aspirations"; stating that the university "has a responsibility to bring its scholarship and teaching to bear on these urgent problems"; and charging the university Council to "develop recommendations."

Finally, days after the protest, an email came from the provost, outlining a task force with three working groups that the university will form to "make recommendations to the President about how to strengthen ... diversity, equity, and inclusivity as well as provide opportunities to discuss national events."

In the midst of all of this, I saw a few students who trusted me enough to talk to be about how they were feeling, tried to offer comfort, offered academic accommodations for those who were grief-stricken, who were not in a position to do academic work.  They felt like no one had heard them.  They wondered by the president hadn't said something more comforting in a personal email message.  They felt like business was going on as usual around them while they were protesting: classes were still meeting, and they still had hours of homework to do.  Two parallel universes.

"What do you think they want?" asked one of my colleagues.

"I think they want to be supported," I responded.

"But what does that mean?" he countered.

We talked about the ineffectiveness of being critical of administration (because that's what students are supposed to do, and yet, it's not exactly productive on its own).  We talked about whether the students want to change the campus or change the world, about whether they ought to take the same kind of responsibility that students took during the Civil Rights era, whether they ought to worry about their grades if what they really wanted was to make change, that back then the students weren't "supported," so why should we do things any differently for them now?

I came away from the conversation feeling a little "schooled," but also feeling like I hadn't finished thinking about it.  And as I ran this morning, sucking wind and stopping to walk every mile and a half or so, this is what I thought.

First, the university is a different place than it was in 1960.  I would be curious to explore the origin and evolution of the phrase "university community," but I suspect that if it was used in the 1960s, it meant something different. I could be completely wrong, but I feel like there's an imagined warmth in that phrase now that I don't think existed before the 1980s.  Sure, dorms have been around since the first universities were founded, but the university-as-home was a foreign concept to my parents.  Now, there are people whose job function it is to make everyone play nicely in the sandbox together.  To architect relationships.  And if we're going to establish expectations among students and parents that the university serves in loco parentis, then how can we turn around and suddenly say those expectations don't apply here? 

The question--"what do they want"--is itself problematic.  Because it suggests that there's an "us" and a "them."  So who is the "them"?  The non-white students?  Why aren't we asking what we want as a community, if that's really what we are?  I thought about the little girl sitting in the pew in front of me in church this week, the adopted daughter of two white parents, and thought: would I be telling her that this is her problem, not mine?  Why isn't it a problem we all have to face together?  Why does a memo sound like we treating this as an academic problem, or as an administrative problem to be "advised" by committee?  Yes, shifts in campus climate often require new infrastructure.  But infrastructure alone isn't going to change the way we relate to one another.  That's a much different sort of educational problem.

Teaching, really good teaching, is an act of love.  (With apologies to my readers in academe, who may decide you're never going to read this blog again:) Not just love of the content.  But love in the way Freire meant it: profound shared commitment to our humanity.  Freire urged critical educators to build communities of solidarity as a form of networking.  Not to leave the work to their students.  Yes, we're there to listen.  But I don't think we can stand on the sidelines, either.  We're all in.

The thing is, the situation right now is not like the Civil Rights movement.  Or the Vietnam War.  Our students were protesting police brutality (and they've since organized panels to discuss that, too), but they were also protesting something much more amorphous.  Not a policy, but a lack of civility.  The Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice verdicts are metonyms for their own struggle to be seen for who they are as full human beings, for the inability of others both to see the color of their skin and to look beyond it.  Any one of them, at the wrong place and at the wrong time, is just as vulnerable.  Honestly?  In my mostly-blue-collar-white-and-Latino-laborer town, when you see someone who doesn't fit that description walking around, you wonder where they're going.  Why is that still the case?  The students on the ground at our university die-in could actually be dead in some cities, a case of mistaken identity.  These are our students.  Brilliant, talented, highly motivated young people.  And how do we reconcile that reality with the kum-ba-ya admissions-brochure portrait of "diversity" that is the prevalent narrative?  Do we expect our students to leave that heartbreaking truth behind when they step foot on campus?  To pretend it doesn't exist? Because police brutality is only possible in a state where it's supported by someone.  By educated voters who believe that violence and force is more necessary in some communities than in others.

Why, I wonder, did the university take no action after a (white) freshmen wrote an incendiary piece last year about being asked to "check his privilege"?  What would the response have been if a black student had written the piece?  Did the fact that it was a white student change it?  Why weren't we having real conversations about white privilege back then?  Why did the dialogue unfold in the media (social and otherwise) but not on campus?  And why did we let it drift away?

We applaud our students for standing up, and we charge them to work for something better, but students find it very difficult to walk away from their academic responsibilities, even to protest.  And they can't participate in the broader conversation about justice on campus if they're not keeping up with their work, enabling them to stay here.  It's a catch-22.

Our students are headed home for winter break this week, to the communities--as my boss reminded us--where this is all being dealt with in different ways.  It will be interesting to see what happens when they reconvene, what they bring with them, what energy will have been deflated or defused.  Some of them will have participated in the marches in Washington or New York.  I hope that the conversation doesn't end here.  I hope that (as I mentioned in my response to Ferguson) the humanities step in once they're back on campus.  That we start watching movies and reading books together, trying to understand each other better, talking (not just listening, though that, too) about the things we find it difficult to name, and figuring out we're all going to do to make this world a more just place to live.
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  1. I've been having similar conversations with colleagues at my institution. On the one hand, there are those that simply what to look at the facts and dissect that has been happening based on this data alone. But others are fast to point out that perspective of a situation is very dependent on life-experience and upbringing.

    The thing I struggle with is how to begin the conversation. Mainly because it isn't me or others like me that people should be listening to and the concern is that by starting these conversations we'll block out those who should be speaking.

    I'm interesting in hearing what your community decides to do.

  2. I once interviewed a Lebanese student on campus at a school where I recruit. In a transcript of straight A's, there was one F. I naturally enquired about it. It turns out he left campus for that semester so he could join the protests going on in Lebanon. He did his work remotely, and got straight A's. The one F was from a class which required him to be physically present for the final exam, which he missed.

    He found the time to do both -- protest and succeed academically, even from thousands of miles away. It can be done.



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