Affective Disruptions: The ‘Bandwagon Effect,’ “Getting It,” and The Limits of ‘White Privilege’

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and Black Lives Matters activists’ disruption of political candidates (Bernie Sanders, for instance), more and more people are discussing the role of recognizing white privilege and the lack of empathy on the part of white individuals due, in part, to unconscious or implicit biases held by a majority population that has not experienced racism first hand. This lack of experience with racism has led many whites to not evoke empathy and/or outrage towards implicit and explicit acts of racism.

But, even more pernicious I think, is the ‘bandwagon effect,’ especially by those that only recognize racial injustices when they are captured by the media and brought to the public’s attention. I would consider Bernie Sanders’ addition of racial injustice in his platform, Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Black Lives Matter, James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and yes, even white allies after Charleston as all symptoms of the ‘bandwagon effect.’ These are all efforts that I would deem to be ‘on the right side of history,’ but are largely reactionary to the current times. Rather than be proactive in advocating for radical change and racial justice, these efforts by many white allies are unfortunately reactionary and, as Kim Zolciak would put it, “tardy for the party”.   

The ‘bandwagon effect’ is, in fact, a psychological term that originated in American politics. According to Wikipedia (my all-time favorite go-to source for spontaneous intellectualism), the ‘bandwagon effect’ originated in the mid-19th century and continued well into the 20th century. The original use of the term connoted political supporters who jumped on the proverbial bandwagon of surging party candidates without really knowing why they were in favor of said party candidate. My use of the term, however, slightly differs in that the ‘bandwagon effect’ for me at least connotes a reactionary response to present events. This reaction is an affective response that is both emotional and cognitive. The ‘bandwagon effect’ seems to be most effective in times of crisis and chaos, especially in the contemporary moment where racialized flashpoints permeate our everyday lives. Thus, the emotional state of current white allies largely surfaces during these racialized flashpoints; the cognitive impact of these events are, however, delayed and reactionary. Simply put, the affective component of the ‘bandwagon effect’ is important to consider for theorizing the ways in which emotion and delayed cognition are important dimensions for this discussion.  

These moments lead me to wonder what exactly are the limits of white privilege and the recognition of white allies that whiteness is both a political and historical construct that carries unearned privilege? Does the recognition of a white ally’s privilege in and of itself become a portal to understanding? In his article “Dear White Allies After Charleston,” D. Watkins writing for Salon.com explains that these types of discussions on white privilege and implicit/unconscious bias make whites especially “uneasy—probably because no one wants to feel like they have an unfair advantage over another person solely based on skin color.” He goes on to argue, “…if you are white in America, you have an unfair advantage solely based on skin color.” In order for whites to become allies of racial injustices, they must acknowledge their own privilege, “…understanding the gifts that privilege afford them in this country, and making their white friends aware. There are millions of white people African-Americans don’t have access to and we need white allies who get it to make those connections with whites who fail to comprehend” (emphases added).

The simple acknowledgment of one’s racial privilege cannot stop at the threshold of recognition. I would argue that this is one of the limits of white privilege—that simply recognizing one’s privilege does not, in and of itself, become a portal to ‘getting it’. By ‘getting it’ I mean the social, economic, political, and historical genealogies that have led to our current moment where racism exists on both implicit and explicit levels. This notion of “getting it” is not new; in fact, in her novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to this exact issue. Ifemelu, the novel’s protagonist, writes a blog post entitled, “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend.” Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 40:

 One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends not only get it, but also have great bullshit-detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and schools while black    people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they were white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be      accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” Nobody quite knows what this means.

When my father was in school in my NAB [non-American Black] country [Nigeria], many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called ‘reverse racism.’ Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind    of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set         free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the ‘slavery was so long ago’ thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it. (Americanh 2013, 360-61)

In this blog post, Adichie’s character Ifemelu illustrates both emotion and cognition as imperative components to ‘getting it.’ In order to ‘get it,’ one has to rethink racism in its entirety. To rethink racism means to rethink the institutionalization of an –ism that is dynamic and shifts and transforms over time. In his article “Rethinking Racism,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes this argument well when he asserts that racism needs to be reconsidered from the point of a view of a racialized social system. For him, racialized social systems combine political, economic, social, and ideological components that crystallize into structural racism. To think of racism as structural means to move away from individual accounts of racism and towards collective accounts of racism. This means understanding how U.S. history, culture, society, and economy are all shaped from the standpoint of white hegemony. White allies, in order to ‘get it,’ must understand the political economy of racism.

What Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and so many white allies fail to see is that policy changes do not necessarily lead to changes of the heart or mind. I would argue that changes at the level of society must occur before policy changes can even be effective in combating structural racism. “Trick down justice,” as Van Jones puts it, cannot come through policy changes alone. Only from a power from below (to note Foucault) can social justice be realized. Personally, I didn't need a moment or a movement to 'get it.’ But white liberals apparently do, in fact, need to have that moment or movement to understand the material effects of Racism 2.0. 

So, what does this mean for critical pedagogy and the classroom? To begin, the politics of affective disruptions can be easily translated to the ways in which counter-narratives in literature also project strategies of disruption. For instance, in Literature and Social Justice: Protest Novels, Cognitive Politics, and Schema Criticism, Mark Bracher argues that protest novels are effective for getting students to rethink their common assumptions about social injustices, such as racism. As a tool, protest novels disrupt the grand narrative of race and racism and intervene in the post-Civil Rights/post-racial moment. Protest novels counter this grand narrative; thus, as counter-narratives, protest novels illustrate tactics of disruption that “teach the conflicts” (Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars), conflicts that cause uncomfortable emotions. 

Protest novels and the politics of discomfort are not unlike the political strategies of Black Lives Matter. Granted, the strategies of protest by Black Lives Matter might not be appropriate politics of respectability; but their strategies of protest effectively disrupt white liberals through direct confrontation. The strategies implemented by BLM are necessary and, I would add, affective in that they do not play respectable politics. To my knowledge, respectable politics in the public sphere isn’t winning broad support. Perhaps this is what white liberals need in order to ‘get it’ and move beyond the assumption that the metropole (such as Seattle) is beyond racism. BLM countered Seattle’s tale of enlightened liberalism (the reaction of the crowd is case in point). To silence such protests that cause discomfort and "inconvenience" is to also implicitly support the historical policing of non-white bodies and the silencing of non-whites who dissent. Therefore, the power to dissent is largely invested in a white population that, regardless of the cause, seeks to police the speech and actions of those they do not agree. This discussion and discussion of such conflicts as protests (both novels and activism) might allow us to move beyond the limits of white privilege and simple recognition and acknowledgement of the problem of racism as a solution in and of itself. 

 

Sources:

  • Conor Friedersdorf, "A Conversation about Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders" (Aug 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/a-dialogue-about-black-lives-matter-and-bernie-sanders/401960/
  •  NPR’s OnPoint, “Race in America, From Watts to Ferguson and Beyond” https://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/08/10/american-race-ferguson-watts-michael-brown
  • Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah (2013)
  • MusingAndrea, “Everyone Should Have A Special White Friend? Musings on Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ Part 2” http://superselected.com/everyone-should-have-a-special-white-friend-musings-on-chimamanda-adichies-americanah-part-2-by-musingandrea/
  • Jamelle Bouie, “Black Lives Matter Protests Matter” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/08/black_lives_matter_and_bernie_sanders_why_the_protesters_are_so_hard_on.html
  •  Dan Mercia, “Black Lives Matter videos, Clinton campaign reveal details of meeting” http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/18/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-meeting/index.html
  •  D. Watkins, “Dear White Allies after Charleston” http://www.salon.com/2015/06/22/dear_white_allies_after_charleston_please_understand_this_about_your_privilege/
  • James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me https://twitter.com/JamesFrancoTV/status/632610571360292864
  • Wikipedia page for the “bandwagon effect”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwagon_effect
  • Van Jones, “Disrupting Bernie Sanders and the Democrats” (Aug. 2015): http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/12/opinions/van-jones-bernie-sanders-disrupted/
 Spotted in an apartment window on my way home in Seattle, WA (August 2015)

Spotted in an apartment window on my way home in Seattle, WA (August 2015)

First-Generation College Students, and How to Serve Them Better

With the dawn of the fall quarter/semester upon us, it’s important for us to remember the diverse populations we might teach and how to prepare them better for life at the university and beyond. In preparation for an early fall start class at UW (ENGL 108), we were tasked with thinking about our student population, which mostly consists of international students and some domestic students. We were asked to read one article (among a few others). In “The Struggle to Be First: First-Gen Students May Be Torn Between College and Home,” Alina Tugend explains the trials and tribulations that many first-generation college students face. In this article, Tugend interviews a handful of first-generation students at Berkeley and educational professionals who work with first-generation students. Simply put, first-generation college students face unique challenges that are not faced by second and subsequent generation college students.

One of the causes I enthusiastically champion is the plight of the first-generation college student. I’m incredibly passionate about teaching first-generation college students (both domestic and international) because of my own experiences in undergraduate and graduate school. Being a first-generation college student myself, I know first-hand what many of these students are going through in their first year of college and even throughout their entire college experience. I was born and raised in a small town in rural Mississippi with a population of 2500 and graduated with only 69 people in my senior class. I have several family members who do not even have high school diplomas, let alone college degrees. I am fortunate enough to have parents who valued education for my brother and I, and with their guidance, emotional, and financial support, I was able to attend a four-year institution and eventually pursue graduate school. Not everyone who is first-generation has this incredible amount of support, as two of my former students who were first-generation have already left the UW—one student for reasons he would not disclose and another student whose parents did not want to take financial responsibility for her.

My understanding of the cultural divide that exists between insiders and outsiders in academia has had a profound effect on how I teach students and the type of rigorous education I want students to have in my courses. I have taught several first-generation students (both ELLs and domestic students), and helping them navigate the terrain of academia is perhaps one of the more rewarding experiences in teaching. I bring this experience and first-hand knowledge in to my classroom and try my best to help both first-generation and multi-generational college students navigate the difficult and uneven terrain of academia, especially the dimensions that many take for granted (financial aid, fellowships, campus work programs, tutoring centers, academic programs, etc.). One of the ways that I gauge my student population is simply asking my class on the first or second day who might be first-generation, as I believe mentoring these students early on in the quarter is imperative for their success. I also share my own experiences with these students (office hours and conferences, for instance) in order to show them that it is, in fact, possible for them to complete their degrees and even pursue graduate education. 

One dimension of the conversation about first-generation college students that rarely receives attention is how higher education can become a source of alienation from one’s family. Speaking from my own experiences, higher education has been both a proverbial blessing and a curse in that higher education has opened up many opportunities in my personal and professional life, but it has also alienated me from my family and friends back home. I would describe this as a type of Du Boisian ‘double consciousness’ in the sense that first-gen college students are navigating two very different worlds—that of the university culture and that of their home cultures (Jesmyn Ward, in her memoir Men We Reaped, explains this phenomena much more eloquently than I). In the Berkeley article, Amy Baldwin explains, “It’s not just understanding the logistics, it’s feeling comfortable enough to engage in all parts of college life.” Isolation and the feeling of being a cultural outsider to college life largely because one’s parents did not attend four-year institutions puts first-gen students at a severe disadvantage often not faced by those students whose parents did attend four year institutions. Without having the support of insider cultural knowledge that is often gained through college-educated parents, first-generation college students often miss out on how to be at the university, including social activities. This is something I experienced as well because I was not sure of my place at the university, and this feeling of cultural outsiderness has carried over with me to graduate school (despite being in my sixth year of graduate school). As Baldwin puts it, “A campus really needs to understand the challenges of first-generation. It’s like going to a different country” (emphases added). I would very much agree with this sentiment because it is only by being a cultural insider to campus culture does one obtain “academic” or “educational capital.”  

One blind spot to this discussion (and one that I’m considering pursuing post-dissertation) is how non-elite institutions such as my own undergraduate institution may (or may not) perform a disservice to first generation college students. I’m intrigued that elite institutions might be better at being aware of the unique problems faced by first-generation students. I’m slightly skeptical that the UW, however, is as aware of these issues as it could be. My original dissertation idea was writing an ethnography of first-generation college students and how they navigated elite institutions. Perhaps an article (or two) will come to fruition in the coming years.

Another blind spot to this article that needs to be addressed is the definition of who is considered a first-generation college student. Many institutions define first-generation differently. The most inclusive definition is the one offered by ImFirst.org: “While there is no universal definition for ‘first-generation college student’ and much of the research uses the definition ‘a student with neither parent having any education beyond high school,’ we choose to define a first-generation college student as ‘neither parent having received a four-year college degree” (emphases added). So, if we want to be allies in making sure that first-generation college students stay and complete their degrees in a suitable timeline, we need to first be sure that students understand what first-generation means. I think some students get lost in the web of definitions (I did). I personally had no idea I was a first-generation college student until graduate school (yes!) because no one told me or did any of my professors raise this as a unique aspect of my experiences at the university. As teachers, I think it’s important for us to be sure that a more inclusive idea of first-generation is disseminated and that our students understand the unique challenges that all first-generation college students endure at elite and non-elite institutions alike.

Recommended sources:

·      http://www.imfirst.org/

·      http://www.imfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FAQ.pdf  http://thedartmouth.com/2014/10/15/colleges-differ-in-first-generation-definitions/ and https://professionals.collegeboard.com/guidance/prepare/first-generation

·      Alina Tugend, “The Struggle to Be First,” http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/spring-2015-dropouts-and-drop-ins/struggle-be-first-first-gen-students-may-be

·      Stony Brook University First-Generation Students, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXFLQ6tp8Qs

·      Karin Fischer, “The Chinese Mother’s American Dream” (July 6, 2015), http://chronicle.com/article/The-Chinese-Mothers-American/231239/?key=HG52JgFuNXFINy1nZm5FbzlSaXNlYUwvNXlMPyl9blBXFQ==

 

Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can’t Teach, Make Laws about Teaching, or Write Articles About What We Should Be Teaching and How We Should Be Teaching

On the latest episode of Real Time, Bill Maher hosted Caitlin Flanagan, author of the recent cover story for The Atlantic magazine. Her article, “That’s Not Funny!,” focuses on comedians playing the college-campus circuit and how they navigate the minefield of political correctness. Comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are staunch critics of the P.C.-culture of the modern campus; Seinfeld, in his interview for New York magazine, deemed campuses “too conservative” for most comedians’ material—“…they’re so PC.” In her article, Flanagan vilifies college campuses as incubators of politically-correct and ever-increasingly conservative students who are quick to be offended by jokes deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. She explains, “When I attended the [National Association of Campus Activities] convention in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed.”

I have often wondered how to teach comedy in the classroom, especially its intersection with racial, sexual, and gender politics. Baratunde Thurson’s How To Be Black, David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants all immediately come to mind as books that would make for exceptional teaching material. This is primarily the reason I was drawn to Flanagan’s article, as I believe comedy does have a place in the university classroom. The ways in which Flanagan historicizes the current moment, though, is something I take issue; her downplaying of the larger American culture and its impact on college campuses is something that must be attended to in any examination of American education. She writes, “College campuses have never been incubators for great stand-up; during the 1960s and ‘70s, schools didn’t dedicate much money to bringing in entertainers, and by the time they did, PC culture had taken off. This culture—its noble aspirations and inevitable end game—was everywhere apparent at [NACA].”

She argues that students have been conditioned to react this way to comedy for two reasons. The first is due to the fact that the students of college campuses today “are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses.” For Flanagan, this means social justice warriors, especially feminists. The second reason that she hypothesizes is that students are pressured to choose sides at the university: “These kids aren’t dummies; they look around their colleges and see that there are huge incentives to join the ideological bandwagon and harsh penalties for questioning the platform’s core ideas.” While Flanagan downplays the intellectual sophistication of students in the beginning of her article, she then pivots to suggesting that students are intellectually-savvy in choosing an “ideological bandwagon” in order to ‘play the game’ of partisan politics on college campuses. Students’ educational experience at the university has been narrowed to only a “range of approved social and political opinions.”

Flanagan’s article does not pick up on her accusations that teachers and professors at the university are to blame for PC-culture and students’ failures to understand rhetorical nuance. I would encourage you to view the (short) interview with Bill Maher to get a better sense of the implicit arguments that she makes in her essay (located below).

Let’s get real here: the conservatism that Flanagan and others point out is the conservatism of colorblindness perpetuated by neoliberalism in the wake of the post-Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the conservatism that Flanagan and others argue against is the conservatism that touts American patriotism, free speech, and the tenants of late capitalism that began under the Nixon administration and was carried to fruition by the Reagan administration. In the post-9/11 era in which these students were raised, it’s no wonder that free speech is increasingly policed, especially by those (e.g., conservatives) who argue that race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, and able-bodiedness no longer matters in the era of meritocracy (which, by the way, we know is a myth). Thus, the irony of what Flanagan calls “PC-culture” of college campuses is the increasingly colorblind rhetoric of “inclusivity” that would rather forget cultural and social differences in favor of ‘we’re all the same.’ Students have been conditioned to accept that the rhetoric of inclusivity (as purported by neoliberalism) must forget racial, sexual, and gender differences; thus, any mention of race, gender, and/or sexuality is considered to be inflammatory, even if that speech is in favor of celebrating those differences.  

The identity politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s celebrated cultural and social differences rather than erased them. This is, in fact, the key distinguishing point between that historical moment and the current one we live. Moreover, I would argue that college students are increasingly apolitical. I would venture to also suggest that perhaps the rise of PC-culture on college campuses is due, in part, to a technological age where students’ intellectual and cognitive abilities are not sophisticated enough to pick up on nuance and subtlety. Furthermore, Flanagan eschews culpability for the fact that American culture of the post-World War II era was largely responsible for raising children to see themselves as exceptional. We can see the apex of this in the post-9/11 era, where ‘everyone gets a trophy’ and students are risk-averse.

So, before Flanagan can critique college campuses and university professors and teachers for producing citizen-students who are more and more politically-correct, she would do well to attend to the historical legacies of American exceptionalism and the rhetoric of colorblind ideologies that have been simmering for more than four decades in the American imaginary, for it is these twin processes that have contributed to producing students who are increasingly apolitical and more apt to pursue occupations and degree programs that prepare them for labor production. Without such a historical critique of these antecedents to the contemporary moment, Flanagan espouses the same neoliberal ideologies that she purports are detrimental to students’ education.    

 

Sources:

·      Caitlin Flanagan, “That’s Not Funny!”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/thats-not-funny/399335/

·      Flanagan’s interview on Real Time with Bill Maher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kizOjQ-XD7U

The Work of “Teaching for Justice” in a Post-Everything America

I just recently finished hearing two fantastic podcasts yesterday, Terry Gross’s interview with author Ari Berman and Tom Ashbrook’s discussion of race in America (listed below). Both podcasts provide a foundational understanding to the contemporary moment we are in through historical lenses, historical lenses that many in the U.S. do not have, especially undergraduate students. Thus, when I stumbled upon Dan Berrett’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today about teaching African American history in our contemporary moment, I knew I had to begin writing my first blog post. Indeed, it is rather a coincidence (or perhaps not) that I am beginning this blog (and my first post) on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the 1st anniversary of Ferguson and Michael Brown’s death.

To give you a brief outline of Berrett’s article, he begins by considering what a post-Ferguson America offers scholars and teachers of African American Studies, in particular, how these issues make their way into our classrooms and how they affect classroom discussions and debates about race and ethnicity in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America. He contends that current events can be helpful and unhelpful: “Students can respond unpredictably, derailing class discussions. Faculty members often find they’ve let loose a flood of contradictory feelings in their students that they must expertly guide. Many professors of color must cope with similar emotions themselves.” The emotional investment in these stories by undergrads as well as teachers of American ethnic studies might, for some, be seen as a recipe for (classroom) disaster. But, as Berrett explains, these new events force “scholars to make pedagogical choices. Some have made the incidents the explicit topics of a new lesson or course; others have used them as entry points to teach previously existing material.” How do we (and by we I mean all teachers) respond productively to the current moment? What pedagogical interventions can we make as teachers and scholars of literature, for instance? What’s at stake in these conversations for our students and ourselves?

What I found to be important in this article is that we need to “[t]each the discomfort” of race relations in America. We need to teach the narratives that not only challenge our students, but make our students intellectually and emotionally uncomfortable because it is our through discomfort that we can grow intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is what it would mean to work beyond discussions of ‘white privilege,’ which I argue are both overdetermined and unproductive in advancing a critical race consciousness in our students. In one anecdote, Berrett profiles a course by Penn State professor Courtney Desiree Morris; her course, entitled “The Fire This Time—Understanding Ferguson” exposes her mostly white undergraduate students to “experiences that aren’t our own.” She argues that unless we do this, transforming the situation of the here and now is impossible.

Another professor profiled in his essay is also Marcia Chatelain, creator of #FergusonSyllabus. Chatelain explains that after the Ferguson incident, she incorporated discussions in her course on a daily basis. In one particular assignment towards the end of the semester, she challenged her students to bring up the discussion over Thanksgiving dinner. Berrett writes, “[Chatelain] wanted her students to look with fresh eyes at their own and others’ lived experiences. Many white students said they would never raised the issue because they felt awkward or uncomfortable. Most black students said they wouldn’t be able to escape it even if they wanted to.” These mixed emotions, Chatelain explains, were catalysts to students developing more sophisticated positions.

Finally, Jennifer Nash, asst. professor at George Washington University, cold-calls on students to “perform” certain arguments in class. Berrett explains, “The students didn’t have to personally support a particular position, but they had to articulate it. What, for example, would an argument against meritocracy be? Performing an argument helped separate ideology from identity, she said, and allowed students to analyze ideas more dispassionately. She demonstrated the technique herself, she said, to show her students a range of perspectives.” Nash demonstrates what bell hooks calls an “engaged pedagogy,” that is a pedagogical responsibility that models the type of risks that we ask our students to perform in the classroom. Without taking risks ourselves as teachers, we risk students’ personal investment in the subject matter. Without personal risk (intellectually and emotionally), we hold back a part of ourselves that might otherwise radically change how our students navigate the terrain of the uncomfortable.  Nash laments, “As an instructor…it’s utterly exhausting work.”

Indeed, the work of what Jacqui Alexander calls “teaching for justice” is incredibly exhausting work, especially in the climate of anti-intellectualism and vehement skepticism; our students traffic in these cultural and social sentiments. However, I am critically hopefully that “teaching for justice” can be a pragmatic endeavor, an endeavor that through time can become productive. I believe that teaching a curriculum that is culturally responsive to our current moment is especially needed when so many of our students look to our classrooms in American ethnic studies for answers on how to discuss and think deeply about the larger world around them. But Berrett cautions that we shouldn’t “overplay…the significance of the now.” I agree that too much focus on the ‘now’ obfuscates the historical and cultural genealogies that have allowed the ‘now’ to persist and reproduce. We have to do the work of cultivating historical and institutional literacies in our courses, especially as teachers of literature. Getting students to rethink their assumptions through an historical approach that focuses on the ramification of institituionalized racism has proven to be effective for my own classes. Only through an historical lens do students begin to ‘get it’ that race, in its current manifestation, is incredibly dynamic and nuanced. Such a critical lens is needed in order for students to navigate the difficult terrain of the here and now and begin to produce their own answers for the contemporary moment.

 

Recommended sources:

·      Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing (2006)

·      Dan Berrett, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons—and Risks—to the Classroom” (2015) http://chronicle.com/article/A-Year-of-Racial-Tumult-Brings/232245/

·      NPR Onpoint: Race in America, from Watts to Ferguson and Beyond http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/08/10/american-race-ferguson-watts-michael-brown

·      NPR FreshAir: Block the Vote: A Journalist Discusses Voting Rights and Restrictions; http://www.npr.org/2015/08/10/431238980/block-the-vote-a-journalist-discusses-voting-rights-and-restrictions

·      Courtney Morris’s class on Ferguson http://sites.psu.edu/ferguson/