Last Friday, Marcia Chatelain’s “How Universities Embolden White Nationalists” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Chatelain begins by talking about the white nationalists who descended upon Charlottesville and how some people see them and just say, “They’re just ignorant!” However, that is not the case. They are college educated, and as Chatelain notes, Richard Spencer went to UVa, Duke, and The University of Chicago. University presidents have responded to white nationalists and incidents on their campus. Ours even responded when Richard Spencer spoke on campus last spring. But. as Chatelain notes, those responses do part of the problem.
One aspect that we need to consider, especially as teachers who are striving to mold the minds of those in our classroom, is our own complicity in emboldening individuals who believe they are superior to others in every way imaginable. These people, and I have encountered them in my own classes as I wrote about last week, fear inclusion because in their mind that “means erasure.”
Chatelain continues by stating that “they are fighting a mass invasion of outsiders into institutions that rightfully belong to whites. They inspire victimhood among their adherents by ignoring the evidence of the durability of white supremacy in the United States, including on our campuses.” I have experienced this, not from vocal outbursts in class, but through conversations with students who ruffle when they discover that the majority of my class covers POC and women authors. They perceive this as a slight. (This is not all, or even the majority, of students.)
This, however, is not Chatelain’s main argument. Her argument is that while “[m]ost faculty, staff, and administrators abhor [white nationalist] thinking and ideology . . . they often tacitly endorse ideas that may help create little Richard Spencers.” Students pick up on what we do, what we say, and how we react. In these ways, we can subtly nudge students, even without our knowledge, towards “racist and destructive ideologies.” Today, I want to touch on a couple of the points that Chatelian makes and also discuss some of the things I have done to hopefully leave little room for doubt about my position with students.
In the classroom, why do we, as teachers, need to play “devil’s advocate”? Chatelain argues that by playing this role we teach “students that any issue is subject to a point-counterpoint construction.” The positions of racism, white superiority, and white nationalism cannot be justified, so why provide them as a counterpoint to an argument for inclusion? I do think that students need to see the other side, and they need to know what that side says; however, as a teacher, I do not need to act as if that side espouses ideas that we should believe in.
There are plenty of counter voices in history and the present where we do not need to play “devil’s advocate.” One example that I use every semester is that of David Walker responding to Thomas Jefferson. To understand Walker, students must understand Jefferson’s ambiguous feelings on race. I have had students read George Fitzhugh in relation to say Frederick Douglas. These, of course, are historical texts, and we are removed, in a temporal manner from them.
Later, Chatelain argues that “we fail to acknowledge that the world affects our students.” Charleston, Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Charlottesville all impact our students in one way or another. We need to remember that students have lives outside of our classrooms. As such, we need to provide a space for students to address these issues if they see fit. Teachers can begin by opening the floor for students to discuss in class, and if they do not wish to discuss, then we can move on with the lesson. I would add though, that we need to present students with the invitation that they can meet with us outside of class during office hours or at an appointment to talk about the events. We do not need to appear as if we are shutting down the conversation. We need to foster it and provide a space for it.
Along with this, there are tools that we need to consider. There are numerous syllabi that have originated such as #Charlestonsyllabus, #NoConfederate, and #CharlottesvilleCurriculum where we can direct students for accurate information about what has occurred and how we have gotten to this moment. There are also videos like the Vice News episode that follows white nationalists and shows what they did in Charlottesville. These are avenues, along with others, where we can open up the conversation for students. We also need to think about our university student support systems. We need to let students know about these offices.
A few of Chatelain’s points bring up inclusion through affirmative action, what we teach in the classroom, and listening to students when they ask us to incorporate more diversity into the curriculum. These are things we need to listen to. My department requires each literature survey course to have POC and women authors. The amount will vary from course to course. I study African American literature, so my courses, as I have said, have about 50-60% POC and women authors if not more. This makeup does not diminish the white voices of other authors. If anything, it provides a greater context to discuss authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Brockden Brown, or Herman Melville by having students recognize the ways that these authors subvert ideas about race underneath the artistic veneer of the gothic or the epic.
I am speaking as a teacher in English, but we also need to remember, as Chatelain notes when talking about feelings of nostalgia, that Black studies classes did not start in PWI till the late 1960s when universities started to become open to more students of varying backgrounds. That is only about 50 years ago. The 1970s saw the recovery of African American, Native American, women writers, and more. That was not too far in the past.
Addressing the preconceived stereotypes of college “as bastions of liberalism,” Chatelain points out “[f]aculty and administrators who don’t know their student demographics and who have not kept abreast of the weakening of affirmative action over that past two decades cannot be trusted to offer thoughtful decisions and analyses on how far our institutions still have to go in delivering equity.” When you head to your classrooms, look at your students and see the demographic within your courses. That room serves as a microcosm of the campus. If there is not diversity there, then where is it on campus?
I want to close by mentioning something we can do to help our students and ourselves become more open minded and tolerant while hopefully moving those who may be on the brink of believing the ideas of those with citronella torches towards a more enlightened position. In my composition class, we focus on a topic over the course of the semester. The past spring, that topic was education. I am repeating that topic this year.
Students had to come up with a topic about education, research it, and generate an academic paper arguing for a position on that topic. Some students chose nutrition on campus, home schooling, technology, etc. Others chose the upsurge in private schools, affirmative action cases in Texas, standardized testing, and school segregation. All of these topics opened students eyes. The one that looked at private schools learned that his school probably cam about as a way towards de facto segregation in the schools. The student who researched affirmative action, learned about the harm we cause when we do away with it. The list could go on.
At the end of the semester, students presented their research to their fellow students. In this manner, they did not just write an essay for me; they wrote to inform and share their knowledge. I do not know how many of their peers were affected by the topics and findings, but I do know they received the information.
Along with students becoming informed, the students also teach me. We do not need to assume that we have nothing more to learn. Our students can, and should, teach us just as much as we teach them. If we do not look forward to going into the classroom to hear what they have to say, then why do we teach? Let marginalized students teach you about their experiences. Let them teach you about the discrimination they face. Let them show you the ways that our education system, subtly or overtly, keeps them marginalized. In short, listen and learn.
What are your thoughts? As usual, please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.