Ron Resenbaum’s recent piece in Slate articulates well what I find so deeply troubling and unsettling about what passes for political dialogue in the U.S.  The historical amnesia and victimization in most heated political rhetoric minimalizes the expansive and institutionalized realities of historical inequality and polarizes the electorate. 

And, as a recent essay on Emmett Till by Myissha Priest in American Quarterly so powerfully demonstrates, the pain and violence inflicted upon black bodies has historically been used as a site for the articulation of whiteness and an inspiration for anti-racist activism.  I suspect that the victimization which is so central to whiteness is an articulation of whiteness’s need for attention and its need for the denial of black identities. 

As a white man who teaches African-American and comparative Ethnic studies, I am constantly aware of the ways my social location and my body can frustrate and stimulate student engagement and dialogue within the classroom.  To put it simply, my physical presence can intimidate and frustrate students who are understandably suspicious of whiteness.  But, if I am able to demonstrate my compassion and command of the material without co-opting identities which are not my own I can empower my students to engage critically and productively the knowledges attached to identity. 

It is with all of this in mind that I cautiously and pointedly bring my students face-to-face with the histories of American racial violence.  Although I run the risk of fetishizing violence or traumatizing students, I see a great value in having students confront the stark physical and emotional histories of racism.  For example, one of my classes is currently wrapping up a unit in which we considered the violence of the Jim Crow era primarily by looking at images and reading first hand accounts of lynching, racialized sexual assault, and the daily humiliations of Jim Crow.  Among many goals, this unit is designed to have students confront the past and to consider its lasting impact and resonances and, ideally, thereby counter the toxic rhetorics that structure so much political discourse. 

One of the challenges I face in teaching this material is that students tend to view American racial violence as an African-American issue which is only incidentally significant to American history.  Obviously, I incorporate into this unit a discussion of the privileges afforded to whiteness because of racial violence.  And, I guide to students to see the ways violence has historically led to outrage and activism which, ultimately, leads to positive change.  I try to draw students’ attention to the ways lynching and other forms of Jim Crow violence influenced and hastened the African-American freedom struggle.

Perhaps the most productive approach, though, is to adopt a truly comparative ethnic studies orientation and place violence enacted upon African-American bodies in dialogue with other forms of violence and, thereby, situate the victims of lynching alongside other victims of American capitalist violence.  To show students that Jim Crow violence was linked to U.S. expansion into the Southwest, American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, and the organized violence of strike-breaking and the daily violences of sharecropping and American industrialism. 

This is a difficult orientation to adopt, especially when students are accustomed to learning history piecemeal and are encouraged to see identities as fixed and isolated constructions.  And, to be frank, it was not until a chance sequence of events brought me face to face with the victims of American neoliberalism that I completely understood the liberating empowerment that comes from understanding the intimate yet obscured unity of violence of the United States.

In March, 2009 I had to leave town for a job interview.  I set up in-class activities and film-screenings for my students to complete in my absence.  My upper-level course, which was then considering institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty and residential segregation, watched the first two hours of Spike Lee’s When the Levee’s Broke in my absence.  That section ends with a ten-minute montage of abandoned bodies that littered New Orleans. 

And, so, I left with the knowledge that my students were facing raw pain and I wended my way through the airport with the images the dead left behind in the wake of Katrina, men and women simply left to suffer as we turned our backs on New Orleans, men and women who died not because of an overt act of violence but because of the more insidious violences of decades of neglect.  When we reached cruising altitude the captain mentioned that a member of the armed services was returning from Iraq aboard our flight and that out of respect he requested that we wait until this person was off the plane before disembarking in St. Louis.  At first I presumed he meant the uniformed naval officer I had seen escorted onto the plane with the flight crew; but as he explained the situation, it became apparent that the service member in question was a deceased sailor or marine whose body was in a coffin in the cargo hold of our plane.  As luck would have it, my window seat was immediately above the cargo hold doors and when we reached the gate I watched closely as members of the ground crew removed the coffin from the plane.  The coffin was stored in a cardboard box printed to look like an American flag and many of my fellow passengers ignored the captain’s request and hurried off of the plane.

I sat back dizzied by the mental juxtaposition of the exposed, ignored black bodies and the cloaked yet half-heartedly celebrated body of an anonymous soldier thrust into a neo-colonialist endeavor.  It was only at this moment that I could see the union between the victims of neoliberal governance in New Orleans and the victims of neoliberal invasion in Iraq.  Though the conditions of their death and the treatment of their bodies made clear the stark differences in citizenship, they remained victims of the same historical movements, the same historical forces. 

If our nation is to have a constructive political discourse and remain committed to its democratic ideals we need to identify and elucidate the ways our history is a history of shared pains and shared burdens and not the contest of victimization and cooption that has been a defining feature of our culture.  Our work, then, should be designed to push students to moments at which these interconnections and moments of interethnic unity are most clear.

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Aristocracy and Political Culture

Many have seen the rightward turn of Virginia’s government as a rebuke of the Obama administration.  Although Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win Virginia since 1948, his 2008 win and Mark Warner’s ascent to the Senate were followed by the 2009 election of conservatives to state offices, most importantly governor and attorney general.  Before getting excited or depressed, it is useful to remember recent history: Virginia elects its governors the year after presidential elections; for thirty years the party which won the presidency has gone on to lose the gubernatorial campaign.  McDonnell’s victory is no more a rebuke of Obama than Doug Wilder’s 1985 win was a rebuke of Reagan’s ’84 landslide victory. 

There are many possible reasons for this unique factoid of Virginia politics.  Maybe (and I’m contradicting myself here) it is related to backlash; but then the backlash would happen with every single election.  Perhaps it is related to excitement: many Obama supporters were “worn out” from 2008 did not come out to support Deeds in 20009, while McCain backers were worked up over the 2008 loss and came out for McDonnell. 

I think, however, that to understand these shifts you have to look at Virginia’s political culture and the performance of leadership in The Old Dominion.  Historically, Virginia has favored political leaders who project an aristocratic bearing and connect themselves to Virginia’s memorial culture of genteel manners and purpose all the while embracing a business-friendly political agenda. 

Perhaps the most successful performance of aristocracy comes from Doug Wilder.  The grandchild of slaves, a child of Jim Crow, and the first African-American to be elected governor of a U.S. state, Wilder presented himself as mannered and almost aristocratic leader.  This often put him at odds with Richmond’s African-American community, a tension which was most visible when he worked in local government in the 1970s and 1980s and was often at odds with local Civil Rights leaders on grounds that stretched from the political to the personal and often included criticisms rooted in the class divisions of African-American identity.  This public performance of elitism was married to a fiscally conservative agenda which Wilder cultivated in the 1960s, when he worked outside the civil rights group The Richmond Crusade for Voters and alongside the Chamber of Commerce group Richmond Forward.  As a “post-racial” conservative Democrat, Wilder anticipated and then flourished under neoliberalism, an economic logic which has long found a clear articulation in Virginia. 

Of course, Wilder is but one example of Virginia’s political leadership.  The Republican politician George Allen has cut a similar though divergent path.  Allen is a prime example of the conflicted performance of Southern aristocracy that has marked Virginia’s contemporary political culture.  Allen is not Virginian by birth; he moved to Northern Virginia from Los Angeles as a teenager (his father was a successful coach of D.C.’s NFL franchise).  Much like George W. Bush, another Republican transplant to the South, Allen’s political rise was defined by a cultivated performance of “country” identities: cowboy boots, big hats, horse-riding, good-ole-boy charm.  He married this faux-folksy charm to an agenda which was marketed as “compassionate conservatism” but which is perhaps more correctly extreme neoliberalism.  He was very much a rising star of the Republican party and, in many circles, was seen as an ideal candidate for the White House.  But, behind this veneer lay a more problematic identity: at a 2006 reelection event Allen was caught on tape using an obscure slur to describe a man of South Asian descent; in the wake of this event stories began to arise which described Allen’s past use of similar slurs, his display of Confederate battle flags and nooses in his legal office and the Governor’s office, and, on occasion, his clear articulation of bigoted sentiments.  These accusations enabled Jim Webb to seize momentum and take Allen’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

We have in Virginia two models for post-racial, neoliberal leadership, both of which stress Southern masculinities.  Wilder succeeded by presenting himself as an aristocratic and admonishing the working class members of his coalition.  Allen succeeded by merging that aristocratic identity with a good-ole-boy charm.  His immediate and swift decline came when he broke the codes of political conduct and engaged directly in the kinds of race-baiting and antagonism which have long been suspect in Virginia.  Although the home of the Confederacy and long a bastion of Southern “values”, Virginia has historically defined itself as the most gentle and benign of Southern states.  The history of Virginia is a history of positioning against the harsh, violent, and dangerous slavery of the deep South and the cold, calculating industrial might of the North.  The types of race-baiting and racial antagonism and overt violence common to the Jim Crow south was not as widely accepted in Virginia, or other upper-South states.  Rather, its harshly segregated society was built upon subtle codes of conduct and masculinity and a military culture of aristocratic leadership.  Former Senator John Warner is a fine example of the removed, aristocratic manner and military bearing of the Virginia aristocracy.  Allen, I suspect, fell from grace because he was seen to be a bigot in the most grace-less manner.

At the same time, I suspect that Allen’s loss has much to do with the man against whom he was running for re-election.  Jim Webb is a remarkable figure for his record of military service and his accomplishments as a writer and politician.  He is not the only exceptional military veteran in the U.S. Senate.  But, unlike John McCain or John Kerry, he has never sought out or carried the trappings of wealth or prestige.  Although an officer who served in high civilian positions in Reagan’s Department of Defense, he has consistently and effectively presented himself as a soldier.  This is not merely performance—he doesn’t simply don a jumpsuit and lead pep rallies on aircraft carriers.  Rather, Webb is a military man through and through who has the bearing and intelligence common to officers of high rank.  Why does this matter?  Well, I suspect that Allen’s fall came about because the mask he had chosen, that of a good-ole-boy, was pulled aside and he was exposed an imposter who used a folksy demeanor to push through policies which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working class.  Webb, however, was legitimately a descendent of Virginia’s Appalachian Scots-Irish immigrants who was committed to working class values and concerns.

While Virginia’s senators are both Democrats—Webb is joined by the moderate, technocrat Mark Warner—its visible political leadership includes McDonnell and Representative Eric Cantor.  Cantor, interestingly, is the lone Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill and a Chamber of Commerce-type who, as Dana Milbank put it, has to “ride the tiger” of culture warriors who are often anti-Semitic.  And, McDonnell was elected to office by downplaying his extremist social views on gender and sexuality.  Both dance the thin line between aristocracy and populist rage. 

Aristocracy, Populism and Virginia Heritage

My central concern and frustration with this revivification of Confederate Heritage Month is that it ignores the realities of modern Virginia and speaks to a subset of the population.  There has been ample, thoughtful coverage of the declaration.  I especially like Jon Meachem’s piece from the New York Times for its clear explanation of the historical uses of Confederate heritage as a cultural tool for white supremacy.  I would add that in these many historical instances, Virginia’s brand of historical identity leaned to heroic and mythic forms and avoided the overt populism of Southern Heritage in the Deep South.  To cite one, minor example, during the Civil War Centennial many Southern states ceremonially flew the Confederate Battle Flag in official settings; in some states, it was simply left up at the end of the centennial and became entrenched—for a rich explanation of this history in South Carolina see K. Michael Prince’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys; for a general history see John M. Coski’s The Confederate Battle FlagIn Virginia, however, the centennial was marked by the display of the Confederate national flag, or the Stars and Bars, a much less recognizable emblem which many mistake for the Texas state flag.  [EDITED ON TUESDAY APRIL 27TH REMOVING MISSTATEMENTS/MISTAKES.  PLEASE SEE COMMENTS SECTION]

Additionally, Eugene Robinson’s recent editorial is a strong and powerful articulation of the absurdity of Haley Barbour’s defense of McDonnell.  As both pieces point out, McDonnell’s initial statement endorsed an outdated view of the Confederacy which emboldens separatist ideologies and white identity politics which are inherently and historically anti-Black.  In its insensitivity and its inducement to a false heritage, McDonnell has engaged in the subtle race-baiting common to Virginia history; he has not overtly endorses Confederate Heritage as white heritage; he maligns Black history with a nod to whiteness. 

But while Confederate Heritage month is divisive and offensive to all of us who are sensitive to the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and the African-American freedom struggle, it is equally, if not more, problematic and divisive for how very removed it is from the lives of the vast majority of Virginians.  Celebrating the Confederacy without exploring and acknowledging slavery is not only lazy and bad history which offends a significant portion of Virginians; it places at the heart of communal, memorial identity a moment and a conflict which is far removed from Virginia’s dynamic, global economy and society and which builds upon and exacerbates Virginia’s commitment to aristocratic, military identity.

Despite the South’s mythic and historical agrarian past, the South is today a suburbanized, sprawling, global space.  Like most of the South, Virginia is dominated by its metropolitan centers.  In terms of population and economy, Northern Virginia is the preeminent region within the state; and, the connected sprawls of Norfolk, Richmond, and Charlottesville constitute a second, closely linked urban conglomerate.  In both spaces military, government, and high-tech industries drive the economies and attract diverse populations with roots in other regions of the U.S. and, more importantly, other regions of the World.  The Confederacy and the Civil War are in many ways completely irrelevant to the lives of technocrats or bureaucrats in Alexandria, Dominican or Salvadorian communities in Arlington, or Vietnamese and Korean communities in Fairfax. 

Just as significantly, the coded political message of celebrating the Confederacy—the enshrinement of states’ rights—strikes me as at best irrelevant and more likely totally hypocritical to a state which so mightily depends upon the federal government.  Perhaps only Maryland has a higher percentage of federal employees or contractors among its residents.  And, Virginia is, quite literally, home to some of the most important and most respected of American’s military installations.  The state is intimately connected to the nation state, its founding myths, and its modern political economy.  It is simply asinine to presume that secession would be a viable or attractive option in a state so dependent upon the federal government and in which so many serve their nation with honor and distinction.

It is important to point out that Virginia has a proud military heritage which is reflected in the state’s official commemorative culture.  The Pentagon is, of course, adjacent to Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery.  And, though Arlington is a relic of the Confederacy and the Civil War it is, along with Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial, at the heart of a commemorative network which enshrines national reunification and the emancipation of slaves.  Arlington, of course, was built on the grounds of a plantation which had been owned by the Lee and Custis families and, as such, has ties to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who have long been the twin pillars of Virginia traditionalism.  That traditionalism obscured their status as slaveholders and emphasized their aristocratic, principled leadership and their commitment to the common good.  The myth of Washington depends equally upon his heroism as a soldier and the modesty he exhibited in guiding the U.S. into republican, not oligarchic, government.  And, Lee’s mythology emphasizes his leadership, his aristocratic identity, and, most importantly, his work in building a peace to repair the nation.  These myths tragically ignore their slaveholding and gloss over the reaffirmation of whiteness and masculinity as standards for citizenship which they did so much to defend.  More importantly, Lee and Washington are celebrated as aristocratic models of masculinity.  Their cults, thus, have historically articulated the rightness and justness of a social order in which aristocratic leaders wisely and bravely guide the masses.  On the other side of this narrative are the melancholic and lyrical images of the honorable, if meager, lives of common soldiers.  This mythic evocation of heroic leadership and honorable soldiers which obscures or ignores the realities of slavery depends upon and furthers constructions of citizenship in which the most important border is the imaginary border drawn around whiteness, not the material and economic border between the working class and the landed gentry.  Not only did Washington and Lee own slaves; they were leaders from a select privileged class of landowners and other economic elites who profited from the labor of and took advantage of the white working class. 

Reforming Virginia Heritage

Let me quite clear: as a child of Virginia and a cultural historian, I have an immense respect for and admiration of the riches of Virginia’s past.  But, for that heritage to speak inclusively and productively to all Virginians it needs to be reformed away from simplistic notions of Confederate and colonial heritage; and, it must recognize the state’s great cultural and temporal diversity.  Certainly, a starting point is an increased recognition of the role slavery and the removal of Native Americans played in Virginia’s early history; along with that shift in emphasis, the lives of African-Americans, Native-Americans and working class whites needs to be a component of any space for Virginia history.  This inclusion of social history has long informed the site museum at Colonial Williamsburg and other heritage spaces.  It should be the standard.

More importantly, Virginia could revolutionize national heritage by moving away from narratives of American (and Southern and Virginian) exceptionalism.  Colonial sites could and should locate the Virginia Colony within the First British Empire.  Spaces dedicated to slavery could and should emphasize Virginia’s place in the Black Atlantic and its ties to other plantation colonies.  And, though the Old Dominion has a rich 18th and 19th century heritage to build on, there is no reason narratives of Virginia heritage cannot celebrate other moments in its past.  For example, Northern Virginia has much to celebrate in its recent acceptance and celebration of immigrant communities, many of them made up of refuges.  Arlington was not just Lee’s home and the site of a military cemetery; it is also the place in which many Vietnamese found refuge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Locating Privilege as a Pedagogic Practice

I have spent nearly half of my teaching career and all of my scholarly career working in American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Both fields, like the allied fields of Women’s/Gender and Sexuality Studies, take seriously the importance of social location as a component of identity formation and critical pedagogy. Striking a middle ground between essentialism and relativism, these fields of study recognize that a component of our identity formation and our intellectual progress are the interlocking social experiences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and ability. They hold firm that we are not reducible or defined by our phenotypes; yet that we are impacted by the social expectations and performances associated with them. The understanding of race as a social construction stands at the heart of Ethnic and American Studies and is a central thesis in the anti-racist work of those fields, which orient themselves towards unpacking and dismantling racial formations and ideologies through critical analyses of history, culture, and society. Moreover, these fields often work to counter racial ideologies by encouraging that students examine and investigate their own social location. Whether explicitly-in a family history project or personal writing–or implicitly, Ethnic and American Studies can often be challenging and uncomfortable work not only for the complexity of the concepts and ideas, but because those concepts and ideas run counter to what we commonly understand about our culture and ourselves.

In my experience (and as my friend Gavin hinted at in a comment on my previous essay) this discomfort is perhaps most common among students whose awareness of privilege is complicated by their embrace of identities associated with ideals of meritocracy. This is most evident among middle-class, white, male students who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the advantages they are afforded by a patriarchal, racist society because those realities run counter to the reality that they (or, more commonly, their families) have struggled to overcome economic and social hardships. Many are first-generation college students; and the majority comes from communities deeply impacted by deindustrialization and globalization. As such, my white students tend to have experienced or to have identified with some degree of economic marginalization and are disinclined or unable to acknowledge that they are afforded any advantages or privileges because of their race and gender.

Resistant students are the rule rather than the exception in Ethnic Studies and American Studies. I suspect there is a similar trend in Women’s Studies. However, based on my observations of and conversations with my colleagues in these fields, I have had to deal with far less visible, vocal resistance than is the norm. Only on rare occasion do students openly confront or challenge me or the subject matter. When discussing the realities of white privilege I have never been laughed at, yelled at, or called a “war criminal” or a “f***ing bigot,” as some of my colleagues have. And, in addition to not having to face open resistance or violence, I am often successful in reaching reluctant students who are hesitant or wary of the material.

Why? Well it is not that I am smarter or a better teacher. Rather, it has everything to do with who I am. As a white man I fit the most common and popular conceptions of authority. I look and sound like a professor is expected to look or sound. Moreover, I am a tall and big man; in part, my students take me seriously because I am physically imposing. In any classroom, I would command authority that other colleagues can easily command simply because of their race and/or gender. But this is especially true in Ethnic Studies and American Studies, fields which demand a critical investigation of privilege and power. Although some students are initially resistant to the idea that a white man could teach a class on race and ethnicity, my location is more often an asset because students presume I can discuss racism and privilege objectively, especially when I implicitly or explicitly implicate myself as an inheritor or beneficiary of racism and patriarchy.

And, through my actions in class I can play a critical role in helping students develop a more critical and inclusive discursive community. I am able to use my position of authority in the classroom and my social location and the authority inherent therein to cultivate a more inclusive dialogue and thereby advocate for underrepresented or silenced groups. As I think many of us know, mediating class discussion is often most challenging when there are a few effusive or dominating students. This dynamic is made more complicated when the effusive or dominating students are openly or vocally resistant to course topics and then clash with students over course topics. Because our public discourse is so quickly swayed or sidelined by men who yell loudly, students are accustomed to letting vocal bullies hold sway in class. I have had many classes in which an individual, resistant student attempted to sidetrack conversation or intimidate their classmates. Or, more often, I have had classes in which the most insightful students were uncomfortable raising their voice because their voices were so often silenced. In those moments my job is to mediate conversation, to open up space for the silenced or ignored voices. I have to use the authority granted by my privilege to create space for those who do not have the same privileges.

I do not want to give the impression that my work in Ethnic Studies and American Studies is spent fighting evil white men and saving students of color and women. In fact, I see much of my work as defined by reaching out to and working with my male students, especially my white male students. Although many are resistant to the ideas presented in my class, I find many male students are receptive to discussing power and privilege and need the space and community to critical engage their own experiences; and, quite frankly, many male students need a masculine role model or mentor. I do not have space to explore this dynamic in depth, but I have found that by opening up and discussing my own location and my own privilege, I encourage male students to see me as a possible mentor or confidant.

(The physical nature of my authority because quite clear to me over this past summer when I taught an online class. In nine years of classroom teaching I have had four or maybe five students complain about the grades they received; in all of those cases the students were rather polite and reserved in broaching the subject. But, in my six-week online class, I had seven students aggressively complain about their grades. In all but one case, the students had either failed to complete or submit an assignment but attempted to lay the blame on me. And, in all cases the students were aggressive and belligerent in demanding that I change the grade; many of the male students became openly hostile and threatening. I can only presume that the students in the online environment felt free to bully and threaten because they had not met me in person. Either the anonymity of e-mail or the lack of a physical presence or, more likely, a combination of the two, enabled the students in their resistance and reluctance to do fair work.)

I have, as I believe this essay indicates, spent a fair amount of time investigating my own location and considering how I can use it to be a better teacher. A large component of this is recognizing that my identity is one with which many of my students are comfortable. I am able to reach resistant students who may not respond to other faculty members. I recognize that a goal of Ethnic Studies and American Studies should be the cultivation of faculty of color and women faculty. As an ally of those groups, I take seriously the work I can do cultivating diversity within the academy; and a large component of that work can be seen as creating space for critical dialogue across the curriculum. Through my work in Ethnic Studies I can help students become more comfortable with diversity and help them build a vocabulary to participate in inclusive discursive communities. And, by consciously using my authority and ability to dominate to counter the ability of others to dominate, I can thereby create space for marginalized, silenced, or intimidated students to raise their voices.

Looking Ahead

In my next essay I plan on addressing masculinity and pedagogy with a few specific examples from recent courses. I hope to use those examples to discuss the challenging yet crucial role teachers serve as witnesses to pain and violence.

The vehemence and viciousness of the health care debate and the onset of the academic year have colluded to raise my typical elevated levels of anxiety and tension to unknown heights.  Part of this concern is rooted in the foggy financial outlook: my vocation is threatened with extinction as my access to health care and my family’s security are both facing severe challenges.  It’s hard enough to be an under-employed, highly educated father; it’s worse when I am constantly reminded that many of my fellow citizens view my security and health as a liability, as a risk to what they perceive to be their freedoms. 

This underlying anxiety and frustration is sadly exacerbated by the viciousness of my brethren, my teachers-in-arms.  Perhaps viciousness is the wrong word.  Pettiness?  Cruelty?  I’m not sure the appropriate term, but the return of students to college campuses and the ugliness of public discourse have given my colleagues plenty of opportunity to display a stunning lack of sympathy for the very populations we are expected to help.

Illiteracy and Ignorance;Coping and Compassion

While I cannot speak for all teachers, I would venture that most of us still experience back-to-school jitters.  The nervous excitement of the impending new year so common to all of us from our schooldays memories continues to haunt and excite teachers.  Even though we relish the summer lull, I think most teachers anticipate the new school year, the excitement of interpreting an old routine for a new audience.  It’s exciting to meet new students, try our new lesson plans, and, yes, to be back in school, back in the hallways full of fresh young faces, the names and styles changing, but the experiences and desires and intelligences so very similar.  We may work long, hard hours and our rewards may be small, marginal and fleeting; but the joy of teaching is intoxicating and its high is most palpable around Labor Day.

Although teachers are idealistic to a fault, the return of the new academic year also opens the door for the cynical humunculous that sits nittering and chattering in our ears.  Teachers can be a nasty lot, full of vinegar brimming out of our frustrated hearts.  Much of this meanness is rooted in the legitimate frustrations teachers have with administrators, trustees, and communities.  We are asked to do incredible work for mediocre pay and are often have little power over the very communities which are dependent upon our abilities and our hard work.  While I cannot and will not address this frustration here, I want to be clear that I share these frustrations and am doing my part to improve the academic workplace.

My subject here is the negativity with which some teachers greet their students, especially students of varying skill levels and levels of engagement.  The excitement of the new semester is quickly tempered by the realization that our students are inadequately prepared for the work we expect them to complete.  While neither I nor any of my colleagues have had a fully illiterate student, it is not uncommon for students to lack basic critical thinking, reading and writing skills.  I am often shocked at the pathetic writing skills of my students. 

Perhaps more frustrating is the disregard students often have for required coursework.  In my Ethnic and American Studies courses I often grappled with students who clearly did not want to be in class and made their feelings visible through body language and, at times, open challenges of my qualifications or the importance of the material at hand.  I know this is a common frustration among my fellow teachers.  We know that material we teach is vital and we enjoy it; but we are met with aggressive, at times vicious disregard for the material and our classroom. 

I understand my many of my fellow teachers feel disheartened by their work.  I understand why many of us become cynical.  But what pains me is the easiness with which some teachers allow our frustrations and cynicism to boil over into contempt and nastiness for our students.  The return of the school year has brought the annual chorus of teachers lamenting the stupidity, meanness, and vileness of our students; the mockery of student writing or ideas; and the general dismissal of students’ needs. 

Like the rare full solar eclipse, this seasonal frustration has come into life just as the irregular, occasional vicious culture wars have come to dominate the political landscapes.  This blog was occasioned by my frustration with the level of discourse surrounding the debates over healthcare reform and I am generally disheartened and disgusted by the viciousness with which the extreme fringes of the right wing launch salvos in this latest culture war battle.  Within my frustrations with national discourses is a deeper disappointment with the retrograde  motion of our collective response to these larger cycles. 

In the past few days a number of friends have recommended an online album of pictures of anti-Government and anti-Obama protesters.  Posted on Facebook, the images are accessible only if you have a Facebook account.  I was able to find an example of the images and a link to the album, which is called “Morons Holding Signs.”  The images are troubling.  They are evidence of the violent and vicious paranoia that has long defined America and Americans, especially in regards to race and sexuality.  And, I think it is important that teachers, especially those of us in composition and American and Ethnic studies work to counter the viciousness and divisiveness of discourse of which these images are but symptoms.

Perhaps it was the simultaneity of this viral photo album and the return of the academic year, but my frustration with these images pales in comparison to my anger at the ways in which those around me have responded to them.  The appeal of these images has little to do with the viciousness of sentiments and everything to do with the ignorance and illiteracy of the expression of those sentiments.  Based on observing activity on Facebook, the general feedback to these images has been to laugh at and poke fun at the protesters.  Because the majority of the photos are of protesters holding signs with poor spelling, poorer grammar, and questionable grasp of basic literacy, most comments on the album ridicule the protesters are ignorant, stupid, uneducated, or simply moronic. 

Let me stress that I am deeply troubled by the sentiments presented by these images, just as I am troubled by the woeful preparation our students are given in High School.  But it is my firm conviction that we cannot counter the vicious and violent paranoia of our national culture and that we will fail as teachers if we respond to these frustrating circumstances with derision and mockery.  Laughing at our students writing may make us feel better in the short run; but it is evidence of an eroded trust and a shallow commitment on our part.  And making fun of illiterate protesters may sooth our anger at the direction of discourse; but it will only serve to drive us further and further away from the communities which we serve and for whom we must feel compassion.

Confession; Penance

Before I move on, let me confess that I am very guilty of the crimes I have just described.  I have been known to mock student writing.  I have been known to laugh at the beliefs of the fringes of our polity, both the r0ght-wing and left wing extremes.  I have given into laughter and bitching as coping mechanisms.  This essay is an attempt to correct a behavior in which I am fully implicated.  It’s confession and penance. 

Community and Compassion go to the Fair and the Banquet Hall

A few weeks ago I went with my family to the Wood County Fair, which is held just a few blocks from my house.  We went earlier in the day, before the rides and games had begun, and strolled the midway looking at farm animals and eating the satisfyingly unhealthy food available only at a country fair.  While I look forward to some parts of the fair–the milkshakes the local 4-H students make are great; I always like looking at goats and sheep–I usually do not enjoy myself.  I am very much a child of the sub/urban landscapes of Arlington, Virginia and I’d much rather walk along a city street than visit the barns and rides of a county fair.  I just don’t feel comfortable in such settings

This sense of displacement was heightened by the fact that at the very center of the fair grounds a vendor had set up his portable shop from which he sold car decorations.  The selection was mostly made up of stickers for car bumpers and truck windows; the vast majority were pro-gun, pro-rural, anti-urban, and anti-liberal.  The vendor’s trailer was easy to find because he had two large Confederate flags flying. 

(I won’t digress and follow the obvious tangent:why the hell would someone in Ohio, birthplace of Sherman, Sheridan and Grant, fly Confederate flags?). 

Simply understand that I felt very out of place and grumpy with the almost wholly-white crowd at the country fair.  This grumpiness was verging into anger when we sat down to rest on a bench underneath a small tree.  We were close to the goat barn and a small crowd was dispersing.  We had just missed the judging of goats raised by FFA students.  As we sat out of the heat, I noticed a young man, a boy really, no older than 12 or 13, who was walking out of the barn leading a goat.  The boy had one athletic shoes that looked a size or two too large; black jeans which had been hemmed and were cinched around his waist by an old belt; and a white dress shirt that was 10-12 years out of style.  He had a short buzz cut and carried a huge red ribbon in his hand.  He’d done well in the show; he hadn’t won first place, but he’d placed.  And when his family saw him and began cheering, he stood still as a huge smile came over his face.  Whatever his station in life, the poverty of his dress or the provincialism of his community, he had worked hard.  And his family’s pride in his success nearly made me cry. 

The last time I had that sensation was the summer I taught a class for BGSU’s Upward Bound program.  An intensive immersion into college life and academics, Upward Bound is a program for students from underrepresented groups, usually racial/ethnic minorities or people living below the poverty line, who have a chance of being first generation college students.  My students that summer were all students in Toledo Public Schools and all but two of them were African-American.  At the end of the summer we had a banquet with the parents, at which the students displayed examples of the work they had completed that summer.  One group of students had taken a journalism class and had made a small newspaper to demonstrate their writing and editorial skills.  I was showing the newspaper to my wife when one of my students came up with her parents.  The student was one of my favorites; a kind, hard-working, intelligent young woman who was both very large, though not particularly overweight, and unable to afford new clothes that adequately fit her frame.  Her brightness was often overshadowed by the meagerness of her circumstances and the other students discounted her as slow and poor.  That night at the banquet, dressed in her nicest clothes, she introduced me to her folks and then showed them her article in the newspaper.  And they were oh so proud of her.

The joy and pride her parents clearly felt at their daughter’s work and my students happiness in her parents’ praise were all echoed in the moment outside the goat barn.  In both cases, young people who were been born into poverty or near-poverty were given a chance to outshine their meager circumstances and their ill-fitting thrift-store clotes.  And their parents, who presumably couldn’t offer much, were so clearly proud of their child. 

In many ways, these two young people have little in common.  And, in many respects, they bear many of the faults that awaken cynicism in teachers.  And, while the social and cultural distance from rural Wood County to urban Toledo is far greater than the 20 geographic miles which seperate them, these two young people face the same economic challenges.  Their families and immediate communities are impacted by the same social and economic forces which affect all of Northwest Ohio.  And, in their moments of pride, these young people worked through similar paths.  Boththecounty fair and Upward Bound are government sponsored and supported programs and without the crucial work of the government neither of these kids would have had the same opportunities.

In both cases, it would be easy to dismiss these kids, to laugh at the paucity of their intellegence, their ignorance.  But in doing so, we simply prevent ourselves from feeling compassion for them.  And it is compassion that can help us see the commanility that cuts across our communities and find the grounds with which to reform our teaching and improve discourse. 

(Unfortunately, we see the differences between them and go on to encourage them to see each other as different.  And, while the subject of creating community through diversity training is a subject for another post, it is important to point outthat we ought to consider the ways we teach the histories of race and racialization impact our students.)

What troubles about the cynicism of so many teachers and the cynicism and nastiness of our current discourse is the fundamental lack of compassion, that we fail to see each other as members of one community.  I know the temptation to look around and presume I am surrounded by enemies and threats, to presume that my students come from Confederate flag-waving rural enclaves or failing urban schools.  But, ever if they do, I need to see within them the same humanity I ask them to see in me.  And, until teachers can have the patience to treat their students compassionately, we will be unable to teach our students the same values.