Classrooms and Their Dissed Contents

27 Nov

Ann Pellegrini

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“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! / Oh, what a beautiful day! / I’ve got a beautiful feelin’ / Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way.” These lines are from the opening moments of Oklahoma, the 1943 musical that is widely credited as the founding example of the complete “book musical.” Now, I would like to focus my entire blog post on this musical and its liberal fable of democratic harmony bursting forth amidst social differences. Can the cowman and the farmer be friends? Yes, they can! Alas, we cannot always get or do what we want, whether in the classroom, blogs, or elsewhere. So, instead I will focus my brief remarks on something else, albeit something not unrelated to a certain fable of democratic belonging: namely, the fantasy of beautiful feelings and everything goin’ my way. This fantasy is foundational to neoliberalism and its immiserations. Speaking and, perhaps, singing along with Lauren Berlant, I would even suggest that Oklahoma, although it pre-dates neoliberalism, is one of the soundtracks of “cruel optimism.”

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Trigger warnings are alarm codes of neoliberalism. Right now the demand for trigger warnings is a student-led movement that has prompted impassioned debates at numerous colleges and universities (not to mention across the blogosphere) as well as exasperated, and predictably cherchez la feministe, coverage in The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets. To date, no U.S. university has mandated trigger warnings as a matter of university policy. In her contribution to this forum, Lisa Duggan importantly distinguishes between politics and policy and cautions about what happens when the former get taken up by university administrations and turned into enforcement measures disconnected from original on-the-ground debates and animating politics. Trigger warnings may promise students safety, but, as an administrative and enforceable policy, they will in fact serve to indemnify universities while putting some faculty at heightened risk for sanction and, even, firing.

As has been pointed out by Elizabeth Freeman, Brian Herrera, Nat Hurley, Homay King, Dana Luciano, Dana Seitler, and Patricia White, in a jointly written essay on “Why Trigger Warnings Are Flawed”:

Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling and often feels immediate.

Untenured and non-tenure-track faculty will feel the least freedom to include complex, potentially disturbing materials on their syllabuses even when these materials may well serve good pedagogical aims, and will be most vulnerable to institutional censure for doing so.

Ironically, then, an unintended but entirely predictable effect of trigger warnings is to intensify the precariousness of precisely those faculty who are most likely to empathize with student concerns about the violence and traumatic afterlife of homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and the like.

The admirable goal behind student initiatives for trigger warnings is to create more breathing room in the classroom and minimize students’ pain. In practice, though, trigger warnings too easily become yet another disciplinary mechanism that the corporate university can use to promote consumer (and donor) satisfaction as the highest good. Forms of neoliberal value$ ultimately do little to nothing to look after the well-being of individual students or make structural changes that would ameliorate, let alone prevent, suffering. Instead, we get a rhetoric of “zero tolerance” for rape and sexual assault (which sure makes me feel better) and calls for “civility,” “tolerance,” and “respect” as the conditions of possibility for the flourishing of a university community. That word “community” makes me wanna run for the hills, but not in a Sound of Music kinda way.

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We’ve seen a version of this discipline and punish in the highly publicized “un-hiring” of Professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a decision made at the highest level of the Illinois system. The U of I Chancellor Phyllis Wise justified her decision to rescind the offer of tenure made to Salaita in the name of protecting students from “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.”

As John K. Wilson points out on The Academe Blog, this is a bizarre statement: do viewpoints have feelings or some inner personality that can be demeaned? Chancellor Wise’s last name would be risible if the joke weren’t so serious for Salaita and his family first and foremost, but for educators and students across the country as well. The bright line the Chancellor wants to draw between classroom content that challenges a students’ assumptions and “respect” for students’ “rights as individuals” cannot hold. By Chancellor Wise’s un-wise logic, an Evangelical student who objected on religious grounds to the teaching of evolution could cry foul in a biology class. For such a student, the teaching of evolution might be experienced as profoundly “disrespectful” to his or her rights as an individual. And that student could even appeal to a rights-based discourse – religious liberty — to legitimate the grievance.

There is a dangerous collapse going on here, and one that refortifies feelings as facts and reduces education and politics, as well, to a matter of feelings. Hurt feelings are to be avoided; good feelings (and satisfied consumer-citizens) are to be maximized. The good feelings of some citizens, that is. U.S. history is replete with examples of laws and policies arranged to optimize the comfort of the majority, at the expense of minoritized subjects.

But disagreement and difference are not obstacles to our ability to share the world with others; they are its necessary conditions, even its psychic and, perhaps even, physio-psychic starting points. Thus, we might do well to distinguish, as the Chancellor does not, between feeling personally “abused” and being personally demeaned and abused. Personally, I think exposing students to quote unquote objectionable viewpoints — and being exposed to them myself, as a teacher — may be one of the goals of a university education.

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In calling for the classroom to be a “safe space,” the movement for trigger warnings ends up closing down one of the crucial places where students (and teachers, too) can experiment having and surviving the hurt feelings that may result from differences in viewpoints and differences in moral values. Learning that disagreement does not kill you — and that you need not kill someone who disagrees with you — could even be considered a kind of laboratory in democratic social relations. How do we make the classroom a place simultaneously of safety and risk? Call it the “safe-enough” classroom, a place where — as Audre Lorde once wrote about the “uses of anger” — we can “listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying.”

This distinction between content and manner of saying and hearing (what we could also call affective delivery and affective uptake) is crucial if we are to avoid the collapse of feelings and facts. When feelings become facts, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish between, say, feelings of unfairness and practices of unfairness. If you belong to a group that has traditionally enjoyed unquestioned social dominance, any expansion of fairness for historically marginalized groups — such as people of color, LGBT people, and non-Christians — might feel like a loss, might feel “unfair,” when your taken-for-granted social privileges and legal position are suddenly challenged. In contrast, legally protected discrimination not only feels unfair; it is.

Distinguishing feelings from facts — even as we also see how they become braided together — requires stepping back from the personal or, put another way, stepping differently in relation to it. When someone says something racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, let’s put some air in the room and say: what you said is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, not you are. What a world of difference exists between these two formulations. I suggest this rewording not simply because it might make it easier for people to take the risk of not-knowing with each other and with themselves, but because the capacity to analyze and alter the embedded structures that reproduce social inequalities and sometimes murderous violence require precisely this separation. Let me also make clear that this proposed shift away from criticizing who someone “is” to what someone said or did (and saying is a powerful form of doing) is not a call to spare the anger or avoid hurt feelings. Both are an unavoidable feature of our lives with others.

It may be that part of what drives the movement for “trigger warnings” on college campuses is a desire for some place safe and beautifully secure from the multiple precarities of our age as well as from the internal contradictions that ever haunt the self. That the campus is imagined as a safe zone is a painful paradox given the astonishing debt load so many of our students are taking on – are mortgaging their futures to – in order to be in our classrooms in the first place.

In a context of precarity, many students ask, not unreasonably, for care. What does a pedagogy of care look and, crucially, feel like? I do not have a settled answer to this question, but I want to raise it both as shared challenge and as call to listen between the lines to what some (many? most?) students are asking for when they ask for advanced notice about texts or other class content that might upset them. I do not provide such warnings in my own classrooms, but I do try to take care. Offer care. Practices of care and caring are not strangers to the classroom, even as such practices will not and cannot feel like the practices of care on offer in a therapy session.

I will leave it to Avgi Saketopoulou, in her forthcoming addition to this forum, to say more about these crucial differences between classroom and consulting room. I’ll say only this: All the participants in this BullyBlogger forum on trigger warnings teach classes and/or do research that frontally engage questions of social injustice and suffering, the ravages of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Our students care about these issues, and so do we. Their political concerns and their personal histories inform how they read a given text or interpret a given image. This is part of the back-story of our academic passions, too. Maybe reading always begins from the standpoint of a certain “coloniality of the present,” to use Jack Halberstam’s phrase, in which we project ourselves and our desires backwards in time or into a particular text or film. Nevertheless, even if engagement starts from such self-interested projections, it cannot stop there. Texts are not our mirrors, and, arguably, one of the critical pedagogic tasks is to widen the circle of care beyond the self as origin or destination. “One writes,” Foucault once said, “in order to become other than what one is.” This seems a good model for reading and teaching, too. Who knows, but becoming other to oneself or, at least, to the self you thought you were and had to be is something the classroom might even share with the therapist’s consulting room. And that truly might be worth singing about.

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3 Responses to “Classrooms and Their Dissed Contents”

  1. martuhr4as November 27, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on martuhr4as.

  2. habariganiamerica November 30, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    Reblogged this on Habari Gani, America!.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. University – A Free Not A Safe Space | Homo economicus' Weblog - March 22, 2015

    […] The speech bubble picture comes from another blog post on the subject here. […]

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