Teaching in Hostile Times

There is a long-time joke at my university that has far more than a grain of truth in it—the campus and the university environment captured in a metaphor, the bubble. Referring to the bubble elicits smiles and even laughter, until the bubble bursts.

Over three M-W-F morning courses this fall, I teach 40 students—39 are first-year students, and 39 are white. Most, as is typical of my university are women, and most are significantly privileged in a number of ways.

During fall break this year, vandalism and theft invaded the bubble, including Swastikas and sexually hostile language written on young women’s dormitory doors and marker boards.

So far the university response has been a mostly silent investigation and one official email from the Chief Diversity Officer and University Chaplain. When I engaged one class in a conversation about the incident, I heard the following concerns from students, which I shared with the President, Provost, Academic Dean, and CDO:

  • Students are concerned with a lack of information, and that only one email from two FU admins has been sent [1]. Some mentioned that email was in their spam folder.
  • Students expressed concern that almost no professors have addressed these events in class.
  • Students openly wondered if this is being “swept under the rug,” and fear that if/when people responsible are discovered, what the consequences will be.
  • More broadly, students expressed some trepidation about the open-campus nature, and seemed unsure how to alert and who to alert with specific concerns.

The second point stands out to me because a couple students directly noted that in one class the discussion planned for a class session was about how things used to be bad at the university—highlighting offensive pictures in old year books and such—yet the professor left the discussion there, failing to use that moment to link to the current evidence that things are still bad at the university.

Of the 15 students in that class, only one had been in a class that addressed the hostile vandalism; that class is taught by Melinda Menzer, professor of English, who has been quoted by media extensively on the incident:

“We are in a time where, nationally and internationally, white supremacists and their rhetoric have become more visible and more violent,” Menzer said. “We’ve seen Nazis and neo-Nazis marching on our streets, and they feel empowered in a way they have not felt empowered in decades.”

Menzer is a member of Temple of Israel in Greenville. Her grandfather immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1925 — the rest of his family was murdered in the Holocaust.

“None of this is abstract to me or my family, and I also think it shouldn’t be seen in isolation,” Menzer said. “They (white supremacists) don’t just hate Jews — they hate Muslims, they hate African Americans, they have strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. Those things are tied together in their manifestos. It is a matter for all good people to speak up against this hatred, now.”

Menzer said for her and others on campus, the graffiti is not something that can be brushed off as a joke.

“It is easy to say, ‘They’re just trying to scare people,’ or, ‘This is a joke,'” Menzer said. “It’s not that they are trying to scare people — it’s that they are scaring people. They are creating a negative environment, and that is why we all must speak out.”

Menzer said she does not feel that Furman is unique or more dangerous than other campuses because of the incident, but that the graffiti is a reflection of the rise in white supremacy worldwide.

“It is more important than ever before for a group of people to speak up and to name hate when they see it and to denounce it,” Menzer said. “All of us who have a voice need to send a clear message — this is hate, and we denounce it,” Menzer said.

Her careful and direct analysis and call for action, however, as my students have witnessed, have fallen mostly on deaf ears among faculty.

Faculty chair, Christopher Hutton, offered his own call to action to faculty in the first faculty meeting after the vandalism, in part concluding:

In the meantime, it is easy to feel powerless. What can we do as faculty? Well? We can teach [emphasis in original]. The messages we convey to students can be powerful. We can use this incident as a reminder that we must condemn acts of hatred and intolerance. We can be present [emphasis in original], taking an active part in the multiple efforts that are already underway across campus such as FaithZone, SafeZone, the recently announced anti-racism workshop coming up in a few weeks, CLP events, and other opportunities for inclusive dialogue. We can keep an eye out for those who might be most affected by the incident and provide support. What we can not do is to let the abhorrent behavior of a few individuals overshadow the good work that all of you are doing with students every day. We can, indeed we must [emphasis in original] continue to strive towards an inclusive environment in which the academic mission of the university can thrive. I stand here today to say that I plan to take part in that process and that I trust that you will also.

These calls both focus on the role of professors to teach in times of hostility.

As I have allowed and encouraged conversations in my classes, I have discovered that my students were uninformed about important concepts—gaslighting, the male gaze, the sexist origins of “hysterical,” and the traditional resistance in academia toward professors being political, either being public intellectuals or bringing so-called politics into their teaching.

Despite these conversations being grounded in horrible events, and despite these conversations being off-topic in that they were not in my original lesson plans and were only tangentially related to the content of the courses, the lessons were powerful and deeply academic, firmly grounded in the very essence of liberal arts and formal education in the pursuit of an ethical democracy.

These were examinations of personal autonomy, breeches of consent, and the rise of emboldened hatred—even as we all anticipate the perpetrators claiming it was all a joke.

The absence of addressing these events in classrooms is not surprising to me since the traditional view of teaching—K-12 and college—includes somehow requiring that teachers and professors remain dispassionate and politically neutral. At my university, the norm is clearly that professors should just teach their classes, that professors can and must be politically neutral.

Professor of political science and author of Comrade, Jodi Dean has recently weighed in on that tension with an argument for The Comradely Professor:

Etymologically, comrade derives from camera [emphasis in original], the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault. The generic function of a vault is producing a space and holding it open. This lets us hone in on the meaning of comrade: Sharing a room, sharing a space generates a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity that differentiates those on one side from those on the other. Politically, comradeship is a relation of supported cover, that is, the expectation of solidarity that those on the same side have of each other. Comrade, then, is a mode of address, figure of political belonging, and carrier of expectations for action. When we call ourselves comrades, we are saying that we are on the same side, united around a common political purpose.

And the problem with comradely professors?:

The comradely scholar is committed, fierce, and resolutely partisan. That means that she is more likely to be hated than loved in the academy. Her commitments are political, not disciplinary or professional commitments, which of course does not mean that she is undisciplined or unprofessional.

Like Dean, I argue and practice the ideology, critical pedagogy, that scholarship and teaching are inextricable from each other and both can only be political—even taking the neutral pose is political.

The professors at my university not discussing the hostile vandalism as part of class are making political choices and political stances, yet only those of us addressing these events directly in class will be framed as being the political ones. Comments online with the news article have born that out.

Most of my students are young women and some are Jewish; as Menzer noted, it doesn’t matter the claimed intent of the hostile vandalism because those acts have intimidated people, they have incited fear.

Teaching in hostile times requires a great deal of teachers, even more than in so-called normal times.

Our classrooms are not bubbles, our schools and colleges are not bubbles, and our ethical duties include a recognition that nothing is merely academic, that nothing is politically neutral.

Teaching in hostile times means teaching students’ lived lives, it means inviting their entire experiences into the classroom so that we as teachers and professors can listen, learn, and fully teach.

See Also

Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results?


[1] In my original email, I noted “one” admin inaccurately; the one email is signed by two admins as noted earlier in the post above.