Resolutions for a New Academic Year

Hernán Piñera, Creative Commons

September 05, 2017

We work in perilous times. Amplifying the usual stresses of the job, American academics now have to teach armed students (10 states have imposed "campus carry" on their university campuses), face bigots emboldened by a U.S. president, help students threatened with deportation, and contend with rising and virulent anti-intellectualism.

How, then, to manage the challenges of higher education in the 2017-18 academic year?

Remember that we are doing important work. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said 79 years ago this month, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." So, academics must defend the ideals of our profession: Evidence-based reasoning, carefully tested knowledge, and peer-reviewed scholarship best serve the public interest. Facts matter.

We can model those ideals for our students in our teaching and our assignments. We can require to support their claims with evidence and show them how to evaluate that evidence. What assumptions are embedded in a particular author’s analysis? What questions does a national survey not ask? Whose interests does a text serve? What worldview does it endorse?

Teach students to use language well. We can help them to be wary of lazy euphemism — not just because it is bad writing (though it often is), but because its bland familiarity can anaesthetize the attention. As George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," observes: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

No matter what subject you teach, your syllabus is a political document, notable for what it includes and what it does not.
The president and his staff spend their days wresting words from their meanings. Amplified by repetition and news coverage, their linguistic nihilism infects our usage, and compromises our collective ability to make sense of the world. So encourage students to discard "alt-right," "climate skeptic," and "alternative facts," and instead, say "white supremacist," "anti-science," and "lies." Help them to resist the slippery idiom of propaganda.

Be wary of the tendency to slip into false equivalencies. We often do that in a well-intentioned effort to be "fair to all sides." Certainly, we must be aware that students all bring different experiences (racial, gendered, religious, political) into the classroom, and we must treat them with respect.

However, we are not obliged to endorse views that dehumanize. For instance, there are not "two sides" to the white-supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville, Va., — or Bloomington, Minn., or Olathe, Kan., or any of the many other places where racists have struck recently. Nor are there "two sides" to equal rights for trans people.

As Marcia Chatelain recently wrote in these pages, "The pedagogical limitation of this approach is that it teaches students that any issue is subject to a point-counterpoint construction. ‘Some people believe that all people are created equal. Some other people believe in racial superiority,’ says the professor. Yes, these are two ostensible sides of an issue, but the disparate impact and consequences of these ideas when they have been codified in the law require clarity and explanation."

Incorporate current issues into the classroom, when we can. Medievalists can counter white supremacy’s attempts to appropriate their field by introducing students to people of color in medieval Europe and by directly refuting the bogus "history" propagated by Richard Spencer and other contemporary Nazis. In children’s literature (my field), we can challenge the sexism and racism in beloved classics, and offer better, more inclusive books. In young-adult-literature classes, we can teach novels that offer insight into the movement for black lives — Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (2015) and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017).

No matter what subject you teach, your syllabus is a political document, notable for what it includes and what it does not.

Tailor advice (such as mine) to our own individual abilities, personality, and ways of being in the world. The politically engaged elements of my teaching and research afford me a feeling of agency — the sense that, in my own small way, I am helping to make a positive difference.

However, this sort of civic engagement does not energize everyone to the same degree: Indeed, I have colleagues who do more than I do (and, frankly, are better at it). Nor is such engagement available to everyone in the same way: Members of minority groups bear the burden of being expected to speak out, and face greater risks for doing so.

As a tenured, straight, white male, I face less resistance to ideologically engaged pedagogy because my students are less likely to see me as "having an agenda." That is why I do it: I want to use my unearned privilege to challenge that same privilege and the structural oppression on which it depends. But there are many ways to encourage critical literacy, and we face different and unequal challenges. So, pursue this work in the ways that best suits you.

Take care of yourself. Contrary to what state legislators tell us, the vast majority of academics work hard. That is true no matter where we are in the profession — graduate teaching assistant, postdoc, lecturer, adjunct faculty member, tenure-track or tenured professor. Attaining any of these positions requires persistence, intelligence, and long hours. Indeed, even possessing that trio of traits offers no guarantees.

So, to whatever degree you’re able to pursue the preceding advice, also keep in mind the goal of balance. And expect that it will elude you most of the time, as it does me.

Begin by acknowledging that it’s hard to find balance in a thin-boundaried profession. Like many career paths, ours lacks a firm division between work and leisure. Intellectual labor doesn’t break down into discrete parts. In 2010, to refute the popular lie that academics don’t work, I blogged about how I spent every hour of the day for a full week. A dominant theme was that my job permeated my life: I was thinking about lesson plans while in the shower, taking mental notes for a chapter while running. Academics think, write, edit, and prepare for class where and when we find the time.

Remember that our bodies are not mere inconveniences. They allow us to teach, write, learn, and think. Our bodies have needs that must be met. Make time for exercise. If that’s not possible, then make time for meditation. Ideally, make time for both. On a weekly calendar, write specific days and times of exercise or meditation. If you don’t, there’s a risk that other obligations will colonize that time. If it’s on your calendar, you’re more likely to do it.

Care for our physical and mental health is particularly important right now, when each day seems to bring more violence, fresh evidence of accelerating climate change, or new plans to revoke civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, or gay rights. It’s a stressful time to be alive — especially for those in groups targeted by the current administration.

Finally, find ways to kindle hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is an active verb that requires commitment, action, engagement. (In other words, hope compels us to do more than just share links via social media.)

As the late Howard Zinn wrote 13 years ago: "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

So, let’s act. Let’s change the direction. Let’s get to work.

Philip Nel is a professor of English at Kansas State University. His most recent book is Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).