Statement on Teaching and Diversity
Like many professors, the past two years of teaching – during the rise of the alt-right, the hostility of Campaign 2016, and the increased political polarization inherent in the filter bubble – have been both the best of times and worst of times in my classrooms. Particularly at my small (very liberal) liberal arts school – located minutes from the tragic death of Philando Castille – our longstanding commitments to diversity (our current incoming class is over 40% students of color and first generation students; our “brand” has historically attracted huge numbers of veterans, GLBTQIA, and young people on the autism spectrum) – has made this moment in our country’s history particularly painful, and palpable, especially when your classes focus on American political rhetoric, the First Amendment, theories of racial and sexual identity, and the relationship between words and violence.
All of that said, as a rhetorical theorist (and educator) I think (as always) that the answer
lies in the search for shared values, and what the humanities (at its best) provides: The opportunities to systematically (and methodically) interrogate texts and ideas to offer the clarity necessary for opposing groups to – not necessarily agree – but connect across the divide, to understand the worlds (and brains) our fellow citizens live in. To this end, I’ve recently “doubled-down” on two principles and pedagogies that have always been foundational for me.
Ideological Translation Work
In my upper level theory courses, I’ve begun assigning students the task – once they’ve processed Judith Butler or feminist theory or Mari Matsuda’s ideas about hate speech – of “translating” that work into a vernacular that the “other side” (e.g., their perceived political opponents) can understand (e.g., working class white males, elderly religious female Trump voters, etc.) This applies to disciplinary methodologies as well: Rather than pretending that all their professors see the world the same, we’ve begun actively researching – and translating -- how different disciplines handle difference and diversity. (For instance, how the Big Data approach -- of the social sciences and Silicon Valley -- re-entrenches older racial and cultural biases, how medical research often “normalizes” a particular type of body, etc.)
Taking Back The First Amendment from The Trolls
Going back to my grad school days teaching at Ohio State, I’ve been interested in utilizing the shared constitutional principles of the First Amendment – not just the actual law, but the “rhetoric” and civic vernacular of free speech – as a starting point to carve out our community values – starting with the classroom and the campus -- for democratic engagement. One of the benefits of teaching at a tiny liberal arts school is that students can actually take an active role in shaping what they see as allowable or unallowable discourse. In my recent professional communication class – with sizable numbers of Somali, Hmong, and African-American students – we used the Arizona legislature’s (thankfully abandoned) efforts to attack Universities for ‘social justice’ work as a starting point to think about how (in terms of policy statements and public relations) Hamline could “re-brand” our commitments to diversity in the common American vernacular of free speech without undermining the respect, protections, and opportunities that diversity provides.
All of which is to say: As a teacher, and scholar of American political and digital ethics, I picked Hamline as my home precisely because of its long-standing commitments to classroom diversity, and the opportunities it affords for real and robust conversations across the political divide. My interests, at this point in my career, at working for a school that doesn’t actively embrace these principles – and put them into enrollment practice -- is nil. And my past life as a Catholic and aspiring social justice warrior – working with Ralph Nader’s Appleseed Center and watching how, on issues like poverty, welfare, and living wages, people from across the political and religious aisle could come together to fight the good fight – keeps me optimistic that things will be better as long as we keep talking to each other and finding the commonalities that, for brief productive moments, can transcend our differences. Why else, after all, would you dedicate your life to teaching rhetoric?