The Syllabus for Hard Times

My grief at the outcome of the election is profound and it continues. It’s the atmosphere in which I live. It affects my sense of what is possible. It limits my horizons of hope. I can read all the Rebecca Solnit in the world, but the truth is I’m sad.

At the same time, I have work to do and I know that it is never more important to teach than in times when hope feels hard to grasp. So, every day I try to still be the best teacher I can be. And, of course, my students are doing the same and together, even in our sadness and uncertainty, we continue to arrive at great and good and exciting places of discovery and wisdom.

As propaganda surrounds us, how can teachers—college professors, especially (since that’s where my expertise lies)—work to help students distinguish truth from spin? As we prepare for the administration of a President who has courted the support of racists, hate groups, and neo-Nazis, a President who has admitted sexual assault and has openly mocked the disabled, a Gold Star family, Mexicans, and too many other groups to count, what is the right kind of respect—if that’s a word that has any meaning any more—to accord the office of the presidency? How bet to we continue to value the presidency as part of our democracy as we fight the policies—and outright lies—of the incoming President himself?

I am asking myself these questions every day. Following and learning from activists such as Rebecca Solnit, Shaun King and his #Injustice Boycott, Mikki Halpin, and her action now newsletter, and others.

My tiny contribution to this is a massive, open google drive folder which I’m calling the Syllabus for Hard Times. I value reading long hard things, but I find doing so increasingly difficult. I am distracted. I like the quick hit of a game of solitaire, a podcast, a “like” on a cute post. I’m not proud of it and I am striving to go deeper, to learn more so that I can be worthy of the credo Virginia Woolf expressed in the 1930’s: “thinking is my fighting.” If thinking is my fighting, I have to feed my brain enough so that I can think.

I have learned a lot from the various syllabi that have been circulating lately around #Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, NODAPL, and other movements, and, as I’ve been teaching a lot of pedagogy seminars lately, to teachers both new and experienced, I started the drive with a long bibliography of what I've been using to discuss teaching with teachers and then I and others have been adding from there. 

You can find the whole folder here. You can fill out the survey on how—if at all—your teaching will change here. Please take a look, add your own ideas and contributions, and pass it on.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I’m delighted for Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen, a book of prose poems on Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America, is getting lots and lots of praise. I read the book—devoured it, really. It’s an amazing performance, full of contemporary art (including some work by Glenn Ligon, whose text-based paintings have long been a favorite of mine), rage, tenderness. Some of the language is so easy to understand that it hardly feels constructed at all; other pages are dense, thick, hard to read. Sometimes what’s hard is the confrontation with my own racial fears, my own biases; sometimes, she makes the text hard just by leaving you with a lot of blank space on the page. I expected it to be a great book, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging. I’m amazed at the power with which she manages to speak hard truths about race, racism, and violence in ways that keep you reading even through the pain. We are talking James Baldwin levels of power, here.

Of all the pages in the book, the one that upset me the most, the one that sticks with me, the one that makes me wince is the one about going to a new therapist: “You have only ever spoken on the phone,” she writes. “Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients…..When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”

With that, the trauma therapist doles out her trauma to the patient.

How do you go on from there?

The therapist apologizes, there is a break, and Rankine writes “I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Who is apologizing? To whom? We know the therapist was wrong—very, very wrong, and we know she apologizes, but this free standing sentence is more than that: it’s a kind of prayer for the mess we are in, an acknowledgement of how much more we will have to do before we can get out. It’s one of many apologies in the book and it’s both enough and not nearly enough. It’s beautiful.