Some Suggestions For Talking About Racist Incidents at U of M In Class

Life is funny. When I imagined teaching students to write, I never thought it’d include talking with my students about the racist graffiti someone scrawled all over their dorm, or the white guy who yelled the n-word at demonstrators last night, or the anti-Latino messages on the Rock. (Or the emails last year. Or the fliers.) But then I also never imagined I’d have to call my senators every couple of weeks and beg them not to throw millions of people off our insurance. C’est la vie! Here are some thoughts about how to deal with this in our classrooms.

I should preface: this advice applies most of all to white instructors or to instructors who aren’t already used to talking about race. In my experience, my colleagues of color in the humanities often already have a ton of strategies for talking about this stuff, and I won’t presume to tell you all how to do so. This advice comes from my own journey as a teacher who has learned to talk about these things because, being white, I wasn’t already forced to do so from day one. I welcome comments and links from the experts, but this post is for newbies.

  1. You’ve got to say something. You may not think of yourself as a political person. You may think you have no business speaking on issues beyond your professional training. But these incidents aren’t (or aren’t only) technical problems subject to professional expertise–they’re moral and political problems and that means they’re everybody’s business. And you’ve already taken a stance simply by showing up and doing your job. Every time you step into your classroom at this large and diverse university, your presence implicitly says “My students are human beings capable of learning, and they deserve to be here.” You’re already not-neutral. When a dangerous and growing movement challenges your students’ right to learn, to live in Ann Arbor, or even to live at all, they are also negating your work. You’re already in the fight whether you want to be or not–yes, even if you’re in one of those disciplines that prides itself on being above-the-fray. “The fray” is simply human life and you’re not above it. So act like it. Tell your students of color that you see what they’re dealing with and you’re not OK with it.
  2. Keep it simple. I teach in West Quad, where this weekend’s racist-graffiti incident took place. For all I know, my past or present students were among those targeted. They were certainly among those affected. So I walked into the classroom, took a deep breath, and said, “Look. Before we get into today’s work, I have to say how angry and sorry I am that somebody went out of their way to insult my students. If you’re one of the people targeted by this thing, I see you, and I know you have to deal with this kind of nonsense all the time, and I respect you and I want you here. And if you’re the person who did it–well, turn yourself in and take your punishment like a grownup. Does anybody need to talk about this further before we move on with class?”
  3. Don’t force folks to talk if they don’t want to–and don’t make people speak for their groups. Ever. In one of my classes, students really wanted to talk about the incident for a while. In the other, a few people commented and then the class seemed to want to move on, so we did. On this, and on everything, never ask students for “the black perspective” or “the woman’s perspective” or “the disabled person’s perspective” on this or that issue. It drives folks nuts. (The conservative Christian writer Dorothy Sayers pointed out the illogic of this back in the forties, when she commented on the absurdity of asking women what the “women’s perspective” on various issues was. “Women are human,” Sayers wrote, and like any group of humans, they don’t all feel the same way about things.)
  4. Don’t be freaked out if targeted people express anger. As intellectuals, we’re sort of trained to distrust strong emotions, especially anger. We think it makes us dangerously biased, or something. But anger is an appropriate reaction to some situations! I’m angry and sad. So if a student of color expresses raw, angry feelings, resist the temptation to manage or defuse those feelings for the sake of your other students. Nod and sigh. Give them space to be mad.
  5. Related to #4: Don’t force the conversation to end on a positive note (“Oh, but there’s been lots of progress on race!”). These incidents are bad and students of color may have nothing to say about them but “This really makes it hard to feel safe around white people.” This is not fun for white students or instructors to hear, but it’s not weird for people to feel this way, and it’s not something you can argue away in a moment–the only solution to their discomfort is a better world, and till that comes along (with our help), the emotions are valid. Sometimes you have to just nod, allow a moment of silence, and then move on into the lesson. It’s awkward, but trying to manage the student’s justified anger is infinitely more awkward. (There are limits, obviously. If a student says “All white people are evil and should die,” you’re allowed to say, “Not in my classroom!” because that’s also an attack on some of your students’ right to exist. But this isn’t a likely scenario.)

How Not To Be Driven Nuts By Student Questions You’ve Already Answered

As we get deeper into the semester, one of the weirder aspects of the teaching life–the constant emails from students asking questions we’ve already answered in the syllabus–goes from being a minor annoyance to a real productivity problem. I’ve thought about this a fair bit, and here are two strategies I’ve adopted to help alleviate the problem.

  1. Be generous in your outlook. I used to wonder why students would rush up to me at the end of the very first day of class to ask me questions that I had answered literally moments before. It seemed a strange use of my and their time. I also wondered why this kind of behavior seemed to ramp up again in the week or so before their first paper was due. Then I thought back to my first year or two of college, and I remembered the fascinated, apprehensive young person I was, how interesting and cool I thought (most of) my teachers were, and how much I wanted them to perceive me as a distinct human being and not as “blurry face in the crowd #35.” I think that sometimes, for students, asking questions they already know the answer to is a way of trying to feel seen. And this is a legitimate human need. If you remember that, you’ll feel a little less irritated, and the experience of the first weeks will be more pleasant.
  2. Deal with it in advance. But you’ve still gotta deal with the behavior. For the last few semesters, I have made a point of sending out a lengthy email a few days before classes begin. (It’s one of those emails you write once, save, and then cut-and-paste, changing minor details from semester to semester.) I welcome them to the class, attach the syllabus, explain where my office is, and then I link them to a couple of essays that I say will be “helpful to them in their college career.” I emphasize that these are not homework or assigned readings, just things that I wish someone had told me when I was a student. The links I use are this essay about “how to email your professor,” and this essay about grade-grubbing and why it won’t help them. (Another, shorter, but less engaging read would be this piece from USA Today; it does both jobs.) I then include a disclaimer about how these articles are a little snarky in tone (so that the students won’t attribute said snarkiness to me–Lord knows I’m snarky enough the rest of the semester that I don’t need to go borrowing any). And then I welcome to the class and say how much I’m looking forward to meeting each of them, so as to close on a friendly note. It has really helped.

How Michiganders Can Help Kill Trumpcare AGAIN

Hello, colleagues. I’m going to blog more about workflow and productivity for academics this week, but first I want to remind you that the Graham-Cassidy bill moving through Congress this week is a threat to your and your families’ health, safety, and life. And even though both of Michigan’s Senators have committed to voting against it, we can still do something to move the needle in other states, too. Indivisible has set up a simple tool by which you can call folks in other states whose Senators may be tempted to vote yes on this thing. Indivisible also gives you a simple script you can use. It takes a few minutes to set up and you can work from home. It’s here. Do a few calls today; we need all hands on deck.

I’m also told that Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a potential “Yes” on the bill, is welcoming calls from out of state: (202)-224-6665. Call and maybe remind her that Planned Parenthood funding, a priority of hers, will be slashed by Graham-Cassidy.

If you know anybody in our neighboring Ohio personally, reach out to them and ask them to call Senator Rob Portman, another potential “Yes”: (202) 224-3353

What Are Your Productivity Secrets?

We’re almost two weeks into the semester–just long enough for that initial “Maybe this is the year I really keep a handle on things” feeling to come, and then go! But it is possible to maintain good writing, research, and life habits while staying on top of your work as a teacher. I’m going to share some tips and link to some resources that help me. Sound off in the comments about your productivity tips, and I’ll feature them in future blog posts!

  1. Grading is a series of sprints, not a marathon. Grading, especially written work, is … maybe not the most joyous part of the job for most of us, and so I tend to want to do a lot of it on one day so as to “free up” other days completely (for writing, or just for a Stranger Things marathon). But you don’t do your best work that way–and, for a lot of us, you take longer too. Think about it: if you tell yourself you’re “grading” for the next seven hours, you’ll take more little breaks between one paper and the next, and you’ll find your attention wandering between pages. (Facebook never looks more attractive than when you’re seven papers deep into a seven-hour grading shift.) If you tell yourself you’re going to rip through a few papers every day for several days, you really do move through each set of papers more quickly and efficiently, and you often bring a higher level of attention and engagement to each individual paper. At least, that’s how it works for me. Bread-crumb it throughout the working day.
  2. Combine lesson planning and exercise. A lot of us struggle to find time to exercise, but a lot of us also get our best ideas when in motion. So before your daily jog or walk, glance at your syllabus for the week (or even the readings) and see what ideas get jostled loose by exercise. Then jot down a rough draft of your plans immediately afterward.
  3. Think like a parent. Everyone knows that parents of very young children face terrible challenges to their productivity. And academia, like many other fields, still unjustly penalizes women especially for having children, in ways both formal and informal. But studies show that working parents are more productive on average than their peers, once the kids are school-age. (This only makes the discrimination that they face more unconscionable.) Why? I’ve asked several parents I know, and this is what they tell me: They’ve stopped being perfectionists about process. They seize every scrap of time, rather than worrying about having the “right” set of conditions for writing, thinking, or whatever. They charge ahead and get done what they can. Over time, that means they beat out those of us who have no children, but who, say, stress out so much about workflow and productivity that we write blog posts for our union about it.
  4. Reward yourself. Did you finish those revisions? Write that grant proposal? Rec those twelve students? That all counts as work, and it’s worth a little self-recognition, even if that’s just meeting a friend for coffee.

Jo VanEvery is a writing coach in Canada who specializes in working with academics; her blog is always worth checking out. Matt Might has an especially helpful rundown of his own productivity “hacks” (though God, do I hate that word; we’re people, not programs). It’s long. Maybe save it for Fall Break!

Let’s Kill Trumpcare AGAIN

Hello, colleagues! I blogged at you two months ago about the last version of Obamacare repeal. The combined efforts of thousands of Americans stopped that effort. So why are we still having this conversation? Indivisible has a good rundown; here are the highlights:

We knew we weren’t completely out of the woods on TrumpCare, but we got good news on September 1, when the Senate Parliamentarian (basically the referee on Senate rules and procedure) announced that the legislative vehicle that Republicans were trying to use for TrumpCare would expire at the end of the fiscal year. … That decision set a new deadline of September 30. As Congress returned to Washington, that seemed like a tough deadline to meet, given Congress’s packed September agenda. The packed agenda worked in our favor—with so many deadlines to meet, Republicans would have a hard time pivoting back to health care or moving on to the Trump tax scam. … [But] despite the tight timeline, some Senate Republicans are not willing to give up on a 7-year goal without one last try and are working on a last ditch effort. … Senator John McCain, who opposed TrumpCare in July, said that he would support the Graham-Cassidy bill, under certain conditions. If all other Republicans hold, that would give Mitch McConnell the 50 votes plus Vice President Pence’s tie breaker that he needs to jam TrumpCare through the Senate.

I’ll skip over my outraged hyperventilating and just answer the question: what can you do? Well, there are two paths here at the moment.

  1. Do you live in Michigan? (I’m guessing yes.) Good. Call your Senators and tell them to run out the clock. Call and tell them to do this every day. Here’s an explainer and script.
  2. Do you have family or friends in Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Ohio, Tennessee, or West Virginia? Great. Call them, email them, text them, whatever, and tell them to call their Senators this week like their lives depend on it. Very likely they do. Here’s a sample script (for voters in Ohio, whose Senator Rob Portman is probably squishy on this).

This week, I’ll be blogging on behalf of LEO again, and I’m going to try to write some helpful, fun, non-hectoring posts about teaching and workflow. But first, let’s kill this zombie of a bill again.


It’s in the Syllabus…

First of all, Happy Labor Day! If you’re anything like most lecturers we know, you’re probably laboring on wrapping up your syllabus today. If that’s the case, maybe we can all help each other out here. Writing a syllabus can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility:


If we had a nickel for every time we said “It’s in the syllabus” or, “did you check the syllabus?” or, “what does the syllabus say about that?” we’d all be very wealthy people. Likewise for every time we’ve grumbled about how little attention students sometimes pay the syllabus.

But maybe there’s a reason for the seemingly disproportionate attention to syllabi among students and instructors?

Here’s a terrific post by genre scholar Amy Devitt on what a syllabus does and can do. Some of her insights about underlying assumptions of the syllabus inspire me to take a breath, take a step back, and assess what my syllabus is actually doing. How can I make it more inclusive? More engaging? A better representation of the ethos of the course I want to create with and for my students?

Let’s use this space to share ideas and insights, and to ask each other questions, to troubleshoot as we get ready to step into the chute of the semester tomorrow. What do you do with your syllabi that you find particularly effective and engaging? How do you navigate the tension between Canvas (or other course sites, if you use another platform) and hard copy?

Free Magazine Subscription for Union Members

In These Times is offering a free 12-month subscription to all union members. Go here to sign up.

The pitch:

Every month, In These Times provides news, investigative reports and provocative debates about politics, social movements and culture—as well as the best coverage of the labor movement in the nation.

Sign up for 12 free issues—no payment or credit card info required, and no strings attached.

This special offer is available to all union members (U.S. only), thanks to a generous grant from the Puffin Foundation, a staunch supporter of workers’ rights.