Monday, November 21, 2011

For Students: Some Reflections on Recent Events

It is hard to be a teacher in November. The grading seems never-ending. The strange emails from students who have not been in class since September start trickling in. Research deadlines for the semester creep closer and closer. And there are still two and a half weeks worth of lectures to be written. Oh yes, and did I mention the grading? But recent and ongoing events have reminded me once again that these are small (albeit pressing) parts of my job as a teacher. There are global lessons to be learned. They are unfolding before our eyes, and they are being taught to us by students.

Like many of you I have spent the weekend watching in horror as students sitting in peaceful protest on the ground are sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. I have watched as professors stand with their students in peaceful protest, and I have watched as they too are thrown to the ground. I have read one of the most powerful examples of speaking truth to power in Assistant Professor Nathan Brown's open letter to University of California Davis Chancellor Linda PB Katehi calling for her resignation. And when that Chancellor finally left the safe confines of her office I have watched as hundreds of students employ the powerful tool of silence. I have watched this all from my computer screen in my home in Canada where on November 10th police were called onto the campus of my alma mater and pepper sprayed students who were in peaceful protest against tuition hikes.

I have been enraged by these occurrences. I have been disheartened. I have been moved to tears. But most importantly, I have been moved. 

Sure, some of those students who demonstrated incredible restraint while Chancellor Katehi walked to her car have handed in late assignments, skipped class, or sent emails signed 'respond ASAP!' Or not. No doubt some of the students on the McGill campus sit in the back of class and text throughout lectures. What I mean here is that these are not perfect people; they are people whose lives are affected by policies, economies, and now by pepper spray.

As Cathy N. Davidson and others suggest, those of us who teach in the university space have a responsibility to our students that extends beyond coming to class prepared with well written and well conceived lectures.What I am saying moreover is this: there is a profound connection between standing in front of students in a classroom and standing beside students on political and ethical grounds. It is a connection I am going to work harder to remember as I walk into the classroom, and as I manoeuvre through the minutiae. We occupy positions of relative power, even those of us in sessional or part-time positions. We owe it to our students to let them know that we support them, that we care about their issues, and that we will stand with them in protest against injustice.

We owe it to them. We owe it to the future we want to occupy.

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Thanks to TVM, MJH, and MRE. Thanks to Judith T. for telling me she was also moved.

3 comments:

  1. Well said. I've been thinking the same thing lately as my admiration and respect for my own students has gone up after watching how courageous so many other students have been lately, both at our alma mater and in the US.

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  2. Courage, indeed, Pantagruelle. Let me add that your students are lucky to have a brilliant and courageous teacher such as yourself.

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  3. People are manifesting real bravery, and real integrity; it doesn't matter to me, really, whether I agree with the politics or whether I don't. It's just so heartening to see people acting (peacefully, deliberately) on their principles.

    I'm impressed.

    Here in Waterloo, some students from the Catholic college's family, marriage, and sexuality program were picketing over cosmetic genital surgery, waving placards telling us that every vulva is beautiful.

    I love students, and I love how they act on their ideals. It's an ideal I myself hope to live up to.

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