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Oct 26, 2020

Teaching is not political activism

The Antiracist movement captured the academia, provided urgency, energy and a new focus to our work for justice. Many of our previous efforts with time became benign conversations about culture, broad and homogeneous inclusion, tolerance, etc. Somehow, despite all the critique, the “tourist approach” to multiculturalism remained strong. The antiracist uprising of 2020 changed that dynamics by focusing on one of the two original sins of the American project: Black slavery and extermination of Native Americans.

I have to say that I don’t find anything controversial about including the considerations of justice, including racial justice, in the aims of public education. The worn argument regarding political neutrality of education has been debunked. Neutrality is a conservative position, and education in contemporary society cannot be very conservative. I don’t want to go into a long-winded argument about why that is the case. The simplistic version of it is that societies change too fast for a conservative model of education to be relevant. Education is a huge public sector consuming some 8% of GDP and including a large portion of the population. We cannot afford not to use it for effecting and managing some desirable social change. We can debate which change is desirable, but it is too expensive to be the dead weight. Therefore, if it can help such problems as racism, we should. And if can do it more forcefully and more effectively, we should, too.

The question is how. The antiracist education has a fairly robust theory, but few established practical pedagogical approaches. One of the most problematic areas is the issue of educator’s authority and how it can and should be used for the purposes of antiracist education. In the political arena, the antiracist activism is almost always about confronting the political power, exposing and changing crypto-racist policies, practices, and discourses. A typical classroom is a much more complex environment than any city hall. An anti-racist educator has to confront his or her own and students’ racist attitudes and behaviors. And yet the educator is the agent of power, and students, even if they are ignorant and prejudiced, are also the relatively powerless. I can only imagine how difficult this terrain for faculty of color. The students they see are often both the oppressors and the oppressed: by the virtue of their own identities for the former, and by virtue of being students for the latter. In addition, the students in the classroom are not exactly volunteers. Students cannot walk away if they politically disagree with the instructor. Because the classroom is not a voluntary group, the freedom of speech for the instructor is somewhat limited. To add more complexity, some students will use their protected status to advance prejudice. While it is always tempting to use the full educator’ authority for the greater social good, the indiscriminate use of such power may do more harm than good.

All I am saying is that it is very-very difficult to manage. Teaching is not exactly the same as political activism, although they often overlap. The institutional arrangements and the power tensions are different here. And we all need to develop a common, pragmatic understanding of where the boundaries are and how they are enforced. For that, an open discussion is needed.

Oct 19, 2020

The harsh professor syndrome

It happens to those professors who do not learn how to teach and relate to students reasonably well within the first 3 years or so of their career. Receiving one- or two-years’ worth of negative student evaluations is tolerable; one can always use them to grow and learn. However, if they keep coming, the temptation to blame the students becomes almost unbearable. We begin to hear that “our students” are unprepared, immature, do not have good study skills, and need discipline. From such a colleague, we hear that students are too conservative, lacking imagination, racist, and otherwise prejudiced (All of which may be true but our job is actually to help overcome those deficiencies). The afflicted professor begins to talk more and more about the academic rigor, and how it is our job to uphold higher academic standards. They talk about how students need to learn a hard lesson, that harsh unbendable rules will prepare them for future lives and careers. You will inevitably hear how every student should be treated in exactly the same way. You will be told that if a student is homeless and lives in her car with a child, she must turn on her paper exactly before the midnight on Friday, like the syllabus says, otherwise it would be unfair to other students. And the entire world may actually end iа you show the slightest flexibility. You will hear that a student’s parent struggling with COVID is not an excuse for a missed class without a doctors’ note. And you will hear those stories again and again. They become incantations more than communication.

Our brains are very good at generating thousands of excuses to justify harshness toward students. As Tolstoy once wrote, “We love people not so much for the good they've done us, as for the good we've done them.” And vice versa, we do not like people we are mean to. Each individual excuse may have validity to it, and we all make fun of some of our students. However, the give-away sign of the fully blossoming harsh professor syndrome is the obsessive discussion of reasons why it is just, right, and necessary to be an asshole. The syndrome is not caused by intrinsic personal traits, although there may be a predisposition. No, it is a result of failure to teach, and the strong need to explain away the failure. Chronic failure is incompatible with professional and personal self-respect. It creates a tremendous cognitive dissonance. The dissonance can be resolved in one of two ways: by learning how to teach and/or relate to students, or by developing the harsh professor syndrome.

The tragedy of the syndrome is that it is very rarely reversible. Once a person develops it, her or his teaching and relationships with students fall victim of the self-fulfilled prophecy. One starts expecting all the bad things from students, and of course, they manifest in one’s classroom more and more readily. I am not writing from some point of moral superiority. If not for the great support from my senior colleagues at Bowling Green, I could have developed it too. They never supported the bad student talk, but strongly supported me in my growth as a teacher. I am so glad we have such a strong culture of teaching here at Sac State; it is the only way to avoid developing the syndrome. However, ultimately, it is a personal responsibility to stay away from it. Doctors never complain to each other how sick their patients are. Neither should we ever allow each other to blame student for the fact that they need teaching.

Oct 12, 2020

Churches, unmasked

Some 19 per cent of Americans do not believe masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Many of those are Christian, and churches remain significant virus spreaders. Short of being an actual public health expert with access to raw data, how would you know if masks are or are not effective? Of course, a non-scientist would have no knowledge about this. Scripture does not address viral infections. To claim knowing something inaccessible to you is a case of pride, which Christianity have considered sinful for its entire existence. Jesus himself taught about humility, and the Church fathers after him did the same. St Augustine famously wrote that the way of truth is “is first humility, second humility, third humility.” And also, he thought that “Pride is the beginning of sin.”

One may consider the anti-masking attitude to be an expression of personal courage, of not fearing death. However, since mask wearing intends to protect others rather than just the wearer, the argument does not work. A good Christian is supposed to care about his or her neighbor first. It is also important to remember than once you are sick, someone has to take care of you risking their lives, pay for treatment, and cover for you at work and at home. Being courageous at someone else’s expense strikes me as the most un-Christian behavior imaginable.

Some churchgoers claim personal freedom as justification for defying the government regulations regarding masks. Again, personal freedom and the opposition to the civil authorities may be OK as stand-alone secular values. The problem is, they are not very Christian. The entire project is based on the call to submit to God, and remove fallen humans from the center of the universe. If you know anything about Christianity, it does NOT offer an anthropocentric vision of the universe. The European Enlightenment – yes, it is partially anthropocentric. But Christianity is theocentric; it is a religion after all. It distinguishes between the political liberation and the spiritual one. So, stop fighting the imagined government conspiracy, and start thinking about your own soul. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." You are free to sign up for a militia, but don’t drag Christianity into it.

Yet another folk theory is that faith will somehow protect the believer from contracting the virus. That is a naïve and ignorant position. You are not going to drive 100 miles an hour on a residential street assuming God will protect you and others from you, right? God did not sign a contract with you, saying that you can do anything dangerous and stupid, and he would rescue you, as long as you say a few prayers once a week. If you think that you’re somehow covered by a divine insurance policy, you have missed the last 5,000 years of religious life. The Jews discovered the folly of idolatry (that is an imagined contractual relationship with God) and tried to warn the world. Well, that was not entirely successful either, as New York’s Hasidim just demonstrated.

The sad truth is that many people who claim to be Christians do not care to know the first thing about Christianity, its values and its intellectual tradition. While there are many different branches of Christianity, not one of them can explain why a believer should harm others, or why one should claim to possess knowledge one cannot possess. If you simply want to make a political point, do it outside the church, or start paying taxes on church income.

Oct 4, 2020

Black Lives Matter: (Only) or (Too)?

In conversations with my Russian friends, I suddenly realized that some of them completely misunderstand what “Black Lives Matter” means. They imagine an “Only” where there is none, and miss the “Too” or “Also” that is implied. The intended meaning of any utterance can be only understood within a dialogical context: what is this a response to? What was said before, and what is expected to be said later? An utterance makes sense as a link within the large chain of the big dialogue. Here is the actual reconstructed sequence, with silent parts in parentheses:

  1. (American police behave as if Black lives do not matter, only White ones do)
  2. (No), Black lives matter, (too).

“Black lives matter” on its own, without the first presumed utterance does not make any sense. With it, it makes a lot of sense. The “No” is silent, because the first utterance is implied but not said. You should be able to hear the “No,” because this s a protest movement after all. One should at least ask what they are protesting against.

The “too” is silent for a different reason. In English, like in other languages, “Too” connotes with an afterthought; it denotes the second class that is born out of comparison with the original class of phenomena. For example, “I am tall, too” means that the thought of being tall did not occur to me until you mentioned that you are tall. If I say simply “Black lives matter, too,” that means that the thought about the value of Black lives did not occur to me before we started talking about White lives. To avoid this connotation, the “too” is silent or implied. In fact, the absence of “too” is a powerful rhetorical move on its own. It actually conveys something like “Not ‘too’.” An intentionally omitted signifier is still a signifier and you cannot skip the omitted.

There are more layers of meaning in omitting the “too.” One reads like this: “Black lives matter (ESPECIALLY, because they are in a lot more danger than White lives).” Another layer emphasizes the fact that no one really doubts that White lives matter. The utterance makes manifest the irony that we actually have to say such a self-evident thing. It provokes the listener to begin thinking “of course they do,” but then bite his tongue, to admit that the “of course” is NOT a matter of course. It forces the listener to face the tragic reality that such things have to be said at all. The important thing is that the omission of “too” is not a mistake, not a lack of clarity, but a complex and intentional semiotic device. It carries several layers of meaning worthy of understanding and discussion.

All texts, especially short ones are open to multiple interpretation. That does not mean such interpretations are arbitrary. Some interpretations are just wrong. Those few of my Russian friends who are outside of the contemporary English usage may be forgiven for the failure to understand these meanings. I would give a pass to very young, naive or cognitively impaired people. However, we also see fully grown and very American adults who present a very different discursive construction:

  1. (No statement)
  2. (Only) Black lives matter
  3. (No), All lives matter (equally)

This is a rhetorical sleight of hand, or a version of the equivocation fallacy. No one who authentically says “Black lives matter” implies the “Only.” It takes a deceptive intent to impose such a meaning on the utterance in question. I can easily prove this: give me an example of a real conversation where the phrase “Only Black lives matter” would be used. Just construct or recall a little exchange, please. I bet you could not do it. It cannot be understood in any kind of real discursive context. There is simply no plausible conversation where a reasonable person would say “Only Black lives matter.” The implied “only” does not exist in the American discourse; it is fully fictional. Objecting against it is really arguing in bad faith. It ignores the entire utterance “(The police behave as if Black lives do not matter)” or pretends it has not been implied. Moreover, it denies the existence AND importance of the police behavior that disproportionally affect Black lives.

Now, one can dispute  the very fact that police behaves in a way that that implies Back lives have less value than White ones. It would be very difficult to do given the statistics and the lived experiences of majority of Black people. But it would be at least an honest way of entering a conversation. I can imagine at least trying to argue about the facts with a person like that. However, it is very difficult and perhaps pointless to argue with a person who is engaged in a deception by pretending to misunderstand what “Black lives matter” really means.