Modern College: Part 2

A Year of Essays: January 8, 2022

During my teaching career, I have mostly dissuaded my students from taking my word as gospel. Certain things are undisputable — the standards of written communication (though they are constantly changing), scientific evidence (though new evidence can change the paradigm), certain causes and effects (though independent variables can alter those). I preach little-t truth — some things are just held as self-evident. The big-T Truth is elusive.

Yet, students want to know the right answer, the right way to do something, the right path. I was there, myself, at some point, but the more I know, the more I do not know.

[A delightful anecdote. Wisława Szymborska, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, said in her Nobel speech, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’.” Lillian Brown, make-up and media specialist to the presidents, and whom I affectionately called Mommy #5, had no experience on television when, as a public school teacher in the 50s, she was offered air time on this new network called PBS, and she said, “Let’s give it a try.” These two have been my inspirations.]

As I read the recent onslaught of articles about professors saying the wrong thing in class, antagonizing students to challenge them to think, I wonder how they frame their words in the classroom. In Emma Pettit’s article I referenced in Thursday’s essay, she tells the story of an adjunct writing instructor discussing cancel culture. As an activity, the instructor presented an opinion that students on the outside would object to but “be more nuanced than it appeared.” The instructor said to the class, “I am sick of talking about Black Lives Matter.”

Whoops! Pettit continues the story, relating there were many black students in class who were, understandably, upset. The class session was on Zoom, but that’s irrelevant. There’s a fine line between uncomfortable and offensive. The uncomfortable challenges students to think; the offensive shuts it down outright.

This reminds me of John, a former student, who was offended because he was required to attend a performance of The Vagina Monologues and write about it. (I know some women who have been offended by the show, but they went on their own volition.) As an instructor, I know many male students would be uncomfortable hearing truthful stories about how men have violated women, an analogy, I think, to whites being uncomfortable hearing truthful stories about how whites violated blacks and other POCs. Subversively, I wanted to empower women and enlighten men with Eve Ensler’s masterpiece. Yet, it offended John, and he shut down. He didn’t escalate it, though he could have. He was indignant to the end, though he did admit that he might have more to learn.

I was recently asked to include trigger warnings on my own works. Inwardly, I balked, but I did. And I learned something in doing so — it transfers the power to the recipient who can choose (or not choose) to be uncomfortable. Fair warning allows discomfort; no warning can provoke offensiveness.

Pettit, Emma. “When professors offend students.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/when-professors-offend-studentsv

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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.