Teaching in the Wake of Charlottesville

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Charlottesville Candlelight Vigil, Washington, D.C., August 13, 2017. Photo: Ted Eytan.
Creative Commons license.

 

A round-table discussion with Jarred Amato, Beverly Bunch-Lyons, Michael Dickinson, Emily Farris, Kevin Gannon, Nyasha Junior, and Heather Cox Richardson.

On August 11, 2017, white supremacists and militiamen converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, putatively to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park. That night and the following day, participants in the Unite the Right rally clashed violently with Black Lives Matter activists and other counterprotestors. Heather D. Heyer was killed, more than three dozen people were injured, and two Virginia state troopers died in the crash of a helicopter conducting video surveillance. Soon afterward, in schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States, the academic year began. Process asked seven educators whether and how the confrontation in Charlottesville affected their teaching. 

Did the events in Charlottesville change the topics and questions you were planning to address this semester or quarter? If so, how?

Beverly Bunch-Lyons: No. The events in Charlottesville did not change the topics and questions I planned to address this semester. I am teaching the first half of African American History this semester, which covers 1450-1865, so while these issues are certainly important, timely, and relevant, I believe they are better suited to the second half of the course. I have an obligation to my students to cover historical topics that fall within the time period we are covering. I will discuss Charlottesville this semester, but only if students initiate the conversation. I realize that events like Charlottesville can be important teaching moments, but as educators I believe it is important to make sure that we provide deep and thorough historical context for students if we choose to broach these recent issues in classes where the topic may be outside of the historical scope we are covering.

Michael Dickinson: The recent events in Charlottesville did not directly change the topics I planned to address. The events did, however, demand that I alter the timeline of my syllabus. I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar in early African American history. While concepts of race and racism are critical to the entire course, discussions of the Civil War necessarily fall toward the end of the semester. That said, recent events posed an opportunity more than a challenge. Events such as those in Charlottesville remind historians that our work is about more than the past; our work is vital to the present. Tragic moments of national mourning and conflict, while certainly unfortunate, are opportunities to help students better understand—and develop the skills of critical analysis to combat—ignorance and hate. These are objectives neatly built into syllabi but the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere pushed me to consider concepts of historical memory, race, and slavery in ways temporally out of place in the syllabus but pragmatically necessary for the contemporary moment.

Emily Farris: The events in Charlottesville occurred right after I put the finishing touches on my syllabus this fall for Urban Politics. While Charlottesville and the monument movement aren’t officially on my syllabus, I do plan on talking about these issues (and others) with my students as examples for the concepts we are going to study. For example, one section of the class looks at power and representation in the city. During those days, we will analyze what power looks like in cities and assess which groups have power and are represented in city decisions. I plan on bringing two recent events in our city, Fort Worth, into the discussion: the racially divided decision by the Fort Worth city council to not join the #SB4 immigration lawsuit and the movement I helped lead to rename Jefferson Davis city park. I find current events like these and Charlottesville help ground students in larger ideas, particularly more theoretical ones.

Kevin Gannon: As director of my university’s teaching center, I’ve certainly observed a “Charlottesville effect.” Issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice have been at the forefront of many of our conversations since last fall. There seems to be more urgency for some of us, as well as many students, in the wake of Charlottesville. An urban campus, our university is diverse compared to our state as a whole, but that’s not saying much. The student body is 90% white, and getting at issues of structural racism and historical memory, as well as privilege and power, can be fraught. Much of my work with faculty centers on handling difficult discussions, teaching inclusively, and classroom climate, and my center’s programming on these topics is well attended (faculty have requested even more, which I am glad to facilitate). It’s one thing for an institution to say it values diversity and inclusion and stands against racism. It’s another to actually commit the time and resources to doing the work behind those proclamations. Charlottesville isn’t that long ago, but my initial impression this year is that more faculty (adjunct and full-time) are thinking intentionally about these issues than is usually the case. Our students certainly are.

What are your students saying about monuments? Protests and counter-protests? About violence?

Jarred Amato: They’re saying a lot! Here’s an excerpt from one student’s critique of the Vice documentary:

What started it all was the decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, a former Confederate general. But as Tonisha Hudson said, “[I]t’s not really about the statue.” It’s about insecure white men trying to keep a symbol that reminds us of the painful past. The truth is most people who were at the rally didn’t know or care about the statue. They just came to show what they really believe in: white supremacy.

To be clear, racism hasn’t stopped. The purpose of the documentary was to get an inside look at hateful Americans like Christopher Cantwell and David Duke. Vice news reporter Elle Reeve did an excellent job of informing us and exposing the truth. This video should disturb and alarm people. It should make you want to get out of your seat and speak out. It’s time to open our eyes to the truth and act on it. One voice isn’t going to change the world, but a lot of voices at once could certainly make a difference.

Bunch-Lyons: There is not a single student voice on these issues. The responses are varied. Some support the removal of monuments, some believe they are a part of America’s past and should remain, while others believe the monuments are a distraction from other more pressing issues such as unemployment, rising tuition costs, and police and gang violence.

Dickinson: In Richmond, where I teach, there were protests this past month along Monument Avenue: a central road in the city lined with monuments of Confederate figures. A couple of my students participated in these local protests. In general, my students were both alarmed and perplexed about the protests surrounding the monuments. They were, of course, concerned by the violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville. But most were confused; a few questioned why the monuments seemed to gain national attention recently and others questioned why debates over removing the monuments elicit such strong emotions and violence. These were questions which helped drive our class discussion of this present moment of local and national protest, unrest, and violence.

Gannon: We should bear in mind that our students are certainly talking about Charlottesville, as well as things like structural racism, contested memory, and white supremacy. They may not be using the same terms, and they may not be immersed in these issues in the same manner we are, but they are most certainly confronting them in one way or another. To not engage with that in our classes seems to me like a real missed opportunity and a disservice to our field.

Heather Cox Richardson: The students are frightened, and they seem deeply curious about our history, about how we got to where we are. I have never before seen such widespread interest in American history.

Can you provide an example of a type of assignment or exercise you are using to teach Charlottesville?

Amato: Absolutely! I’m posting all of my resources online for educators to access here: https://padlet.com/jarred_amato/i7uflnjks1do. A few of the highlights:

•  we used Charlottesville photos to practice citing evidence, making claims, and writing effective summaries;
• we read a New York Times article about Charlottesville and then wrote both an objective summary and personal reaction to the events, where students could express opinions and ask questions;
• we discussed the strengths and limitations of primary sources when reading an interview with Corey Long;
• we created “mini-newspapers,” which required students to write news headlines, captions, and summaries on page 1 and analyze political cartoons and create their own tweet on page 2;
• we read an op-ed from the Tennessean, demanding the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue here in Tennessee.

My juniors are also in the process of writing a critical review of the Vice documentary.

Bunch-Lyons: We will discuss Charlottesville next semester when I teach a course on civil rights movements in America. We will do this in the context of the history of protest movements in America, and address the successes and failures of these movements.

Dickinson: I used the concept of historical memory to contextualize the events in Charlottesville. After providing a definition of the term, I directed my students to a central question: how accurately do we remember historical developments? We then explored how a number of influences such as personal biases, culture, patriotism, race, and generational shifts can cause individuals and societies to remember historical events and figures in a less-than-accurate fashion. Finally, I asked my students what examples come to mind when considering the concept of historical memory. In this way, we began with an expansive scope and increasingly focused on how historical memory relates to contemporary issues surrounding monuments. This allowed us to see why Confederate monuments are such an emotionally charged issue. But the exercise also helped us to understand that this is a human issue more broadly. By thinking of historical memory comparatively, we can, as one student suggested in citing active German efforts to advance beyond their own troubled past, move further as a society. I also worked to underscore the utility of reading primary sources directly in order to address the challenges of historical memory.

Farris: Near the end of the semester in Urban Politics, I run a multi-session simulation with my class where we turn the classroom into the city of Camelot. Students role-play different positions throughout the city, including a city council and planning commission that face a variety of issues, like whether to build a marina and whether to pass a housing nondiscrimination act. It is a great exercise to have students better understand the process of governance and decision-making in a city. I plan on adding a new issue to the simulation this year: whether to rename a public square in Camelot’s downtown that was dedicated to a Confederate general. I’m looking forward to the reactions of students as they take on this issue. 

What are the potential dangers or ramifications of taking on the topic of white supremacy in the classroom? 

Amato: Unlike a math class or even a traditional English lesson, there are no clear answers when tackling the topic of white supremacy. It’s essential that I create a safe and respectful environment because if not, the conversations could create more harm than good. I know there will be moments of discomfort, and I know there will be times where it will be difficult for me to remain “objective.” However, I also know that these conversations and lessons are absolutely worth it. All students need to know that they matter and that we care about them. All students need to develop empathy and all students deserve empathetic teachers. All students need to learn how to defend and communicate their opinion in a respectful, thoughtful manner.

Dickinson: As educators, our fear is that a class discussion can escalate and result in a hostile environment. I tried to avoid this by beginning the class with a reminder that our discussion will be open but respectful. While prepared for such an escalation, I did not have trouble with students acting out or tensions running high. But I was also concerned about not making any student feel ostracized or intimidated into not asking a genuine question or providing an alternative opinion. This was, in part, why I attempted to constantly encourage student engagement and why I utilized a multi-level approach in examining historical memory.

Farris: Most of my courses focus largely on topics of race and racism, so this is always an important consideration for me. I have developed a civility policy in my syllabus that reminds students of our university handbook’s guidelines and sets out clear expectations for discussion that center on civility and respect. On the first day of class, we discuss what this policy means for our class as a community, and I continue to reference the policy throughout the semester. I was surprised this year when a student actually thanked me for the policy on the first day of class: it seems students are also tired of the divisiveness and are looking for more constructive conversations as they learn about these topics. Setting clear expectations at the beginning of the semester and continuing to reinforce those expectations and norms help me avoid some potential dangers when discussing white supremacy and racism.

Nyasha Junior: Certainly, discussing White supremacy or other topics could affect one’s teaching evaluations, job security, and personal safety. For me, my concern is primarily related to my own discomfort with doing so. I am dealing with my own feelings regarding these traumatic events. As an educator, I am not prepared to enter into dialogue with students who may believe that Black lives do not matter. This is not a “both sides” issue for me.

Richardson: In 1978, in a lovely little piece called “The Historian and Public Policy,” John Hope Franklin noted the important difference between political advocacy and the historian’s explanation of historical context in order to shape public policy.[1] The former is cheap, he suggested, for one can find historical precedents to defend any political stance. The latter is harder, for it requires nuanced argument, firmly based in historical context, to explain societal change in such a way that it can accurately inform political policies themselves. In this historical moment, it is easy simply to take a stand against the outrageous extremes of the Trump administration. Such a stand is a good way to build enthusiasm for political activism among people who already share the same political orientation. But it is worth considering, as Franklin suggested, that responding to specific events alone neuters historians in more general public debate by removing their perceived impartiality. In effect, they jettison their standing as scholars of societal change and become just another set of voices on the street. Taking on the topic of white supremacy in its current context runs the risk of simply reinforcing current convictions. But examining with students the reality of our sweeping history, looking at the themes that everyone, now or tomorrow or decades ago should know—how our Constitution, politics, religion, gender structures, economy, and legal system have carved racial, gender, and class boundaries into our nation—should help today’s students across the political spectrum to identify the centuries of American patterns that led to Charlottesville.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Junior: I appreciate the class discussions that some faculty have as well as the various “syllabus” efforts that spring up following major events. Yet, I would like to see more sustained attention given to larger issues regarding race within higher education. Individual faculty have some flexibility regarding their own syllabus and day-to-day class activities. It is important that we also consider issues of diversity and inclusion in our overall curriculum, student admissions, and faculty recruitment, retention, tenure, and promotion.

 

Participants

Jarred Amato is a high-school English teacher in Nashville and the founder of Project LIT Community, a national organization dedicated to increasing access to diverse books and bringing people together through reading. Jarred received his B.A. in English and History from Vanderbilt University and his M.A.T. from Belmont University. He is currently pursuing his Ed.D. from Lipscomb University.

Beverly Bunch-Lyons is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech. Her areas of interest include African American women’s history, and underground and above ground entrepreneurship.

Michael Dickinson is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and serves as the program coordinator for the Mellon Scholars Program at the Library Company of Philadelphia. His research interests include early African American history, comparative slavery, and African Diaspora Studies. He is currently developing a book manuscript examining enslaved families and communities in early Atlantic cities.

Emily Farris is an assistant professor in the Departments of Political Science and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. Her research and teaching focuses on cities, race and ethnicity, and sheriffs. She co-teaches two political science and history classes with fellow TCU history professor Max Krochmal that focus on the Black and Chicano/a civil rights movements as part of their Justice Journey program.

Kevin Gannon is professor of history and Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He blogs at thetattooedprof.com and is on Twitter @TheTattooedProf.

Nyasha Junior is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2015). Visit nyashajunior.com and follow her on Twitter @NyashaJunior.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books—most recently To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (New York: Basic Books, 2014)—and is the co-host of the politics and history podcast Freak Out and Carry On. She also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

[1] John Hope Franklin, “The Historian and Public Policy,” The History Teacher 11 (May 1978): 377-91.

 

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