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Faculty struggle to address violence in classes

Please be advised: this article contains discussion of violence, hate speech and suicide throughout.

Sitting before her class on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 30, political science professor and director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching (CST) Adrienne Christiansen was caught in two minds, unsure of what to do.

The previous Saturday, a gunman had walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered 11 people. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history.

Horrified by the shooting and facing her students for the first time after it, Christiansen had a difficult choice to make: to say something about the attack or remain silent.

In a semester full of acts of violence and hate – both on campus and around the world – this dilemma has become an all-too-familiar experience for professors.

“As shocks in our country have become very common,” political science professor Paul Dosh said, “faculty have been concerned about their impact in the classroom, and what’s an appropriate and constructive way to engage and address these shocks.”

In response to this concern, professors across academic disciplines are beginning to reach out to one another to ascertain how they should speak about violence, hate and tragedy in the classroom.

Dosh said that faculty are eager to learn. He has personally participated in at least three structured conversations on the subject this semester alone, both within the political science department and with faculty across the college.

In the past several years, the CST has hosted six separate meetings or events to facilitate this kind of dialogue among professors.

Christiansen organized the first after a white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015.

The CST then led several sessions centered around how to talk about acts of violence in the classroom. But Christiansen and her fellow professors soon found there was much more to the conversation.

“I guess I thought we maybe covered it – you don’t want to overprogram something,” she said. “Yet last year, with the death of Matias [Sosa-Wheelock], whole new questions were brought up.”

Following Sosa-Wheelock’s death by suicide last February, professors met several times to process the loss and work through how they would address it with their students. This semester, the CST hosted yet another session to discuss the Tree of Life shooting.

Over the course of these gatherings, faculty have expressed a diverse range of opinions and raised a number of questions. No two professors chose to speak up about violence, hate and tragedy in the same way. Many elected to say nothing at all.

Assistant Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Professor Getiria Onsongo ’04 has discussed several of these incidents in his classes, including the anti-semitic and anti-black graffiti found on campus this semester.

“I wanted to acknowledge that it happened because when I was at Macalester, things happened, but I don’t remember swastikas – something that drastic,” Onsongo said. “What I told my students was: this can’t be normal. I wanted to address that in class because we should never get to a point where things like this happening is normal.”

But while many professors feel they should be doing something to acknowledge these so-called shocks, there are faculty members who disagree.

Having run all of the related CST events, Christiansen has heard numerous justifications for staying silent.

“Sometimes I’ve heard faculty say things like ‘I feel like students pay a very large amount of money to come here, and for me to provide my professional expertise on X subject, and the best things I can do in these moments of difficulty is to provide the thing they came for, rather than talk about something for which I’m woefully unprepared or maybe haven’t even thought through myself,’” she said.

Even for professors who feel that speaking up is the right choice, it can be difficult to discern what warrants class time.

“Given that death, devastation, war, tragedy and travesty happen all over the world and we have students from all over the world, some faculty will say ‘am I expected to know on a daily basis about all these hot spots in the world? And if I do that, when do I teach my subject?’” Christiansen said. “I think that’s a reasonable question.”

Dosh raised similar concerns, pointing to the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as an example.

“When Brazil elected a hard right-wing, military-oriented president recently, this was experienced by many as a shock in Brazil and elsewhere – Brazil taking a step towards dictatorship,” Dosh said.

“This was a shocking, upsetting event. But that doesn’t resonate with many on the Macalester campus who aren’t aware of Brazilian and Latin American politics – even though that event, for some of our community members, was as shocking and upsetting as some of the other traumatic events that have happened.”

“The thing that I think about when I discuss these things in class is: marginalized communities… experience violence on a regular basis,” Onsongo said. “For example, when we had this shooting in Pittsburgh, there were two African Americans who were shot around the same time in Kentucky. There was another hate crime.”

“I’m not sure how much coverage that got,” he continued. “These days, black people being killed by police has almost become the norm. So, I’m also sensitive of the fact that [when] we’re talking about these things, are we only talking about people who get covered in the media?”

But despite many of these areas of concerns, professors from across campus are finding more and more ways in which their areas of study correlate to issues of violence and hate – a process that is facilitating more classroom discussions.

Biology professor Devavani Chatterjea, for instance, has found a linguistic connection in her field: immunology.

“The immune system is often described in very militaristic language, and it’s been a very, very slow shift that’s starting to happen to get away from it,” Chatterjea said. “But there is still a lot of very jingoistic, very aggressive language that’s used in this discipline.”

“I feel it’s a disciplinary and human obligation for me to talk about issues of violence and what it means to have weaponized bodies in society,” she continued.

There remains, however, a concern that the issues affecting students could go unacknowledged in classes with course material that isn’t as clearly connected to political events.

“It’s interesting to hear in classes in the social sciences and the humanities, I have friends who say ‘We spent the whole class talking about it,’ or ‘We had a really great conversation about it for part of the class,’” MCSG President and chemistry major Malik Mays ’19 said.

“It’s very different when they come to Olin-Rice,” he continued, “and a lot of us who are in chemistry, biology or other classes, aren’t really having those conversations.”

Mays made that concern one of the themes of his successful campaign for the MCSG presidency last year.

Some math and science professors, however, aren’t sure where the perception of silence is coming from. In response to the sentiment, all 27 members of the Math, Statistics, and Computer science department co-wrote and signed a letter addressing it. This letter served as the genesis of a department-wide effort to discuss how to address hate and violence in the classroom.

Those professors are not alone in wanting to open up the dialogue with students on how serious real-world events are addressed in the classroom and on campus more generally.

Santiago Padron ’21 is a member of the student organization No Hate at Mac. As a part of that group’s work, Padron has spoken with various faculty and administrators about what their acknowledging hate and violence can look like.

“There are conversations happening regarding this stuff on every level,” Padron said. “Students are talking about it, faculty are talking about it, staff is talking about it, upper administration is talking about it, but no one’s having these conversations together. I think that’s a really huge issue.”

In response to this disconnect, the political science department has considered sponsoring an event to give students a space to speak openly about addressing hate and violence with faculty.

Christiansen contributed to development of the idea at a recent political science department meeting.

“I think it’d be really helpful for faculty to hear a range of voices from students – where we are not talking to students, we are actually listening to students,” she said.

Padron approved of the concept.

“Anything that can be done to create spaces where students and faculty and staff are all talking about this seems really positive,” they said. “Thinking you can shut these things off and go into this weird sanitized learning space that a classroom is supposed to be, where you don’t have contagions from the outside that come in, doesn’t make sense.”

Mays has experienced firsthand the loneliness of trying to operate in these spaces.

“I’m more than just a chemistry major, I am more than just a student,” Mays said. “Whether I want to be or not, at the end of the day I am a black man and that carries a lot with it – it carries a lot of trauma and anxiety I haven’t really worked through yet, but it’s there.

“I can’t just turn it all off to just do a certain subject, no matter what the subject is,” he continued. “It’s hard when those things happen, you’re carrying that weight with you, and you feel like you have to just hold it and focus on the subject at hand.”

But certain faculty members have another anxiety about bringing conversations on violence, hate and tragedy into the classroom.

These are emotionally-charged discussions, and contributing to them can be taxing – and even the most staunch advocates of speaking up can be stopped in their tracks by a fear of vulnerability.

That Tuesday following the shooting in Pittsburgh, Christiansen arrived to her class fully intending to say something about the attack. But at the last minute, something stopped her.

“I felt that if I said anything, I would weep,” she said. “And I did not dare do that because I feared I would not be able to stop. The honest-to-God truth is I clutched.”

After class that day, one of Christiansen’s students, Lily Alexandroff ’21, approached her.

“Lily stopped and talked to me after class, and she said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ and I said sure,” Christiansen recalled. “She said ‘How come you didn’t say anything about the shootings in the synagogue?’ And my stomach dropped to the floor. I thought, ‘why didn’t you say anything, Adrienne?’”

She wrote an email to her class that afternoon apologizing for her silence.

“I think to simply acknowledge this as a difficult moment is to recognize one’s humanity,” Christiansen said.

Psychology professor Joan Ostrove has spent several classes discussing hate, violence and tragedy with her students. After the walk-in last year, she dedicated a whole class to processing the event. While that day was incredibly emotional for her, she felt that in the end, it was worth it.

“I feel like more and more, we as professors are being called on by our students to be human,” Ostrove said.

However uncomfortable it might be for professors, their vulnerability can be incredibly meaningful to students – especially those directly affected by violence and hate.

“Over the summer, I talked with a professor about something like this, and they shared a personal story with me about what it felt like when they felt like their life was in danger every day,” Mays said. “And then they said, ‘I can’t imagine how you feel, as a black man, with police brutality and all of those things.’

“I’d never met this professor before,” he continued, “I never talked to them that much, but in that moment, for the first time in 3 years being at Macalester, I felt like I was seen.

“That one conversation – that one question did so much for me as a student. I can’t even put into words how happy I was to feel that way, but also how sad I was that it took me until last summer to feel that way,” he said. “I’m about to graduate.”

For Ostrove, speaking up against hate and violence – however uncomfortable it might be – is the first step in the long process of creating a more just and equitable Macalester.

“We’re all embedded in these deep structures of inequality, we all are shaped by our social locations and our experiences, and those things matter,” Ostrove said. “If we want to be a meaningfully diverse community in which everybody can thrive and flourish, then we have to be prepared to take on the kinds of things that happen that undermine that.”

Mays concurred.

“If that extra effort or that extra sense of uncomfortability on their part did so much for me as a student and as a person who is a part of this campus,” he said, “I think it might be worth it.”

Associate News Editor, Training Coordinator

Hannah Catlin (she/her/hers) is a sophomore from Holliston, MA. She is currently the Associate News Editor. She has been on the staff since first year. She is shorter than Morgan Doherty (allegedly).

December 6, 2018

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