Teaching After Trump
I woke up on Wednesday morning, like so many others, heavily distraught by the win of President-elect Donald J. Trump. I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. My mind scrambled to explain how this could happen. I then felt a painful concern for my fellow Americans who will directly bear the burden of the next four years: Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, women of all races, and the LGBTQIAGNC communities. I knew my identity as a straight, white, male would afford me the necessary security to weather this storm, while so many others do not have this security — and in fact, carry identities that put them at special risk.
The specific challenge presented to me on Wednesday morning was how to teach a community college writing class. Deep down, I felt the urge to cancel class, give up, and surrender to abject moroseness. But this reaction also seemed like a privilege I, unlike others, could afford. Resisting the environment incited by Trump demanded that I must go on.
The college composition course I teach this semester comprises the most racially diverse and intellectually strong students I’ve taught in the last few years. Discussions are complex and can evolve into impassioned debate. I don’t resist this. Feelings of anger and sadness are the flames that fuel any analytical piece of writing, and I encourage my students using this rationale. We write because we have something meaningful to say. The pen becomes the means of translating those feelings into persuasive prose. If the class becomes loud and unmanageable, I take this as a sign that students care about ideas and they are wrestling with something they feel is important to say.
When I walked into the class on Thursday I knew there was no way we were going to cover how to write an introduction and conclusion for the essay due the following week. As important as an introduction can be to an essay — and any writing teacher will tout as much — it felt like the least important matter to discuss on that particular day.
And so, as in many an English course, we arranged our desks in a circle. It’s truly incredible how the use of space can so deeply influence the balance of power in a classroom. With everyone facing one another, each student was accountable for how their comments impacted others — an awareness impossible on social media. I too blended in with the circle and attempted to frame the discussion by suggesting the topic of the election would be appropriate for their final research essay. Within the first twenty-four hours of the election there were already more than enough secondary sources. More importantly, I stressed to my students that the people shaping the conversation outside the classroom were writers — and that they, as aspiring writers, had every right to join the conversation and determine its shape. Who knew, perhaps one of their essays could make it into the opinion section of the New York Times.
The conversation began with criticism of Trump’s moral character and how he would be a disastrous role model for kids in America. The role of the electoral college also made its way into our conversation as did Trump’s misogynist rhetoric. At this moment, a student who voted for Trump spoke up and defended her choice. From there the conversation unraveled into a full-fledged argument — and I don’t mean the academic sense of an “argument.” Then again, what constitutes “academic?” The rhetorical rules governing what counts as “intellectual,” “analytical,” and “academic” are themselves a product of an old tradition perpetuated by the mostly white, upper-class, professoriate. Who gets to call the shots about appropriate language or the mode of delivery of such language? As voices raised and tears flowed, I found myself helpless to intervene. I simply lost control of the classroom. There was something, however, meaningful about conceding this loss.
As I later reflected on what happened I thought about Langston Hughes’ poem Let America Be America Again. First, because the title evokes Trump’s campaign slogan, but second, because it addresses how the concept of “America” and the dream that feeds that concept was built by the oppressed: slaves, immigrants, poor whites, farmers, servants, and others whose voices remain hushed behind the architecture of the dream only referenced by political elites. While the voice of the poem opens with linking freedom, liberty, and love with America, a second parenthetical voice interrupts each stanza with the phrase “(It was never America to me.)” Eventually, the opening voice asks the parenthetical voice:
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
My assumed role as arbiter of the conversation, a role legitimized by the college, a role made possible by mimicking those traditional rules governing academic discourse, and a role made even more possible by my whiteness, able-bodiedness, gender, sexuality, and relatively young age had been relegated to a back seat when the students themselves spoke with their own voices, their own words, their own unchecked emotion, and their own volume. By attempting to reign in the conversation it was I who “mumbled” as my voice was drowned out by their voices. In hindsight, my impulsive desire to reestablish control reminds me of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s point about “acknowledge[ing] our complicity in the muting” of subaltern subjects. My complicity rose from the impulse to govern the conversation in terms recognized as appropriate for academic speech. Such governing rearranges the terms of other peoples’ oppression until their speech no longer bears the traces of their experiences.
The humanities address the human condition. Last Wednesday that condition was rocked by the election of a candidate who has incited and legitimized white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and religious intolerance. It also rocked the spaces commonly used for academic inquiry that are occupied, sometimes precariously, by the embodied conditions of actual people. It is not only the human condition, but human conditioning that is at stake here. The students as embodied conditions occupying a specific space broke from their condition and their conditioning in order to express their lived condition. And it was loud. Aggressive. Angry. To teach after Trump is to be cognizant of the multiple rockings of the human condition and the silent conditioning of the human we may not even notice. Included in this conditioning is the role of a teacher who rather than teach, must learn to listen and be spoken over if not silenced completely. The election of Trump has amplified those “mumbles in the dark” and removed the parentheses encapsulating the voices who will now speak on their own condition.