Teachers’ Evolving Responsibilities in the Post-Election Classroom
By Mara Lee Grayson
On the morning of Wednesday, November 9th, five hours after Donald Trump became the President-Elect of the United States, I left my office at Pace University, where I teach English, and nervously walked toward my first class of the day. The streets had been virtually empty and my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan inordinately quick and quiet. The campus hallways were still; paper signs announcing class cancelations decorated classroom doors. I expected few students to be in the classroom.
To my surprise, 21 of 23 students sat in a makeshift circle, their chairs turned to face away from their rigid rectangular desks and toward one another. Many were red-eyed or clutched tissues to their faces; a few were crying.
“Can we just talk?” one of my students asked.
So we talked – and listened and argued and cried – for three hours.
It just so happened that this class, an interdisciplinary venture with the history department, had as its curricular focus the rhetoric of revolution and conflict in the U.S. Our discussion of the election consisted of equal parts analysis of campaign rhetoric and outpouring of fears and frustrations. Despite the mixture of anger, disbelief, and sadness I felt that morning, I was also impressed by the critical insight and compassion my students displayed.
As a racial literacy educator, I encourage students to explore how individual experiences and observations represent larger systemic inequities of race, racialization and racism in the United States. In my composition classes, students analyze the ways language and text represent, reify, or resist these ideologies. I am used to having conversations that others might find uncomfortable. I often enjoy them, not because they are always pleasant (they aren’t) but because, through these discussions, I see and hear my students practice significant rhetorical and literacy skills and thoughtfully grapple with questions that matter inside and outside the classroom. Even when these conversations are difficult or painful, I take comfort in my belief that they are necessary.
"Since the election, I have had students sit in my office for hours after class, needing so much more than I can give but settling for the little solace that comes with the space to talk and be heard."
For the past two weeks, however, these conversations have felt different. Last week, I appeared on a panel at my university and spoke about the discursive practices we employ to engage in conversations about race and social justice. The panel had been planned a month prior to Trump’s election but nearly all the questions we were asked dealt directly or peripherally with the aftermath of the election and the dread of an impending Trump presidency. At this past weekend’s advocacy-themed 2016 Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), conference presentations proposed months ago took on new relevance and gravity. Just as significantly, since the election, I have had students sit in my office for hours after class, needing so much more than I can give but settling for the little solace that comes with the space to talk and be heard.
"I realized that Wednesday morning that my work as a racial literacy educator was about to change – had to change. I also realized how much more important it has become. I am still, however, unsure of how it will change, and while a few months ago I might have pointed out that the abilities to tolerate uncertainty and try on new perspectives as we grapple with the unknown are markers of “performative literacy” and "transformative learning," that uncertainty right now only fills me with fear."
We have long known that this country’s political and educational institutions were built on the grounds of social inequity and systemic racism. Yet now, it seems many of the conversations I have both with fellow educators and with my students conclude with deep sighs and confessions of uncertainty. I don’t know what to say, we lament. I just don’t know. We are adjusting to a new framework, new contexts – or perhaps we have merely returned to an architecture we naively hoped had long been torn down.
I realized that Wednesday morning that my work as a racial literacy educator was about to change – had to change. I also realized how much more important it has become. I am still, however, unsure of how it will change, and while a few months ago I might have pointed out that the abilities to tolerate uncertainty and try on new perspectives as we grapple with the unknown are markers of what Sheridan Blau calls “performative literacy” (and what the late Jack Mezirow called “transformative learning”), that uncertainty right now only fills me with fear.
What, then, is my responsibility to my students? Is it to provide solutions, answers, and platitudes I don’t have? Or is it just to sit with them and be honest, to reach across the painted boundaries that separate teacher and student and acknowledge the often overwhelming feelings that have become an unrelenting part of our daily existence?
Despite the disillusionment and dread that I, like so many equity-minded educators, have been feeling since the election, I also feel tremendously privileged to be able to be even a small part of my students’ support system. We must allow ourselves to admit, to our students and to ourselves, that there are times when, despite all of our education and dedication, we are left speechless. At the same time, we must keep trying to find the words. Lastly, and most importantly, in a sociopolitical climate that threatens to silence so many, we must keep listening to our students.
Mara Lee Grayson is a Ph.D. candidate in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Assistant Professor at Pace University’s Dyson College of Arts & Sciences.
Published Thursday, Dec 1, 2016