The most recent issue of the magazine Guernica features an essay-letter written to “my fellow teachers” by Nell Boeschenstein, who teaches writing at Sweet Briar College. Boeschenstein reports that on the Wednesday morning after the election of Donald Trump she pondered a choice: “Did I walk into class today and say, ‘I know we’re all tired and feeling sensitive today, now let’s turn to page 46 and pick up where we left off’ or did I walk in and say, ‘There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve got to discuss?’”
You pretty much know what she will end up doing when she prefaces option #1 (“let’s turn to page 46”)with a verbal arm around the shoulder: “I know we’re all tired and feeling sensitive today.” With all that sensitivity in the air, how could she justify business as usual? Page 46 will have to wait; discussing the elephant — Donald Trump — is obviously the only way to go. The path to that choice is smoothed by the first person plural “we’re” (“We’re … feeling sensitive”) which creates a fellowship by claiming a knowledge she couldn’t possibly have. She can’t know what her students are feeling unless she was assuming, as she obviously was, that they would be feeling exactly what she felt. After invoking the fellow feeling she has rhetorically manufactured, she announces her decision: “I did the only thing I could do: I was honest… and told my students how I felt… I asked if they wanted to talk about it. They were silent.”
Now I don’t doubt that Boeschenstein was being honest in one way: she was honestly expressing her distress at the result of the election. But she was being dishonest with respect to the performance of her professional responsibilities. I’m willing to bet that when she was interviewed for her position, no one asked, “Can we count on you to set aside the lesson plan of the day and give over your class time to a discussion of your feelings about the political landscape?” Indeed, had she indicated that she would prioritize her political convictions over and against a consideration of a scheduled class’s subject matter, the hiring committee would have had second thoughts. After all, what she is trained and paid to do is teach writing. The only “honest” choice — it shouldn’t even have been a question — was to say “Let’s turn to page 46 and pick up where we left off.” Had she said that she would have reaffirmed her students’ understanding of what it means to participate in an academic conversation: it means mastering academic materials and learning academic skills. Distress (or, for that matter, happiness) at the outcome of an election is not an appropriate driver of classroom discussion, although of course one can imagine other contexts — town hall meetings, noon-time rallies, late-night bull sessions ― in which the expression of political sentiments would be expected and exactly on point.
Once Boeschenstein decided on the direction she would take, things got worse. It turned out that all of her students were not feeling what she was feeling because some of them were Trump supporters. Not allowing the silence that followed her question “Do you want to talk about it?” to stand, she subjected the wayward students to a barrage of questions: “Why did you give Trump a pass on the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the environment? Why do you forgive this man’s rejection of the fundamental values on which we agree? Please explain this to me.” Or, in other words, justify to me what you did in the ballot-box (supposedly a private place protected in its privacy by the laws of the land); make me understand why you acted so badly.
“I could not get a straight answer,” Boeschenstein complains. How about that? A bunch of 18-year-olds find themselves harangued by the authority figure from whom they expect instruction and are unable to respond to her hectoring with calmly reasoned replies. What’s wrong with them? Boeschenstein knows what’s wrong. They’re just not thinking clearly — she calls their Trump support “inexplicable” — and so, after 75 minutes of asking and re-asking the same question “in as many different rhetorical iterations as I could invent,” she sends them out with marching orders: “If you don’t want Trump to speak for you, don’t let him. It is imperative that you stand up against his language of bigotry.” Not only is she putting her students on the spot when they thought they had come to learn something; she is also telling them how they should act when they exit the classroom and move into spaces supposedly not under her authority.
Boeschenstein knows that her performance that day goes against the “general rule of thumb for us teachers… not to say what is right or what is wrong, but to teach our students to think critically.” But she invokes the “these-are-not-ordinary-times” rationale and regrets only that she hadn’t set aside “test preparation and dates to memorize and topic sentences to hone” earlier: “Had I been brave enough to start this conversation in September, I wonder whether some of my Trump-supporting students might have chosen otherwise at the ballot box on Tuesday.” That is to say, had I engaged in political indoctrination from the beginning of the semester instead of merely doing my job, my students might have done the right thing on November 8. The rest of us, however, can learn from her failure to act in time and take up the real work ― of saving the world from Donald Trump — right away: “Don’t defer the conversation any longer. If we do, more bucks will be bound for our desks that we cannot afford to watch pile up”.
And people wonder why so many take a dim view of what goes on in our college classrooms.