Wednesday, January 25, 2017

We'll Be Watching You

Recently a conservative organization started a website called "Professor Watch List." Their website lists all the college professors that they claim are "radical" and whom they accuse of discriminating against conservative students. Notably, none of the professors they listed are "conservative."

Since I teach college students, I couldn't help checking to see if I was on the list. I wasn't, but I did recognize the name of a professor at another school where I used to teach. This professor is a feminist scholar, but the website included just one quote from an article that she wrote and made it seem as if she hated men and lied to her students about them. (She doesn't hate men, and she doesn't lie to her students either.)

I looked at the other professors that were listed on the website, and it was the same thing. That is, the website very briefly summarized the professors' research or included just one or two quotes from their work and distorted them just enough to make them seem "dangerous". It made my blood boil.

I wondered what they would write about me if I was listed on that site. Maybe it would be something like, "She's a neurotic workaholic who is always shrieking, 'I don't CARE how many likes you got on Instagram! Just put your phone DOWN!'" while she's teaching. Or maybe it would be, "She's un-American because she criticized Trump. She doesn't seem to realize that he's going to save the country." (By "save," do they mean "destroy"?) Maybe they'd claim that I should be fired for telling students that homosexuality is not a "choice" and that gay people are entitled to the same rights that everyone else is.

I also read an article about how the faculty at another college received calls from someone claiming to be a student at their school who was interested in enrolling in their class. They wanted to know which books were going to be on their curriculum. This wasn't an unusual question; I've received e-mails from students before each term who wanted me to send them my syllabus or a list of my required reading. But this person refused to identify themselves, and when the teachers probed further, the caller hung up. They later suspected that the person was trying to figure out if the teachers were "liberals" trying to "infect" impressionable students' minds with their "radical" ideas.

At other schools, students are demanding "trigger warnings" before studying anything that they're uncomfortable with and "safe spaces" to protect themselves from people who are racist, sexist, or disagree with anything that they say. At Oberlin College, students demanded that professors give them nothing less than C's (and definitely no F's) so that they could deal with their grief and anger over the police shootings of African Americans (Oberlin said no.).

On the one hand, I can understand the students' demands and where they're coming from. But I refuse to include trigger warnings in my syllabus, and I think that "safe spaces" will not help students learn how to deal with the real world, where there are no safe spaces. I think that the Professor Watch List will motivate many students to enroll in those professors' classes, because it will make them even more curious about them. I think that both conservatives and liberals are mistaken in their beliefs that only their own perspectives are correct, and everything said or done by the opposing side is completely wrong (although I know that not all conservatives and liberals are like this).

I also think it's wrong that professors and teachers have been fired for daring to disagree with students or disciplining them for their bad behavior. One high school teacher, Theo Olson, wrote a blog about gang activity at his school, where students assaulted teachers and each other. He was accused by "activists" of being racist and lost his job, but the problems that he described were not resolved.

I think it's important to teach students to develop multi-dimensional perspectives and to listen to people whose ideas do not match theirs, though they don't have to agree with them. I would encourage students to attend lectures and presentations given by people from opposing political parties, not so they can harass, attack, or prevent them from speaking (which has happened to many controversial speakers), but so they can learn how to form their own ideas in response to others'.

When I was a young, inexperienced teacher, I was easily intimidated. But years later, I refuse to back down to people who try to silence me, even if it means my name will one day end up on the Professor Watch List.

What about you? What do you think about things like this watch list? How would you react if you were a teacher and your name was on it?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hipsters, Haikus, and Cowboy Boots

I was browsing through Facebook one day, looking for new pages to follow, when I found out about poetry readings. There aren't any readings in Small Town, where people usually hang out at bars, go to football games, or drive around in pickup trucks with Trump stickers and Confederate flag license plates.

I decided to check out one of the readings in a town that was a long drive away, and of course I got caught in a long traffic jam on the way there. It made me think of that R.E.M. video, "Everybody Hurts," where everyone is sitting in their cars in the middle of a traffic jam and thinking to themselves.

I sat in my car during that traffic jam and thought, "I'm only doing this for the poetry."

I was a half hour late to the poetry reading, but I went anyway. One woman sang a couple songs that made me think of Phoebe Buffay's songs on Friends, because the lyrics were weird, but her voice was much nicer than Phoebe's. I spoke to a few of the poets after the reading, and they were really nice; they told me about other readings in the area, which I decided to go to.

Like the first reading, the second reading was full of hipsters dressed in dark clothes. (I did see at least one poet dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, because this is the South, after all.) One woman read what she called a "bisexual haiku." Several people literally snapped their fingers instead of clapping at the end of each poem.

I was still recovering from the flu (I basically coughed through my entire winter break, and I'm still coughing, which is why I haven't been blogging much), and I resisted the urge to cough and laugh at the same time. It reminded me of the time I went to a reading in Chicago, where I didn't know until after I got there that the theme of that night's stories was "Sluts".

During both readings, I thought to myself, "This is so weird. And yet...I'm intrigued." Even though I didn't understand some of the poems, I enjoyed listening to people read them. It was encouraging to know that in spite of the fact that the walking definition of "narcissism" is about to be elected President and the new neighbors who moved in next door hung up a big Trump sign in their window (I really want to put Clinton stickers on their pickup trucks), there are a lot of people out there, writing.

The readings inspired me to go home and work on my own writing, which I've sadly been neglecting. It motivated me to send out a short story I wrote to a writing contest hosted by Writer's Digest, which I also found out about through Facebook.

It also made me want to read my own writing in front of other people, which I haven't done before, except in writing classes. The other poets told me about open mic nights where you can sign up to read whatever you want, even if it's not poetry. Maybe I could read something I wrote, even though the thought of seeing people react to my writing in person freaks me out just a little bit (OK, a lot).

What about you? Have you ever read any of your work at an open mic night or a poetry reading?