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Teaching and Learning on the Front Lines

In January 2017, I happily prepared to teach my yearly Chicano literature class. I love watching students discover the joy of reading literature that represents their lived experiences.

However, once the semester began, something felt very different. Students’ energy was subdued. There was a palpable tension, tremors of anxiety that bubbled into our discussions, a sadness that lurked at the edges of the room. The students were the same that I usually teach: predominantly first-generation Latinxs from working-class and or immigrant families. Some have close family members who are undocumented or are themselves without papers.

And suddenly the difference became clear: We began living under a new administration — the Trumpescene, a colleague calls it — that considers these students and their families to be freeloading invaders who need to be deported. Throughout spring semester, I felt these young adults holding their breath: Is today the day we are rounded up? They held themselves so tight that they could barely breath out the lines of poetry we read aloud.

The Trumpescene made itself felt regularly. For example, when students come into my classroom, they arrange their seats in a circle and we begin class with a check-in.

One day, a student rushed in late, tears streaming down her face. She had just encountered fliers from Identity Europa taped up at various locations around campus. “Be yourself, be white,” the flyer screamed, “Say no to anti-white propaganda.” The founder of that group punched a woman at a Berkeley “free speech” rally organized by right-wing extremists in April 2017.

For my students, this slip of paper is a similar punch. I found myself having to set aside my lesson plan to facilitate a spontaneous discussion in which students shared their collective fear and outrage.

Nothing in my training prepared me to teach in this context — and I suspect the same is true for many of my colleagues. Moving forward, what changes must we make to facilitate teaching and learning on the front lines, by which I mean working with students who are living in fear in today’s political climate?

I would like to reflect on some practices that worked for me last semester as I taught on the front lines. You may already be doing these things, but I share them, nevertheless, to underscore their importance.

First, our texts and assignments must be made relevant. The students in my classes, largely social science majors, do not initially perceive literature to be overtly “political.” But there is nothing more political than literature — our texts are considered so dangerous that they are outright banned in some places. Moreover, look at the example set by the current administration, which wasted no time in gutting funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thus, I must constantly remind students that literature is a form of resistance, a chance to tell our truths from our perspectives and to record our experiences for future generations. Right now, more than ever, we need our voices and perspectives to counter the racist rhetoric being circulated about Latinxs as rapists, “bad hombres” and the like.

Second, acknowledge what is happening. After the decision to rescind DACA was announced, I participated in a campus workshop on next steps for those who are impacted and their allies. Students described being unable to concentrate in the days immediately following the announcement. One of the most difficult aspects, they explained, was seeing faculty cheerfully conducting business as usual. Some faculty might feel uneasy broaching a politically fraught topic, yet it goes a long way toward improving a climate of inclusivity when faculty share a verbal acknowledgement of what happened and provide information on where students can find help and support on campus — which, in turn, makes keeping ourselves informed about what our campus is doing to support DACA and other undocumented students. Moreover, as the National Council of Teachers of English argues, there is no apolitical classroom.

Third, carve out class time to create community and safe space. Though some view the term “safe space” with skepticism, I would like to envision it here as Eamonn Callan does in “Education in Safe and Unsafe Spaces.” Callan makes a distinction between “dignity safety” and “intellectual safety.” He explains that dignity safety means not having to worry about being perceived as socially inferior. Having dignity safety thus enables students to be intellectually “unsafe,” which then enables deep learning.

We can facilitate dignity safety by creating community: making time in class for students to share what is on their minds and connect with each other. Another key is making clear that diverse views are welcome, which requires from us that we not step back from difficult moments. Many students whom I spoke to expressed disappointment that on the day after the presidential election, their faculty conducted class as usual, perhaps fearing the volatility of managing a fraught conversation. Again, students found the lack of acknowledgement far worse than enduring a tense conversation with those situated across the political aisle.

Fourth, model intellectual inquiry as it really is, full of doubts, false starts, resulting in only more questions — precisely because we have leaders who do the opposite, offering blustering proposals without accompanying analysis of the likely outcomes. As scholars, we have the tools, concepts and vocabulary to analyze how and why we are seeing a rising anti-immigrant tide. Our students know all too well the most pressing issues that their communities face, so our job as educators is to share the tools of critical analysis so that they can better articulate their concerns, imagine possible solutions and understand how they are connected to much longer histories of inequity, injustice and perseverance.

Finally, be open about your fears and experiences. Emotion can be a powerful way to engage students, though our ability to share what we “really feel” varies greatly by our social status and location. Nevertheless, just as we may sense students’ unease, so too can they feel ours. Journalist David Remnick described the Trump presidency as “the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.” Students need to know that we feel some of the same anxiety they do, because surely some of the sadness and tension in the room emanates from us.

Again, my point is that if you can draw on your citizenship, class and tenure status, then you must find ways to reach out to and advocate for our most vulnerable students in the current political climate. There are no easy answers as to the way forward. Yet, now more than ever, it is absolutely incumbent upon each of us to ask ourselves what we can change about our pedagogical approaches in this new era and how we can better address students’ needs.

Dr. Magdalena Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American Studies at San Jose State University and is faculty-in-residence in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

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