School’s (almost) out for summer
Albert reflects on a year of hybrid teaching; Michelle shares an unfinished humor piece that she never submitted to McSweeney’s.
We hope you enjoyed our last series of interviews. We thought we’d take this week to slow down and do some end-of-semester stock-taking. As always, please don’t be shy about writing us at email@example.com.
We finished our last class on Tuesday; all that’s left are exams and grading. This entire semester, out of the university’s deference to French government restrictions on indoor gatherings and to students who had decided to stay in the U.S., we’ve been “hybrid” teaching: for any given session, half the class is remote and the other half physically present in the classroom. In practice, my classrooms have been mostly empty. (Michelle disputes this, saying hers were half full, but then she’s definitely more popular.) So for most of the semester I showed up at 9 a.m. to find one or two students in a large room, in a building devoid of the foot traffic and hustle and bustle that ordinarily characterizes a semester.
Michelle and I aren’t fans of hybrid teaching. (Is anybody?) It’s almost impossible to pay attention to both the students online and the people there in person without feeling like you’re neglecting some participants and prioritizing others. I’ve found that fully online classes are better, more egalitarian and less divided between virtual and in-person contingents. For all of this, I didn’t realize at first how important the classroom was for the students who regularly showed up.
But about three weeks ago, owing to some childcare snafus, neither Michelle nor I made it to campus. One of our beloved students, a graduating senior whom we’ve known since she entered AUP and who has always been indefatigably cheerful and engaged, was on the verge of tears when she realized we wouldn’t be coming. “There’s nobody here,” she said. “Where is everybody?” We were devastated to think we had let her down, and didn’t miss an in-person class again.
That student was in a class that Michelle and I co-taught this semester, Global Histories of Solidarity and Resistance. We studied the history of diverse social movements, reading Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Nick Estes’s Our History is the Future, Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, and essays by Alexander Chee, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan, among others. (Natalie Zemon Davis, whom we’ve rhapsodized about before, was also on the syllabus.) Students also gave “teach-ins” on topics such as Maori activism in New Zealand and deaf movements in Cameroon.
For one class, when we asked students to think of ways to create a moment of collective solidarity, one suggested creating a wall on which people would write down their ethical commitments. I was skeptical: not many people were coming to campus, and this might violate sanitary regulations. Michelle, on the other hand, was enthusiastic: as she put it, the class was all about solidarity and resistance, right? So we went for it. Michelle bought markers of all colors, students got some huge poster paper and wipes to sanitize markers, and we set up shop in one of the main campus buildings.
The students were right. The wall will be an enduring moment from this semester. People mingled; students passing by stopped to talk. The librarians who work around the corner, drawn by the sound of youthful chatter, poked their heads in. Other faculty whom we hadn’t seen in ages stopped by to say hello, and signed pledges too. Some leaped in and shared why they’d chosen to become vegan or stop using Amazon; others thought long and hard about what they were willing to do, what they wanted to learn more about, where their blind spots were. It was a heartening reminder that even though so much in this devastating year has been outside our control, we still determine how we live and how we treat others. And when we decide to express our values collectively, we find meaning, even some happiness.
Here are some things people wrote:
I promise to live a carbon-neutral life.
I pledge to stand up for trans rights.
I promise to reduce my plastic waste.
I promise to be kinder to those I disagree with.
I pledge to stop using Amazon.
I pledge to learn more about disability movements.
I promise to keep learning and remain open to change.
I will continue being vegan.
I promise to bring up uncomfortable conversations surrounding how our lifestyles are harming the planet.
If one were to invent a crisis uniquely and diabolically designed to undermine the foundations of traditional colleges and universities, it might look very much like the current global pandemic. An industry that for decades has seemed immune to radical change has been confronted by an enemy that appears to turn its strengths into weaknesses and its defining characteristics into vulnerabilities…
Alumni of a college imagine themselves as part of a family, bound together by common experiences and common values.
Now we have a disease that has pathologized closeness. Working side by side with a professor in a laboratory? Forbidden. Meeting with an adviser in an office to discuss one’s academic future? Impossible. Living together, dining together, studying together? Banned by medical advice and often by governmental edict.
It is true that some of these activities can be approximated by their virtual equivalents, but if the virtual is an adequate substitute for the real, what is the point—what is the value—of the real?
Hanging out by the pledge wall, meeting new people and engaging in spontaneous conversation, only convinced me further that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the real. For a day I remembered what it felt like to experience the energy and charge of life on campus. Of course, this exercise wasn’t the same thing as organizing for higher wages or campaigning in concert for a specific cause; in the grand scheme of things, it was a small moment. But it felt—dare I say it?—normal.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future of the university. I share many of the fears and concerns voiced by critics. Chad Wellmon incisively writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
American higher education has produced many goods. But it also launders privilege, luck of birth and circumstance, and financial and social greed into socially acceptable status under the rubric of merit. And it now exacerbates persistent and worsening financial and social inequalities.
Its greatest failure is moral and political. It manufactures the illusions of merit that make individual mettle a marker of worth and dignity. It transforms political conflicts over truth, values, and visions of different futures into unassailable moral differences, matters not of collective action but of individual choice and preference.
I agree with Wellmon. College shouldn’t saddle people with crippling debt; universities shouldn’t inscribe the power of the wealthy and the elite. In many ways, we’ve failed in our moral and political vision. Many things need to change.
But if there’s a reason to be optimistic too, it’s this: the university is still one of the few places where people can gather as a collective, where they can sincerely air ideas and test out beliefs against a shared baseline of tangible reality. In 2015, after the attacks in Paris, we wrote, “The university is still a space where people meet. This particular means of human contact should not be understated. A classroom, in the wake of a terrifying experience, is already special; but given the time we spend in front of a digital screen, it’s maybe even sacred.”
And what’s impressed us most is how committed our students are to creating that collective reality. These graduating students have had half of their college career taken away, yet they continue to engage, to work, to question, to make commitments. Indeed, these acts are what motivate them. Our Solidarity and Resistance class had one of the most remarkable collection of students we’ve ever seen. Michelle and I joke that they mostly taught themselves this past semester, and there’s some truth to that. They’ve come consistently and engaged deeply. They’ve been active outside the classroom. Some of them started a feminist group, which has held events nearly every day this spring. They organize creatively and are committed to searching for an ethical way of living far beyond the example our generation set. If anything gives us hope, it’s been working with these students, seeing their drive and their desire to make change. It was a privilege to stand with them at the pledge wall, making ourselves vulnerable together, approaching strangers and asking them to dream alongside us.
Albert has described beautifully how stalwart our students have been. I wanted to add one little thing about his teaching. Not to brag—okay, to brag a little—but wow, he talks about feminism a lot. In the past year, I’ve learned so much by eavesdropping on his virtual lectures, from the exclusion of Nazi women from the party once they helped push it into power (hard to feel sympathy for them, but still fascinating) to Japanese flapper girls in the 1920s. Not to mention all the female authors, activists, and historians on his syllabi—Marjane Satrapi, Rigoberta Menchu, Eileen Chang, Rachel Carson, Natalie Zemon Davis, et al.—and none of these courses are even “about” women.
I remember my first women’s studies class in 1999, in which the professor said it was her fervent hope that the field would eventually stop being necessary because gender, women’s lives, and feminist analysis would have been incorporated into ordinary syllabi in every discipline. Twenty years later, we’re still far from that goal. But when I hear Albert’s lectures, I feel a little bit of hope.
I had two deadlines in April that precipitated a series of minor breakdowns. I’ll say more about one of them, a legal brief for an incarcerated client, once the case is finished. In the meantime, I share the beginnings of a piece I wrote as a joke while quarantined for two weeks because Albert was a COVID contact case. At one point I thought, Why not submit this to McSweeney’s?—but in keeping with the piece’s theme I was too lazy to finish it.
I AM WORRIED ABOUT MY PROFESSOR
She’s clearly in bed. She used to try to hide it but now not even. She’s kind of … reclining? Today she’s wearing a Cookie Monster T-shirt that looks slept in. At one point she turned off her video, and I think she might have been putting on pants. This other time she started drinking from a mug and stopped suddenly and said, “Oh! This is from yesterday.”
When we asked her when the paper was due, she said, “The paper? Oh yes, the paper!” But to be fair that always happens in her classes, pandemic or no pandemic.
At one point someone mentioned Adderall and she kind of sat up straight and asked us what our experiences were. She kept nodding, like what we were saying was super interesting. This was not long after she said she had a big deadline.
I was the one who asked the question that made her lose her shit. I was like, “When’s the response for the novel due?” And she wrote in the chat, in capital letters, “DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH IS NOT A NOVEL. PLEASE REPEAT AFTER ME.” We all had to actually write that in the chat. I wasn’t sure whether she wanted it in caps or not, so I copied and pasted what she wrote. I forgot to delete the second half, but fortunately I don’t think she noticed.
Links for the week
Two rave reviews of the wonderful Yi Sang: Selected Works. In Guernica, Spencer Lee-Lenfield writes: “This Yi Sang translation foregrounds the full variety of the author’s experimentation on the lexical level without stranding the reader. Yet the collection is avowedly, and welcomely, artistic rather than academic in style.” And in The Nation, Tammy Kim notes that the collection “helps capture [Yi Sang’s] global oeuvre and shows how he both mined and tore apart colonial grammar.” We did a two-part interview with Jack Jung, one of the volume’s main translators, several months ago: read Part I and Part II here.
We loved this piece by May Ngo in diaCRITICS about helping her father write his memoirs. Her parents were both Chinese-Cambodians who joined the Viet Cong, and she does a wonderful job exploring the nuances of her father’s feelings towards the war:
But still, when I listen to my father tell his stories, I hear in his voice the almost universal youthful need for purpose and meaning in life, which the Vietnam War and the society he lived in at the time shaped into a particular direction. I hear the unfailing human desire, despite the circumstances and perhaps despite our own weaknesses, to want to create a better life for ourselves and for others. In essence, it’s a desire for life that persists in the belief that something can—must—be done when we feel there is injustice, an undying faith that we can have a better world.
Adnan Khan has a beautiful Twitter thread about how prisons “are intentionally designed to suffocate kindness and instead create conditions of hostility.” He explains that giving things away—food, soap, cleaning supplies—is technically a rules violation. More deeply, kindness can be perceived as softness or weakness, a sign of vulnerability. But he learned that “charity isn’t just material. It’s your humor, your kindness, your time, your humility, your patience, the taming of your ego, etc. It’s the distribution of the beautiful inner workings of the heart and soul.” Stay tuned for an interview with Adnan in the weeks to come.
We are devastated by how many people are dying in India. We wish we could do more; if you have ideas, let us know. (Here’s one list of ways to help India.) Thanks to Vaidya Gullapalli for posting Arundhati Roy’s piece “We Are Witnessing a Crime Against Humanity,” which situates the crisis within the politics of nationalism, anti-Muslim discrimination and censorship:
Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist from Kerala, jailed for months in Uttar Pradesh when he and two others travelled there to report on the gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras district, is critically ill and has tested positive for Covid. His wife, in a desperate petition to the chief justice of the supreme court of India, says her husband is lying chained “like an animal” to a hospital bed in the Medical College hospital in Mathura. (The supreme court has now ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to move him to a hospital in Delhi.) So, if you live in Uttar Pradesh, the message seems to be, please do yourself a favour and die without complaining.
The threat to those who complain is not restricted to Uttar Pradesh. A spokesperson for the fascist Hindu nationalist organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—of which Modi and several of his ministers are members, and which runs its own armed militia—has warned that “anti-India forces” would use the crisis to fuel “negativity” and “mistrust” and asked the media to help foster a “positive atmosphere.” Twitter has helped them out by deactivating accounts critical of the government.
Shen-yi Liao linked to this YouTube channel of music videos from N1, a record label created by A-Bao to spotlight musicians producing work in indigenous languages. Here’s our favorite: Dremedreman’s “ngadan,” a song about the importance of names in Paiwanese culture, complete with a lovely music video shot in Taidong.
Next Book Club: Paradise Lost, Friday, May 28th
We loved talking about Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun with you on Friday. Thanks for being there! (Apologies for being a little distracted by the baby … we promise we’ll get a babysitter next time.) For our next book club: the first two books of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Um … we know, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! But we’re excited to puzzle through it with you. As always, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a Zoom link.