As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge” but one in which “one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.” They explain, “the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university” is “to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony…”
In my classes, I attempt to create what bell hooks calls “a location of possibility.” She explains that when we labor for freedom, demand of ourselves and our students, and when we open our hearts and minds, we may “collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.” I cannot claim that I always succeed in creating such a “location of possibility,” but it is a constant goal when I develop and deliver a course. One crucial component of that delivery is in how I structure the presentation and discussion of controversial or contentious subjects. For the class to collectively venture “beyond boundaries,” I aim to make my courses accessible to students with a range of scholastic preparation and learning goals.
In the first week of my courses, I discuss with my students several norms I expect all of us to better understand, practice, and enforce throughout the semester. Two of these norms pertain to consistent use of methods that can enhance understanding and promote well-being: the principle of charity and self-care. While I could not assign sole or primary credit to these methods, they have contributed to producing opportunities to “move beyond boundaries.”
The Principle of Charity
The principle of charity aims to clarify and improve understanding of another’s claims, particularly when there seems to be disagreement. I invite my students to be charitable with one another, with the texts they read, and with me. In this sense, charity is chiefly concerned with interpretations, as its primary goal is lessening perceived differences caused by problems interpreting the expressions of others. This goal can be achieved by acknowledging points of agreement and by translating expressions into their most well-reasoned and persuasive versions. I often suggest students consider the practice of charity as the opposite of constructing a “strawman.” I invite them to use this method prior to criticizing claims, and find that it fosters civil debate and rigorous thinking during moments of disagreement. Beyond helping students learn, I ask students to consider the ways that using this method in other settings can improve their personal and professional relationships. I model this method in the way that I teach, and because I treat competitive ideas faithfully and fairly, students are often unable to pin down my own opinion on a text or topic of discussion. I am thrilled when we are weeks into a semester and students ask for my perspective on a given issue, as they are frequently unable to assume it.
Because my courses address contentious topics that may inspire a range of uncomfortable feelings, I encourage students to be proactive and guard against emotional responses that may create barriers to learning or promote unproductive distress. I encourage students to use self-care in a number of common situations in the classroom and during study. One common situation—the topic of much debate in popular press and education literature—involves direct experience of harms caused by discrimination or traumatic situations. Just as some students have been harmed by the objects we study, others have benefitted from them, and consequently they may feel defensive. If they feel entitled to their advantages, they may become angry or frustrated when their privileged status is acknowledged or criticized. A third situation where self-care is helpful is common to all learning: the frustrations felt when readings are challenging, when there is too little time to complete assignments, or when the subject of lectures or discussions is confounding. I do my best to convey my sympathy to students experiencing these things and to let them know all of these emotional responses are understandable, while emphasizing that they must resolve these challenges to assure successful learning. In my classes, I suggest some self-care strategies (see, for instance, this handout).