Two weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to the English faculty about addressing current events in classroom spaces. I am lucky to study in an English department that held a town hall and will facilitate more meetings about demands for departmental change, but a letter to faculty might be a singular and even more necessary catalyst in other departments. Going directly to Penn’s administration has been historically ineffective for many students, and thinking locally with departments opens opportunities for more immediate change. I am sharing this letter as a template for students to address their own departments’ faculty. As students, we do have a say in what goes on in our classrooms, and we should hold our professors accountable. Please reach out to me if you want to talk about what that accountability might look like.
Several corners of Penn are opening up as safe spaces for students. Some professors have made special announcements that their office doors are open. These steps are helpful, but they also present problems. One is self-selection. The students who attend campus gatherings already have at least some sense of how serious and systemic the recent, hateful events on campus really are, and that they have a responsibility to address them. But the students who are not listening either do not realize that they should or do not know how to. By opening up optional spaces for students and expecting that students start all of the discussions, the responsibility is being put in the wrong place. It is discouraging to know that some professors have not directly reacted to campus and national events during class. We understand that you have syllabi and are expected to teach a certain curriculum, but more than scholars, you are educators, and I don’t know if all faculty members are thinking about what that means to their academic department.
I am writing this to ask as urgently and convincingly as I can that professors tell their students to listen and try to understand. This past month has been all too telling of how easy it is for individuals to run through their time at a university and never think about the true terms of human empathy or respect for another’s life. If the institutions that we prize for collaborative thinking are not the places where we try and find a solution together, then where are those places? This can’t be a discussion for students to choose whether or not to opt into; it needs to happen in class. Especially now, this should take priority. If it doesn’t, that says that it is your job, and by extension also the student’s, to be learning about her relation to academics first and human beings second. You will become one more adult telling students that it is their privilege not to be true problem solvers and to lead the most difficult discourses in their communities, but that it is their privilege to stay removed. If your students are told to keep moving in the same direction without pause or reflection, how will that translate into the way they live the rest of their lives?
It should be made clear that the in-class conversation should not and certainly does not have to entail political bias. We are not suggesting that professors present one political agenda. We are asking you to ask us the hard questions. The political is always personal, and the academic is always political. There are ways of avoiding either of those truths, but if we do, we are avoiding them consciously. If students and professors are not challenged to question and contextualize what we learn together, then we are wasting our time and the intellect in each classroom.
We don’t expect you to have all the answers, but in every class you hold, your students are watching. Whether they are personally and politically upset or not, the way that you carry on with your classrooms right now is going to affect the way that they carry on with their lives. Is there a way to reframe your syllabus to incorporate directly relevant ideas? If not, can you dedicate just 15 minutes at the beginning of each class for you and your students to speak freely? If you’re not sure how to do this, would you meet with colleagues and ask those who might know? Would you ask Penn’s administrators how you could help student groups outside of the classroom?
Some professors already have taken action, and others are clearly trying to. The faculty support to make Penn a sanctuary campus has been encouraging. You do have a lot more influence and authority than students — both with Penn’s administration and speaking in your classroom — and we are asking you to treat that influence as a responsibility.
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