Unrelenting: The Present Never StopsPublished by Bowdoin Magazine
Bowdoin students have always learned, whatever years they studied here, that the present affects, informs, and sometimes distracts from their work. But there hasn’t been a year in recent history quite like the last one.
In the wake of it, Bowdoin Magazine gathered a group of faculty who had taught classes during all this that seemed particularly suited to or subject to a lot of change and chaos as a result of the world that was 2020.
BOWDOIN: Everybody has had to deal with COVID-19 and, in the middle of that crisis, there emerged a problem that was always there—racism and the ugly picture that it paints in this country, the murderous picture that it paints. And then swirling all around was the election. Not only were your students dealing with all of those things, but you were too.
The Academy isn’t exactly known for turning on a dime, and yet we could see in some classes that that was very much happening. People were adapting what they were teaching, in some cases creating new classes.
How did you approach all this? What did you do?
NANCY RILEY: In some ways I had the most obvious situation. I knew I was going to be teaching Epidemiology before the pandemic started, before everything shut down. As we got toward the shutdown, I knew that the class would be all around COVID. That said, COVID was never just COVID. It has never just been COVID. It has been politicized, it’s racialized, there’s a class issue, there are transnational issues. All of those happened. I teach social epidemiology, so I’m less interested in the particular pathogen— although it’s important—and am more interested in how the social world is affected.
Here’s one example of the problems that I think all of us had to deal with in different ways. So we were dealing with COVID all the time in my class. But one day, right before class—and I try not to talk about politics in Washington within my class—Donald Trump announced, “Oh, COVID, it’s just like the flu. It’s no worse than the flu.”
And I wanted my students to deal with it. So I scrambled, literally in the last half hour before class, trying to gather some materials and get them to take this issue on. Not just whether it’s more or less dangerous than the flu, which they knew how to deal with, but the misinformation itself.
Their version at first was, “Oh my God, he’s such a jerk.” But I knew that we had to get beyond that quickly. So I encouraged them to gather the tools they’ve learned in my class and use them to make an argument against what he said. And they did it really well. They had to pivot. They had to figure out how to make sense of it in a real way, rather than just react to the statement. They had to say, no, that’s not true, because of this, and this, and this. They lined it all up.
Students also—not just us—have had to pivot, we have had to force them to pivot. This has been true for so many things in the last year, but I give it as an example of how these things are intertwined. While we might like to see purely—just purely look at purely COVID— that’s impossible. It was always impossible.
SALAR MOHANDESI: I had a similar experience. I was teaching a course called A History of the Present, which I had proposed and organized before all of this happened. I had decided to teach the course for a number of reasons. First, because I thought that while students are very familiar with events happening right now, things in the recent past, in the 1990s or 2000s, remain kind of vague. I thought it was important to connect the dots between the history they had learned in high school, leading up to the 1950s and 1960s, and what happens in the present. Second, because I was personally convinced that we’ve been in a deep crisis since at least the late 2000s, and we’re going to continue to be in one for years to come, I wanted to set aside some time to really analyze and anatomize the crisis of the present. And the last thing was that a lot of students like to approach professors to talk about what’s going on. And this usually happens outside of class or in office hours.
I wanted to create a space where you could actually dig into it in a very scholarly way, think about the relationship between the past and the present, and especially the methodologies of how we approach the study of the present in a formal historical manner. So we started out the course with a lot of methodological questions. What do you gain by studying your own time? What do you lose? What are the challenges? Then we went through the history of the North Atlantic from the late 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the way to the present, 2020.
On our last day before spring break, I assigned a bunch of texts on the concept of crisis—Antonio Gramsci, Nancy Fraser, Reinhart Koselleck—and we discussed the meaning of the word “crisis.” And we never returned and met as a class in person again. Now, I have to say, when the pandemic broke out and everything happened, I didn’t really have to adjust anything because the whole point of the class was that we were already in a crisis, and that we should try to understand it historically. The way that I had structured the class was not by focusing on current events, but trying to understand the history that made this present possible. When you approach the present in this way, you’re not really scrambling to include current events; you’re trying to develop a way to think about the present. Instead of chasing after things, racing to cover the latest news story, you have given students a larger framework for making sense of all that is happening.
And it really brought to light a lot of the abstract theoretical questions. Because our final assignment was to collectively map the present, and everything that was happening. It was so difficult to figure out where everything fit. Is this important? Is this not? It was hard to wrap it all up because things were moving so quickly. It was kind of a never-ending thing. Students kept talking with each other after the class ended, because the present doesn’t stop.
“We all have subjectivity. Just because we want to say something is true, that something is factual, there are always different versions, different ways that people frame certain events, certain moments.”
—Theo Greene, Assistant Professor OF Sociology
THEO GREENE: I think that’s really interesting. I am always engaging with the present in my class. I believe sociology is really about giving students a language to be able to analyze the world around them. Last semester, in the fall, I taught classical theory. And the last time I taught it was four years ago. What I normally do in the class is pair a classical text with a contemporary one to show students why it is classical, right? The fact that a lot of these texts—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Du Bois, et cetera—are still used, and they live, and they evolve in contemporary research. I thought it’d be really cute in 2016 to pair Weber’s politics as a vocation with this question of Trump’s ascendancy as a candidate. At the time, we were thinking about him as a candidate, never thinking about the fact he would actually win. And then it happened. And a student actually asked, why are we studying this when the world around us is burning? And I had to do what students famously call the “O captain! My captain!” speech, where I kind of say they should take the knowledge that they learned in these classes to be able not only to understand and talk about it, but to fight for what they believe in to make the world a better place.
So this time I taught classical theory I was much better prepared. We still talk about Trump, we talk about COVID, we talk about these issues. A lot of their final projects were focused around contemporary events where they’re reusing classical theories to be able to analyze them. And that student who in 2016 raised the question about why it matters is now a graduate student at UC Davis, and he sent me an email to thank me about that day.
He was thinking about the election, election results, and how he’s now taking a classical theory course in graduate school and how important that day was as part of his journey. It’s one of the things that sparked my interest to constantly stay on top of what’s going on, because I think students will always ask those questions. And so I’m ready in one way or another, whether it’s incorporating it into the class discussion, or fashioning it into an assignment for students to grapple with material from the course.
BOWDOIN: That’s a lot of work for you, because there is an expectation that if you are bringing material, it’s vetted, that you’ve approached it as a scholar, there’s a certain amount of research. It’s hard enough to put together a class. Now you have to put together a class and then, on the fly, change the material. How does that work?
NANCY RILEY: But it’s what we do always. Whatever our field is. We’re always interpreting the world around us from that field. I remember being at a baseball game with a bunch of students, and I said something about the fans, and a student turned to me and said, “Are you ever not a sociologist?” And I said, “No, I am never not.” I’m always a sociologist. It is what we do, I think. The question is how we bring it, which might be a different issue.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: One of the classes I teach is called Contemporary France through the Media. And it is really following the news. The students have to do a press review, and it was very interesting the first half of the semester last spring, when they were giving updates about what wasn’t yet a pandemic. We were looking at each other and getting a little bit worried, but it started a very interesting conversation.
And in this last semester we revisited all the themes that we engage with, with the lens of the pandemic and COVID-19. So, for example, when we talked about discrimination and the suburbs around the big cities of France and issues of racism that usually the students tend to minimize compared to the US—they have sometimes an idealized vision of France—the figures of COVID-19 were emphasizing what I was saying a few weeks before. I was just saying that these parts of the French territory were completely abandoned, and they didn’t have enough hospitals. These were the things that I said in the beginning, and then the news emphasized those facts. So, as you all said, it’s this balance between knowing what we are going to talk about during the semester and also letting the world shape what we are going to teach about.
DAVID HECHT: I try to not give myself the pressure of being an expert on everything about the current event that is coming into the classroom. I have a particular scholarly interest, the history of science. And that gives me a perspective on current events. So, in my Health, Culture, and Society seminar this past fall, I’m going to be able to highlight a certain set of issues in contemporary politics or with COVID that somebody else might not gravitate to. And I might deemphasize others, because they’re not in my area of expertise. So, yes, there is some work you need to do to keep up with what’s going on, but what I can offer is my particular take or a particular set of insights that I think I have.
“One of the things I try to teach them is that you’re going to have to learn to stand on unstable ground, because you’re never going to find the one place where it tells you the whole world.”
—Nancy Riley, A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences
I know something about science communication, so I can maybe help them understand why people are believing or not believing what they believe or don’t believe. But I’m not going to task myself with also being an expert on policy formation or any one of the innumerable other things that one could talk about.
THEO GREENE: I think that’s important. Because part of what we’re doing in the classroom is teaching students how to think and how to process things. And so, as we are getting information and the information is only partial, I think part of it is helping students with the tools to be able to think about these through the frames in which our expertise does lie. But that’s something we do as researchers and scientists as well. I think about my research as an ethnographer, where I go out into the field. I study gay neighborhoods, and one day I’m studying a pride parade. And, next thing I know, the Pulse tragedy happens, and the community pivots. And I have to be able to learn very quickly how to make sense of that moment. Because the real
world is very unpredictable. In those moments, I’m going to use the tools in my toolkit to make sense of what’s happening. And that’s what we do in the classroom as well. As these developments happen, I don’t think we’re trying to provide them with answers, but to help them think about how to ask the questions.
NANCY RILEY: I think that’s a really good point, and it brings in the role of students in all this. In my epidemiology class, students quickly learn that I have a background in public health, but there are all these areas I don’t know anything about. I explain to them how I try to read the science journals and learn things, but I actually don’t know the answer. And what I really like is that some of my students took it on themselves, the ones who had a science background, and brought it into class. It’s a way we, as teachers, can demonstrate that it’s shared—that knowledge, gaining and sharing knowledge, is part of what we’re doing; we’re connecting and collaborating across all kinds of different fields. That’s so much better than having somebody say, “Yes, this is what is true, and this is what is false.”
DAVID HECHT: And if I can say, to echo what Theo and Nancy just said, it is not hard to get information and opinions on COVID or any other major news story, right? So a large part of what we can do is this kind of critical thinking piece of helping them process in just the way that you both were saying.
BOWDOIN: That makes me think of the facts and scholarship. People think of those things as being dispassionate. They just are true or not true, and yet at the same time, you have passion for your fields, and you want to cultivate passion in your students. But does all of this stuff swirling around, does any of that get in the way of objectivity? And what do you do about that?
THEO GREENE: What is objectivity?
THEO GREENE: As an African American sitting here and witnessing all of this, who is deeply impacted by this, who has family that they’re concerned about all of the time, as someone who tested positive for COVID over the course of the semester and had to teach classes—these are issues. What I always say to my students is that we all have subjectivity. Just because we want to say something is true, that something is factual, there are always different versions, different ways that people frame certain events, certain moments.
I always tell students, “I come as a gay, Black professor.” I have a gay, Black stank. I call it “the stank,” which is a subjectivity, about how I teach Marx, how I teach sexuality, how I teach art in the city. And that’s fine, but you also have “a stank.” You also have a subjectivity, and if your subjectivity happens to disagree with mine, you’re welcome to disagree. You’re welcome to bring in whatever evidence, and we work through that. Because, again, the skill is not to tell them what to think. It’s to provide them with skills of how to think about these issues.
NANCY RILEY: And how to bring in that evidence.
THEO GREENE: And support it.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: It’s at the same time similar and different for me, because I teach a lot about France and the colonial past, and I am Algerian; my country was colonized by France. So I always have to find the balance, and I’m always asking myself when I have, for example, a critical discourse vis-à-vis France’s colonial past. And I’m talking about the state, of course, and the authorities and the colonial authorities. I’m always questioning myself. Are the students thinking that I’m having this discourse because I’m Algerian and I’m trying to give this horrible image of France while I’m teaching?
I usually, as Theo said, state what is my position as a person, as a scholar with my identity, and also try to explain how I have built this knowledge toward the past using literature, using history, using sources. And also, I would say—and I’m sure you will agree with me, Theo—using a sense of humor and just showing that I’m absolutely aware of how it can be interpreted and opening a discussion and conversation about it. And so making the students feel comfortable enough to voice questions about what I’m saying and why I’m saying it.
THEO GREENE: I totally agree with that. But I will say this too. We know—there are studies out there—that students often find women professors and professors of color less “objective” than straight white male professors. And, in some ways, it puts a lot of responsibility on those who occupy those marginal spaces to find ways around this question of how to deal with objectivity in the classroom, to be able to engage students with the necessary outcomes, the learning goals that we want them to walk away from the classroom with.
NANCY RILEY: I think it’s also up to white people to take this issue up.... I mean, the fact that some groups get “marked” and others are unmarked, and therefore more objective, is baloney. One of the things I feel that, as a white person, I have to do in the classroom is to mark my own perspective. We’re all speaking from a perspective of race, a perspective of gender, a perspective of...whatever it is. And so I try very hard to do that because I think it’s part of dealing with the issue of race in the classroom, and racist scholarship, and our own perspective.
THEO GREENE: I think it’s also important to name it. There’s a lot of hidden labor that marginalized professors often take on in terms of pedagogy, which I think needs to be brought more to the front. It needs to be named. It needs to be identified, which is why I’m saying it. I agree with you, Nancy. I think everyone should be able to come in front of a classroom and be able to identify and mark their subjectivity. We know that doesn’t happen. But we also have to recognize the fact that, because it doesn’t happen, those who have these unique positions in front of the classroom have to come up with different ways and different strategies to engage students.
BOWDOIN: President [Clayton] Rose puts a stake in the ground on various subjects from time to time, something college presidents have done historically—or have intentionally avoided doing—forever. They’ve had that role. But do you think the academy itself, the institution of learning itself, has a social responsibility? Is there a responsibility to take what’s happening in the world and prepare your students somehow to deal with those specific things?
NANCY RILEY: Of course! Of course the academy has a responsibility, absolutely. I mean, the academy has tried the hands-off approach. That’s crazy. That is a struggle for any of us who live in the world and work in the academy. I think we know it.
DAVID HECHT: I absolutely agree with that. But the question then becomes How? I’m just thinking in terms of the two classes I taught in the fall. My seminar on health, culture, and society was...as you might expect, COVID came up probably every day. It was a major driving force of all of the conversations. My other class, nominally a lecture class, Imagining Disaster, was something that was relevant, and indeed I scheduled it to take advantage of the moment. But, as I would get into discussions, I felt that in order to really understand the history of how society creates a response to disasters, we sort of had to move away from COVID, because it was a very easy comparison to make. Students would immediately see the parallels between a moment of crisis in history and our current moment. But the more you get into the details, the more you’re like, “Well, it’s too easy to just say, ‘We still see this today.’”
So, in that class, the current events almost became a kind of hook that we would use to look back and say, “On a broadest level, yes, these patterns have historical roots. But there are also differences among historical eras, or geographical context, or whatever number of variables.” So I think the question becomes how best you make the course relevant, and that can vary quite a bit.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: One of the worries that I have as a teacher, for the students, is are they understanding the complexity of a situation? It’s not only my take on it. It’s just how complex what we are studying is, even for me. So when I’m teaching literature, I want to leave them with questions more than answers.
When I teach about the city of Paris, in their mind it’s a mythical city. And I try to show all the ways that this city can be represented, as the city of arts, of culture, but also the capital of the colonial empire, a city where you have also police violence, and all these images all together. And for me, it’s one of my responsibilities not to leave them with any of these images as the striking one. I want all these images to stay and to live together in a way, and not one take power over the other.
I want them to know that Paris is a complex city, because it has a complex past. It has sociological complexities and so forth, and it would be the same for North Africa, which is part of the Arab world, and part of the Mediterranean, and part of the African continent, and it’s a Francophone area where French is spoken but also Arabic and many other languages. So I want to leave them with this idea that, whatever subject you start to study, you are never done with it—because that’s what we are passionate about, this exploration that starts and will never stop, if I’m doing my work correctly with them.
NANCY RILEY: And, Meryem, don’t you find that students often want the one answer? They’re sort of at a place where they don’t want to have to hold it all in their head. And so one of the things I try to teach them is that you’re going to have to learn to stand on unstable ground, because you’re never going to find the one place where it tells you the whole world.
THEO GREENE: They hate it for the fourteen weeks they do it, and then five years later, you get an email from a student saying, “Thank you for making this complex for me.” And I think, to go back to your question, the reason why colleges and universities, academia, have this responsibility is that our students think of Bowdoin as a safe space for the exploration of these ideas. It’s a safe space to talk about it and think about it, and even though they hate when it happens, where it’s okay to sometimes get it wrong.
And, as Meryem says, it’s our job to sort of throw that ball back by opening up that space and making it more complex and more complicated, and showing that there are many different ways to look at it, many different ways to approach it, and many different ways even to mobilize it, to answer a question. And sometimes that raises more questions. But, at the end of the day, I think what we are doing here is providing students with a foundation to become complex thinkers and really think about these things in multifaceted ways, to go out to the world and do the big things that they ultimately are destined to do.
DAVID HECHT: On this question of what’s your responsibility, one thing I struggle with is that engaging with contemporary issues can be very deflating. I’m thinking particularly in terms of climate change, which is something that comes up a lot in my classes.
With climate change, both the technical situation and the political situation around it are depressing, if you really try to see the depth of what’s going on with those things. So the question—as a teacher, that is—is how do you not completely depress your students but be intellectually honest at the same time? I don’t really have an answer for that.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: That’s a great question.
NANCY RILEY: Well, how did you do this if you were talking about the world in crisis?
DAVID HECHT: Right, Imagining Disaster. I basically sort of named that whole course around my prob- lem here. And it becomes a little bit of a running joke: “Here’s yet another depressing thing.” I guess there are ways to frame things in somewhat positive lights. But it can get challenging.
SALAR MOHANDESI: This is a very tricky question, because part of the assumption is that knowledge can lead to the power to change the world. But that may not actually be true. Just because you have the correct analysis, the right skills, the best approach, you historicize the present, you weight the complexities, even if you have all the tools, if you have managed to predict the present, it does not mean that you have the capacity to change things or to make them any better. Maybe, maybe not.
Ultimately, your question of social responsibility is about politics. This is a tough one. On the one hand, everything we do is touched by politics. The syllabus is political, how we teach is political. We can’t pretend to escape politics. On the other hand, you don’t want to overload everything with politics. You want to inform, but you don’t want to cross the line. We’re professors, not political organizers. Bowdoin is not a political party.
This gets back to David’s question: Is it our role to motivate? I mean, are we commissars trying to pump people up for some cause? I don’t think so. But at the same time, students who take courses that explicitly deal with the present rightly want to know what to do next. This is one of the most difficult challenges for those of us who do engage with the present: we’re inevitably touching on a lot of things that exceed what’s in our job description.
THEO GREENE: And, while that’s true, one of the things I think we do in our classrooms is often burst the bubble of privilege that our students have when they come here and that they have been surrounded by for such a long time. They think the world is some happy rainbow, Mary Tyler Moore sort of reality, and some students are shocked and disappointed to find out that there are deep inequalities and that the world is very messed up in a lot of ways, and that all of this effort does not yield answers.
How many of us have had students come to us at Thanksgiving concerned about having very difficult conversations with parents and family members, that their minds have changed? And again, to a certain point, we don’t want to depress them and say, “The world is messed up,” or there’s nothing they can do. I think there is something exciting about bursting that bubble and giving them a sense that maybe we can’t solve the problem tomorrow. But you can be angry about that. It can spur you to particular kinds of action, right?
And I think about, Salar, students who feel like they’re going to be Marxists and change the world and blow up capitalism. I’m teaching classical theory, where they’re so quick to blame capitalism for everything, and I’m like, “Okay, one of these days...,”—I’ll say this to their face— “at your 25th reunion, when I am hopefully tenured and endowed with a chair named after you because you cornered some market on Wall Street, we’ll toast and laugh about the moment that you wanted to blow up capitalism.”
So, yes, the world is a sad, depressing place sometimes, and there are lots of complex problems that we can’t solve. But at the same time, we teach these fourteen-week, fifteen-week intervals. We’re not going to engage all of that, but I think to spark anger, to spark passion, to spark a desire for students to realize that there is something that they can try to do, there is some place that they can take it if they want to, if they so choose, is really important as well.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: I think that’s actually the reason why I love to teach literature, because there is in literature something very empowering also, even if parts of the courses are depressing. I think that the beauty of literature, in periods of turmoil, is to remind us of the beauty that is around us, beauty and also the strength. For example, this semester, I was teaching a text on Fanon, and it was the day of the election. And it was perfect. I didn’t do it on purpose really. But the poetry of Fanon’s text was really helpful.
DAVID HECHT: Salar, you put it so well in terms of this assumption about the link between knowledge and power that I think is a core assumption of what many of us do or what brought us to this field. And it’s not at all clear that there’s really a link there. And I think that’s really unsettling.
THEO GREENE: Well, I also think there is a kind of beauty in the struggle. Look, you have every single oppression thrust upon you, you learn how to deal with this, right? There is a certain kind of beauty in thinking about it. You realize it’s not power; you realize sometimes it makes you even more powerless. I think the last four years has taught us that, as this administration tried to buck anything that had to do with science, anything that had to do with knowledge. You think about that 1776 report, which will make you want to flip over a table. It has been a never-ending assault on academia, right? But what I think comes out of that is the fact that we’re still fighting that fight every day.
And as much as we want to say, yes, knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal power, yes, things are very depressing, it still sparks us to get out and teach with enthusiasm. And even when we don’t necessarily want to, in a certain kind of spirit to support our students when they’re trying to come up with answers and there aren’t any, when the world isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. And I think that’s also something that’s really important as well. The culmination of many, many years of struggle. And throughout, there’s lots of beauty in that. I think that’s something else that is unnamed, in terms of the labor that we do, that should be named.
SALAR MOHANDESI: This goes back to the point that I was making. We’re professors, but because of the pandemic, we’ve had to also become social workers and therapists and motivational figures. Of course, the work of an academic is to do a lot of things—you teach, you write, you research, you interact with students. But something I’ve felt this past year is that having so many conversations with students about all the things that are happening in the world is really blurring the boundary between my work as a professor and something else.
NANCY RILEY: I totally agree. It’s one of the reasons we’re all so exhausted. Whatever our reactions are, which are often important and strong too—people getting sick, our families getting sick, our worries about racism. But we’re also dealing with students who are really looking to us and needing us in ways that are just so hard at times. Most of us are not trained as counselors, and that’s difficult.
When I first came to Bowdoin, I realized that a lot of these students are going to end up in positions of power, partly because of where they come from, but also because Bowdoin propels them in that way. I had a number of experiences where people you wouldn’t think would be the type have actually had their eyes opened because of things they learned at Bowdoin. And that in some ways is a piece of inspiration for me—because we could pretend that hierarchy is not going to happen, but it is.
THEO GREENE: I just want to piggyback on what you said. Again, I think that’s the beauty of what we’re doing. We’re not stopping them from working on Wall Street or for oil companies or what have you. I had a former student who now works on Wall Street send me an email after the failed insurrection, thinking about something he read about white supremacists and asking me for more readings that he could engage in. That impact is powerful. Even though, again, I’m not in the business of solving problems, I’m giving tools to think about how to understand the world as it is. If they’re able to take something out of my classroom and five years down the line say, “I’m watching what’s going on. The world is on fire. And yet, as I think about this, I think about what you talked about in class, what we read.” It’s good to know.
BOWDOIN: Everybody has an experience of COVID one way or the other, because it’s all happening to us and to our families and to our world. But everyone’s experience of racism is undeniably different for different people. And some people have virtually no experience with it. How do you get past the feeling that maybe, on something that feels so fraught, they’re not sure they have a standing to have an opinion?
NANCY RILEY: Well, we all have a standing in this. I think that’s one of the things we have to get our students to understand. They might think they’re outside of it, but they’re not. No one’s outside of it. We do have different experiences, absolutely. And some are more violent and more harmful than others’ experiences, but we all are part of it. I think that can be hard sometimes for white students who have grown up in Maine, for example, to come to terms with. But many of them do. I think in our classes and in other spaces at Bowdoin, students come to understand that not only are they not able to stand outside it, they don’t stand outside it. We’re part of this system. All of us are.
THEO GREENE: It is a question of how that’s delivered. Speaking with a lot of my Black colleagues, I think there is a greater wish, at least among the faculty, that there would be a common way in which people can understand and engage these questions, particularly as it refers to anti-Black racism in the United States. There’s no one in this room that can replicate and understand my experience and my perspective as a Black man, the same way that I can’t replicate or speak to the experiences of whiteness or experiences that other people have within this particular space. And yet, Nancy’s correct that we are all embed- ded in the system that we produce—in this racial inequality—in lots of different complex ways.
Our students sometimes feel put off by being told what their experience is, what their experience ought to be. Because maybe they’re sitting in a classroom with a white professor trying to tell them about anti-Black racism. So there is a lot of complexity there. All of us—Clayton and [Michael Reed, senior vice president for inclusion and diversity] and a lot of the faculty—are engaging in this conversation now as to how to do this in a way that does what Nancy says. On the one hand, that says that racism is something that we’re not outside of, but at the same time, recognizes the fact that it’s not something we all experience in the same way.
NANCY RILEY: It’s a tough issue to be teaching about and through. It is something that is difficult for all of us, students and faculty alike.
SALAR MOHANDESI: Certainly, I think it means that the professor’s role as a mediator and conversa- tion facilitator is very important. I’ve noticed this in my History of the Present class. I had a whole day on identity politics, and I deliberately assigned some extremely provocative articles. We reached this point where a couple of students of color were heatedly debating an issue, but many of the white students were quite reserved. I think they were worried about getting involved, thinking, “Well, is this actually our thing?” “If I say something, will I be canceled?” But at the same time, you don’t want to make it so that race is just a thing that people of color talk about. So there’s a lot more that you have to navigate, especially because it’s such a charged issue. We have to be very careful about our language. There are a lot of dynamics at play here.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: I think, for me, one of the things that is helpful is that I don’t speak about the United States per se, I speak about other regions, other countries, and other issues. But I think it’s also important because it helps the students also to compare.
I think it’s important to open the conversation to other spaces and discriminations that happen elsewhere. It enriches the conversation and discussions in the classroom. And I think it helps me create what we call a safe space, where everybody can help with some ideas and some knowledge.
There is this moment that, for me, is a very interesting one. It’s in the class called Literature, Power, and Resistance, when you have some African American writers who went to France because they wanted to escape racism in the US. And then we have texts from authors from Cameroon and Algeria saying how much they love living in New York, because they wanted to escape the racism in France. And I really love this moment in the classroom, because we are confronted with what does it mean? Baldwin says that he goes to France because he wants to escape, but he sees the racism in Paris; he’s lucid.
And it’s the same for Achille Mbembe when he arrives in New York. He’s, “Oh, wonderful, New York is wonderful.” And then he adds, “But I know it’s not wonderful for every Black man and Black woman.” And it starts this discussion that helps everybody express ideas. And I have to add, as Salar said, choosing the words carefully. I am even more in a delicate situation because they have to speak in French, and so I just have to really help them and be a mediator in the terms they can use, can’t use, how to say it. Even the word “race” is not used in French as it is used in the US, and that sparks a conversation, and I think it’s interesting for them.
DAVID HECHT: It’s comforting to know that other people struggled to have these conversations as well. I also feel, for me, that there’s an expertise issue as well as a standing issue. When I’m trying to have a conversation about race that is connected to a subject that I know well, such as differential effects of nuclear testing and nuclear waste on certain kinds of communities, I feel that I can bring race into that conversation. And then I don’t feel like I’m out of my depth. But when discussions around race move out of those areas that I’m very familiar with for research reasons, then I get less comfortable and it gets more challenging to accomplish that nimbleness that Salar was talking about.
“In order to really understand the history of how society creates a response to disasters, we sort of had to move away from COVID.”
—David Hecht, Associate Professor of History
THEO GREENE: Even the approaches in which we’re addressing race are beginning to change and become a moving target. I think about this in terms of sociology, now that we’ve begun to really embrace Du Bois as a father of sociology. This whole new strand of Du Bois in sociology completely reframes the ways in which we’re talking about race and particularly marginal others from this “deficit framework,” where we’re talking about the oppression of Black people, to one that’s more assets-based. To think about the fact that, yes, the structures of racial oppression also yielded a different way in which Black people think about place, a different way in which Black people think about culture, the way that I could think about family. And in doing so, I think it also connects us with what both David and Meryem said. I think it helps produce a richer, more multilayered, complex understanding of the experience of marginal peoples in a way that is far more effective than simply talking about racism as racism. To be able to say that we see the various kinds of oppressions that exist in certain kinds of contexts. And also to say, from that, people created music as a form of protest. People moved in the great migration and took pieces of the South with them. And we see that in literature, we see that in fashion, we see it in culture. And we see the impacts in terms of the environment, in terms of politics, in terms of everything else. And so I think, the more we do to channel some of these things into our expertise, I think there’s greater opportunities to different kinds of exposures of different perspective points. I think that can be very useful when we have these conversations about race, racism, racial oppression, et cetera.
SALAR MOHANDESI: What David said reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about a lot, which is this question of standing and expertise based on your background. I think what’s happened is that places like Bowdoin have made a concerted effort to diversify their faculty, which you can see in the composition of the incoming faculty. On the one hand, this is really great, because it’s important for students to have professors who look like them, have similar backgrounds, similar interests, similar experiences. I think it’s fantastic. On the other hand, there’s sometimes a risk of a kind of essentialism, a tendency to believe that professors of a certain background are automatically experts in that topic. For example, everyone from the Middle East is an expert on the geopolitics of the Middle East, or all Black professors are naturally experts in race.
Now, it’s one thing to say that a person of color likely has more experience with racism than a white person, but it’s a different thing to draw a straight line between purported identity and academic expertise. This kind of thinking can also lead to the opposite problem: confusion around people who teach something that’s different from their ascribed identity. I’ve experienced this many times, as people have expressed astonishment that I work on Europe and not on Iran, even though my parents were born in Iran. In graduate school I had a friend who told me, “You know, you’re the most un-Iranian Iranian I’ve ever met because you don’t work on the Middle East.” Now, this all is very silly, but it actually touches on a kind of important issue in the academy right now, which is this sense of an essentialized authenticity.
If you teach something that is directly con- nected to your identity, you’re almost treated like a natural expert. But on the other hand, if you teach something that is not based on your identity, you sometimes get questioned for not being authentic. There’s this feeling that you can’t possibly teach about something that isn’t your ethnicity, unless you’ve done deep historical research on a very specific aspect of the topic.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: I completely agree and second that, Salar. I have this moment that I do consciously, which is tell the students, “You can study whatever topic you want to study, whatever you are interested in, you can commit yourself. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you are passionate about something, just go for it.” There is something we are missing if we start assigning your field according to your identity;
I think it goes against a lot of principles in a way. It doesn’t have to work like this. It can, and it’s welcomed, but I think it’s very important to remind students and help them overcome maybe their resistance or shyness or whatever we can call it when they don’t want to speak about something. If you want to talk about something, just read about it and you will become an expert.
THEO GREENE: But it can be a slippery slope. And I think we have to keep that in perspective. So to be able to say, yes, you can read something and become an expert at it. I think it’s very different than being able to say that you can speak about an experience or you can speak for people and their experiences. I experienced the same thing studying sexualities. Apparently Black people don’t have sexualities in the field that I study; people are often very surprised by that. I’m often in my sociology classes, teaching white European scholars and, again, I think the way in which they take that knowledge is very different than some of the ways they take my teaching other kinds of knowledge or bodies of knowledge.
But I think we also have to recognize the intersections of what we’re learning and the real world, and how students are also trying to navigate their positions in the world, and I think we can run into some danger. Knowledge, as you said earlier, doesn’t necessarily equal power. It also doesn’t necessarily equal the ability to speak for. It all is circumscribed in context and perspective.
BOWDOIN: Has anything about this whole experience surprised you?
SALAR MOHANDESI: One thing that really surprised me was the emotional aspect of it all. I think it’s one thing to analyze the present as a scholar, and it’s another thing to actually live through it. When I designed my History of the Present course, I felt like I had a good sense of what was happening. I don’t want to say I saw it all coming, but in many respects, much of what happened in 2020 was foreseeable. I don’t think it should have been a surprise to us that there was an anti-racist movement that happened this summer. I don’t even think it should’ve been surprising to us that there was an economic downturn. I don’t think it should’ve been surprising to us that there was a pandemic—epidemiologists have been warning us about this for years now.
So many of these things, I think, we could have predicted; the evidence was there. But when it did happen, I was emotionally unprepared for it, and so were my students. It was very surprising to me how deeply embedded emotions are in history. I think sometimes there’s a tendency to gloss over this, when you look at economics or cultural trends or political ideas, major events, but the emotions are always there. And it’s kind of helped me and my students better understand past events. Like in my ’60s class, when the crisis happened, we were looking at ’68 and everything that was going on, and I had my students do some oral histories with people who lived in the past and then also an oral history with themselves. And they said that living through this crisis allowed them to better understand how it may have felt like for people in the past to live through these moments.
Of course, the feelings are different. We can’t make a one-to-one thing, but this sometimes gets lost. How we live through and the emotions that we have during a crisis situation, and how we communicate that and teach that. And that’s certainly something I’ve become much more attentive to in my classes—not just teaching great texts or big ideas, but how does it really feel and what creative ways can you try to find to communicate the emotions in moments of crisis, rather than just like, “Oh, here are the big factors that led to explosions.” How does it really feel for people? That’s something that was kind of unexpected for me and has made me really rethink the way that I teach, not just about the present but the past.
THEO GREENE: The election of 2016 actually taught me some of that, but it also taught me a question that students often will ask, which is now what? That “now what” question is really important. Hopefully, at the end of the day, I can pivot and bring these things in, but what I’m also trying to teach my students is the value of resiliency.
When some students thought that the election of Trump meant the end of the world, I had to convince them the American project will continue, the idea that you keep moving forward. I had learned that when, in the middle of the fall semester, I tested positive for COVID and I had to figure out how to continue to teach classes when the reality is, I get up and I feel like I want to go back to sleep. A lot of our students were also going through that. And students were encountering all of these challenges and they had to rally, come to class, do the readings, do the work. Again, it wasn’t always easy, but like everything else, everything comes with hard work. The values of persistence, the values of resilience are really important tools in my teaching toolkit.
MERYEM BELKAÏD: I don’t know if it’s surprising, but what sparked questions is my relationship with time. When I was a teenager, a civil war started in Algeria, and I lived through it. And I think that, naively, I thought that would be the most complicated time of my life. I thought that I would grow up and go on with life without having any other big event. And so I think this pandemic changed this frame, this way of thinking—having to be confronted with another big crisis. Completely different contexts, not the same situation, of course, but still traumatic for a lot of people at the same time. And I think what was for me very surprising, as Theo said, is just the resilience of the students, of how very quickly for them turning to learning, having their assignments done, the readings done, was helping them finding a rhythm, finding solace, finding a headspace away from what was going on around them.
DAVID HECHT: All these answers resonate. I started teaching right after 9/11. I mean, 9/11 was very different, but it shares with the pandemic the fact that it was a kind of all-consuming news event. Theo, you mentioned 2016, and I can think of the 2008 financial crisis, or other events.
One of the things that makes this one different, though, is that all of those are ways that the non-academic impacted the academic, but none of those other things affected the means we use to be academics quite as much. And so that’s been, just for all the reasons that we can all imagine, just a really difficult thing to get used to. But, Meryem, you used the word resilience—people have pulled it off.
Lincoln Agnew is a graphic artist and illustrator from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.