Letter to Faculty: ‘Accommodating students in a time of crisis, or, would you trade places?’

June 8, 2020, 5:59 a.m.

Recently some students asked me to start a petition for faculty to sign in support of student demands for accommodation. Their arguments were spelled out here. I apologized, saying that I was completely tapped out. I know my colleagues are as well. I had only recently solicited their support for contract workers, for fossil fuel divestment and other things and I did not feel I could make another ask, not at this point in the quarter. During this pandemic, many faculty have taken on extra childcare duties; some are taking care of elderly parents. And all of us continue to teach, advise, attempt research and serve on University committees. So I did not feel I could ask them to read, carefully consider and then hopefully sign another petition. But I do hope they will at least read this op-ed seriously.

The University has already asked faculty to be mindful of the stress that students are facing, and many feel that the requests students are making are excessive. I would ask us all to consider the very different perspectives faculty and students have on to this subject, despite the fact that we are all living under the same historical circumstances.

We faculty teach subjects of which we are masters. We have taught these courses so often that it feels like second nature. We use the same notes, we assign books and studies we might even have authored or contributed to. Our social world is filled with fellow experts. We discuss these matters fluently and intensely as a matter of habit and pleasure. Our students occupy vastly different positions. In every single class they are challenged to absorb and master new ideas, and the conversations stretch their comfort zones. Our job is to teach; they are supposed to learn. There is labor on both parts, but one is significantly more impacted upon by current events.

This has perennially been the case, and you might say — well, we were students too, once, and we achieved what we did through a great deal of toil and trouble.  I would reply — but when we did, did the world look as it does now?  Were we faced with distractions that can in any way compare? I am not talking about specific personal challenges, I am talking about world historical challenges that they collectively face without a safety net.

No matter how much we envy the young, how many of us would want to change places with them, and start struggling for jobs, careers, enduring relationships, at this moment, and under these conditions?  

I have heard some say that, no matter what, we must stay loyal to the “educational mission.” But what does that actually mean?  A law professor once told me the most important thing his mentor ever said to him.  His mentor said, “Remember, the law is always about something else.” By that he meant that the law is always about the world, not simply a reflection of itself. So too for education, whether it be in the humanities, social sciences, STEM or anything else. We are primarily shaping human beings and human knowledge, not turning out professionals and feeding a discipline. If we remove the worldly, human aspect of the enterprise we are no longer educating, we are simply training. We want them to know things for the value of knowing the world.  And if the world is crumbling — from disease, climate change, lethal state violence and racism and the destruction of democracy — it would be eerie indeed to act normally, to say students owed more to the “educational mission” than they did to their own imperiled sense of humanity and its future. Some lessons do not come in 10-week increments.

As much as we are horrified by the violence that we see before us today, we are also lifted by the most remarkable, national and international demonstrations, demonstrations that show no signs of weakening. If you look at who is marching, you see a multi-generational and multi-racial crowd. But you may not register the fact that the vast majority of these marches are organized and led by young people. The protests in the Mission in San Francisco largely emanated from Mission High students, young people persuaded their mostly “unwoke” parents to stand in vigils in East Texas, and the photograph of two 14-year-old Black ballerinas in front of a graffiti-filled plaza where a Confederate statue had just been taken down — by the state — is now an iconic image. Many Stanford students have been at the forefront of such organizing. They are passionate, exhausted physically and emotionally. But they have the right priorities. Why divert energy into grades if there is no viable future?

Despite what I have just argued, I assume many faculty might say, well, yes, but that is beside the point. Some may grant that perhaps Black students might be given special accommodations. That was my first reaction, and while I still want that, I have come to the view that there is something larger at stake. We all experience racism. We experience it in vastly different ways to be sure, but when Black poverty, incarceration and unemployment exist, our entire social fabric suffers. Anti-crime bills siphon needed funds away from schools and into racist law enforcement measures, lack of attention to diversity in students and faculty rob us of important knowledge and police brutality against Black people points to the entire law enforcement system, which we rely on. We all suffer when the very idea of justice is shown to be a myth. So every moral and ethical person should be registering the effects of the protests in a profound and visceral way.

One final point — these protests are not only about police violence toward Black people — they are about white supremacy. They are about seeing the vestiges of white supremacist thinking in both blatant and covert forms. The aptly named group “Who’s Teaching Us?” is not just talking about demographic representation — it is talking about a curriculum in which they do not appear, or appear only as a footnote.

We actively recruit under-represented minorities to campus to “contribute” their experiences. What happens when those experiences include terror, uncertainty and trauma? And, to my larger point, wouldn’t it only be fair to acknowledge, beyond the Satisfactory grade that we decided to award during a time when we had “only” the pandemic to think about, that we need to do more now, in the face of intensified police violence and the militarization of our public streets, which are now declared the “battlefield” of an “insurrection” and peaceful demonstrators tear-gassed and beaten to make a photo-op possible for the President of the United States?

I fear that in arguing about “holding to standards” and “being fair” we are ignoring the larger picture which, I would argue, we have ignored at our peril. Writing this op-ed was the least I could do. What can you do to recognize just how profoundly they have been affected?

Contact David Palumbo-Liu at palboliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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