Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a  delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points. Continue reading “Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics”

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Religious Observance Policy Limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “Religious Observance Policy Limitations”

Splaining

This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. Continue reading “Splaining”

Footnote

Wherein I wonder about a sentence, learn a lot, and end up with more questions.

Today’s first hymn was titled “Great Spirit God” (one of two translations of Wakantanka Taku Nitawa in our hymnal). The music note said the tune is Lacquiparle, “Native American melody (Dakota) Adapt. Joseph R. Renville, 1842.” This hymnal has a short background note for each hymn. This one said: “Recollecting the accounts told by his grandfather and others, Sidney Byrd stated:

‘This hymn was sung by thirty-eight Dakota Indian prisoners of war as they went to the gallows at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in American history.”

That caught my attention! The minister’s introduction mentioned the Native American provenance but not the scene of people singing it while they were being hanged.

When I got home, I looked it up. The note is a pointer to the 1862 Sioux uprising, one of the hundreds of battles in the three-hundred year war of the conquest of North America by Europeans.  From the point of view of many native people, especially Dakotas, those executed were martyred freedom fighters, while from the point of view of European and Euro-American settlers at the time they were murderers who brutalized innocent and peaceful settlers. From what I read, it seems likely that the men really were singing as they were marched to their hanging with linen bags over their heads, but just what they were singing and what it meant is less clear. Tracking down the story behind the note is a reminder of our brutal and complex multi-voiced history. I’m not sure what it means for us English-speaking Euro-American Christians to sing the hymn. Are we singing a native tune just because it is beautiful and haunting? To broaden our awareness of the multi-cultural scope of the Christian community? To express solidarity with native people? To honor those executed as martyrs to the faith? To apologize in singing for destroying their communities and taking their land? Is it an act of cultural appropriation for us to sing this tune? Or an act of cultural appreciation?

The hymn’s composer, Joseph Renville, was the son of a French father and a Dakota mother who was educated by Catholic priests and initiated the founding of a town at Lac qui Parle [French for “lake that speaks” which sounds significant but seems to have nothing to do with the story] in Minnesota in the 1820 and invited missionaries into it in the 1830s. He died in 1849. Renville is generally credited with turning three traditional Dakota tunes into Christian hymns in the Dakota language, including this one.  Whether the tune was considered sacred by the Dakota before it was made into a Christian hymn is unclear. Some sources seem to imply it was a traditional death or funeral song. The first English paraphrase of the Christian hymn was made at the request of the national YWCA in 1929 by R. Philip Frazier, a Congregational minister who was the grandson of Artemas Ehnamani, a Santee Dakota who was converted to Christianity while in prison after the 1862 conflict; Philip’s father Frances was also a minister. Philip Frazier and his wife Susie (who edited a collection of hymns) spread the English version so that it is now a popular inclusion in many American hymnals and songbooks. It is perhaps worth noting that the words in English include generic references to God (or Great Spirit) and a Creator with no mention of Jesus or specifically Christian theology.

The occasion for the mass execution was the aftermath of the Sioux uprising of 1862 in Minnesota.  The short version is that some Sioux started the war because their annuities were delayed and they were hungry and there was growing pressure on the tribe from European settlers. The uprising started with a small attack but grew and spread; several hundred European settlers were killed. There were Sioux who opposed the war and cooperated with bringing the rebels to trial after they were defeated. There was a formal trial with witnesses. There was also an intervention of President Lincoln, who transmuted the sentences of most of the 200+ fighters but not the last 38, who were supposedly guilty of killing or raping women or children. There are disputes about whether those executed were guilty of attacks on women and children, but there is no dispute that quite a few European settlers were killed one way or another. After this event, the Dakota (Sioux) were all exiled from their homeland and sent west. Some have returned to the area as individuals. Below I linked to a number of detailed accounts of the uprising and subsequent trial and execution.

According to the accounts, the executed men were singing what some observers called a “death song” for several days before their execution. Catholic priests and perhaps other missionaries were apparently in the prisons seeking converts. On the day of the execution, the condemned sang as linen bags were placed over their heads and they were marched to the gallows. What they were singing is less clear. Was it Wakantanka Taku Nitawa, the Dakota-language hymn written by Renville in 1842? If so, did they understand this as a Christian hymn, or as a traditional Dakota sacred death song, or both? If they were singing that tune, were they singing Renville’s words, or older words? Were they like the early Christian martyrs who shocked the Romans by cheerfully facing death?  Were they extolling Christianity or the Dakota culture? Were they mourning their own demise and that of their people? Were they singing in submission to God or in defiance of their executioners? One detailed contemporary account from an anti-Dakota writer in a St. Paul newspaper describes the men’s cheerfulness and singing in the days before their execution as evidence of the fraudulence of their supposed conversions to Christianity. In describing their song as they marched to the gallows, he calls it a “hideous Hi-yi-yi, Hi-yi-yi’” and describes one singer making one last vulgar expression of defiance as he gestures that his private parts will be found near someone’s severed head. The hymn is now sung often on December 26 by native people in Minnesota and the Dakotas in memory and honor of the men who were executed and went bravely? joyously? faithfully? defiantly? to their death.

Notes:

An audio on hymntime of the haunting melody accompanied by the Frazier English paraphrase of the Renville words

History of the hymn that seems to be an orphan document with no external links on the Chippewa County (location of Lac qui Parle)  Historical Society web site; my source for information about Frazier.

Lengthy accounts of the 1862 uprising and the trial and execution in

The fact of singing seems to be widely attested. An eye-witness account published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press of the execution by an anti-Native writer (who also includes extensive descriptions of the condemned men saying good bye to their loved ones) http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota/Trials_of_Prisoners.html .

Many other accounts mention the men singing on their way to the gallows, although not what they were singing. E.g. this standard history from the Mankato boosters http://www.greatermankato.com/community-areahistory.php?navigationid=91.

As an example of how this event has become an important symbol, my Internet searches turned up the December 2008 newsletter of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, a 28-page newsletter which is otherwise primarily devoted to pictures of Christmas parties, public service announcements and other upbeat community news. Page 5 is half an “in rememberance” section that mentions this an other December events in American Indian history in short paragraphs and half a picture of men aiming rifles announcing that the Indian Veterans Post will have a 21 Gun Salute on December 26th at 10am in remembrance of the 38 Dakotas at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Page 6 is devoted to listing the names of all 38 men who were executed.  Page 26 reprints a letter to a newspaper advocating that Minnesota admit that in creating the state the Dakota nation was destroyed and giving an extended critique of the fairness of the 1862 trials, in the process rebutting someone who had claimed otherwise.  http://www.fsst.org/documents/Newsltrs%202008/fsst_newsletter_january_2008.pdf  It is especially of sociological interest to see how historical memory and current social news are comfortably intertwined in this home grown internal document for a local community.

A report from a 1987 reconciliation project in Minnesota mentions that many Dakota believe Lac qui Parle was sung by Dakota at the hanging and also discusses the feelings of different people who have ties to the events, including Dakota who rebelled and those who cooperated with convicting the rebels. Singing the hymn together is mentioned as one part of meetings of reconciliation. http://www.dowlinconsulting.com/images/%20%27%2087%20U.S.-Dakota%20Conflict%20%20.pdf

I encountered a variety of other mentions of the singing of this hymn at community gatherings among the Dakota in December that referenced the memory of the executions.

The additional note on the other version of Wakantanka Taku NItawa in my hymnal says “Probably the best-known Native American Hymn, “Many and Great” is sung with great reverence by the Dakota people in worship, at communion, and for births, funerals, and burials. Renville helped establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. Frazier, a Native American, was a Congregational minister.”

form and content, protest and repression

Warning: this essay is partly a personal religious reflection although it also contains significant sociological content. In it I reflect on a sermon calling protest a spiritual exercise and a meeting about training Black young people to avoid challenging or talking to police and the significance of the juxtaposition of these two events.

The Madison protests reconvened this weekend without me. A friend estimates 20,000 at Saturday’s rally featuring Michael Moore – a large crowd by any normal standard, although a decline from last weekend’s high of somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe). Today the pro-Walker and anti-Walker protests were said to be a few hundred each. The real action is out state, with recall efforts and other attempts to “flip” Republican Senators, as well as the escalating pressures on the Democrats in Illinois – their pay is frozen and they are being fined $100 a day, among other attempts to force their return without any concessions. Walker’s refusal to negotiate on any point is both alienating the state’s moderates and raising his cachet in national right-wing circles.

There was a guest sermon at church today – the pastor’s brother, a Mennonite activist from Pennsylvania who spoke on engagement as a spiritual practice, the idea that instead of separating the spiritual from the world, you should be spiritual in the world. The scripture was Isaiah 58:3-7 :

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

You find God when you are working for justice and helping the poor and oppressed. His own current political agenda is the movement against gun violence, which is trying to target merchants whose businesses are major sources of the guns that end up being used in urban crimes. The sermon was full of positive comments about the Wisconsin protest and how God is on our side as we challenge authority and work for the poor and oppressed. He wore a “We are Wisconsin . . . And we are winning” t-shirt. During joys and concerns, one congregant stood up to give thanks for her son, who’d been one of the protesters sleeping inside the capitol and then outside in the snow and rain – everyone clapped. If you think Walker’s budget cuts are good or that public employee unions are bad, you’d feel very uncomfortable in that congregation right now. We have a taken for granted assumption that we are all on the same side in this. I couldn’t help but remind myself that activists whose foundation is religious are often on the “other” side, supporting issues I really oppose, and the ways in which their communities surround them with people who don’t challenge their assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m right and the people around me are right. I truly and sincerely believe what I believe. And I truly do believe that we are doing the work of God when we work for justice. But so do the people on the “other side” of issues I care about think that God is on their side. I can’t help but note that God mostly tells people to do the things that a whole system of socialization and experience has taught us are the right things to do. It really isn’t enough just to engage, it matters what you are engaged about, what “side” you are on, and how you go about your engagement. Content matters, not just form. I’m struck every Sunday about how the hymns we sing, the messages we hear, the content of our joys and concerns all reinforce one set of understandings about what Christianity is “really about,” while other people’s churches emphasize other messages from the same core texts.

Or, backing away from religion to the broader context of protest and rebellion – it isn’t enough just that people protest. It matters what they are protesting about, what their goals are. The same vessel of protest carries both the tea party protests and this current mobilization. If you oppose the mobilization, you’d stress that the energy of the effort is union members organizing to defend unions – and you’d be right. It is primarily a mobilization of people through their well-organized channels for the purpose of maintaining the right to have those channels. It’s a defensive mobilization. Can we, should we bring the same concepts to bear on protests we like and those we don’t like?

The way protest and activism are being lifted up, and the comfort we all have with protest, brought me back into reflection about my other weekend activity. I spent Saturday morning at a training session for religious people to work on issues of racial disparity in criminal justice, part of an effort to found a local Gamaliel Foundation group. (I’m an attendee, not an organizer.) There were two choices. One group went off to learn about how to observe court sessions, to be a witness holding the system accountable.

I stayed for the presentation on how young people are being taught to avoid escalating encounters with police. The speaker is the former gang member and drug dealer I mentioned in a previous post. One component of the plan is small cards (the size of business cards) advising young people how to behave when stopped by police. The card contains a (small) color graphic of a tall white person in a police uniform facing a shorter black person. It says (in rather small print, obviously):

“Along the continuum of decision points in the juvenile justice system from initial law enforcement contact through disposition and beyond, the decision to arrest is the first and arguably the most powerful indicator of future impact on minority youth, their families and affected communities. Upon initial contact with law enforcement respectfully provide your name, name and phone number of your parent/guardian and clearly state that you wish to remain silent until your parent/guardian is present.”

The young people are urged to give their true name (to give a false name is obstruction of justice, a felony) and then to shut up. In trying to explain or defend themselves, young people often provide police with the basis for criminal charges. The idea is for the young people to carry the cards on them so they can hand them to the police if they are stopped – the hope is that the police will recognize that the young people have been told to do this and thus, hopefully defuse police anger at the young people for refusing to talk. I’m wondering if youth are also taught breathing exercises or other techniques to calm their anger and frustration when stopped unfairly. Survival here means NOT protesting, not rebelling, not standing up to power. The “protest” is to resist becoming a crime statistic. The adult trainer is very clear that sometimes the young people have done something wrong, but they will make the situation worse if they talk to the police and confess. It is also important for young people to understand who police are and that talking back to police is very different from talking back to other adults. Another card tells them that Educational Resource Officers in schools are real police officers and they must not talk to them without their parents present.

So young Black people need to be taught not to challenge authority as a survival strategy, just as they were taught in the South before 1960. It is a necessary lesson if these kids are going to make it out of adolescence with their hopes intact, but I reflect again (as I have so often before at these kinds of meetings) just how much self-control African Americans need to be able to get through the day in a racially-stratified society. How bad White kids are allowed to be and to get away with it, and how little tolerance Black kids are offered for misbehavior. And I cannot help but reflect that all this energy devoted to avoiding confrontation with police and avoiding arrest limits the capacity for Black protest mobilization.

And it is not just children. As I mentioned before and confirmed in further conversations, one of the Black parolees who was supposed to be speaking at these events has been picked up on a parole hold each time he asks his agent for permission to go to an event addressing issues of racial disparity in criminal justice And “driving while Black” stops – endemic in this community, as elsewhere, constantly force Black adults to endure disruptions to their plans and the self-control to remain calm in the face of unwarranted surveillance: Where are you going? Where are you coming from?  Why are you here on this street at this time? Account for yourself. Do you have any drugs or weapons?

I need not to over-do this, I need to put it in context. Black people are agents, and there are lots of Black folks challenging political structures as well as trying to protect young people and provide help to those damaged by our system. As I have mentioned before, there is constant attempt by Black adults to create a sense of personal and political efficacy among young Black people. In fact, the speaker in our group came with his wife (who is also his business manager) and his small children. He said he makes a point of bringing his small children to meetings because he wants them to see him doing his work. Another Black attendee also brought a small child. People are working hard to train up their children for active, engaged citizenship.

But still, the contrast is looming. Tea partier or unionist – the carriers of protest in the past few years in this country have been overwhelmingly White. Look around at who feels entitled to protest. Look at who feels safe enough to turn out into the streets in large numbers. And then look around to see whose voices are missing from the public assembly. Look around for who teaches their children they are entitled to speak up, and who has to teach their children how to survive repression by keeping quiet when confronted with police.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? “

Whose voice is important?

proportions white authors and reviewers
Authors & reviewers of politically themed books

From report by By Steve Rendall and Zachary Tomanelli at  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting :

FAIR’s study examined every episode of After Words from March 2008 to January 2010, and the reviews of politically themed books in the New York Times Book Review from January 2009 to February 2010. In total, the study counted 100 episodes of After Words and 100 reviews in the Times. In each case, the author(s) and reviewer/interviewer were classified by ethnicity and gender. (Because some books had co-authors and some reviews encompassed multiple books, there were 120 authors of 111 books in the Times reviews studied.)

They find a strong White male bias overall. The strongest finding is that 95% of the US book authors  were non-Latino Whites and 96% of the US reviewers were non-Latino Whites (compared to 65% of the US population). There was a slant for non-US authors, too:  “Of the 12 non-U.S. authors in the Times (10 percent of the total), 10 were white British, one was Israeli and one—Tariq Ali—was Pakistani-British.”  Women were also barely represented: 13% of book authors and 12% of reviewers. Only two women of color made the pages of the NYTBR, both as authors; zero women of color were reviewers. After Words was also slanted, but much less so. Of the handful of non-White people in the NYTBR, the large majority were writing on “ethnic” topics.

In an interview about this study on NPR , Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review through 2006 (and so not necessarily responsible for these numbers) seems to gabble around the issue, as far as I can tell, suggesting that the numbers are shocking but can’t possibly be due to any kind of pro-White bias at the NYT. First he says: “But that’s always the aim is to find the most interesting books. They get, what, 50,000 books a year. They go through them. They are always conscious of the fact they were newspapers, so they respond to what seems politically important, what seems to be of interest to their readers. And that’s how those choices are made. They’re never made are we representing, you know, (unintelligible).”  And then, when pressed, seems to blame the major publishing houses for not publishing books by people of color. “Well, I think that, again, you have to go a little bit deeper. Publishing has become is going through a real crisis now. The most obvious thing is that the so-called midlist book, the book that isn’t going to be a bestseller, isn’t being published to the degree that it was, say, in the 1960s, where there was a conscious effort to represent diverse views, races and so forth.I think it reflects what’s being published. Does the book review – I don’t know what’s being published by smaller presses that might be publishing Latino writers, for example, African-American writers. But the major houses are simply doing less diverse books in every respect because they are aiming for the bestseller list.” When pressed about the lack of reviewers of color, he talks about the women on staff.

Edit: I couldn’t help it, I do this too much with crime and imprisonment data, so I calculated estimated disparity ratios from the given data. Relative to population, Whites  are about 9 times more likely to appear in the NYTBR as authors of “politically themed books” than non-Whites. Among Whites, relative to population men are 6 times more likely to appear as authors than women. Among non-Whites, men are 2 times more likely to appear than women.  Among men, the White/minority disparity is 11, among women the White/minority disparity is 4.  For reviewers in the NYTBR, the White/minority disparity is 13. Among Whites, the gender disparity for reviewers is 6, among men the White/minority disparity for reviewers is 11. The disparity ratio calculations for minority women reviewers are undefined, i.e. infinite, due to a zero divide.

Thanks to White Readers Meet Black Authors for the tip.

Revisionist history

The scary thing about this post from We Are Respectable Negroes describing history as the Texas and Arizona legislatures want it taught is how closely it approximates history as it is actually taught in a lot [a majority?] of our public schools. It’s funny, but it’s not.

Edit: I realized a short quotation to give you the flavor would be useful.

1607– Jamestown founded. Capitalism, which can trace its roots to the Bible, is now firmly rooted in the New World.

1660-1800–Triangular Atlantic trade continues to bring wealth and prosperity to America while giving opportunities to new immigrants.

1776–War for Independence against the tyrannical, evil British empire. Colonists suffer oppression that is unprecedented in human history. Minutemen singlehandedly defeat the evil British Empire in 1783.

1788–The United States Constitution is signed as a document to stand for all time, inspired by God, and never to be changed.

1803-1848–America continues to expand westward into empty territories. American settlers make the land bloom with the help of friendly Indian tribes.

H/T Stuff White People Do