Monthly Archives: November 2015

Some thoughts on my time teaching at #Mizzou

In light of the events happening at the University of Missouri over the past few weeks, and especially this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time there, especially in the classroom.

As many of you know, from the Fall of 2011 until my last teaching semester at Mizzou in Spring of 2014, I taught a composition course themed around the American Civil War. Over that span, I had the opportunity to speak with my students about a variety of issues that related to the legacy of the Civil War. Since we read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and spent much of our time focused on the legacy of the Civil War, we spent much of our time in class discussing contemporary issues affecting the state of Missouri, the city of Columbia, and the University of Missouri campus itself. We talked about incidents of racism on campus, Confederate Rock, race relations on campus, and the advocacy of African American students on campus over the past 50 years. You can find a few reflections on my time teaching the Civil War course here.

Often such discussions were difficult. Often they were wide-ranging.

I wonder if these class discussions mattered. Did they stick? I’m thinking about those discussions now, but are the students that took my classes thinking about those discussions? The first sets of students enrolled in my classes have likely graduated by now. Those that remain are juniors and seniors. How do they process that experience now in the context of what is happening on campus right now?

Prior to my class on the Civil War I taught composition classes themed around campus and places on campus. Students wrote about a variety of locations from the Rec Center to the Art Museum to the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Students discussed campus places, decorations, and how Mizzou represented the history of the student body. Students talked about the people included and the people left out. The students in these classes on campus places are likely long-gone and hopefully have graduated. Do they think about those times in class? Does how they think about the places that they saw everyday and discussed in class change now that these are also scenes of protest and struggles for recognition?

In addition to teaching composition at Missouri, I taught several introductions to American literature. I’ve been thinking a lot about those courses, too. I think especially about a curious and frequent comment in my course evaluations. I often received comments that my courses were depressing. They were depressing because of the works we read dealing with slavery and the African American experience. I received other comments that my class focused too much on race and African American authors. Now I wonder if those students think back on those classes. Does the story we tried to tell in those classes make sense to them now? I don’t know.

I hope I did the right things in all of my classes. By saying I hope I did the right things I think I mean I’m hopeful that I did things that mattered. We write in our job letters and teaching philosophies about the transformative experiences of our classrooms. We depict our classrooms as places of change and as locations for difficult discussions. In our classes we like to think we are grappling with important issues. Am I really doing that? Are the students doing that? I think we did many of those things in the moment of an individual class. But do those moments come back now?

How much did the experiences of students in my classes matter? Did the conversations matter and did they linger long after the semester ended? Do those conversations awaken now in light of everything that has happened the past few weeks?

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Filed under Civil War, Mizzou, pedagogy, teaching

Not your typical University Commerical

The genre conventions for a 30 second TV spot used by major colleges and universities, especial R1 institutions with bigtime sports, are rather conventional. Nondescript inspiring music accompanies well-known images of the campus, vague highlights of award-winning research faculty (often in science and technology), and students often enjoying life far from the classroom. And there are sports.

Last night I saw a university commercial that exploded nearly all of these well-known higher education advertising conventions. This commercial for the University of Minnesota aired during their game against the University of Michigan:

The Minnesota commercial features Keith Mayes, a scholar of 20C African American history, at Minnesota. It is clear from the opening words that this commercial is going to do something different. The commercial opens right up with a big, bold claim. It is certainly a claim familiar to many scholars of American history and life, but it lays a foundation for an argument largely unfamiliar to the general public. This is not going to be your typical university commercial. It is going to have substance. It is going to have an argument. It is going to keep going on this line. And it is going to pack a punch in 30 seconds.

Given my usual audience I’m not going to go into detail with this advertisement. Watch it yourself.

This particular ad from the University of Minnesota is from a series of similar ads. Many of them feature tough issues ranging from global warming and the environment to medical research. However, for me at least, this one stands out for how it focuses attention on teaching while it also highlights race, social justice issues, and the achievement gap. And, of course, the humanities, especially our relationship to history, has a prominent role.

I think this commercial will resonate with many of you.

The University of Minnesota did a good thing for all of us, especially humanities scholars at bigtime research and sports institutions. The ad provides an example to help ask the question to departments, school divisions, and administration of why the PR department doesn’t create advertisements like this.

I think the ad also raises a larger question. The work done by Mayes represents a nexus of history and curriculum development designed to ensure the long-term academic success of minority students. We often advocate for the ability of the humanities to do relevant cultural work that matters today.

I am not a fan of “the humanities matter argument” because it rings as a rather vapid platitude. I think the best way to defend or justify the humanities is to not talk about it, but do it. But how many of us in the humanities do scholarship that could be featured in a commercial like this one? I think that is question we need to grapple with and not rely simply on the claim that humanities matter.
PS: I watched last night’s game on my Xbox via the ESPN ap. The world of commercials works differently in that context. I do not know if this commercial was broadcast on cable or satellite feeds. However, millions of people have cut the cable and watch ESPN online. I still imagine a significant population saw this advertisement.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, humanities