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?