One of the best threads running through the events of the last week has been a critique by some students that classes at Swarthmore that are about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, that seem to be about oppression or marginalization, that seem to be about political economy, often feel very far away from the world that our students come from, observe and have to go back to. That it is hard to see the relevance of of even the most relevant-seeming curriculum, hard to know how to apply it or use it.
For me, one of the most powerful moments in this week’s collection was the comment of a first-generation student who talked about the costs of going home and not being able to speak to her parents or family clearly any longer, of the difficulties involved in translating what she’s learning and doing here back into the world that she honors and knows.
I may be picking out this thread because it’s something I want to hear, because it’s been one of the major animating struggles in my own intellectual and pedagogical life. I’m very restless in my teaching: I have almost never used the same syllabus twice, I constantly rethink how I approach my classes. Because year by year, I’ve grown less and less happy with teaching African history or cultural history in a way that takes knowledge of the historiography or the discipline as its first goal. I’ve stalled out on long-standing writing projects for some of the same reasons. I want my students and my audiences to be able to use what I teach and write for purposes that I haven’t imagined and haven’t addressed, I want to provide my knowledge and interpretation in a form that is ready for re-assembly. I want it to be of use.
The problem for academics, especially humanists, is that the first language of usefulness in our wider society is a badly impoverished one: does it get you a job? Does someone making money need people who can do it? So our conversations about application, use, practice tend to devolve into a false binary between vocational practicality and a fastidious unwillingness to talk about any uses, in order to avoid being taken as just providing “skills” for a job market. Lying behind that stagnant discussion is a more complicated problem: that our training as scholars often does little to stimulate our imagination for talking about uses and applications, and we are neither tested for nor required to stretch in that direction. So we often teach to what we know, and what we know is the scholarship.
So often our students learn best how to talk to us and have few opportunities to translate or transfer what they’re learning into other settings and contexts until they graduate. Or until they go home. This is not a Swarthmore vs. the students issue. Some of the students inside the protests of the last week have been as much at odds with this question of relevance as the institution sometimes is. In the discussions in Parrish Parlor about the list of action items, one student said that what he wants is universal literacy among students about social justice. He added, “I can’t believe there are third-year students here who don’t have a proficient understanding of intersectionality.” The thing is, I suspect a lot of students have a lived understanding of it. They just might not call it that. Insisting that everyone speak that language in order to have assurance that they’ve achieved literacy is precisely what causes the disconnections and alienation that were described at the collection.
Which is the problem of relevance at its heart. Somehow we, all of us, including the students who animated the protests of the last week, need to do a better job of knowing what we already know, and making sure that new forms of knowledge and skill in a liberal arts education add to that base rather than subtract from it. We have to hold on to our achieved literacies and not let new ones scribble over them. A faculty member who teaches about intersectionality needs to do a good job of explaining how the conceptual language involved opens up new ways to understand and work with what has already been lived and seen, and equally when that conceptual language might get in the way of speaking to or imagining a powerful insight. A student who calls for other students to understand marginality needs to have a deft ear for existing forms of understanding that might not use established scholarly or political languages.