Third Thought: On Relevance

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.

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3 Responses to Third Thought: On Relevance

  1. Sam says:

    I agree absolutely with the point made here that a subset of students most likely already has a “lived understanding” of “intersectionality” without necessarily using a specific vocabulary or conceptual framework to describe it. At the same time, even if those involved somehow solved the thorny definitional problems raised by a call to have everyone “achieve sufficient social justice literacy,” I wonder if that aim is remotely possible at a place like Swarthmore during the span of students’ undergraduate years.

    I’m a straight White man, from a family with college-educated parents and grandparents and a graduate of a stunningly stereotypical private high school. I’m a Swat alum from ~15 years ago, and it often feels like it is only now, with that sheer amount of hindsight — and other life experiences, including marriage and parenthood — that I can see just how deeply nested all my learning there, formal and otherwise, was within the context of my own privilege and background assumptions. (And, quite frankly, how immature my young adult self was across the board!)

    The thing is, my time at Swarthmore did involve a great deal of exposure, in various context, to ideas and truths that fit within the overall rubric of “social justice”, and I am certain that it changed my life. Two of the best things that happened to me there were (a) being required, as a geeky, “hard”-science-oriented adolescent, to explore and engage big ideas in humanist and social science disciplines, and (b) living in the sort of small, intense and diverse (in some senses) community that led me, at critical moments, to confront the justified anger of actual, complex individuals I cared about.
    BUT, all of that was barely a beginning to a process that has lasted much longer than those four years and is still ongoing. I suspect the same holds true for most members of the dominant culture/class/etc who most easily pass through an elite college’s admissions sieve. Whatever criteria are marshaled to determine if someone’s social justice literacy is “sufficient”, it seems to me they must deliberately treat “complete” literacy on that front as, at best, a regulative ideal, and include a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance and futility: Even if every single person became deeply versed in scholarship, literature and biography of oppression and marginality, and frequently and openly discussed such things with some shared language, an 18-year-old with voluminous lived experiences of oppression and marginality would remain fundamentally different from an 18-year-old with limited such experiences. It is a laudable goal to try to develop the second 18-year-old into a 22-year-old already moving on the kind of *path* that guided by particular kinds of perspective, awareness or knowledge, so that continued understanding may come in time. However, I am deeply skeptical that even the most ideal “social justice”-y environment could progress both 22-year-olds, barely beginning their respective adulthoods, to truly comparable places in their current understanding of oppression and marginality.

  2. Jillian ''06 says:

    As a senior physics major, I remember working behind the desk in McCabe and hearing students declaim hotly about concepts like intersectionality and having no idea what the words meant. It is not unreasonable at all that there should be third and fourth-year students who don’t know what these words mean. As someone who was torn between a humanities major and a natural science major, in all my five-credit semesters, I didn’t have time to take half the classes I wanted to take. I would hear my friends majoring in interpretation theory argue about Lacan at the lunch table and have no idea what half the words meant. There was a lot of language around that I didn’t understand, and it was hard to tell which concepts were accessible and relevant. I often felt that by prioritizing the interests I had, I was missing out on “the Swarthmore experience” everyone else seemed to be having. But there wasn’t time. The only way to make time is by adding across-the-board requirements, but those are only going to be interesting to people who aren’t into that kind of social science if they are relevant, not theoretical.

    In hindsight, of course, it would have been helpful to have a deeper understanding of this kind of thing. I could have been more supportive of my friends with less-privileged backgrounds than my own. And maybe I could have gotten a little more sympathy from classmates with much more income and class privilege than mine. Maybe my freshman-year friends who felt so alienated by the upper-middle-class assumptions of Swarthmore wouldn’t have left at the end of their first year. My senior year, our social group was starkly divided between a group of seniors from financially-struggling backgrounds, and a group of freshmen from much more privileged ones, and it was difficult to even articulate what the problem was.

    I love Sam’s comment about Swarthmore being the beginning of a journey towards deeper understandings about the complexities of privilege, society, and humanity. That has certainly been true for me as well, and I continue to be grateful to the College for helping point me in that direction.

  3. sls says:

    I’ll pile onto Sam’s comment (we have the same name). In retrospect, my Swarthmore education (with all that it entailed inside and outside the classroom) was never less relevant than when I was going through it or the first year or two after graduation. But sure enough the further out I get (10 years now) and the more experiences I accumulate (I mean big ones like writing a dissertation, teaching undergraduates, becoming a father to a daughter), the more I realize how much Swarthmore structured my identity, intellectually, psychologically, spiritually, and almost all for the better.

    I don’t mean to be cheesy, but my point is that hopefully amongst the mentoring and the teaching and the concern for the relevance of those two in the context of the liberal arts there should be consideration of the long view or maybe mid-term view. I don’t want to say that the battles being fought right now aren’t important or worthy (They are! And I wish the students behind the Clery Act complaint and the Mountain Justice group great success). But, thinking about it from a teacher’s point of view, I’m less invested in the success or failure of any particular cause and more concerned that the students come away from the experience with the courage and resolve to do it all over again in the real world when they may have some real power to change things. I know this gets dangerously close to a blanket claim that a 20-year old consciousness is a false consciousness. I would reject that statement, but not 100%. But how do you communicate this, even a little bit, to a group of righteously angry students?

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