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Classroom Bullying As A Progressive Virtue

A creative writing prof -- a self-described hater of white men in pickups -- urges faculty to politicize their pedagogy

Prof. Nell Boeschenstein of Sweet Briar College (described by Mevrouw Boeschenstein as “a small women’s school in the sticks, basically”) recounts a day of courage in which she faced down a classroom full of docile creative writing students under her authority and attempted to make any gusanos among them confess to having voted the day before for Donald Trump. Excerpts:

Wednesday morning, the prospect of work was difficult. I was frightened of how the radioactive dust left behind by the election would settle in my classroom; I recognized the churning in my gut as the sign of temperatures rising beneath my simmering capacities for anger and grudges. I do not think any of my students are unkind, unintelligent, unthoughtful, or careless. I have clocked sufficient hours examining their faces from across the room, listening to their thoughts, and reading their writing to know otherwise. But still: the rawness, the outrage, the anxiety, and the heartbreak were real. So I had a choice: Did I walk into class and say, “I know we’re all tired and feeling sensitive today, now let’s turn to page 46 and pick up where we left off” or did I walk in and say, “There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve got to discuss”?

In other words, do I let myself be guided by professionalism, or my emotions? You know which one prevailed. More:

Given the premise of the class, and its makeup, it did not seem remotely sane to leave the elephant unaddressed. Which means I did the only thing I could do: I was honest.

Not remotely sane! Note well re: “the premise of the class” that she doesn’t teach a class on politics or history, but on creative writing. Moral responsibility compelled Boeschenstein to turn her creative writing course into a political harangue. History will absolve her, I reckon. More:

I walked in, puffy-eyed and disheveled, and told my students how I felt. They were quiet. I asked if they wanted to talk about it. They were silent. A few looked awkwardly at one another. One sighed and put her head down on the table, as if for a self-imposed time-out. Not quite knowing what I was doing, just wanting to fill the air with something other than what was unspoken between us, I turned to them and told them that I knew none of them subscribed to the bigotry Trump preached and fanned. I then turned to my Trump-supporting students specifically and said that that was why I felt like it was a safe space for me to ask the burning question around which I simply could not wrap my mind: “Why do you give Trump a pass on the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the environment? Please explain this to me,” I said. “I am genuinely curious. I do not understand. Why do you forgive this man’s rejection of the fundamental values on which we agree?”

Over the course of the next seventy-five minutes, I asked and re-asked the same question in as many different rhetorical iterations as I could invent: Why is the military more important than kindness? Why do you push aside his language as “just talk”? Does he really “say what you think”? If nothing incriminating has been found in her emails, how exactly is Clinton a criminal when Trump is the one with lawsuits up the wazoo and about to go on trial for raping a thirteen-year-old girl?

I could not get a straight answer.

Gee, you think? You’re their professor, and you have the power over their grade. You have just revealed yourself to be so professionally irresponsible as to suspend teaching your actual subject, and instead to transform your classroom into a struggle session in which young female students who had not behaved in the privacy of the voting booth as Teacher wanted them to. What on earth do you expect them to do, lady? Later in the letter, Boeschenstein expresses incredulity that the Trump-voting young women in that class were so morally and intellectually irresponsible as to use their vote to deny a woman the presidency. Gosh, it’s almost as if those young women believe in voting on the basis of ideas, not tribal solidarity.

Why does Boeschenstein share her bravery with readers of the magazine Guernica? See here:

I wanted to tell you this story because many such conversations will be unfolding within the walls of our classrooms as we go forward and I want to make my plea that we not be—as I was—timid or frightened of this happening, that we not be cautious and distrusting of ourselves and our students. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this (these, after all, are our better angels)…

You gotta love that allusion to the Gettysburg Address. She’s advocating for teachers bullying their captive undergraduates, and congratulating themselves as pedagogical Lincolns for so doing. Hey, let’s let Prof. Stanley Fish get in on this. He writes:

Boeschenstein knows that her performance that day goes against the “general rule of thumb for us teachers… not to say what is right or what is wrong, but to teach our students to think critically.” But she invokes the “these-are-not-ordinary-times” rationale and regrets only that she hadn’t set aside “test preparation and dates to memorize and topic sentences to hone” earlier: “Had I been brave enough to start this conversation in September, I wonder whether some of my Trump-supporting students might have chosen otherwise at the ballot box on Tuesday.” That is to say, had I engaged in political indoctrination from the beginning of the semester instead of merely doing my job, my students might have done the right thing on November 8. The rest of us, however, can learn from her failure to act in time and take up the real work ― of saving the world from Donald Trump — right away: “Don’t defer the conversation any longer. If we do, more bucks will be bound for our desks that we cannot afford to watch pile up”.

And people wonder why so many take a dim view of what goes on in our college classrooms.

Hear, hear. Read Fish’s entire essay. 

It costs $50,000 per year to attend Sweet Briar. Seems pretty clear to me that parents of prospective students who are considering spending that kind of money for a liberal arts education should do their best to ascertain whether or not their children will actually receive a liberal arts education, or rather be subjected to attempts at political re-education by professors who believe themselves liberated from professional obligations, and who have, in Prof. Fish’s words, taken on “harassing Trump-supporting students as a form of pedagogy.” 

I’m serious. The liberal arts are in enough trouble already, and small liberal arts colleges everywhere are facing the possibility of extinction. Look no further than — whaddaya know! — Sweet Briar College as an example of the trend. In 2015, the college announced that it would close because it was broke — but alumnae came forward and saved it. From the WaPo:

In just one year, the women’s college has gone from doomed to resurrected but on life support, to something that is still fragile. But the school is strong enough that its leaders talk confidently about long-range plans and successes that they feel could become a national model for sustaining both liberal arts and women’s education.

It’s a great story, but I hope that the people who run the very fragile Sweet Briar understand how precarious stunts like Nell Boeschenstein’s, and the attitude that inspires them, makes their future. People go to college to get an education, to learn how to think, not to be politically indoctrinated. Here’s a tweet Nell B. released just after the election:

You know what? I live in a part of the country where white dudes in pickup trucks is a normal thing. Even liberal white dudes drive pickup trucks. What’s interesting about this tweet is that Prof. Nell Boeschenstein characterizes her hatred of white men driving pickup trucks as normal, such that she finds it worth telling the public that her hatred of these men for their race, sex, and choice of automotive conveyance, has recently exceeded normal levels.

What kind of nut gets angry at the mere sight of men of a certain race and sex driving a particular automobile — and believes that anger to be a sane, normal response? Seriously, who does that? I hope the owner of the Trump Truck (see photo above), who drives around Baton Rouge, will feel the call to motor up to Sweet Briar, Virginia, and cruise around hoping to trigger Nell Boeschenstein, just for fun.

Seriously, though, think about it: if you are a white woman at Sweet Briar whose father, brother, (white) boyfriend, or white male friend drives a pickup truck, what are you supposed to think about taking a class from a teacher who thinks it’s normal to hate people like them, and who has even ramped up the hatred of those white male truck drivers who did her know harm? Who spent the entire class after the election demanding to know who among her students were traitors to their gender, and insisting that they explain themselves? Who vows publicly to use the privilege she’s been granted as a teacher to crusade for ideological correctness?

Here’s what you think: stay far away from that wack-job creative writing professor, because she’s an unprofessional, sermonizing bigot.

And if you don’t go to Sweet Briar, you ought to consider what kind of pedagogical atmosphere exists there, and what kind of open bigotry is not only tolerated, but promoted by the professoriat there. Wouldn’t you do so for a college whose faculty member tweeted, after President Obama’s re-election, “Been feeling more than the usual road rage at black dudes in pimpmobiles lately”?

I didn’t even vote for Trump, but the crusading self-righteousness and ivory-tower, let-the-eat-cake bigotries of people like Nell Boeschenstein make me kind of sorry I didn’t. One suspects that her mind is so saturated with ideology that trying to open it would be like trying to turn a pickle back into a cucumber. But those who want to see colleges like Sweet Briar succeed have to hope that Philip C. Stone, the college’s president, can grasp what a threat to the college’s mission, and indeed to its survival, militant ideologues like Nell Boeschenstein are. She is certainly not alone at Sweet Briar, and Sweet Briar is very, very far from alone among colleges and universities.

To paraphrase Stanley Fish: this is exactly why so many ordinary people are concerned, angry, and even disgusted by academia. 




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