October 4, 2021 Faculty Meeting Remarks

Dear Colleagues,

I wanted to take a minute to draw explicit connections among the initiatives I mentioned at the September faculty meeting as we do some incredibly important work regarding the consideration of curricular requirements at Bates College. I mentioned at that meeting that our mission focuses our work on the emancipating potential of the liberal arts and the transformative power of our differences. I added that we must be concerned about the pedagogies that exclude, the curricular content that impedes, and communities that deny access. 

The barriers that are all around us are based upon the structural “isms” inherited from previous generations. 

At the tail end of this past summer, Ezra Klein interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones before the start of the academic year as they took on roles as faculty members at Howard University.

During the interview Nikole Hannah-Jones said that we 

“…have the ability to build a country that is different, that is not held hostage to the past. But we won’t do that by denying that upon which we were built. Because that past is shaping us. It is shaping our country, our politics, our culture, our economics, whether we acknowledge it or not. And all I’m saying is let us acknowledge that upon which we were built so that we can try to actually become the country of these majestic ideals. And I do believe the ideals are majestic, we just have failed to live up to them.”

Racism, sexism, ableism, classism are deeply embedded in society, in our fields of study, and in the spaces we occupy. To eradicate these inhibitors, these retardants to progress and educational potential, these poisons, we must dedicate ourselves to focused work that identifies where we have weaknesses and identifies opportunities for growth and improvement. And it begins with dialogue.

Each of the three pillars of work this year – pedagogy, curricular content, and community – will be focused on removing structural barriers. I indicated at the September meeting that all academic units will engage in what we’ve called “Foundational Dialogues” – borrowing from the Mellon Committee – and we will be releasing to the chairs this week a timeline and plan for this work.

Identifying the barriers will require serious reflection about where we are as individuals, where we are as academic units, and where we are as an institution. Many of us, especially white faculty and staff, require explicit training and reflection on the power and privilege that we carry. We also need to seriously consider how that power and privilege permeates our educational spaces in negative ways. All of us need to spend time looking for ways we unconsciously erect barriers. The HHMI committee recently shared a viewing of “Picture a Scientist” that highlights the ways that barriers persist in STEM, and they made a call for conscious demolition of the sexism and racism that has homogenized science and mathematics in damaging ways. This type of work honors our BIPOC students’ demands that all students, staff, and faculty at Bates seriously engage with issues of race, racism, power and privilege to create the types of learning spaces we imagine. The evidence is also clear that this leads to better, more effective pedagogies.

We will also require honest conversation and productive dialogue at all levels to make this happen. Our norms of discussion where we smooth the edges of disagreement is due no doubt to our existence in a smaller community with iterated interactions among individuals that can last for decades. However, the “norm to niceness” when taken too far can occlude our ability to learn from and work with one another.  On the other extreme, this practice of smoothing edges – the norming to niceness – can be used as a justification for unnecessarily antagonistic discourse – the notion that the community is just too sensitive. We need to be in a space – and I’ve said this in previous remarks – where disagreement and debate does not mean dislike or paralysis. We also need to lift self-censorship. Our discourse should be based on respect for one another, a recognition of the hard work in which we are all engaged, and should come from a culture that values curiosity, openness, and generosity. This professionalism is not based on performative niceness or friendliness, it is not even based on politeness per se, but rather a recognition of the value of others and the perspectives they bring into deliberative spaces. Even when, and most importantly when, they disagree with you. We should be focused on evidence and analysis. Not dogmatic positions. We should have confidence that the best outcomes will be produced after we consider alternatives, test ideas, and collectively decide on viable solutions. I do believe that moving out of zoom space and back into our three dimensional meetings will help us reconnect in so many ways that are currently difficult to do.

 As Clayton shared in her Convocation remarks:

“We are a culture of persuasion that honors the fact that complex problems are in fact complex, that solving them depends on persistence, precision, evidence, and bringing to bear multiple sources of understanding…we produce better solutions on our own campus, in our work, and for the world at large, when these differences are the starting point for conversation, not barriers to good faith questioning and discussion.”

Beginning this week, we will engage in serious consideration of the proposal that the Curricular Working Group submitted to the AAC, and that you all have now received. The AAC has created a sequenced process for careful deliberation so that faculty may evaluate and consider the recommendations. You have likely already received invitations to some of the conversations. There will be many additional opportunities to provide feedback, and to bring your expert opinion about feasibility and viability of the proposal over the next several weeks. Your endorsements, recommendations, and alternative proposals will come to the AAC who is responsible for drafting any legislation that would come to this body for final consideration. 

I look forward to the discussions as we weigh this consequential proposal. The Curricular Working Group has recommended something quite distinctive and potentially powerful – that we embed within majors an analysis of the ways that race, white supremacy, and colonialism affect fields of study. Their exact proposal is that all majors have two required courses – one at the introductory level and one at a more advanced level. According to the proposal, each course must substantively engage with scholarship and knowledge production centering race, white supremacy, and colonialism.

We need to carefully consider the proposal from all of our disciplinary perspectives and from the expertise that colleagues will bring into these discussions. How do we mitigate the tensions between disciplinary work and the work of critique or historical analysis that may require a different set of intellectual tools and expertise? I myself am wrestling with how I might, for example, incorporate the history and critique of eugenics in my biostatistics course while worrying, legitimately, that I am not a trained historian. I know there are far better faculty on this campus than I to do that work, and I want students to take their courses. I also feel the tension about how I might convey the statistical tools and knowledge to all students in my class that they will need for their lives post-Bates with the need to add content that meaningfully addresses any learning objectives articulated in the CWG proposal. I believe, however, it is my responsibility as an educator committed to excellence to develop the tools to do this work. 

Nonetheless, I am also concerned about what Danzy Senna, in a critique of two books: White Fragility and Learning in Public, points to as the potential damage caused when white people remain the center of the story and BIPOC people are at the margins “with little better to do than open their homes and hearts to white colleagues on journeys of racial self-awareness” – as Senna points out, we must be careful not to cause harm when engaged in the “great white awakening.” This is where racial equity training and the Foundational Dialogues are essential. We all have work to do and each of you will imagine your own courses in your own ways. Some disciplines will find themselves capable of meeting the proposed requirements immediately while others will not. So what is possible in that space? And what is the best outcome for our students?

I, like you, want to do our antiracist work well, and while considering the type of course content included in our classes is important, it is not the only strategy we have to achieve goals of dismantling structures of oppression. Inclusive pedagogies are part of our strategy as well. In fact, our approach has to be synergistic and holistic – and we need to recognize that they are two sides of the same coin. We have to be committed to deploying all of the tools available to us to dismantle systemic oppressive structures.  As discussed in Jarvis R. Givens’ “Fugitive Pegagogy: The longer roots of antiracist teaching”:

BIPOC “…lives have been similarly racialized, certainly, but the needs of individual students and communities are contextual…Any antiracist teaching that flattens a student into his oppression does more harm than good … When studying the longer history of Black teachers, we learn that education can be antiracist even when it does not solely focus on race. A sincere antiracist education is one in which a commitment to challenging anti-Black domination is holistic and translates into the social systems of classrooms and relationships. In such a learning environment, even content that is not explicitly about antiracism can work toward antiracist ends. For at times, the role of the teacher was to bring students in the classroom, close the door, and shut the world out. This was an opportunity to reach higher, to think beyond the world that they knew, a world that was not good enough.”

Our work developing a Center for Inclusive Teaching and Learning is explicitly focused on this type of work – building tool kits to bring antiracist inclusive pedagogies into our classrooms. We will have opportunities later this year to consider what a launch of a center of this sort looks like at Bates College, and we look forward to hearing from you about the emerging plans.

The reality is that the conversations we have about race, racism, power, and privilege will be among the most rewarding we take part in this year. While we can’t move faster than the speed of trust, we can ensure that all voices are heard on our campus, that the spaces we create allow for different perspectives, and that we recognize the value of working together across differences to achieve a common goal. This gets to the heart of what it means to build community, and to be committed to providing exceptional and evidence-based educational experiences for our students. And as it turns out it is core to our Bates mission. 

I look forward to working with everyone as we consider this shared work ahead.