“How many more classes do we have?” I asked as the semester’s end approached. I knew they were counting—three weeks earlier, a student informed me that we had seventeen sessions left. Across campuses everywhere, the final push of the academic year culminates in a frenzy of all-nighters, panic, and fantasies about summer vacation. As a writing instructor at Boston University, I particularly enjoy participating in the latter. But I wasn’t particularly looking forward to summer vacation this year.
The glorious span of time to travel, write, and laze about is part of what draws me to teaching. The first week is great: I sleep in, shop at the blissfully empty grocery store at 11:00 a.m., finally get a haircut, deep-clean the house, and read the stack of books I’ve been neglecting since January. But as the summer goes on, I’ll also have too much time to read the news, think, and worry. And I’ll sorely miss the people who have been most successful at drawing me out of my political despondency: my students.
I generally try to keep politics out of the classroom, but this year it hasn’t been possible. In the fall, shortly after the release of the vile Trump tape , four students did a presentation about the rhetoric of misogyny. The group—comprised of a white woman, a Mexican woman, an Asian woman, and a white man—nailed their talk and connected misogynistic language to the Black Lives Matter movement and to LGBT issues. Students usually avoid politics in their presentations, but this group was fired up and unwilling to bypass the subject for a gentler one. The male in the group told me he initially felt a bit threatened by the topic. But then he thought, Why do I feel threatened by this? What does it mean about society and about me? Those questions would scare off many students, but for him they pointed to the importance of engaging with the topic and his own responses to it. A few days later, another student group discussed the suspension of Harvard’s men’s soccer team for compiling a sexually explicit ranking of the school’s female soccer players. These weren’t the lighthearted presentations of the past few years—they were urgent and unflinching.
And then there was the morning after the election. On Wednesday, November 9th, I dragged myself out of bed, after hours of hoping the election results had been merely a nightmare. I thought about canceling class—I was terrified of bursting into tears—but what would that solve? I’d continue to lie awake in bed, suffocated by sadness and fear. I also couldn’t keep my students at a distance after what felt like the apocalypse. Allowing learning to be derailed would send a dangerous and depressing message.
But when I walked into my 9:00 a.m. class, I saw fifteen people who looked as awful as I felt. They weren’t on their phones or computers—they just sat at their desks, staring emptily ahead. How could I launch into a discussion about effective conclusions? To do so would be to suggest that the classroom wasn’t the place to talk about what really mattered.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Chins wobbled. Heads shook. I looked out at them, a mix of students from Asia, South America, Mexico, India, the Middle East, and America. “I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice breaking. “I want the world to be a better place for all of you, and I’m afraid it won’t be—at least not for a while. It’s okay to feel sad and scared, but soon, it will be time to take action. And you all are a big part of that.”
It was hard to gauge their reactions. They seemed like shadows of the people I had taught just two days earlier. Finally, one of my students asked the question we were all thinking: “How could this happen?”
We talked about joblessness, poverty, and desperation, about feeling invisible and angry. We talked about elitism, the media, voter suppression. We talked about immigration, women’s rights, and bystanderism. I compiled a list of people and organizations on campus they could contact if they felt threatened, scared, or motivated to get involved. During the next class, we watched a video about the Overview Effect —the emotion and clarity astronauts feel when they look at Earth as a whole, marveling at its beauty and fragility. By the end, a number of my students were wiping away tears, as was I. No one said anything. No one needed to.
Teaching at Boston University means I exist within a blue bubble inside a blue bubble. Although living and working among like-minded people has its dangers, I am endlessly grateful. But as much as I adore my colleagues, many of them are unrelenting doomsayers. A history professor dissolved into tears in my office after the election; others spoke of civil war and the end of America. It’s terrifying when historians who generally adopt the long view tell you it’s game over. While comforted by our similar values, I often fight a wave of panic after those conversations and frequently arrive at class reeling.
Within minutes, I find myself anchored again, not just because of the consuming demands of teaching, but also because of the comfort my students provide. The first reason for this is my students’ acknowledgement of the importance of critical thinking. In this semester’s research seminar, which focuses on advanced technologies, we engage with everything from robotics to virtual reality to genetic modification. We talk and write about the implications of these technologies, drawing from research, history, expert insights, and our own analyses and questions. Regardless of how easily such rigorous thinking comes to them, my students all recognize the importance of discussing something they’ve never thought about before, or something most people don’t talk about.
They also realize that lack of critical thinking is partly what got this country where it is right now. In class, we devote a lot of time to source credibility, analyzing surveys, studies, and statistics for bias or faulty conclusions. We discuss “alternative facts” and fake news; everyone, myself included, admitted to retweeting an article without having read it. Even though roughly half my students had never heard of Carl Sagan before our class, his words from Demon-Haunted World illuminate our conversations: “If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.”
In their papers and discussions, my students note Trump’s conflation of belief and truth , voters’ unwillingness to question authority, and the necessity of an educated population. They mention the climate change deniers on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and Trump’s appointment of an EPA head who doesn’t believe in his own organization. “The thing that bothers me,” one student said, “isn’t that they’re wrong—it’s that these decisions affect us all and will affect our kids and grandkids. How come they get to control the future for all of us?” I’m not trying to turn my students into Democrats or Luddites or to tell them what to think. They should ask questions, be skeptical (“Turn on your bullshit detector,” I often say), educate themselves, and then see where they stand. That’s all anyone can ask of students—or an electorate.
Another shift I’ve witnessed this year is emotional, rather than intellectual: My students acknowledge that I am human just like them, with everything that entails. I always spend a few minutes before class asking about their weekends and their other classes, and someone usually asks how things are going for me. I used to believe they asked only out of politeness, but not anymore. They seem more empathetic: “You have to grade all of these papers! I can’t imagine how long that would take!” “Did you do anything for yourself this weekend?” They inquire about my bike ride to work. In private appointments, every student asks how I am. In class, we often transcend the usual student/teacher dynamic. “The news is so depressing,” one of my students said earlier this semester. Whereas in the past I might have simply nodded in acknowledgment, that day I responded with my own truth: “I’m struggling to find the balance between being obsessed, which sometimes also means depressed, and staying informed.” “So it’s not just us?” she said.
My students not only recognize my humanity—they also recognize one another’s. Our college has an open forum in which students can voice personal, political, social, financial, and environmental concerns. They reveal in trembling voices fears that family members will be deported or that they won’t be able to get back in the country if they go home. They talk about how their families in Mexico feel about Trump’s comments and border wall plans and about missing weeks of class because of emergency visa review. Some tell stories about being threatened while walking to class or buying groceries. Others ask what they can do to help the water protectors at Standing Rock. I applaud the bravery and the openness of the students who share, and I also commend the students who simply listen.
When I first started teaching, I often equated students’ silence to lack of engagement. Sometimes that’s the case, but often it’s not. I’ve learned to look into the eyes of quiet students, not to catch them spacing or staring out the window, but to catch those upward gazes, the ones that indicate the whirring of the brain. I might see the product of those thoughts in a paper or in a future conversation, or I might never get a chance to see those thoughts in motion. But that’s another thing that’s changed this year: I’ve heard from more former students than I ever have before.
Students from previous semesters have come back to visit, wanting to talk not only about the election, but also about their plans for the future. One is headed to graduate school to study environmental sustainability. Another came to discuss a trip to Cuba. One is volunteering for refugee rights. I’m a reference for more than one student who wants to work for the ACLU. These students realize that activism involves showing up. They see that the world needs to change and they’re the ones who have to change it. This is no longer abstract knowledge. It’s real to them now.
At the end of these conversations, they shake my hand or give me a hug. They wish me well and promise to stay in touch. I look into their eyes—their gazes are not empty, not doubtful, not even contemplative. In their eyes I see fire, the look of a fighter before a career bout. I watch them walk away and listen to their purposeful strides echo down the hallway, as though to announce they have only just begun.