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Saying Something: Academia's Normalization of Crisis

For those who teach on the college level, the war on terrorism provides a challenge to the very principles of academic freedom. There are many diverse free speech related problems that, in many ways, depend on individual campus cultures.

Michelle Renee Matisons

Issue #63, April 2003

Many have acknowledged that the size of the US anti-war movement is historically unprecedented. At any given San Francisco anti-war rally, one can see such a wide variety of people that it is, on the fact of diversity alone, inspiring. There are a variety of social and cultural groups represented ranging from students, queers, veterans, church-goers, environmentalists, Arab-Americans, etc. More surprising is that this diverse movement also includes sectors of the middle and upper classes, as many local businesses are anti-war and not ashamed to say it. For example, in San Francisco, a Valencia Street women's clothing shop ran an ad in the Bay Area Guardian for a few weeks last fall with a "soccer mom" type wearing weekend leisure wear. The caption read something like: "What are you wearing to the anti-war march?" It is not uncommon to see the specialty boutiques along Hayes Street and similar upscale bohemian neighborhoods with anti-war signs in their windows. This massive level of resistance to the war in some places is overwhelming and exciting because clearly something new is happening.

While it is easy to get caught up in the promise of a mass movement, it is important to reflect on some of the major institutional obstacles that impede the growth of new forms of consciousness and analysis. In the United States, higher academic institutions present many political challenges, particularly as the Iraq war gets more complicated. Issues of free speech on college campuses are always heightened during wartime, and they have once again taken center stage after 9/11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act. For those who teach on the college level, the war on terrorism provides a challenge to the very principles of academic freedom. There are many diverse free speech related problems that, in many ways, depend on individual campus cultures.

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Classroom War Guidance

In late March my institution, Sacramento State University, released a widely distributed document entitled "Thoughts for Teaching Regarding the War in Iraq." I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed to read it. On the one hand, I agreed with the document's initial declaration that "You may choose to say a little or a lot, but you should at least say something." I drew a heavy sigh after reading these words. At least my decision to "say a lot" about the war could be backed up later by university administration paperwork. At least the university was not explicitly encouraging silence in the classroom. But beyond that, I could not help but notice how little the document actually provides in terms of theoretical assumptions and practical guidelines. In fact, the well-intentioned university guidelines reminded me again of higher education's limits — especially during this new climate of multiple, overlapping and endless (?) crises otherwise known as the "war on terrorism."

The first suggestion of the document asks us to consider taking "the initiative to acknowledge these days as meaningful and important to all of us." It further suggests that professors should set time limits on the discussion; "just a minute" or ten minutes are suggested as examples of time limits. It is also asks us to: ". . . ensure that students do not feel we are minimizing the importance of these events or their feelings about it by ending with a statement such as, "Nothing we can say now or do now will lessen these searing events . . .."

There are several problems behind the ideas of both setting time limits and ensuring that issues are not minimized, and these are a particular concern for those professors who oppose the war. What is an appropriate time limit to set up the terms of a discussion about war? When I was a student activist against the Gulf war, a group of us disrupted our classes and insisted that we talk about the war instead of the regularly scheduled syllabi. We believed that since US bombs were currently "interrupting" the regularly scheduled lives of Iraqi people, that our lives could stand a little interruption as well. These days, anything short of disruption in the schedule feels like capitulation to the normalization of war. Even as a women's studies professor whose syllabi and textbooks cover a range of relevant topics — including militarism, nationalism, Islam, civil disobedience, and globalization — I still welcome student insistence that we talk more about the war or other current events that concern them. A mere pause in the schedule does minimize the impact of the issues, no matter what we say or intend. This is one of the dilemmas emanating from our positions within empire; the US has not experienced a war on its own soil since the Civil War. How can we then decide what is an appropriate response to match, not minimize, the impact of war? It is not easily resolved, but a tokenistic acknowledgement in class and the professor's own micro-managing of the time frame feel like inadequate expressions of the seriousness of the world situation.

There is another educational concern that has been an ongoing problem since 9/11; this is the "privatization" of violence and war through therapeutic, instead of political or historical, language. After 9/11, the main focus on college campuses was helping students adjust to the shock and horror of the current events. Faculty members were encouraged to let students voice their feelings and confusions about the attacks. In and of itself, this is not a problem because everyone was shocked and confused. However, one emotion that professors were not encouraged to draw out among our students was anger or indignation; actually, anger against the perpetrators of such violence was fine, but what about students' political rage against US foreign policy and all of the systems of power maintaining US global hegemony? When we automatically jump to therapeutic language after a significant event, such as an unpredicted attack or the beginning of an US led bombing campaign, we are suggesting to students that emotions should trump analysis in our reactions. I worry about infantilized responses, especially when higher education is trying to shape analytic and critical thinking skills. The two (private emotional reactions vs. political reactions) are not neatly separated, but it is notable that a therapeutic discourse competes with a political one within the classroom walls. For obvious reasons, the therapeutic discourse is the preferred discourse of most university administrations as this particular war heats up and the war on terrorism continues. But doesn't this fundamentally limit educational objectives in the classroom?

Regarding the guidelines I analyze here, professors are told to "be aware of the routines of your class." It acknowledges that some students may be experiencing difficulty, so we should be sensitive to their needs — such as allowing make-ups. Sensitivity is not what I am criticizing. An important feature of women's studies classrooms is sensitivity to student needs and experiences. Therefore, sensitivity toward students is something we all should do, and not just in the fields where we are discussing politically sensitive topics. Of course, there are students who have family or friends in the military, or students of Middle-eastern descent who face hate crimes, threats, and isolation. My intention is not to minimize these unique wartime experiences in any way. But what about my students of color who endure the routine daily obstacles of systematic racism? As further attacks on affirmative action are anticipated and California's Racial Privacy Initiative is being hotly debated, I am wondering when I am going to get teaching guidelines in my box about this pressing concern. "You may choose to say a little or a lot, but you should at least say something about new forms of American racism."

Talking Sensitivity, Talking Imperialism

The issue of "wartime sensitivity" is the gateway to another larger issue about this whole business of establishing guidelines for "teaching during war." Most of us who oppose the war see it as symptomatic of other socio-economic problems that are more "mundane" and less sensationalized: capitalism's next phase of imperial expansion; hatred fueled by religious and racial supremacist ideologies; and patriarchal power's fixation on domination through violent intimidation and murder. Does setting aside time in class to acknowledge the war reinforce the same ethos of exceptionalism that drives the media's own coverage of the war? And how do we avoid this?

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Another way of phrasing my concern is in the form of a question: "When do we stop talking about the war?" Is it when the occupation is accomplished, the new leaders have been chosen, and the mainstream media moves on beyond occasional updates? When do professors' "initiatives" end? Since women's studies is a multidisciplinary field that emerges out of a social movement, I have ongoing opportunities to address many current events issues. But even then, what are the protocols around "moving on?" How can we resist letting the media set our own agenda, framing "the crisis" for us — from "beginning" to "end." And what about other "crises" that do not get nearly the amount of attention as a full-scale war, but are no doubt systematically related and urgent: poverty at home and abroad; the expanding prison industrial complex; cuts in education; violence against women — just to name a few. I joked to a friend that in addition to having women's studies, ethnic studies, and our respective celebration months, perhaps universities should establish a calendar of current events crisis topics that all professors could follow: Monday, mention the AIDS epidemic in Africa; Tuesday, how are we all feeling about sweatshops?

Thankfully, the document "Thoughts for Teaching Regarding the War in Iraq" states that professors be on the alert for "ethnic profiling" and "overly belligerent expressions of patriotism" in the classroom. Here I appreciate the recognition that pro-war people can be violent, since it's usually the much-vilified anti-war protestors who carry that stereotypical burden. But what exactly is an "overly belligerent expression of patriotism" when many believe that support for the illegal occupation of Iraq is itself belligerent? In the classroom context, students or professors who express hateful rhetoric that shuts down productive conversations are a big problem. But another problem is the implication that our main role as professors is to neutrally facilitate this exchange of ideas. In the face of such a crisis in leadership at all levels — is neutral facilitation enough? I don't believe so. And isn't it qualitatively different to make our anti-war and questioning students feel safe when our pro-war (excuse me, I mean pro-troops) students' beliefs are getting reinforced by so many other institutions? How does neutrality fare as a teaching strategy in the context of the corporate normalization of mass murder? In my assessment, not so well.

It's Not About Civility

The university's guidelines end with one simple reminder: "You are the arbiter of civility and common decency in the classroom." Here I must acknowledge that in some ways wartime classroom experiences are exceptional. War is the most transparent example of the violence of our social order. In this way, war fundamentally challenges our humanity — or our "civility". In the context of this particular war, which is accompanied by incredibly sophisticated military technology and the mind-spinning views of embedded reporters, the very notion of "civility" is being hotly debated. War supporters say that this is an important war to liberate a people and civilize a society that has been living under tyrannical rule. The anti-war position says that it is not about civility at all, and it is instead an illegal occupation with genocidal implications. When you support the war, neutrality in the classroom may feel like the way to go. But when you are against the war, then not speaking out against it suggests complicity with an unjustified mass murder.

Our television sets and political leaders tell us war is normal; the tones of reporters' voices are calm and subdued, and balanced pros and cons views on a number of events are regularly featured. Is civility the main goal of our teaching when the motives of the Bush administration are anything but civil or decent? Of course not. How do we proceed in the classroom, especially when the war is officially declared over, the well-intentioned peace buttons start to come off, and we return to an eerie, numb silence about this far away place called Iraq&nbsp.&nbsp. . or Afghanistan&nbsp.&nbsp. .

These criticisms of my university teaching center's response to the Iraq war raise more questions than they answer. For example, what is a professor's responsibility to address the war if they are not in fields — such as science and engineering — that fit more naturally with current political events? Here the issue of interrupting syllabi gets more complicated than it may be for social sciences and humanities professors. Also, regarding the distinction between "crises" and systematic oppressions, it can argued that since universities have women's studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, and labor studies, accompanied by their respective months of special events, that they do recognize more routine forms of socio-economic oppression. But is it enough? Many would argue it is not so long as these forms of oppression still exist on campuses and in society at large.

Finally, it is important to reflect on the motivation behind universities officially addressing political crises at all. Is it a co-optation of anticipated student militancy? If professors set aside a minute or ten to discuss the war, then does this delegitimate broader student complaints that their concerns are not being met? Are short, Dr. Phil inspired therapeutic check-ins the symptom of new more flexible forms of power adapting to the demands placed on institutions by the war on terrorism? Is this just simply a way to cover their asses as we head down the unpredictable path of escalating military violence?

The world is moving faster and faster, and as theorists and educators we are always inevitably a few steps behind. It is difficult to stay abreast of current developments. Although I have not provided concrete answers, I am suggesting that simply intervening in course syllabi to facilitate discussions on media and university sanctioned crises isn't enough. We also need to reassess the general mission of higher education as it relates to the new realities of the war on terrorism. From there we can determine our roles as professors and students, before these roles become increasingly determined for us.

Michelle Renee Matisons is an assistant professor of Women's Studies at California State University, Sacramento.

Copyright © 2003 by Michelle Renee Matisons. All rights reserved.