What To Do When You Teach at 8:30AM (and Donald Trump just won the Presidency)

Privilege: Going to my classroom to teach today and knowing that my students would not greet me with glee, or celebration.

Challenge: Going to my classroom to teach today and knowing that my students would not greet me with glee, or celebration.

It felt like I was going to be the one to walk into our classroom and tell them–all of them–that someone, something, very close to them had died.

My students are immigrants, or children of them. My students are people of color. My students have disabilities. My students are women. My students have immediate familial ties to Lebanon and Japan. My students are from Michigan, Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Illinois. Some of my students might be queer, or trans. Some of them might be Muslim. And some of them are straight, young, cis White men.

What happened last night is dangerous for all of them. Before policy, or presidency, and anything Trump and his cabinet might themselves enact–what happened last night normalizes violence and hatred. It says “violence works,” “hatred is okay,” “this is what gets shit done.” It sets a precedent that emboldens those who do not value, or do not recognize, my students’ lives. (And if, perhaps, my straight cis upper-middle class White male students don’t face the direct and horrifying dangers that their peers might, they are endangered too: People they love are at risk. People they respect. Their right to live in a world that does not weaponize their identity has been denied.)

At 8:40AM on November 9, 2016, I told my students to get out a piece of paper, or open up a Word Document. Following the advice of one my colleagues at the University of Michigan, Lisa (which she heard from her colleague, Daphna), I asked my students two questions:

1. How are you feeling this morning?
2. Imagine yourself four years from now. What is your life like?

Then they had to write. There was only one rule: They could not stop writing. If they didn’t know how to answer the question, then they needed to write about why not. They needed to just keep putting words on the page, no matter what, regardless of whether they veered off-topic or not. They just needed to get it all out.

After ten minutes, I told them we would share our responses. They could share in three ways:

1. Share what they thought was most important to them, out of everything they’d written.
2. Share the last sentence, verbatim.
3. Choose to pass. They did not have to share anything at all, if they did not want to.

All of my students chose to share.

As each one revealed what’s been on their minds this morning, I tried harder and harder not to cry. What they needed from me was not my tears. On November 9, 2016, my students’ headspaces looked like this:

One of them is on the hockey team–some of his teammates got in trouble, and the team is facing harsh repercussions. Everyone is paying for it, and it’s costing him sleep, peace, focus. They have exams coming up. They are stressed. They are exhausted.

And last night, they watched the elections results roll in. Now they’re more stressed. They’re tired. They’re worried.

Shocked.

Stunned.

Rattled.

And they have no idea where they’re going to be in four years.

[A caveat: A lot of this last stressor is part of being a college freshman, no matter what’s going on in your country, or whom you’ve just elected. But our class is about climate change discourse and climate justice, and if climate change is a “threat multiplier” so is the State of the Union, with respect to my students’ imagination of the future.]

Right now, we’re working on a 5-page conference paper that considers a research area of their choice in the context of climate justice–that is, the set of principles that argues that current responses (or lack thereof) to climate change unjustly affect certain populations, based on their race, class, gender, geography, and nationality. Climate justice argues that climate change discourse needs to rise to the challenge of alleviating these injustices for all people.

Today, we were supposed to hold a peer review workshop focusing on these papers. So, because we’ve been working to develop thesis statements that are specific and debatable and forcefully explain why thinking about climate justice matters, I asked them to seriously discuss this idea with their group members. Before even getting into the papers themselves, I said, they should decide some very important things: Why does this thing you’re arguing for matter? Why should we be thinking about marginalized populations? Why is it critical to bring these voices into the conversation?

Why is it imperative that every “decision for all” be a decision that actually works for the underserved, underrepresented, and–frankly–undervalued?

And after they’ve found these answers together, how can they put that into words, marshal that evidence, and make clear to their audience that this is what they’re standing for? How can they use the skills they’ve been practicing this semester to voice these imperatives? How can they make themselves as powerful as possible?

This was my way of trying to give them space to think through and process the results of their election, and to think about what it could stand to affect–but also to keep them grounded. I wanted them to know that their education here is meaningful, and that they have skills that they can use to do the work they need to do–even when they feel unsure or helpless. I also had to acknowledge, as an instructor of first-year composition, that the semester is an unforgiving thing, and election or no–they need and deserve this time with their papers. They deserve this time to receive feedback from their peers. They deserve to be able to build something together. Even if it seems beside the point right now, this is a thing that they can do. This is a thing that will help them discover what they can do.

Before we closed to the day, I told my students: Wherever they might see themselves in four years, they will be in the middle of yet another US Presidential Election. Between then and now, the number one thing they need to think about is what they want their lives to look like when that time comes. Where do they want to be? And what will it take to make that happen?

I told them that part of what it will take is their effort–their plans, their choices. This is personal.

But I also told them that they’ll need a world that lets them live the life they want. This is collaborative.

I asked them: Think about it. What will it take, to have the life you want? For your loved ones to have the lives they want? For complete strangers, people they don’t know and will never meet, to be able to live well, too?

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be the President of the United States. Knowing that–whether you did or did not vote for him–what will it take to make the world what you want it to be? What will it take to make it just?

When you are ready, that’s where we’ll all start. And we will see each other there.

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