David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

How Do We Respond to the Unthinkable?

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This is supposed to be a teaching advice column, but I have no real pedagogical guidance to offer teachers in the wake of last week’s election news. I know there are many instructors across the country who have been doing great work in these difficult days. I’m not one of them. I’ve gotten more from my students since last Tuesday than they have gotten from me.

Nonetheless, I wanted to write with a modest appeal.

What do we do now? How do we respond to the unthinkable? How do we stand up for our values when it seems like they have been defeated? The answer to those questions for many people is in activism — getting involved with local causes, bolstering community groups, protesting injustice together, and volunteering time and money for charities that soon may be stretched to their limits.

We should be doing all of those things; I’m looking for ways to help here in Iowa. But I want to remind those of you who teach for a living that there is important work that you can do as a part of your job. As professors, we have the incredible privilege of being able to work with and influence other people. Your students depend on you to help them, to look out for them, to offer them guidance. They need you now more than ever.

We have the chance to be there for our students — not just in dealing with the shock of this month’s events — but in adapting to, and struggling with, the uncertainty of the coming years. We have a particular responsibility to help the most vulnerable of our students: people of color, immigrants and children of immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the underprivileged, and young women. We can show those students that they are valued, that we care about them, and that we will fight for them and their place in this society.

We can also help our students get help that we can’t provide. Read up on your institution’s mental-health services. Be ready for students to confide in you about what they’re going through, and think about how you’ll respond. Let them know that there is somewhere they can turn on the campus for help, that there are people whose job is to help them survive.

In the classroom, you have the opportunity to foster the values and skills that a fair and representative democracy needs to survive. Critical thinking, reading, research, and scientific literacy as well as tolerance ofalternate views and the ability to respond respectfully and logically to other people’s arguments. This country needs people with those skills if it is to recover. You have the chance to nurture those abilities in this country’s young people.

This won’t be easy. We’ll need to work hard for our students, even harder than we have been working. We’re also going to need to work hard outside of the classroom, defending our educational institutions against what is sure to be an onslaught of right-wing privatization and budget-slashing. Education is the enemy of the tyrant, and most tyrants know it.

If you are worried about the country’s new political present, remember that you get to spend your days with its future. If your students are going to undo the damage done by their elders, if they are going to make this country and the world a more just place, they’re going to need your help. If they’re going to save us from the man-made climate disaster on the horizon, they need to understand science well. If they’re going to make this country safer for everyone, they need to know how to argue, and they need to develop the empathy that only comes from listening to other people and their ideas. If they’re going to make a better democracy, they need to become better citizens. Help them get there.

All of this applies as much, if not more, to students who voted for Donald Trump. They need you, too. Do not abandon students whose political views you don’t understand or agree with. If we believe, as I do, that education is a force for good, then we must commit ourselves to helping all of our students.

It’s not enough, I know. None of this helps much in the face of an almost unimaginable present. And none of this precludes us from getting involved in other ways (I’m donating to my local women’s health center, for a start). But it’s something. And it’s something important, even if it won’t always feel like it is. Please, don’t underestimate your importance. Your students need you. Your country needs you.

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