Teaching in a Time of Conservative Tyranny

My spring 2022 schedule includes three classes, two sections of upper-level writing/research and one first-year writing seminar. During my second class today, while students were completing individual work before a class discussion, I scrolled through Twitter and found this:

I quickly Googled the poem, and decided to interject an impromptu mini-lesson between students completing the individual assignment and the class discussion.

Although I have been a teacher educator (and first-year writing professor) for twenty years now, I quickly put on my high school English teacher hat and conducted a lesson on Dunbar’s poem, reading it aloud and asking students questions along the way.

I repeated the lesson (also not on the schedule) in my third class, where students offered similar responses to the discussion.

Overwhelmingly, students identified the mask motif as an exploration of putting on an emotional front, noting, for example, the juxtaposition of “smile” and “cry” in the line “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries.” (Interestingly, one student immediately contextualized the mask motif in the current Covid era.)

When I directly asked students to identify the “we,” most immediately spoke about a universality of the poem being about “society” or anyone who identifies with the speaker in the poem.

After walking through the poem (and confirming that students were not familiar with the poem or Dunbar), I pulled up the Wikipedia page on the poem to highlight that it had been published in 1895 and that Dunbar was a Black poet who was born during U.S. Reconstruction and published in the Jim Crow Era.

I then noted the poem is about Black people masking for white people—the core of Chanea Bond‘s Tweet and the student’s awareness that at least 4 out of 10 students in the U.S. are now being taught in states with educational gag orders, a growing list of state-level legislation being proposed and passed by Republicans from Florida to Virginia to Texas to Oklahoma to Indiana and anywhere Republicans have unlimited power.

These educational gag orders include curriculum bans (often directly and indirectly invoking Critical Race Theory), book/text bans, and so-call parental rights bills that allow any parent to trigger censorship or reprimanding a teacher. While this legislation is devastating to public institutions (K-16), some bills include potential fines for private schools who take any public funds.

Attacks on books have spread beyond assigned reading, classroom libraries, and school libraries to include public libraries as well.

This wave of gag orders and censorship has included violence and threats as well as overwhelmingly impacting Black texts and topics along with any writers or works that deal with LGBTQ+ topics or experiences.

The mask being used to hide the racism and bigotry of these complaints and legislation is an insincere claim that student discomfort must be curtailed.

Some of the most extreme versions of gag order bills include requirements that teachers provide a year of lesson plans before the academic year in order for parents and others to review and approve them.

First, let me confront that last point; my impromptu lesson today was one of the best I have done in recent memory. Students were engaged, and I watched in real time as my students confronted ideas, as my students learned and became different people than when they walked into class today.

While lesson plans are important, they simply are not as valuable as being prepared to teach, and being prepared to engage with your students; a fundamental misunderstanding about teaching is that (as these gag orders and parental rights bills reveal) too many people think the job of the teacher is to transfer knowledge/content to students.

As most any teacher will tell you, we teach students—not lessons, not history or English or even The Great Gatsby.

As students and as future educators, my students today needed and deserved the lesson that came from a teacher’s Tweet. They also benefitted from a brief experience with how to read and engage with poetry along with the tyranny of partisan politics that is shutting the door on their lives as free individuals.

But my impromptu lesson today grounded in a text that may soon be banned from classrooms exposes the catastrophic misunderstanding of texts. Not a single student today recognized the powerful racial message intended by Dunbar because those students lacked historical and literacy context that is already missing from their formal education without the educational gag orders.

As I have stressed during this manufactured outrage from the Right, traditional education is already incredibly conservative.

Reading Dunbar’s poem, in fact, for its universal appeal strips it of its radical power—and cheats students from confronting the historical realities of Reconstruction and Jim Crow for Black Americans.

In 2022, students, teachers, teaching/learning, and academic freedom are under assault by conservative tyranny. There is nothing American or noble about censorship.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is a seven-decades long slogan of the UNCF, and with the greatest of ironies, it now seems a central goal of Republicans to insure all minds are wasted.

Bond’s student is our canary in a coal mine, and soon, every classroom may be just as dangerous, literally, as a coal mine if we refuse to heed that student’s concern.