Alternate Perspective: Director responds to editorial and offers viewpoint on the sharing of diverse opinions

Stephanie Stokamer Ed.D., Associate Professor and Director of the McCall Center for Civic Engagement

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In his February 7, 2019 letter to the editor, a fellow faculty member expressed his concerns about a campus climate of “insistence on one train of thought.” In responding to his words, I want first to say in the name of transparency that I do not personally know my colleague Dr. Cassady, and harbor no grudge against him. But the fear he espouses for democracy–a fear I in many ways share–is coupled with a conflation of ideas that I fear more immediately does a disservice to our educational community. I therefore want to offer an alternative perspective on my colleague’s observations in an effort to help us all reflect on the ideas he puts on the table. In so doing, I am also seeking “to address opposing ideas,” which I agree is essential to this country’s future.

As faculty, Dr. Cassady and I share the responsibility to ensure that differing ideas can surface in the classroom while we hold the educational space for intellectual exploration that is practice for healthy democratic engagement. Doing so, however requires a certain trust, and it is here that I fear Dr. Cassady’s argument and tone are potentially harmful. In making his point, Dr. Cassady runs through a series of paragraphs that seem intended to support his premise that democracy is in danger due to proscriptive unilateral thought. His inclusion of sexual assault and the experience of marginalized students on campus conflates the intellectual exercise of examining different ideas with the empathic endeavor of making sense of different experiences. In the process, Dr. Cassady overlooks the much more positive and productive alternative, that if we start with the deeply human act of listening to another person’s pain, dignifying their experiences with a willingness to learn from them, then perhaps the relationship that ensues can strengthen our ability to work together–in the classroom and on improving our society. He also misses an opportunity to model for students how to learn from mistakes rather than be shamed or angered by them.

In multiple issues of this very paper in recent years, students have described stress, fear, anxiety, invisibility, and pain of marginalization and sexual assault. In student forums, open mic nights, courageous classrooms and facilitated retreat spaces, students’ voices have quivered and endured to speak their true feelings of alienation and suffering. These experiences are real, and Dr. Cassady’s insistence that they require explanation implies that the onus is on students who have had terribly hurtful experiences to argue the merit of their pain to faculty. There is an alternative.

In an educational community, it is incumbent upon all of us–and most especially faculty–to hold together and balance the diversity of experiences among us (and the emotions those experiences carry) with the rigorous examination of ideas. And it is incumbent upon all of us–and most especially faculty–to seek out understanding of the experiences that cause us to ask why over and over again. In an educational community we must be willing to educate ourselves first, applying the skills of academic inquiry to our own shortcomings and growth points. We all have them.

For those who are genuinely curious and want to better understand what I know can be a confusing and challenging universe of identity and power, I invite not such passive, divisive, and bitter indignation as Dr. Cassady projects, but proactive and humble self-education that does not demand those who have experienced deep pain to rehash their experience for your benefit in the moment of your confusion. That demand adds insult to injury, especially in the context of a student-faculty power differential. Dr. Hallick’s all-campus email on February 28, 2019 highlights the resources available to students, faculty, and staff who have concerns, as well as the importance of all of us weighing in on the Campus Climate Survey by March 18 so that we can get better to data to inform the work of equity, diversity, and inclusion and continue to improve our community.  In that spirit, I would be happy to share the tiny slice with which I am familiar of endless publically and readily available resources for anyone who has privilege in one area to better understand the lived experiences of people who have not been so lucky.

With a little–better yet, a lot–of background knowledge steeped in firsthand narrative, academic publications, journalistic accounts, artistic representation, and other expertise of individuals whose experience differs from our own–people with some degree of privilege on any of the many dimensions of identity (i.e. race, gender, social class, ability, etc.) can enter a conversation about experience or ideas without being so ignorant as to cause further harm with our questions. In faculty development workshops available free to faculty during work hours–I, at least, have been able to deepen my own sense of our students’ experiences, our students’ pain due to marginalization and sexual assault. At one such recent workshop, PCC faculty member Jimena Alvarado suggested that people who find themselves on the lucky side of any privilege coin seek one thing each day to better understand the lives of those on the other side–holding front and center the knowledge that only having to think about something once a day (if that) is a sure sign of privilege.

If you share Dr. Cassady’s confusion about why people are offended, then in this era of ample information, I suggest leaning in to the empathic endeavor with self-education to further the intellectual exercise of exploring different ideas. Indeed, I think those who choose not to engage in this area of self-work at all risk finding themselves in Dr. Cassady’s position of being accused of something and confused as to why. We can and should still engage in intellectual discussion of different ideas for the sake of academic integrity and democracy, but our doing so will be much more rich and worthwhile if we have taken the time first to understand and validate the experiences that underlie our different perspectives. I might even suggest that the future of our diverse democracy depends on it.

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