Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A New Goal in My Pedagogy-Stress Reduction

Throughout my many years teaching at Fordham, I was probably not best known for my kindness. Yes, I gave my students lots of personal attention and and made sure they had an opportunity to express themselves, but I also pushed them HARD, asking them to write long research papers that had to be handed in ON TIME. No one took my courses without doing a lot of reading and writing. My students not only learned things they didn't know before, they came out of the experience stronger, able to stand on their own knowing they had survived a harsh test
However, in the last few years, I have changed my pedagogy to reduce stress on my students.. I still demand a lot of reading and writing in my courses, but I have reduced the work load slightly, only give take home exams and untimed tests, and are more sympathetic when students ask for extensions. I also FEED my students whenever possible, making food as well as music part of the experience of taking a course with me
Why am I doing this? Because my students today are under severe stress and I don't want to add to it if I can help it
Look what they are up against
1. Many are graduating with huge student debt
2. They have a madman as President of the United States
3. There is a resurgence of racism, xenophobia and homophobia that threatens their safety and well being
4. The specter of Climate Emergency hangs over their heads, threatening their lives and futures
I have no power to do anything about profound historic forces deforming their lives. But I can nurture and comfort them while I teach them, making classes enjoyable, giving them time to do their work, and feeding them whenever possible, and playing music in class to bring joy to the experience as well as illustrate important themes
If my classes fill up because of this, all the better. I want my students to remember that in a harsh, unforgiving world, someone was kind, someone cared.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Importance of Leaving Footprints- Lessons From the Slave Narratives and "Footnote Four"

During the last few years, it has been a matter of extreme frustration to me that I have been able to do little to prevent our country from "going off the rails." I saw what was coming four years ago, warned people about it, and had virtually no influence on anybody that didn't already share my views
In the last few weeks, I have started to make peace with my ineffectiveness as a political actor when it comes to current events. My influence, such as it is, will be manifested over a long period of time, for the most part through the activity of the students I have taught, but also through my writings, my postings on social media, and the data base on Bronx and New York History I have created with my colleagues through the Bronx African American History Project
To explain why I think this way, I want to share two things that took place in the Great Depression that would have their greatest influence over thirty years after they were done
The first was an initiative of the Federal Writers Project, created by the Works Progress Administration, to conduct oral history interviews with more than 2,000 formerly enslaved people who were still alive during the great Depression. These interviews, conducted by scores of young scholars, were placed in the Library of Congress and were neglected for more than twenty years because historians of slavery, overwhelmingly white, only trusted written documents and were only willing to use as source for their accounts of slavery journals and letters of slave owners, newspaper articles, and a small number of published memoirs of former slaves. However, in the late 60's and early 70's with the rise of the Black Studies movement, these interviews were not only "discovered" they were transformed into the major source for an explosion of published work on what slavery looked and felt like to its victims. In the process students and the general public were given the first honest portrait of how Black people not only endured demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment, but resisted it in ways small and large.
The second legacy I want to refer to is a Footnote that a Supreme Court Justice, Harlan Stone, placed in a 1938 decision involving federal regulation of milk products. Frightened by the rise of Nazism and of Nazi like white supremacist movements in the US, Stone suggested, in his now famous Footnote 4 that it was the responsibility of the Federal Jurists, appointed for life, to assume the role of "defender of minorities" as elected officials might well be prone to oppress minorities and deprive them of their rights. For many years, as the nation was preoccupied, first with economic problems and then with war, Stone's comments attracted little attention. But in the 1950's and 1960's, when Civil Rights issues became the focal point of national politics, and in the 1970's, when Affirmative Action became a hot button issues, federal judges, including judges on the Supreme Court, used Footnote 4 as a rationale for taking an aggressive stance in defending minority rights, especially in the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, that had never before been done in the Court's history! Harlan Stone's once neglected Footnote had helped change the course of US History
These two stories, which guide my teaching and my research,give me confidence in speaking out and recording oft neglected voices even if they might not change the world around me. Some day., who knows, historians and activists may see in this legacy a guide to action that with help them change the world they live in.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Memories of Another Election Three Years Ago- And My Game Plan for Resisting the Trump Presidency

As I woke up this morning, I had vivid memories of this time three years ago when the country woke up to learn that Donald Trump had been elected President
The impact at Fordham, in particular, stood out in my mind. In the days following the election,white nationalist flyers were posted all over the University and the students in my 8:30 Affirmative Action Seminar, which met that Friday, were frightened and traumatized. Some were silent, some were weeping openly, terrified that Trump's election meant that they and their families would be under attack, either directly from the government, or indirectly from Trump's White Supremacist followers emboldened to take action against immigrants and people of color.
Worst of all, they felt unsafe at Fordham, so I felt I had to do something, I pulled together a multi racial group of alumni I knew to create a "Rapid Response Unit to Bias Attacks" that
any Fordham student could call if they felt in danger of being attacked. I posted a picture of the group, and some contact numbers and my students felt reassured. Unfortunately, our unit upset some people in Student Affairs who insisted that they had a rapid response unit of their own, but the point had been made. There was a dangerous climate in the nation that people needed to address and come together to protect their more vulnerable neighbors
In the days and weeks that followed, I developed a "game plan" to survive the Trump Presidency. Because I had developed a national network of friends through my education activism, particularly the creation of the Badass Teachers Association, I decided to concentrate on building local networks to resist racists and white supremacists through information gathering and direct action. For more than two years, that activity was informal, largely conducted through private communications with people who asked for my help, but in the last two months, it resulted in the creation of a new national organization- NARA-The National Anti Racism Alliance which would challenge white supremacists in small towns and rural areas, as well as on college campuses, where they thought they were safe to spread their poison.
I am happy I made the choice I did. There are many people around the country, some in the Republican Party, some even in high positions within the Administration, who have tried to keep Donald Trump from destroying our political system and plunging the nation into civil war. My concentration was on the people emboldened by his pronouncements to attack their neighbors.
And that remains my focus today, helped by thousands of people who refuse to let their communities be terrorized by those filled with hate in their hearts