Image: Winslow Homer, Gargoyles of Notre Dame, 1867, Private Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Professors who teach with Books@Work frequently report that this experience outside traditional academic settings changes their pedagogy – for the better. Here, our former Academic Director (and Books@Work professor) Paul Jaussen reflects on how Books@Work helped him deal with and even embrace difficult topics – the kind that spark debates over “trigger warnings” and Atlantic articles like “The Coddling of the American Mind” – in the classroom.
Some topics are not easy to discuss. I’m not referring to technically challenging issues, like modeling stock markets or understanding quark gluon plasma. Nor am I referring to topics that require long, voluminous tomes to be adequately addressed. There is a third category of “hard conversations”: topics that are emotionally, politically and ethically charged, topics that evoke our most intimate feelings and sentiments, our fears, histories and hopes. The list of such hard conversations is potentially endless: genocide and racism, income inequality and class privilege, religious differences and violent ethnic conflict.
So why in the world would someone ever bring such topics into the classroom? What role might hard conversations play in higher education?
After all, hard conversations are, well, hard. They make us uncomfortable, tense, nervous, even at times physically ill – we have all experienced the vague nausea, sweaty palms and adrenaline shakes associated with such discussions. Increasingly, some faculty are opting to avoid these topics altogether, afraid of backlash from students who, as The Onion brilliantly satirized, “felt weird in class once.” Beyond student sensitivities, faculty may be tempted to reframe – and thus make more impersonal – such topics through the tools of their discipline. A geographer might look at the regional distribution of refugee camps, a historian might narrate the political and economic contexts that contribute to ethnic cleansing, or, as in my case, a literary scholar might use a poem to explore cultural attitudes toward race.
But if we remain merely within the realm of data, methodology and cultural archives, I think we miss an equally important opportunity for learning: the chance to reflect on ourselves as persons, persons with complex beliefs, attitudes and intuitions. In other words, I think that hard conversations reveal that we possess a fundamental sense of justice and responsibility and care. Hard conversations show us, experientially, that we are moral beings and any education worth the name will allow us to reflect upon, and understand, that personal moral core.
I’ve been learning to have hard conversations with undergraduates for nearly a decade now, most intensively in my course on “Cultural Representations of Violence.” In many respects, I owe my pedagogy of hard conversations to Books@Work. Leading seminars in the context of the workplace helped me to see that critical thinking is not simply an abstract, rational process but is, instead, entangled with our most personal experiences and feelings. Indeed, as a program dedicated to collaboration and community (values that are often neglected in universities and colleges), Books@Work gives faculty the opportunity to experiment with more personal, intimate modes of teaching. Books@Work made me a better teacher by helping me appreciate how some of the most important intellectual subjects require that same kind of personal, emotional attention, complete with all of our weird feelings.
To put it more bluntly: the emotional, psychological and even physical feelings associated with hard conversations – those “weird feelings” – are an incredible, irreplaceable opportunity for self-reflection. And because our weird feelings are highly individualized, these conversations HAVE to be personal, taking into account the specific feelings and responses of each participant.
As I warn the students coming into “Cultural Representations of Violence,” the works we study all but demand a personal, emotional response. The last thing I would want my students to do is take a purely dispassionate approach to Chris Burden’s self-destructive performance pieces, the systemic, institutional racism and torture found in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the traumatic historiographic ambitions of the World War II combat film genre, or the extremely graphic murders described in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. To pretend that these works do not produce strong emotional reactions seems to be obtuse – indeed, the exact opposite of sensitive, critical reading. So I explicitly encourage my students to admit, reflect upon and analyze their emotional responses. In other words, we think critically through hard conversations.
Hard conversations remain hard, of course. But, then again, so are most things worth doing.