When I began my career teaching literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964, I lectured. That’s how I’d been taught as an undergraduate and graduate student, occasionally by brilliant lecturers who gave me hoards of facts and concepts, some of which I still remember. I spent untold hours researching my authors and works and then shaping all that into 50 minutes packages that seemed to captivate and please my students. Then this country increasingly involved in the Vietnamese War and students at Minnesota, like students all across the country, began protesting. There came a moment here when they would politely come up to us faculty members, show us little wallet-sized cards on which was printed “Crime Against Silence.” If we took one, it meant we were agreeing not to remain silent if we were at some social gathering where someone defended the US’s sending more and more troops to that little country. I signed the back of mine and carried it on my person. Once I even had to do what I’d promised and speak up about my own resistance to all the killing that was going on there.
As that war dragged on, student protests became more organized until on my campus small groups began picketing many buildings on campus where we held classes. This presented many faculty with a choice–were we or were we not going to go inside our buildings and teach our classes? Because my father had been a paycheck to paycheck worker at his mill, he was not paid if there were a strike against the huge company which was a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. He taught me that crossing a picket line set up by such workers was a very bad thing to do, so I knew I was not going to walk past the young men and women outside the English Department building. Unlike some of my colleagues, however, who say this as a classy way to avoid teaching for a while, I also knew that I wasn’t going to stop teaching Shakespeare and Milton. So I contacted several undergraduates until I found two students who had an apartment they thought would hold all of us and we moved class to the student living section of campus called Dinkytown. Talking about Hamlet or Paradise Lost in a tiny grungy space seemed just fine to me, the students didn’t complain, and I felt loyal to a precept my father held dear.
Maybe that change of venue dislodged my firm conviction about lecturing, so when I happened to read a short article by some radical professor teaching in California that argued that lecturing to groups of impressionable students was an imposition of our “take” on some subject matter and that there might be value in letting students express their “takes” on the same subject matter, I started to think about how I felt about delivering my carefully crafted and passionately felt words to groups of silent students who wrote down as much of what they heard as they could. Gradually I came to understand that this pedagogical practice was not unlike what my country was doing in Viet Nam, a place I barely could find on a map and about which I knew almost nothing. I was colonizing brains so that my students would adopt my way of thinking, never mind what might be rattling around in their own formative minds. At one point, I remembered the pain I’d experienced as an undergraduate English major at the University of Alabama. A professor would pose a question about Keats or Shakespeare or Thoreau. He’d (I only had one female professor in the four years I was an undergraduate) look at hands raised, one of which was mine until I stopped bothering raising it, and call on one of the young men in class. Rarely was my response solicited, so I eventually just sat quietly, at first holding on to my own reading of our author but finally not even bothering to let my inchoate views develop inside my own brain.
Midway through the “conflict” in Viet Nam, I decided to stop lecturing and start asking students what they thought was going on in our author. The fact that I had no knowledge or models for conducting discussion classes, my earliest ventures in this new pedagogy were pretty awful. I’d start class by looking out at the group of eager learners and say something like “Let’s get into small groups and then you talk about what you think is important about King Lear’s anger at his daughter, Cordelia, or why you think Tennyson is so sad over the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, or which character appeals to you in To the Lighthouse. I’d then sit quietly while my poor students floundered or sat in uncomfortable silence, unable to do what I asked with any real competence. Gradually I began finding articles written by faculty across the country who were similarly experimenting in loosening their hold on what they students were being told to think about their subject matter. I even attended a faculty seminar run by a professor in the College of Education who actually knew a lot about how to run a rigorous discussion format. Many of my colleagues in the English Department told me I was “coddling” to student pressures to be allowed to voice their own opinion about the works we assigned them. As I formulated responses to these accusations of leniency, I came to understand just how deep the lecture method really was colonizing thought as it produced generation after generation of new critics/readers who reproduced what their professors believed to be germane about an author or their writing.
While I and some similarly inclined colleagues were making our clumsy opening attempts to change our method of teaching, groups of black and then Native American and then Hispanic students were forcing the University of Minnesota to listen to their growing demands to have curricula the reflected their histories and struggles and ideas. I am so grateful that my own personal confrontation with the lecture format came before their demands because that meant I could grasp the very essence of what they were demanding. They wanted knowledge to include and embrace their worlds and not just continue to perpetuate whiteness as the only academic currency. I was able to stand with these brave young people as they asked at first quietly but eventually quite loudly because no one was listening to the quiet and logical arguments coming from them. Finally, the black students, who were the best organized at first, demanded that the President and his staff establish an African American Studies Program. Though Malcolm Moos, who was that president, was not unresponsive, he couldn’t issue an executive order. Rather he had to get the Faculty Senate to approve a modest proposal to set up a department and let faculty with some knowledge base begin offering courses while the University hired faculty with direct specialization in African American history or literature or political science. Too many members of that Faculty Senate had no intention of diverting resources to what they considered to be ancillary at best and irrelevant at worst. So the students began an extended sit-in in the building that housed the President and his administrative staff.
My immediate impulses were to support this effort in any way I could. So I signed petitions from faculty that encouraged those in charge to recruit two or three new faculty members with expertise in African American history and culture. Simultaneously, however, I figured out that the young people sitting in hallways in Morrill Hall needed tangible support, so I would buy foodstuffs that I smuggled in to their groups occupying those hallways. Eventually President Moos was able to force a few departments in the College of Liberal Arts to begin searches for new faculty. A small amount of office space was set aside to house a Director and a secretary and our program was born. Recently, I attended a dance performance (of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, ironically enough) in Northrup Auditorium, the main venue for large cultural events. Northrup had also been the primary location for all outdoor protests of the war in Viet Nam and then of the demand for an African American Studies Program. On an upper floor of the Auditorium a friend and I found the small and powerful exhibit documenting the prolonged sit-in and its leaders. I remember all the faces and the scenes from hallways in Morrill Hall full of students sitting peacefully outside the President’s office. And there’s a huge blow-up of the three black students who led the protest demanding the formation of an Afro-American Studies Department: Horace Huntley, Rose Mary Freeman, and Warren Tucker, Junior. It’s cold outside so they are in warm jackets with fur-lined hoods and warm gloves. And the photographer has caught them striding along the Quadrangle sidewalk, smiling and alert, completely focused on where they are going, proud to be together as they speak truth to the academy’s powerful. The opposite wall of the exhibit is plastered with Western Union telegraphs, typed letters on an assortment of letterheads from law firms or other colleges or local corporations, and many hand-written letters, all to President Moos. The left half of the wall has letters from those who were violently offended by the fact that undergraduate students dared disrupt traffic in the halls of central administration. Some told Moos he should expel the students or have police come arrest and jail them, expressed in harsh and at times offensive rhetoric. The right hand half of the wall contains mail from people thanking the president for his measured responses and for being open to what the students argued for so forcefully. As I walked from image to image, I felt glad to have been part of the campus during such moments of activist resolve and clarity about what education owed those who had been (and still are) ignored or barely mentioned or (worst of all) misrepresented by those posing as educators.
So I stopped handing down “truths” about British writers from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf for some of the same reasons the anti-war activists picketed our classroom buildings and the black students pressed for curricula based on their history and culture. We all wanted to move beyond academic colonization of students by empowering them to read and respond to information that could change not only how they thought about some subject matter area, but how they would come to maneuver the world of thought and investigation. I was in incredibly good company.