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Another Thing the Book Burning at Georgia Southern Reveals

The events are partly the consequence of expectations that the delivery of “diverse” content will by itself engineer more equitable and inclusive campus communities, argues David Shih.

November 25, 2019
 
 
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Early last month, writer Jennine Capó Crucet visited the campus of Georgia Southern University to discuss her novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, part of the university’s first-year experience program. After the talk, a group of students burned copies of the novel outside a university residence hall.

Commentary on the disturbing event has tended to focus on the actions of individuals -- those burning their books or even the author herself for her representation of whiteness in her writing and talk. Yet the video documenting the book burning has had the effect of drawing attention from other forces at play behind such a catastrophe, namely institutional commitment to a first-year experience program bearing responsibility for fostering public engagement with “diversity” among 18- and 19-year-olds.

The ugly events at the university are partly the consequence of questionable institutional expectations that the delivery of “diverse” content will by itself engineer more equitable and inclusive campus communities. They are symptomatic of an institutional shift in resources away from faculty expertise and toward administrative solutions when it comes to student learning, especially in the humanities.

First-year experience programs often require hundreds or thousands of incoming students to read a common text, which they also discuss in class. At my university, the curricular component of our first-year experience program used to include a common-text initiative spearheaded by the English department. We wanted the text to invite students to make connections with their own lives at the same time it introduced new knowledge and ideas, often from a different culture. It was a lot of weight for one book to carry.

One of our more successful examples was Kao Kalia Yang’s family memoir The Latehomecomer, half of which was set in St. Paul, not far from where many of our students grew up. But it also described what it was like to be a Hmong person experiencing racism in the area. Our goals were to broaden the perspectives of our non-Hmong students (over 90 percent of them white) while also recognizing the experiences of Hmong people, the largest racial minority group on the campus and in the local community. But the experience didn’t meet either of those goals as well as we would have liked.

The reason is that the meaning of a common text rooted in minoritized experiences isn’t intrinsic to the text but is a product of its reading. If that weren’t the case, there would be more copies of Make Your Home Among Strangers in the world and less ash. Based on video of Capó Crucet’s Q&A session and on Facebook posts by Georgia Southern students, the book burners assigned meanings to “white” that many of their peers didn’t. My question is how was this meaning addressed in the class discussions that presumably preceded the author visit?

My point isn’t to single out the pedagogy of individual instructors but to identify what appear to be the assumptions behind the organizational structure of the first-year experience common-text initiative. I suspect that one of those is that texts, to a large extent, “teach themselves.” Only with this assumption might such an academic program authorize a cadre of instructors -- with varied sets of credentials and social identities -- to oversee first-year students’ readings of a Latinx woman’s encounters with whiteness and class privilege.

Obviously, commitment to an antiracist campus doesn’t end with mandating the reading of a book written by a woman of color, but it may not even begin with it, either. It’s not enough to assign such a book. It’s not enough to bring its author to a campus as though her own interpretation of her text is an authoritative one, a magic spell that frees us from dehumanizing social illusions.

And yet it seems as though racial equity was the sole responsibility handed off to Capó Crucet and her novel by Georgia Southern’s first-year experience programming, whose approved outcomes includes “Discuss diversity and inclusion.” I could find only one other event among the university’s nine first-year experience programs for fall 2019 that related to race and racism on the campus: a companion discussion of Elián González. It makes sense that a university would want first-year students to explore “the differing experiences of privileged and/or minoritized identities,” as spelled out in the program’s outcomes. But for one group of students outside a residence hall on Oct. 9, “exploration” is where the learning ended. The standard for engagement with issues of race and racism is conspicuously low here, emblemized by the “and/or” language of the outcome itself, as if social privilege and oppression were not two sides of the same coin.

The outsourcing of “diversity” outcomes for students to first-year experience programs and other co-curricular programs often led by student affairs professionals is to be expected in higher education these days. But the events at Georgia Southern remind us of at what cost: faculty expertise, particularly within the humanities and the fields of identity studies. At first glance, the qualifications for teaching FYE 1220: First-Year Seminar at Georgia Southern don’t appear to me to be overly stringent.

When members of my department met to discuss strategies for teaching The Latehomecomer, we quickly realized that there was little uniformity among us over how we planned to engage students with the text, whether through formalism, critical theory or something in between. I’m not sure we had common definitions of concepts such as “race,” “racism” and “white” or even an agreement over whether they mattered to our pedagogies. Expertise in how meaning is made between a racialized reader and text took a back seat to getting out of the way and allowing a text to tell its “story.”

In the end, students “experienced” a text but apparently weren’t equipped to explain what that experience said about social power and meaning making. That realization is what may have led Capó Crucet -- whose novel explores a Latinx woman’s sense of isolation at a prestigious college -- to quip, “I feel like déjà vu,” after a student questioned her qualifications to speak at Georgia Southern.

Criticism of the university administration has centered on President Kyle Marrero’s decision to regard the book burning as “another example of freedom of expression and a continuing debate of differing ideas” rather than as a hostile act of intimidation toward Capó Crucet and those students who supported her. But as the university administration begins to reflect upon what its role was, and should have been, it might ask whether first-year learning for racial equity deserves something more: a faculty-led, semester-long curriculum, for example. It's a question that should be asked by all administrators crossing their fingers whenever their students venture to apply their learning for “diversity and inclusion” in the public sphere.

Bio

David Shih is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. He blogs on race and language at Stanford University’s digital salon Arcade.

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