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As I watch so many colleagues suddenly find themselves working in states where progressive teaching is no longer welcome and where courses that address issues of race, gender, class, power and oppression are specifically targeted, I find myself sympathetic and even a bit retraumatized. Here’s why.

I started my career in the late 1980s as a young feminist teaching religion at a conservative Southern Baptist college at the height of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I had finished my Ph.D. at a progressive Southern Baptist seminary, so I wasn’t ready for the resistance I faced from some pastors and parents who wanted religious studies courses to be more like Sunday school than college classes.

I lasted there for four years, winning a number of teaching awards along the way, yet I continued to be a target of conservatives who mostly referred to me as “that woman in religion.” My next stop was at a slightly less conservative evangelical Quaker college (a move that would take more unpacking than I have space for in this essay), where my progressive stances on social issues were more a problem for many constituents than my feminist biblical criticism.

Along the way in those institutions, I was also trying to come out to myself. Neither place was hospitable to LGBTQ+ folks, and so I hid who I was even as I continued to teach about LGBTQ+ issues.

Two years in at the second college, I decided to pursue a master’s in what was called “women studies” at the time. And two years later, I walked away from my associate professor position, not knowing what I’d do next and terrified I’d never teach again. I spent a year in social services work before I found a position teaching women studies at Oregon State University, where I still work.

All this is to say that I know what it’s like to teach behind enemy lines. Despite the difficulties with various constituents at both Christian colleges, I was incredibly successful with students, and I still work today with some of those students and hear from many others who appreciate what I taught and the perspectives they learned in my classes.

So I have some advice for my colleagues in states that are starting to limit progressive teaching and censor free speech. These are the things I did to survive and often thrive in those really hard eight years.

  1. Don’t give in to the fear. Be brave. Speak truth. When people seek to limit what we teach in higher education, they count on our fear—fear of being called out, fear of being disciplined, fear of losing our reputations and even our jobs—to silence us. Resisting censorship and violations of our academic freedom requires bravery to maintain the integrity of our work and to speak out against incursions in our teaching and scholarship.

We may be tempted to back off from teaching what we know, to avoid those difficult topics and conversations that might bring unwanted attention and reproach. Once, at my first institution, the dean asked the religion faculty to stop teaching the documentary hypothesis, a foundational concept in biblical criticism. We refused and took his request to a full faculty meeting, where he backed down. Of course, pastors and parents continued to criticize us and call for our jobs.

  1. Don’t trust the institution to protect you. Be aware that when you do resist and speak up, you may find yourself alone out on the edge. Colleges and universities, like most institutions, are risk averse. They most likely aren’t going to jeopardize state funding or donor relations to defend a rogue professor. Build your support elsewhere—among colleagues, students who have taken your classes and other constituencies that support critical thinking and expansive education.
  2. Be subversive. I often drew on this image: In the Christian Testament, Jesus tells his followers to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. When we are under threat, subversion is a powerful way to resist. Subversion means finding ways to teach things so they don’t draw unwanted attention and at the same time teach students what they need to know. I often used role-playing as a way to get around limitations about what I could teach. For example, if I wanted students to learn ways of interpreting the Bible from diverse perspectives, I role-played various biblical scholars talking about how they interpreted the Bible, and then I let students ask questions of those scholars. It was a hit with students, and I avoided the accusation of teaching them what I believed.
  3. Use inductive learning to let your students discover and create knowledge. The best advice I received was from my seminary president, a First Testament scholar. When I was getting into so much hot water for teaching the documentary hypothesis, he told me to let students discover it for themselves. So I changed the way I taught it. Instead of telling students what it was, I gave them a long list of passages from the first five books of the Bible and asked them to note everything they could about language, style, emphasis, genre, names for God and the like. We wrote their responses all around the room on the whiteboards. Then I asked, “What does this suggest to you about authorship?”

Every time, they all said, “Well, obviously more than one person wrote it.”

“We have a name for this idea,” I responded. “We call it the documentary hypothesis.” With that, students were on board and eager to learn more about this hypothesis.

  1. Speak up when they come for colleagues. Build coalitions. Support one another. We have to stick together. One of the hardest things for me to deal with was how colleagues would support me in private but not speak up publicly when I was in trouble. We have to have each other’s backs in this so our teaching cannot be made into problems of just certain individuals. We have to use every mechanism of the academy at our disposal to defend one another and our right to academic freedom.
  2. Be a good citizen of the university. We can protect ourselves to some extent by being really good at various aspects of our jobs, especially those thankless tasks like the institutional review board and the curriculum committee. We can’t just hide out in our offices and labs and then expect people to jump to our defense based on an abstract commitment to academic freedom. We need them to know us, think of us as good colleagues and take any attacks on us personally. Being a good college or university citizen also gives administrators a little more incentive to try to defend someone who’s actively involved and doing their fair share of institutional work.
  3. Keep your sense of humor. I almost lost mine those first four years. Thank goodness for a small group of colleagues who got together at each other’s homes every week for food, conversation and laughter. I also found consolation in discovering cartoons that spoke to the moment. I posted them on my office door. At one point, someone started tearing them down and leaving them in little shredded piles. They also left notes on my door saying things like, “Dr. Shaw is a feminist, Marxist, socialist, communist bitch.” (Yes, very Christian, I know.) That had the effect of stopping me from going to my office in an empty building at night, but every morning, I put my cartoons back up, and they eventually stayed there.
  4. Become good at articulating what you do to a broad audience. Public scholarship is a great way to resist the forces of censorship. Help people understand what you do. Write for your local newspaper or popular websites. Give public talks, especially for community groups. The more people know you, see your work and understand your discipline, the more you can build alliances and gain public trust.
  5. Have a life outside the institution. I’ll confess that for most of my career, the majority of my friends have been colleagues. In many ways, that’s lovely, but I do find that when I’m with them, even outside our classrooms and offices, we still tend to talk about work. My partner points this out frequently when she’s stuck with us in work-gossip mode. Worrying about our jobs and constantly raging aren’t healthy. Find friends with shared interests. Travel. Hike. Bake. Do whatever makes you joyous and helps you think of something else besides work. If you do lose your job or leave it, you’ll need a life outside it to sustain you.
  6. Walk away—if you can—when it becomes too much. Sometimes, when your whole career becomes about resistance, exhaustion and despair can overtake you. Be realistic about what you can do and the toll it takes on you (and often your family and friends). We can’t always walk away. Financial obligations and other concerns may make it extremely difficult to leave, and given how tight the academic job market is right now, finding another position could prove next to impossible.

Still, you sometimes may have to choose between your job and your life. I didn’t have anything else lined up when I walked away from teaching religion, but I knew I wasn’t going to survive if I stayed. It became a matter of doing what cost me less.

I’ve never regretted the decision to leave. Most of us can only stay in enemy territory for so long. Sooner or later, we have to find peace. Although I didn’t know then what would happen to me, leaving was worth the risk to find the career I have now.

I understand the anxiety that my colleagues in conservative states must be feeling now. One image that helped me was to think of myself as a double agent, doing what I had to do to survive in those conservative Christian cultures and, at the same time, work to combat anti-intellectual and antidemocratic forces.

Teaching is challenging enough in the best of times, as it should be, but under growing constraints and threats, it can be a very tall order. Still, we should always recognize that there’s a lot of good work to be done and a lot of students hungry for provocative ideas, difficult conversations and the critical thinking skills we can offer them.

Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.

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