Back to School

Academia has a certain rhythm: December and May are for frenetic grading and points calculation, March is for a short breather during Spring Break, and August is for starting over. I reread through old syllabi, think about what worked last time, and make adjustments until I’m moderately happy with the new plan. August is for reviewing lectures to make sure everything is current and coherent.  Sometimes it involves entirely scrapping what I’ve done before and beginning again. I usually love trying to map out where my students and I will go over the course of a semester. But this August, I’m stuck.

I’m not sure how to start this new semester. I’m revising my Psychology of Prejudice course. Last time, I did a major overhaul, so it isn’t that I need a new text or new readings. Instead it’s that after this week, I’m not even sure where to begin. I am starting out the semester with more questions than I have answers. Questions like: How do I begin to unpack El Paso with my students? How do we talk about our treatment of people at the borders? How do we work through the reality of where we are right now?

I usually start with pictures or news articles of current events that are on topic. Every August as I revise this course, I experience a surge of sadness that there are still so many for me to choose from. We should be in a different position than this, I think to myself. But this August, it’s more than sadness. It’s anger that I’m still having the same conversation. Let me rephrase. It’s the same conversation, except that it’s gotten deadlier.

I used to pull pictures of hate speech scrawled across walls, or people wearing blackface. Those images were grim, but somehow from today’s vantage point seem almost innocent by comparison. To be clear, they show hate. They show refusal to see the image of God in another person. They show the sin and wreckage of racism. But contrast those older images to the last time I taught this course, when I used pictures of #BlackLivesMatter protests. Those images showed a change in how we talked about race in America. They reflected the loss of life and threw into stark relief the consequence of allowing hate speech to have any place in our society.

And this year, it’s even worse. How do I choose from the variety of images? Do I use the picture of see-saws on the border wall? When do we talk about white nationalist manifestos and El Paso? The first day? The twenty-second? How do I help students put into context pictures of children in Georgia coming back from their own first day back at school to find their parents gone?

There are so many difficult and complicated questions for us to face. And I’m not even sure where to begin.