Teacher Roles in Student Protests: When Passivity Becomes Rhetorical Action
It’s spring break for my students and I in upstate New York, which means lots of snow, cancelled flights, undrivable roads and plenty of cancelled plans. It means there’s plenty of time for grading (and for procrastinating), and there’s plenty of time to watch the news. So, if you’re like me and your eyes have been casually brushing up against CNN and local news, you’ve likely been bombarded by stories like this one or this one that present protests in schools centered around recent school shootings and the gun control debate. Students are walking out of classes for seventeen minutes all around the country to protest the inaction in government, to draw attention to the fact that status-quo excuses won’t seem to cut it this time. This movement, coupled with the epedicic rhetorical display of shoes on the US capitol building lawn, the action of Florida against the wishes of the NRA to raise the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21 and the mirrored inaction of our federal executive branch to follow up the gun control trust-busting bluster of the immediate moments following the students with any kind of backbone, ultimately circles today as a gathering of a complex history of events with as-of-yet unknown material consequences. Over 3,000 individual protests have been planned and are being enacted as you read this. Countless students will leave classrooms, gymnasiums, lecture halls and lunchrooms to showcase demand for one item on the social agenda: a tighter grip on guns, and especially automatic rifles, in our country.
With it being spring break, I am compelled to weigh in on what I would expect from my students should classes have been held this week. Surely, at least one or two would have walked out. Would I have been upset with them, demanding at least a “heads-up” email ahead of time? Absolutely not. In fact, I considered weighing in with students directly through email, our class Twitter account, or through some other “official” forum to let them know I for one fully support most kinds of student protest. Our classroom experience is not only intimately connected to the classroom experience of others such as Parkland High’s, but is in fact inescapably married to it through the common thread of education.
I’ve begun thinking about what I would do if classes were held today. If I were a student, I’d likely have walked out and suffered whatever consequences came to me. The path forward for a teacher is a bit less clear. I can’t force everyone to join the activism, nor do I want to obstruct it. I could potentially begin the class by telling students that they’re free to leave for the 17 minutes without fear of penalty, but this feels… off. Like I’m taking control of the protest, and that’s what I’d like to avoid. Students might walk out simply to cheat a few minutes of class (though I’m not necessarily opposed to this, as they’ll inevitably reflect on their clever hack of my goodwill by faking their part in a nationwide process, therefore inadvertently taking part in and contributing to that said protest). My case here: when it comes to a situation like this, passivity on the part of teachers may be just what is needed. Or perhaps passivity isn’t the right word, but rather calculated, strategic, patient action rather than direct enterprise.
The truth is that this is a student protest, not a teacher protest. From the very beginning, the Parkland reaction has been primarily student-led. Student voices have rang the loudest. Student voices have echoed furthest. Student voices have stung the most. If I walk out of my classroom today, I am usurping my students’ agency to decide for themselves whether this type of action is the correct course for them to take. Much as I would like to, my role here is not to lead the action, but rather to empower it, to communicate to my students that their voices are not only heard but encouraged, not only valuable but also taken seriously. My role here is to give my students the intellectual respect that whatever response they choose to take to events like the Parkland shooting is a proper one with serious merit. But it’s a sticky situation with plenty of stakeholders to please. Ultimately, those stakeholders must be prioritized.
A possible solution is for our entire class to walk out together, but is any protest that is enacted upon or suggested to participants an effective, authentic one? Absolutely not, and I’d never get away with it anyway. I could do nothing and simply allow my students to get up and leave, followed by no penalty. I could take the alternate path, and explicitly argue to my students that a person’s 2nd amendment right to own an automatic rifle does not supercede anyone’s right to not be killed by one. I could turn on CNN in class (inevitably eliciting jeers of “fake news!,” followed by a half-hearted discussion of corporate media) and begin a conversation. I could pretend none of this is happening and focus only on my research and not the world as it exists around me.
A better solution? I’ve settled on one: let’s begin the day with a quotation, with writing, with language that connects our identities as college community members with the possibility of social change. It’s an old one that’s stuck with me from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” Let’s contemplate and think about what we can do in response, about what the value in our response can be. My inclination is that we’ll settle on some hybrid response of symbolic protest, attention-grabbing, sustained conversation, material voting agendas, and communication with senators, parents, friends, community members– communication with the presently uninspired. There will be no political agenda here, and students will be free to take whatever position they’d like. It won’t be explicitly about gun control, but rather about what a proper response looks like, and that’s up to them. It is likely my students will be able to brainstorm far better solutions than I will on my own, anyway. Let’s put the power in their hands, the capacity for reaction and response, and see what they’re able to do with it. And once we’ve discussed this, let’s get back to doing what the Parkland students deserved to do for as long as they desired: come together in a place of learning and discover what knowledge can do. We can do what they were robbed of and reaffirm why classrooms are such sacred spaces. And my role in this?
I can’t explicitly let them know that if I were a student, I would be out there in the cold, shivering with my hands in my pockets, standing up. But I can model it in rhetoric, if not in words.
Image via Newsweek.