Lunchtime Colloquia 2021-2022 | Atlantic World Research Network

Lunchtime Colloquia 2021-2022

“Why We Need Freer Discourse in the College Classroom and How to Create It”

Dr. John Rose, the Associate Director of the Arete Institute at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University, was the featured speaker at a lunchtime colloquium hosted by UNCG’s Atlantic World Research Network on October 19th, 2021. Dr. Rose, also a professor of political science and ethics at Duke, gave a presentation called “Why We Need Freer Discourse in the College Classroom and How to Create It,” which explores the transatlantic legacy of free speech in relation to ordinary college instruction. Americans live in a time of deep political polarization, and its effects can be seen in the college classroom, where students often no longer feel comfortable dissenting or even speaking on hot button political issues. They fear being ostracized or cancelled for saying the wrong thing. Dr. John Rose teaches a course called “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization,” in which he strives to create real discussions where students feel free to speak on behalf of all sides of sensitive political issues.

To begin his presentation, Dr. Rose gave a flyover of the three things he’d be discussing: the problem he’s identified within college classrooms and American culture at large, the strategies he’s using to ameliorate the problem, and the results that he’s observed. He remarked that people have lost affection for their own political party—and this on both sides. We may think that being more educated makes us less susceptible to the effect of polarization, but studies show that the exact opposite is true. The more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to resist, and highly educated white people report the strongest levels of contempt for the other side. There is viewpoint “purity” existing on both sides, meaning each side can’t tolerate the other, and that people aren’t supposed to have mixed feelings about their own party. Similarly, said Dr.  Rose, the university system can at times foster a very narrow set of views. Dr. Rose said that there’s a vicious cycle of university members being caught up in their own bubbles, reaffirmed by others who share the same views, and eventually being shocked to see the results of voting polls in the country. Furthermore, political differences have extended to areas of life that are not historically political, such as sports. Political differences are all the more likely to cause rifts between family members and friends. And, when it comes to the ways people categorize how they’re defined, politics now reigns higher than religion.

In his own classroom, Dr. Rose took a survey and found that 68 percent of his students admitted to self-censoring when it comes to politics, even among friends. Dr. Rose remarked that his students acquire this fear from personal connections, such as friends of theirs who have experienced a cancellation of some kind. Cancel culture, or the trend towards penalizing people for saying certain supposedly “regressive” things which can result in the loss of career or social status, makes it extremely difficult for a person to come back afterwards. In order to foster open discussions of politics in his classroom, Dr. Rose asks students to assume goodwill from and towards one another. He also comes up with ground rules for the classroom, which is not as much a legal contract as it is a pact made with one another.

When asked, “How do you know students will do this [be in conversation about both sides of hot political topics] and not verbally attack another?”, Dr. Rose said that he knows his students are ultimately there to support one another and work together. Morality, he asserted, is much more powerful than legality. His overall tactic in the classroom—the cause of all causes—is to get his students to love their enemies (or at least their perceived enemies). To “love” is to will the good of the other, to want to see others flourish and become better versions of themselves. All of this can be difficult, especially in a country in which people of one side wish for the “other” side not to exist. Dr. Rose then cited Martin Luther King Jr., specifically his sermon on loving enemies. Proposing an idea that comes directly from this sermon, Dr. Rose wants his students to understand that there is a mix of good and bad within each of us personally—not only good or evil running through political parties. He remarked that hate distorts the reality of the hater, and that people can’t see straight when they hate. Ultimately, if a person wants to change another person’s opinion on a matter, that person should love the other person; as MLK said, we should love our enemies, because “love has within it a redemptive power.” Ultimately, Dr. Rose’s class is not about politics, but love, and about helping students become better, more loving human beings.

One colleague talked about how she feels distraught about the university’s language surrounding “efficiency”—which works against the basic humanity of human interactions. She also remarked that the Netflix show The Chair does a good job of portraying the fraught dynamics regarding speech and cancel culture within university departments in the humanities.

A second colleague then shared that she is teaching a class on “The Archeology of Power and Politics,” which has a focus on the entire world. It compares power based in economics, ideology, and archeology. She said she’s having a difficult time with it because she likes to teach by example, but there is no safe example at present. A third colleague asked what an instance of a “dangerous” example might be, and the second replied that she’d like to talk about the ideology behind Fox News but finds this dangerous because she knows that some of her students subscribe to it and would feel vehement if she discussed it. She also said that certain students want to talk about race in archeology, but that there is no way to discern race with certainty in archeological findings because they’re prehistorical. There is no actual evidence to discuss race from this time period, but students get frustrated because they can’t talk about it. The third colleague said that it might be good for her students to hear that the study does not extend to this area, because there are always limits in a study’s knowledge.

A fourth colleague then said that professors should model intellectual inquiry in their classrooms. She shared that her courses are not in English, so there may be less controversial questions because everyone’s more constrained by conversing in a foreign language. Thus there are limits to a study’s knowledge, and gray areas, too.

A fifth colleague remarked that in teaching he is trying to think about the truth, and the fact that we need room for interpretation in the classroom. He said that “we teach this thing called critical thinking,” or marshalling evidence for one’s arguments, and that the better we teach this, the more well-educated white people we produce—who as Dr. Rose said earlier are the chief offenders in angry, polarized thinking. He then asks, what would a class called “How to Feel” look like?

Dr. Rose said that the students who are the most dogmatic seem to be the least curious. They are lacking a desire for knowledge; instead, they act as if their knowledge is already complete.

The first colleague said that she wants to bring pleasure and magic back to the classroom, specifically pleasure in knowledge as opposed to stress revolving exclusively around intellect. She wondered how professors might combine cognition with imagination to help their students flourish. She said that ideology has become black and white, right and wrong—but that we need to embrace pleasure and play.

The third colleague told a story of differing perspectives in his own classroom, when he was teaching Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Some students couldn’t imagine the father determining the course of the daughter’s happiness. A South Asian student in his class said in response that she is in an arranged marriage and is very happy—at which the classroom fell silent. This colleague then asked if anybody had something to say, and somebody asked, “How could you possibly be happy?” The student replied by saying that she knew her husband since she was a child, and that they were friends, and that her parents know her well and are wise. She finished by asking, “By the way, what’s your divorce rate in the US?”, and the room erupted in laughter. The professor noted that this student helped other students to face past cultural attitudes that still thrive in the present, and to treat diverse viewpoints with respect, even while disagreeing.

A sixth colleague remarked that stories themselves are especially touching, and that they can enact change. Stories can explore issues of hierarchy, racism, patriarchy, and others, and create great discussions, but that sometimes stories aren’t enough—that action is required.

The fifth colleague then posed the question to Dr. Rose, “How do you deal with feelings in the classroom? Stories are full of feeling.” Dr. Rose replied that he tries to encourage goodwill toward all, and doesn’t let conversations end with a person saying, “My feelings are hurt.” Instead, he tries to help his students continue talking through the issue at hand in a respectful manner.

The sixth colleague said that it can be very difficult to discuss political issues in this country, but that they are an opportunity to teach, explore, make mistakes, and then admit and grapple with these mistakes. It doesn’t work just “not to talk about” something—it is better to try, and potentially fail at trying.

This colleague concluded that this is a conversation that we need to continue. Dissent is critical—it is bound to happen in life—and we need to practice it in the classroom. Finding better ways to speak is a good thing, and we need to keep pushing for it. Even when we might fumble with it in the classroom, it’ll be worth it for the practice, for both university faculty themselves and for their students.

“Self-Fashioning Citizenship in the Black Atlantic”

On January 31, 2022, Dr. Boutelle, an Assistant Professor of English and African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNC Greensboro, presented and led a discussion on his studies about the Reverend Daniel H. Peterson’s 1854 publication, The Looking-Glass. Both memoir and travel narrative, was written in favor of colonization after Peterson’s travels to Liberia; Peterson’s account serves as a primary source in Dr. Boutelle’s research for his forthcoming book, The Race for America: Black Internationalism in the Age of Manifest Destiny.

Dr. Boutelle began his presentation by giving some historical information about the Colonization Movement and its origins. The Colonization Movement began formally with the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1817. The purpose of the ACS was to acquire and settle a colony in West Africa in order for white colonizationists to repatriate formerly enslaved African Americans to Africa. In short, white philanthropists saw it as a “solution” to the race problem in America. In 1822, the colonization of Liberia began, and over the next forty years, more than 10,000 African Americans were relocated to Liberia. In 1847, Liberia became an independent republic.

Next, Dr. Boutelle spoke about the intellectual origins of colonization, citing Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Paul Cuffee (1759-1817), two forerunners in colonization ideology whose divergent theories both overlap and conflict with one another. Jefferson hoped to emancipate enslaved people slowly over time and send them elsewhere (not necessarily Liberia) in the hopes of maintaining whiteness in the US. The multiracial Cuffee’s theory was formed after hearing about the settlement of Black people in Sierra Leone, where he himself decided to voyage to see for himself. He supported and advocated for the colony, seeing this as a Black nationalist project about securing lands for Black people.

In the 1830s, Dr. Boutelle explained, certain abolitionists began to reject these theories, and after 1835, there was a significant drop in colonization interest. After the 1840s, pressure built for Liberia to become an independent republic, essentially to assuage fears that Liberia was a “puppet state” of the American Colonization Society—which is considered one of the different catalysts for the Colonization Renaissance. Dr. Boutelle listed, as additional catalysts for the Colonization Renaissance, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as ACS’s fundraising and sponsorship of over 4,000 emigrants between the years 1848 and 1854 (in total, around five times as many emigrants as the previous decade). Other explanations Dr. Boutelle cites in addition to these other historical aspects include the divergent principles of manifest destiny, white nationalism, and pan-Africanism.

Dr. Boutelle then narrowed the conversation to the Black colonizationist, Reverend Daniel H. Peterson, and the implications of his publication, The Looking-Glass. In 1853, Peterson travelled to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, before returning to the US. After returning, he published his autobiography and travel narrative in the form of a gift book, which functioned transparently as propaganda in support of colonization. Furthermore, Peterson was in favor of the civilizing aspect of US imperialism in Africa and the missionary aspect of the diasporic movement. Peterson described himself as a “chosen vessel” to bring the Gospel to West Africa, and believed God called him during a dream to do this task. Although Peterson’s autobiography is often read as pure propaganda, Dr. Boutelle has complicated this notion through his research.

Peterson’s travel on the ship Isla de Cuba was itself a unique voyage. Peterson was joined by fifty-five other passengers, all of whom were free, middle-class, “respectable” Black people who chose to settle in Liberia. This was unusual—most African Americans who became settlers in Liberia were formerly enslaved. These people either chose, or were forced to travel to Africa, or were deported after their enslavers’ deaths. But because the passengers on the Isla de Cuba were educated, the hope was that they would write and talk about their decision after doing so, thus aiding the colonizationists’ cause.

In The Looking-Glass, Peterson described himself as “full satisfied” with his experience and gave a glowing report of what he saw overseas. That said, despite all the attention Peterson received upon departing and arriving, there were no reviews or public acclaim for his publication. Two of his shipmates also published pamphlets, both of which were talked about widely and reviewed by the ACS. Dr. Boutelle argues that although the ideology of colonization is clear in Peterson’s work, the narrative Peterson produced was as much about him self-fashioning his own identity. Even though his report of Liberia is positive, it is placed within a much larger autobiographical frame. The book’s illustrations assist in this self-fashioning, telling a bootstraps narrative that demonstrates Peterson’s progression from the son of an enslaved woman to an accomplished preacher to a middle-class, transatlantic traveler. Illustrations include a young Peterson serving a wealthy white family, Peterson getting married at a church, and Peterson disembarking for Africa. The single illustration of Liberia itself is of its landscape. The illustrations, explained Dr. Boutelle, contain much virtue signaling, moral instruction, and an emphasis on wealth as well as societal connections (Peterson used to serve a family who were close relatives to President John Tyler).

Speaking of wealth, the book itself is bound and ornate, the various versions coming in three different cloth bindings in three different colors. The doves on the various covers are all different, as are the fonts. Though he promised his benefactors a “small work” in “pamphlet form,” he created an expensive gift book that cost much more money to create and produce in the numbers the ACS preferred. The aforementioned illustrations were custom engravings of great detail.

Dr. Boutelle also talked about the “us” versus “them” language throughout Peterson’s narrative, and the terminology the Reverend used around “cultivating” not only the land but also the minds of the Indigenous Africans themselves. Peterson’s goal was to settle Africa as soon as possible, employ the natives, set a “good example,” and have them all become full citizens and one nation. Essentially, one of the conflicting tenets of Peterson’s ideology was that he believed African Americans were ready to become imperial or civilizing agents in Africa, which means he thought they were successfully “civilized” enough to do so—but not the Indigenous Africans. Such an argument exposed the central contradiction of colonizationist ideology: the “readiness” of African Americans to be settler-colonists in Africa relied on the same moral criteria of required citizenship in the U.S., moral criteria in which they were allegedly so deficient that they could not be integrated into the U.S. and therefore must be deported. Another key point Dr. Boutelle stressed was that Peterson never went back to Liberia after publishing his memoir. And the memoir’s charting of his bootstraps narrative takes place entirely within the United States itself. So, Peterson’s The Looking-Glass is not solely propaganda (and the inherently problematic viewpoints therein), it is an autobiographical text tracking of Peterson as a Black citizen in a complicated time in the US, and ultimately a means for Peterson to self-fashion his own identity for the public at large.

After Dr. Boutelle’s presentation, a round-table discussion followed, including topics such as Peterson’s use of the complicated word “redeem” in The Looking-Glass and whether or not Peterson sees Indigenous Africans as his “brothers” in any sense (religiously or racially).