Making Our Departments and Disciplines Less Oppressive: An SCLA Roundtable

Each year I attend the annual conference for the Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts. It is a medium-sized, incredibly supportive and welcoming event. Their support for graduate students, non-tenured and adjunct faculty, and independent scholars shows a deep commitment to both the humanities in general and an acknowledgment of the disparities and challenges that face the discipline. Thus, it was not surprising to see on this year’s conference schedule showed a special roundtable, “Making Our Departments and Disciplines Less Oppressive.” The roundtable was intended to address the ways in which the current climate in the U.S. was affecting not only departments, but students at various institutions, and to hopefully offer some ideas and suggestions on how we might better support colleagues and students at our own institutions.

The roundtable opened with a panel of six volunteers sharing various experiences and strategies surrounding the new challenges being faced in the humanities.

The first speaker, Casey Moore, teaches in secondary education. She recalled a particular incident that occurred in her district (though not at her school) where a school resources officer slammed a Black female student to the ground (the incident was filmed by other members of her class and went viral online. The video is disturbing ( Her school has a majority black student body, and administrators called an emergency faculty meeting and instructed
everyone to simply not talk about it. At all. Of course, she noted, the kids wanted to talk about nothing else. In a system that is adverse to talking directly about the issues, Casey said that she, along with a number of other teachers, will “sneak in” these kinds of discussions when something in their materials relates, even tangentially.

Zahi Zalloua, a professor at Whitman College, expressed concerns that while Charlottesville in some ways opened people’s eyes up to the racism still present in society, it also presented people with a convenient, apparent, external racism that allows some to say “I am not racist, because I am not like them.” He remains concerned that it serves to cover up more systemic or everyday racist actions.

Mich Nyawalo, of Shawnee State University, talked about how his school began looking at their own practices. As a core faculty member at the honors college, he noticed that it was comprised almost exclusively of white middle and upper-middle class students. He pointed to high school tracking and the application process as possible culprits. But he also acknowledged that the Honors College was coded white—black students did not feel like it was a place for them and so, even if they were qualified, they did not apply. In order to diversify the program, the college put in place a number of new strategies. They allowed students to apply for the honors college after their first year at college and did not limit
applications to just enrolling freshman. This allowed students who did not do as well in high school because of lack of access to resources a chance to “catch up” to their peers and still apply. They also made a concerted effort to encourage students in their own classes to apply. This outreach to individual students was meant to show that the Honors College was a place they could identify with. Mich has reported some early success. This highlights that the way spaces are designed and who feels welcome and can see themselves in those spaces often needs re-evaluation.

Other speakers noted the importance of simply creating safe spaces where students knew they could come and talk or simply hang out, whether that is a Professor’s office (some noted that their departments selected specific images that Professors could place on their doors indicating they were available to talk), or Gender Equity Centers, or Multicultural Centers on campus. There was also an emphasis on immediate, practical solutions. A number of Muslim students at different schools reported feeling harassed when they went out into the community to do everyday things like grocery shopping. Having someone simply accompany them made them feel safer.

Several people also spoke about confronting issues directly, whether through Town Hall’s or forums held at the school.
The last issue that was addressed before the roundtable ran out of time (I have a feeling this could have lasted for hours, people were incredibly engaged and interested in sharing and asking questions) was a need to more forcefully define terms, particularly “safe space.” Many people noted that the way “safe space” is often portrayed in the media is not what we mean by safe space. It does not mean that students remain free from criticism, protected from outside or opposing views, or are not confronted by things that make them uncomfortable. Rather, it means a place where one can explore ideas without being personally attacked. Where students feel comfortable sharing and also criticizing and being criticized without feeling physically unsafe.
The roundtable was an amazing success. It was one of the most well attended sessions at the conference, becoming standing room only. While I think discussions like this are absolutely necessary, and hearing how other schools are dealing with these issues that have become more prevalent in the last year armed attendees with concrete ideas to implement, I think it’s important to stress that action is of utmost importance. Having enlightening discussions within our discipline will only take us so far, but it is an incredibly useful place to start.

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