There are few things more painful for a teacher than hearing from a student, or students, that they feel they are not being heard in your classroom. And so, it was with deep disappointment that I read Elliot Colloton’s “Open Letter to Honors College.” Some of my disappointment stems from the fact that Elliot and I have been in regular conversation all semester about one of the incidents that is referred to his piece. But more important for me is the fact that despite those conversations, despite the faculty’s serious engagement with the questions raised, despite changing policy and protocol in ways that were consistent with what the students told us they needed, we seem not to have relieved the pain that Elliot alludes to in his open letter.
Elliot’s piece refers to two specific problems, which I will take in reverse order. In the latter part of the letter Elliot indicates that his complaint about a faculty member’s presentations were ignored.
That’s just not true.
For the better part of the last month we in HUHC (students, faculty and deans) have been discussing the need for a protocol to guide how faculty use materials that contain disturbing content such as violence, especially sexual violence. This discussion was prompted when, as part of a semester where the Culture & Expression (C&E) class has been discussing “margins and marginalization,” several professors asked students to look closely at the brutal realities associated with the ways cultures put some things at the center and push others to the margins. In one lecture, a faculty member presented a memoir that contained writings and drawings by Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya, a woman who was incarcerated in a Soviet Gulag. After that presentation, Elliot and several other students approached us about the handling of such material, asserting that it was unnecessarily retraumatizing many students who have suffered from sexual assault. These students were particularly concerned about the fact that the presentation of the Gulag memoir, which contained several images depicting the brutalization of women, was posted on a power-point slide in a large lecture setting without any warning. As a result, they said, the choices offered them were to suffer in silence or get up and make a scene as they fled the room.
Contrary to the impression given in Elliot’s opinion piece, our response to his complaint was swift, comprehensive, and productive. It resulted in a change of policy and protocol for handling such materials in the future. The new protocol includes a commitment by faculty to providing content warnings whenever handling disturbing materials. Moreover, as a result of this discussion, HUHC also committed to building content warnings into the planning of future C&E teams.
All of this happened in a matter of weeks. The summary of these actions are contained in a report which I sent to the Provost earlier this week. That report includes several appendices that provide timelines, and emails, some between myself and Elliot, others that were sent to the whole C&E student body. In my final note to C&E students describing the outcome of our efforts, I specifically thanked those who criticized us because I thought their criticisms had led us to improve our practice.
In light of these changes, and all of the time and attention that we had given to this issue, I thought our efforts were bearing good fruit. Moreover, in my interactions with Eliot, I had good reason to think he was satisfied that we had gone a long way toward addressing the concerns that he and others raised. So, I was surprised and terribly disappointed by Elliot’s piece in the Chronicle. I thought we had come further together.
The other incident that Elliot refers to obliquely involves something that took place over a year ago, before he arrived at Hofstra. In that incident there were objections to the way C&E handled discussion of the Lin Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights. Two scenes were staged during a lecture. Some students objected to casting white students in parts written for people of color. It was also suggested that white professors should probably not stage works by authors of color, or at the very least they should do so with extraordinary care.
We arranged an open forum where students were given a space to express their concerns. I attended, listening closely to what students were saying. The concerns they raised have had a direct impact on how we handle such material, including the staging of scenes.
Ultimately, the mark of listening is change. Elliot is right about that. That we have made changes in response to student concerns is simply incontrovertible. That we have yet to find a way to relieve Elliot’s pain (and the pain among others with whom Elliot is in conversation), well, that disturbs me. Our efforts to fulfill our pedagogical mission rely on both the faculty’s and students’ good faith efforts to tackle challenging material and the questions it raises. We value the contributions, labor, and expertise our faculty bring just as we also make considerable efforts to learn from our students at every opportunity when they challenge us to think about and rethink the value of what we’re offering them. We work hard to foster students’ trust and regret when they see cause to question it. But we also recognize that education is not neat, that different people will have different assessments about the proper solutions to pedagogical challenges, and that we will continue to listen and learn--and yes, make changes when they are within our ability and responsibility to do so.
Warren Frisina, Dean
Hofstra University Honors College