The Path of the Righteous (pt2)

As you might remember, a senior member of the English Department visited the classroom earlier this semester to evaluate my teaching. Ironically, considering the conversation we had on Monday, that evaluation went well. And as I mentioned previously, the same model that I have used this semester has worked extremely well previously for this course (both at ND and the previous institution that I taught at). And yet, there’s a way that what works for some, might not work for others. And so I am committed to making adjustments. I also revealed a vulnerability with the class that may or may not be useful to our professor/student relationship. We shall see. 

In thinking about how we might approach the rest of our time in the classroom, I went to the statements that I have written about teaching in general. I am not sure how much you know about the work that your professors do, but we are regularly evaluated and consistently asked to write statements on our teaching, research, and service. This process is especially significant to junior faculty, such as myself, as these statements are one of the ways in which we are evaluated by senior members of the academy. For people of color, especially for women of color, there are often gaps between how they are viewed by their collogues and how they are viewed by their students. And yet, looking at my teaching statements, I am also realizing that there can also be a gap between what I set out to accomplish in the classroom, and the success of that initial goal. 

In my classes, I lean on the discursive; that is to say that I attempt to elicit responses from students with open ended questions so that the conversation will flow freely. The emphasis on classroom discourse as a key component of how I lead students towards understanding the material we are engaging has historically developed into productive discussions on difficult topics.  At times we have experienced the highs of this teaching method, while at other times it has been a challenge to keep the conversation going. I also think it is important to link the discursive to the experiential; meaning that in the conversations that we do have I work to connect the written to the lived. I am sucker for my kid (as you all know by now) and I often use our dynamic or experiences that I have had with her or even personal experiences that I have had to make what we are learning more real. That is to say, the experiences Baldwin writes about nearly sixty years ago are still relevant in my life in 2021. Yet all of this—my goals, desires, plans—do not matter if the students are not learning (or if they do not feel as if they are not learning). 

While your ultimate goal as a student might be getting good grades, as a professor, I actually wish grades did not exist. Instead of doing well and getting As, my focus is always on student growth. Asking questions outweighs having answers. Exceling from my perspective is knowing more about the subject on day 30 then you did on day one. Showing up is half the battle, full participation is the other. And yet I have to admit there has been a shift in the classroom post-2020. I am not sure if the shift has more to do with George Floyd and the confrontation of race relations in America, or if it has more to do with post pandemic trauma (or perhaps both?). But in many ways the classroom seems to be a more combative (right word?? Hostile?) space rather than a space of full experimentation. 

I called my mom after our class Monday (yes, I still talk to my mother regularly) and she mentioned something quite helpful. She asked me if I had called or talked to any of my Jewish friends about what’s happening in Israel right now. I gave her a resounding NOPE. She said, to think about the students from that perspective. You love your friends, and yet you are unwilling to engage in a conversation with them that might not have the best outcome. She said, that the students might feel similarly to discussing race in a racially diverse classroom. Mommies rule =)

In Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew,” he writes that 

You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released.

These are the days that the goal of loving in the face of racism seems so difficult. It is what Baldwin wants each of us to learn from, and yet I wonder how do we love unconditionally when we feel vulnerable and threatened? 

Personally, I feel as if the Trump presidency created our current inflammatory political climate and that he has actively participated and encouraged the increase of anti-semitism and anti-Black racism. How do I love him? How do I even respect him as a former statesman? 

Black people are being killed by police officers without the opportunity of due process under the law. How do I love their murderers? How do Black lives matter in the face of unconditional love?

In relation to this class more specifically, we read Baldwin to understand that love is an active political position in times of crisis. Baldwin suggests that each of us love as a way to not only to heal race relations but to solve them. 

I keep hoping for that solution. And yet each year, it becomes more difficult. But I stay the course. I read. I teach Baldwin. I teach race in America. 


In the teens of the twenty-first century both James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr have been resurrected. Proponents of love, both men are actively being reread and researched again. King has been revived in popular media productions such as “Return of the King” and From the Mountaintop. And as each of you know, th 2016 documentary on Baldwin, I am Not your Negro, has renewed interest in Baldwin. At a time of increased violence and visible racism it is not surprising that the lives and work of both men are actively being parsed, debated, and studied. They preached love; King from the pulpit and Baldwin from the page. 

As for me, I don’t know about the philosophy of love. But I am trying. I am trying.