This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course on critical issues in contemporary art. This class is the first course of a two-course sequence of “Critical Thinking through Writing” (CTW) classes that all majors at our R1 Research University have to develop for their students.
I love teaching these CTW courses because this course is often the first theory-intensive curriculum these students have undertaken. Although that means that many of the students I work with are frustrated with the materials we engage with, it’s also a course that generates a lot of self-reflection and critical conversations.
This course is also deeply satisfying for me because of the students I work with. The majority of the students I work with are nonwhite, and many are from working class families, and are first-generation families. Our university has improved its graduation rate by twenty-two percent over the last decade through the implementation of a variety of advising programs. Not only has the overall graduation rate improved, but our university now graduates more black students each year than any other U.S. college.
That I get to introduce a range of philosophical perspectives and theories to a group of students who are not theory-oriented is a challenge I relish. Not only are they often not theory-oriented, but because they are artists, they are also often not inclined to express their thinking through text, preferring other media as their primary mode of expression. I welcome this challenge because this is my opportunity to make what is assumed to be an abstract and strictly academic affair into something applicable to a student’s lived experience and directly contributing to their aspirations.
That I am also in the position to encourage people of color and from working class homes to “do theory” is a rare opportunity as well because these students are often absent from philosophy programs in graduate school and then in professorial roles. It is in our class that we find more robust vocabularies for describing our lived experiences, for articulating our aspirations, and in this class we often see for the first time how the work we do in our city interacts with a global system of exchange. And it is in this context that I am able to “tarry, to linger with the ways in which [I] perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which [I am] racist,” as my fellow Atlantan, George Yancy has recently counseled.
This is not to say that I lead a struggle session (批鬥會) with my students. Rather, I am presented, daily, with the opportunity to expand myself beyond the habitual practices of sociality that have historically enabled a host of iniquities to persists among us. Core to my Confucian (or Ruist 儒學) practice is the application of what I have studied and moral self-cultivation through wholehearted engagement with my community. Cultivating critical writing skills with students has been an exceptional mode of self-exploration and -expansion for me in this regard.
As a longtime resident of Atlanta and someone with great affection for the area, I feel a special obligation to be true to the work of the people who fought for equality in my country because this is the home of SNCC, of Dr. King, and it is from here that so much of the Civil Rights Movement radiates.
In our Critical Thinking through Writing course we learn about audiences, we learn about and discuss the limits of representation, we grapple with the differences between democracy and republic, and we find ways to connect our interior lives to the world-out-there in a manner that only writing can. Writing operates in a way that neither speaking, nor painting, nor manipulating other materials simply cannot. In writing we find ourselves as someone greater than we had anticipated.