Tag Archives: higher education

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.

Week 6, or The Psychic Violence of Graduate School

I had one really rough class this week. At the break in my three hour seminar, one of my classmates approached me and asked me why I had been quieter than usual so far. I told her that I didn’t have much to say considering that one of the pieces we had read for the week involved a grotesque amount of explicitly described violence against enslaved people, particularly assault against enslaved women. Another African American student from the class described the experience of reading such things traumatic. I was angry because it taught me less about a history of racial formation than it did about a history of the horrific things white slaveholders could do to enslaved people.

I am an incredibly sensitive person, despite whatever impression one may have of me. I found myself unable to watch movies about slavery until I was in college because I would have a panic attack. Even then, I still haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave because I know how much violence is in it. It is a psychic assault in some ways to be forced to read about the traumas suffered by your ancestors as written by a man whose ancestors would have been enslavers.

So I did the one thing that I have a hard time doing: I spoke up.

I expressed my concerns about the gratuitous violence and fought back against the students that tried to assert that violence is an effective learning tool. I countered by saying, “The first time you think to yourself, ‘oh, Black lives do matter’ should not be when you see a dead body on the 5 o’clock news.” We shouldn’t need violence to prove that the institution of slavery was horrifying and we shouldn’t use violence as a tool because it becomes a spectacle. This is one of the main arguments of another text that we read for this week: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. I appreciated the ways in which she acknowledged violence without letting it become the focal point of her work and therefore a spectacle.

Black pain has been a spectacle in this country for as long as Black and white people have coexisted in America. (To put ‘being forcibly removed from one’s own continent and forced to do hard labor’ gently.)

Because Black pain has moved into different arenas, including the classroom, we need new tactics to deal with it. For the purpose of thinking productively, I want to include a list of things that you can do, and that I have done, to protect yourself in moments of psychic violence in the classroom:

  • Take a break. When I find myself overwhelmed by a classroom discussion that just isn’t going my way, I excuse myself and take a walk around the hallways.
  • Write down your ‘would be’ responses. One thing I started doing last semester in a similar class was to write down my responses to the problematic statements happening in the event that I didn’t get a chance to get a word in edgewise.
  • Speak up. This is hard to do and requires a lot of bravery that I do not have, often preferring to internalize the hardness of the conversation and reflect on it in writing later on.
  • Speak to your professor privately. I have always found talking to my professors about concerns I have in their classes to be productive. This is something that I haven’t done yet, but I think I might do in the future.
  • Tag team. My friend pointed out that when there are moments of violence that you are trying to address but that might be difficult or traumatizing for you to do, tag in a friend to help you fight.
  • Self-care. Sometimes the best option is to opt out and preserve yourself to fight another fight, which is usually my option. It’s a cop out option to be sure, but I admit that I simply am not a fighter in the conventional sense.

These moments happen. They happen more often than one would care to admit. They’re troubling, difficult, disappointing and sometimes can drive you to want to leave this whole world of the Academy behind. This moment happened on the tail end of a week where I have very seriously considered taking my Master’s degree and calling it quits. One of the things that gets me through is the hope of creating my own classroom where I can minimize the degree of pain. I don’t want to be the type of professor that turns away from conversations regarding my students’ pain because it is uncomfortable. I want my students to be able to come to me with that and I want us to be able to work through it together. I’m in this race because I simply don’t want other students of color to have these isolating and traumatic experiences. I’m in this for them.

Week 2, or Meeting Johnnetta Cole

Meeting Dr. Johnnetta Cole was the highlight of what might have otherwise been a very sad week. I ended up walking twenty minutes to class on Tuesday morning in torrential rainfall, and the feeling of being wet and angry did not dissipate until Thursday, when I remembered that class had been cancelled for that afternoon.

Just the day before, at a meeting I attended with primarily anthropology graduate students, the group’s advisor mentioned that Johnetta Cole would be hanging out with him in the afternoon before her Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address later Thursday night and that we were welcome to drop in and say hello. As the group and I had read Dr. Cole’s work the previous semester, watched a documentary on Herskovits which featured her, and talked about her work as an activist scholar, I knew immediately how I wanted to spend my Thursday afternoon off from class.

Meeting her in an intimate setting was a lovely experience. She simply had to know everything about you and made it her mission to listen to our stories. However, she also had a way of getting to your core; the first thing she asked me, after my name and what sort of work I did, was where I saw myself in ten years.

Of the four of us, she turned to me first, and “Tenure-track in English or American Studies” sprung from my lips before I even realized I had said it. I qualified it, saying that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing and the Academy offered an unprecedented amount of creative freedom (comparative to many other jobs), but I also mentioned that it was my ambition to start a magazine someday. She smiled at me gently, approvingly and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Indeed, I had. I have host of things I want to get done in this lifetime, so I’ve got to plan accordingly.

Before long, our audience with Dr. Cole was over, and my colleagues and I left the room, feeling inspired, and in my case, heard. For all her many achievements, being a professor, a president of college, a director of a museum, she was grounded and it was so easy to talk to her. Despite only knowing her for a few moments, she felt like a favorite teacher who had known me my whole life.

Dr. Cole’s evening talk was riveting; she has such a striking stage presence. Before she even got into her address, she made a point to thank everyone who had been a part of helping her to come to William & Mary, and talked about the wonderful day she’d had. The highlight of said day, she told the crowd, was getting to spend time with her “star student,” our advisor, and his four students. I swelled with pride from my corner of the auditorium: I was one of those four students. She called us her “grand-students,” and the same warmth I had felt from her in the classroom spread into the massive auditorium. Then, she began her address, thinking about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel about today’s issues. She drew not only from Dr. King but from his wife Coretta as well because Coretta had her own vision of peace and justice. She called on the crowd to affect change using a three word approach: educate, legislate and agitate. Dr. Cole reminded us that our responsibility was to speak the truth as we see it, for it matters not where we stand in moments of comfort, but rather where we “stand in moments of challenge and controversy” (Dr. King). Honoring the legacy of the freedom fighters before us means that we need to refuse to be satisfied, Dr. Cole told us. We need to fight the way of the current syllabus which is too often only “Western, white, and womanless.” Most importantly, she called on us to do the work necessary.

Meeting Dr. Cole and hearing her words made me think about my place in all of this: Am I doing the work? Am I refusing the be satisfied? Am I speaking truth as I see it? I think, perhaps, I’m trying to; I’m making a solid attempt, but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far. It’s not enough. In terms of affecting change, I’ve chosen my approach, to educate, but I do little with legislating and agitating. Is it enough to chose one path, or do you need to do all three? I think a good change-maker does a little of everything. Meeting Dr. Cole has made me ask myself: what can I do to affect change?

I may not know yet, but I do thank Dr. Cole for sparking the thought.