Learning to Engage the World

By Carly Thomsen, Middlebury Faculty

A couple of weeks prior to Charles Murray’s much-discussed visit to Middlebury, I was asked to write a piece on student activism for a spread that the Campus had intended to put together on the topic. In the wake of Charles Murray’s visit, this plan — like many of our plans for the semester — went out the window. As I participated in hours upon hours of conversations last week about free speech, inclusivity and the “Phase 2” students’ ongoing disciplinary proceedings — a full two months after Murray’s visit — I couldn’t help but think that the broad conversations about campus-based activism that the Campus had intended to spark are more relevant now than ever.

Originally, I had planned to write about how I utilize engaged research as a principle part of my pedagogy, and the relationship of engaged research to activism. Students in my Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies courses often ask: “What do we do with this theory? How do we talk about these complicated academic ideas with people who aren’t in this class?” My students find ways to answer these questions through engaged research and related creative projects. Last semester, students in my Politics of Reproduction and Queer Critique courses produced zines, podcasts and art exhibits, organized a 5k run/walk and created ongoing journalistic columns, alongside writing developed analytical papers. Finding ways to discuss the academic ideas from our classes in alternative formats and with people beyond our classrooms demands a level of analytical sophistication that goes beyond what is required for even the most complex in-class discussions.

I thought I would write about these everyday forms of student activism, about the pedagogical possibilities of engaged research projects, about how students already utilize academic theory in their activism and how they might do so otherwise.

And then Charles Murray came to campus.

It has since become impossible to imagine reflecting on student activism without centering the discussions and protests spurred by Murray’s visit. On the one hand, I resent that my imagination has been constricted by racist, classist and sexist right-wing ideologues. I resent that the narratives that stick to these big ostensibly news-worthy moments function to overwrite ongoing and everyday forms of student activism, those that neither begin nor end with expressing resistance to someone like Charles Murray. On the other hand, as a new member of the Middlebury community, I am hopeful that we might use this moment to advance prior conversations regarding student and scholarly engagement in the public sphere—at Middlebury and beyond.

Doing so will require many things:

Reflecting critically on how we frame “protest.” At Middlebury, students’ rights to protest have been repeatedly affirmed. Largely missing from the discussion of the Murray event are the values and benefits associated with students’ engagement in the public sphere. Let’s move beyond discussing protest as a legal right, which positions it as something the institution must allow, and instead approach non-violent protest as a social good.

Recognizing that social critique takes many forms, and that the effectiveness of each is spatially and temporally contingent. In addition to protesting, students challenged the racist, classist, sexist and xenophobic ideologies upon which Murray has built his career by creating and circulating flyers and pamphlets through which they addressed specific points made by Murray as well as the broader cultural ideas that inform Murray’s work. These components of the students’ protest have been largely ignored. Conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan, for example, critiqued students not for protesting per se, but for failing to “challenge the data or the arguments of the book.” Such alternative facts ignore that students did challenge the arguments of the book and that this was a part of their reasoned protest. (We’ll leave aside the demand that one responds with reason to that which is inherently unreasonable.)

Articulating where, when and how the College effectively supports the development of skills and analytics to counter racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia — and also where we fall short, individually and collectively.

For students to learn to engage the world, as Middlebury’s mission states, we must not only re-affirm a commitment to protest, we must be willing to support students as they grapple with how to draw effectively from their course material when engaging in the public sphere. Put otherwise, we might discuss how the institution can better support students as they learn to engage the world.

The events surrounding Charles Murray’s visit to campus continue to raise questions for our community to address. One of these is about the relationship of protest to other forms of student and scholarly engagement in the public sphere. As we proceed, let’s recognize that social engagement is crucial to the life of the university. Let’s approach students’ engagement in the social sphere as that which can extend the boundaries of our classrooms, as a site for the development of new epistemologies, aspirations, and ways of relating to one another and our world. Let’s refuse the simplistic protest vs. respectable resistance and theory vs. activism binaries that make their way into classroom and activist discussions alike. Let’s support students as they grapple with how to do the difficult intellectual work of refusing these binaries by utilizing theory in the public sphere. Doing so will allow us to better understand what we mean by “protest,” “engagement,” “theory” and “the public,” in the first place.

Carly Thomsen, Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, writes in about the importance of social critique.

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