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At Faculty Lecture Series, Talk of ‘Discourse and Discord’

By SARAH ASCH

Professor Jonathan Miller-Lane gave a talk titled “Discourse and Discord at Middlebury: A Way Forward” on Wednesday, Sept. 20, as part of the annual Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture Series. In an interview with The Campus, Miller-Lane said he asked to give his talk early in the semester in order to help shape the conversation about discourse on campus.

“We’re in a really fragile moment within the context of a polarized conversation nationally,” he said. “And we have a chance to un-polarize ourselves and step into this more complex space of discussion together, to see if we couldn’t articulate a sense of who we are and what our work is together in a way that might give us a chance to evolve.”

Miller-Lane began his talk by outlining Bell Hooks’ theory of engaged pedagogy, a holistic approach to teaching that considers students’ whole beings. 

“I’m placing engaged pedagogy in this space because I believe that in this historic moment, and this historical moment, we need to disrupt our norms of interaction by explicitly connecting our will to know with our will to become,” he said. “If Middlebury is to become what it needs to be, we have to trouble and expand our too-often rigid distinctions between learning, teaching, scholarship, relationship and becoming, and honor engaged pedagogy as a form of scholarship.”

Miller-Lane then went on to present three claims, the first of which was that we need to embrace complexity in our studies, conversations and lives.

To demonstrate the need for complexity, he referenced Nigerian author Bayo Akomolofe, who wrote, “We are never not broken. Rather than seek to become some whole that does not exist you must make an altar out of the pieces and embrace the world as grotesque and monstrous.” Miller-Lane said this quote speaks to the work we have to do at Middlebury over the course of this upcoming year. “We have to reject the polarization and embrace complexity and make some sort of secular altar out of our grotesque and monstrous world, out of those pieces that we might have,” he said.

For his second claim, he talked about the need to understand the limits of critical theory. “It doesn’t mean you abandon critical theory,” he said. “It means you use it in a way that’s useful but recognize its limits and then explore alternatives that might actually enable the complexity to be sustained long enough that we can listen Middlebury into existence, to use that phrase [taken from Mary Rose O’Reilley].”

For his last claim, Miller-Lane said that the Middlebury community needs to address the meaning and impacts of whiteness on campus.

“We have to do this. And this has been years and years and years coming. I think we must initiate a deep and relentless inquiry into the impact of whiteness on all aspects of life here,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been taken seriously as a project by Middlebury. We’ve done very little, I think, in exploring what the implications of [whiteness] actually mean and are for a place like this.”

After presenting his three claims, Miller-Lane passed out two proposals for the audience to read and discuss. The first proposal, developed from Professor Tricia Rose at Brown University, set forth a framework for including texts on syllabi and inviting speakers to campus.

The second proposal aimed to create spaces for different community members to talk about and deconstruct whiteness. It suggests both “whiteness workshops” for first-year students who identify as white, and three-day seminars for faculty, staff and coaches in which the discussion of whiteness would play a central role.

“The goal is to have those conversations happen. What the best format is I don’t know. And I trust in the wisdom of the community to sort out what the best way to do it is,” Miller-Lane said in an interview.

He said the college has a unique opportunity this year to contribute to the national dialogue.

“I don’t want the emphasis to be on resolution or doing something or‘crushing something like ‘We’re going to crush this problem,’” he said. “In this pace of life that we live here, to commit to sustaining and stewarding a fragile space of discourse would be radical. That’s what I think is available to us this year in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, and I would love to be part of that stewardship and I was trying to give the talk as a way to contribute to that.”

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