Kirstein Paper at Univ. of St Francis: “Real Teaching: Iraq Teach-ins Facilitate Excellence in Teaching”

Real Teaching: Iraq Teach-ins Facilitate Excellence in Teaching” Symposium on the Scholarship of Pedagogy
University of St. Francis, Joliet, Illinois October 8, 2005

Forty years ago, during the Vietnam War, the first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan in February 1965. This was coincident with “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the secret plan to initiate bombing runs over North Vietnam that had been developed covertly during the 1964 presidential election campaign. During the election President Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to contrast himself with his Republican opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by promising, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Today there are merely variations on the theme as war-criminal American presidents dissimulate about the reasons for going to war, not about promising to avert war or its escalation. However, the results are the same: widespread death and the “aggressive baby-killing tactics of collateral damage.”

At the Michigan teach-in, some 3,000 students and faculty attended. Within weeks of this seminal event, amidst much staged fanfare with “pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers,” President Johnson dispatched 3,500 marines from the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Expeditionary force, to the beaches of Da Nang on March 8, 1965. This removed the charade of so-called American “advisors” and inaugurated the complete Americanization of the war. As a result, teach-ins began to spread across America and were held initially on such elite campuses as the University of California at Berkeley. They culminated in a nationwide-coordinated National Teach-in on May 15, 1965. One did not have to be online on a future Internet to organize.

Unlike the Vietnam War, teach-ins preceded the Iraq war. In fact no other war in American history was marked by a prewar antiwar movement so massive as the one prior to the criminal launching of war on March 19, 2003. Although there were antiwar groups such as the American First Committee, naturally dismissed as anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi, which advocated American abstention from World War II that would lead to fifty to sixty million casualties, such actions were not part of a national or even international protest as evidenced during the period that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. St Xavier University has had five Iraq teach-ins: three prior to President George W. Bush’s Iraq war and two after the commencement of war. They are extremely effective pedagogical devices and add immeasurably to the education and critical-thinking skills of students. They are also most effective in energising teaching and creating new opportunities for innovative pedagogy. I argue they are more effective than simply having an outside speaker who speaks, takes a few questions and has a dinner with only the programme’s elites.

I believe the best teach-ins have four or five presenters, who then convene as a panel after individual presentations and last no more than two hours unless preceded with a film as I will note below. Teach-ins that last a day or several hours with multiple faculty participants lose this dynamic, even if the length of the event may comport with more students’ and teachers’ schedules.

While perhaps more common on the graduate level, undergraduate students rarely see faculty interact or observe teach-teaching. During my undergraduate career at Boston University, I never saw professors in the Department of Government interact pedagogically. At a teach-in, students can often see faculty interact with one another and compare and contrast their positions. The advantage to this is that professors frequently ask students to engage in class discussion. When they see professors doing it, it is leading by example as well as humanizing professors as explorers of the truth and not merely the sage on the stage in class. Even when teach-ins are antiwar in focus as opposed to being “balanced” in ideological perspectives, the gathering of professors in a common venue with a student-dominant audience offers this dynamic of interaction rarely seen in the stifling, hierarchical rectangular classroom.

I might add some of our teach-ins have included professional staff and senior administrators as panel members. Some of our teach-ins have been uniformly antiwar; others contained disparate voices. I do not believe teach-ins need conform to a certain formula of ideological distribution. There is no inherent mandate in having balance between prowar and antiwar presenters in that the tradition of the teach-in is antiwar advocacy. Prowar advocates may certainly organize their teach-ins as well. Students benefit in seeing professors, who may otherwise feel constrained in a classroom, to erect artificial balance on every topic, advocate a viewpoint with emotion and feeling. Yet I frequently say to my classes when we are to embark upon a controversial topic in which I want their input: “Hey, this is not a teach-in. I am not going to preach to you here. Let’s thrash this out and let’s voice our opinions together.”

Professors usually interact with students that they know: in class, as advisees or maybe former students still enrolled. Teach-ins provide opportunities to interact with different students and to get a better sense of the pulse of the student body. Also one of the more gratifying pedagogical outcomes of a teach-in is e-mail from concerned students. I have received e-mail from students whom I did not know who 1) could not attend and wanted copies of my remarks, 2) who did attend and wanted to continue a dialogue with me afterwards. One student in particular was deeply concerned about the war and her perception of a lack of support for her position among her peers. We communicated extensively on the war by e-mail after a teach-in she attended, and this student enrolled the next semester in a class I taught in the Honours Programme. I even posted, while preserving her anonymity, much of our email exchange on my website, not coincidentally above e-mail correspondence with an army captain in An Najaf province in American-occupied Iraq.

Some wrote letters to the school newspaper, while more indirect, is yet another vehicle for student response to a faculty member’s presentation at a teach-in. While ideally professors create successfully a climate of openness in their classes and encourage debate, disagreement and dissent, many students simply avoid expressing views that they believe run counter to their professors. This, by the way, is one of the negative outcomes of grading—it is an impediment to critical thinking and the free flow of ideas. A teach-in is a perfect opportunity for students, who are otherwise disinclined, to challenge professors as interlocutors. Many students are more conservative than their professors and at a teach-in may, with less caution, challenge professors with whom they are not taking a course. I must say, without overly glamourising teach-ins, that I have had students IN a course participate for the first time at a teach-in which was sustained upon returning to the classroom.

I have found in organizing a teach-in during a regularly scheduled class, it can energise a course and have an impact on subsequent classes regardless of the topic. It is also a rather Machiavellian tactic to insure adequate turnout to a carefully planned event. Teach-in organizers should try to get at least one or two professors to bring their classes. I have noticed attendance increases afterwards in classes brought to teach-ins because students have seen a professor interact in a more dynamic environment.

Last April I organized a teach-in on the war and brought my Honours Programme class; it was an “Honours Humanities Seminar” but with thirty students enrolled, it hardly earned the labeling of “seminar.” The topic was “American Protest Music” and it really changed the dynamic of this course. I was introduced to a grandfather of one student, a father of another and was frankly surprised that students had invited family members to attend a teach-in; candidly, I thought maybe relatives invited themselves when they were told I was participating in this event. Yet students offered unsolicited praise in indicating how pleased their relatives were with the teach-in! I even played a brief excerpt from Bob Dylan’s, “Desolation Row” that coincided with the tortures at Abu Ghraib: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” A component of the course was on Vietnam and its impact on musicology. My remarks at the teach-in were a comparison of the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

Another class I brought to the two-hour teach-in was my United States History survey from the Reconstruction to Vietnam. The April teach-in took place as the class was focusing on wars of the 20th Century including Vietnam. While one student, in her or his course evaluation, objected to the class being compelled to attend a teach-in unrelated to the course, I believe it was related and that some issues transcend a syllabus when professors are attempting to raise the moral consciousness of students in the area of peace and justice. That is the only negative comment I have ever had about a teach-in from a student, which while presented honestly here, is even more of a motivating force to conduct these events.

Several professors have brought classes in Speech, English, Spanish and instructed them to both observe and challenge the participants. I particularly remember a speech class that came to a prewar teach-in that was convened in January, 2003, in which many of the students were extremely critical and direct in their criticism of some of the speakers. It was apparent that they were primed for this by the instructor and it contributed to a serious and robust exchange. I should cite publicly this class was taught by Professor Ron Mark who should be lauded in bringing and encouraging his class to challenge directly many of the participants.

The week before the November, 2004 presidential election, Professor Michael Rabe, of the Department of Art and Design, organized a teach-in that included the showing of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 followed by a panel discussion. This is when a teach-in lasts several hours and is a very innovative and dramatic format. The Xavierite, the student newspaper, gave spacious coverage to the event and reported many students were offered extra-credit by various instructors if they attended. This apparently has hit critical mass in that I heard that some students were requesting extra credit from professors if they attended the April 2005 teach-in. Personally, I would not offer extra credit as a inducement for students to attend teach-ins. Unless it is during class time, obviously not all students could attend a teach-in and if during a regularly scheduled class, the professor should require all students to attend and not reward students for merely attending class in a different venue. While I honour professors who are aware and supportive of such efforts, and would defend their academic freedom to do so, I think granting extra credit is problematic unless it is part of a menu of options that are available to each student.

At the Fahrenheit 9/11 October pre-election teach-in, there were febrile exchanges with hecklers from the neighborhood who swore and shouted at one presenter, and were countered by students’ collective murmuring, applauding and supporting open and free speech. Members of the audience lined up behind the various microphones planted in the auditorium and enunciated opinions, distributed materials and debated not only panelists but also other members of the audience. I told The Xavierite, in a post-teach-in interview, that the Michael Moore teach-in, with students sitting in the aisles among a standing-room only crowd that overflowed into a lobby, was the most important and dramatic academic event I ever attended at St Xavier.

If you are an academic leader and your institution has not had a teach-in, consider it a responsibility to convene such an event. However, as Professor Nicholas De Genova of Columbia University and other professors have learned, teach-ins must not be used to silence those who engage in patriotically incorrect, antiwar speech. Academic freedom must insure that academicians, who question the immorality and savagery of American foreign policy with its pandering propaganda of excluding only itself from the goal of disarming nations with weapons of mass destruction, are not silenced. Those who criticise the fake American war aim of spreading democracy and freedom, must themselves not be denied it by administrators who abuse their power and their trust with sanctions, suspensions, reprimands, dismissals and intemperate press releases.

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