Last day of the semester. I wasn’t in the best shape for it — I had a challenging board meeting last night, one where we were struggling with some difficult DEI issues. I came as close to crying as I’ve ever come in a board meeting, and I left still wanting to argue with people. I couldn’t shut that off for a while. I relayed it all to Kevin when I got home, finally got to sleep around 11, and woke up at 4 a.m., still arguing in my head.

The funny thing is that we weren’t, I think, in actual disagreement about our goals, but we disagree fiercely about methods. That disagreement still hurts.

DEI work is emotionally and physically exhausting. It’s part of the job, both as board member and as professor, but it leaves me shaking sometimes, and wishing I taught math.

At one point in our conversation, Kevin asked me why I was getting so upset about this, and I didn’t know what to say to him. He’s usually good on this kind of thing, but it just doesn’t hit him in the gut in the same way. For me, gender, race, disability, sexuality, is all immensely personal, written on the body I inhabit. I can’t escape it.

I’d scheduled pretty easy things for our last day of classes — course evaluations, of course, a final workshop critique and some final project presentations. I told my advanced writing workshop that I was particularly impressed with how maturely they’d handled the work this semester — they handed in their stories mostly on time, they came prepared to critique their classmates — that’s the expectation, but I promise you, it’s not always the case. I have a little hope that our students are finally starting to come back to themselves, post-pandemic.

But even better, when someone was sick (including me), or had a disruption of some kind, one that meant they weren’t able to attend in person, this class pivoted so smoothly to make sure they could be included and participate and have their voices heard. They quickly took over responsibility for Zooming their classmates in, so I didn’t have to. They communicated with each other on the class message boards, and answered questions before I even saw them.

I told them I was proud of them, that this was one good thing that I’d hoped would come out of the pandemic, that we would use these new remote tools to encourage and support broader participation, using them to help compensate for illness and disability and just…all the vagaries of life. I told them that I knew 40 and 50 year olds who didn’t handle these issues nearly as well as they had, all semester. They took care of each other, beautifully, humanely, and everyone benefited.

My students are so gorgeous. When I’m exhausted and ready to give up, they give me hope.

As I was leaving campus today, I crossed paths with a young woman in brightly colored niqab (only her eyes were visible). I smiled at her, and she gave me the widest smile back. Even with just her eyes, you could see it so clearly.

My fantasy lit. class had the option of doing AITA (am I the asshole?) responses for their final projects. This was new for me, but it turns out to be a really terrific way of exploring the question of who is the villain, what does it mean to be the villain, where is the nuance in this situation? No one thinks they’re a villain in their own head. Human beings do terrible things, out of fear and pride and grief and horror, and we are very good at justifying ourselves. Horrors beget horrors.

We discussed Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, our last story of the semester. I told them that I don’t think Le Guin expects you to somehow manage to walk through the world doing no harm at all. But she asks you to look. To look at one thing, at least, that is uncomfortable, that requires you to acknowledge your own complicity in the world’s troubles and grief. If you look, you may decide to try to make a change.

I teach post-colonial literature and history, I teach my students how it went in Ireland, in India, in Sri Lanka, in the Congo, how it is still happening, how somehow, ordinary people manage to convince themselves they have good reasons for doing horrible things.

It’s so hard to stop that cycle. Despite all my years of studying these issues, I don’t know how it gets accomplished, not really. The Good Friday Accords astonish me. (Derry Girls did a great episode on this.) It’s possible, clearly; it’s possible to choose peace.

I’ve had a hard year. My father-in-law, whom I loved, died unexpectedly. We thought we’d have more time. My mother-in-law is seriously ill. My own mother is in care and doesn’t recognize me. A twenty-six year romantic relationship ended, and it’s been months now, but I still wake up in tears sometimes. And there’s more that I can’t talk about, other people’s stories that I’ve tried to support them through, and that’s hard too. I’ve had to say no to helping folks more often this year than I ever have before, because I’m just at my limit for loss.
I got teary in both my classes today too. (Sometimes I cry in class. That’s okay.)

For weeks now, I’ve been feeling terrible that I haven’t said anything about the student protests happening now, on campuses across America. So here I am, one last long post and then I may take a week and just lie down in my garden and try to meld with the dirt. That sounds good right now. Healthy.

Since our semester is ending, we may not see large protests at UIC, unless this situation continues into the fall (please, let it not continue into the fall. please). But there are encampments at Northwestern, not far away, and at schools across the country. As faculty, I think we need to figure out where we stand.

I told my students — this is a hard week. It’s Passover, and so an especially hard week for my Jewish friends. It’s also a hard time for my Muslim friends, and my Middle Eastern friends. The last several months have been hard for all of them.

To be honest, I’m very hesitant to say anything concrete about the specifics of the situation, because it is so complex. I am not an expert in the history or politics or religions of that region, and this is not my lane. Honestly, I have no idea how we get to peace from here. But I did tell them, I am for peace.

When I was in college, at U Chicago, we had a gay bashing incident on campus. It was a long time ago, and my memory of the details have faded, but I think at least one young man was badly beaten. We protested. We had sit-ins. We handed out stickers: “Silence = Death.” We sat on the grass and cut little pink triangles out of felt and put safety pins in them and handed them out. We asked professors to wear them, in solidarity with us. Every professor I asked said yes. We pushed the administration to extend domestic partnership rights, and eventually, they did.

There is a lot of discussion right now about the right way to protest, especially on a college campus. I don’t know what the right way is. Peaceful protests are obviously fine, but the U Chicago website currently says: “The right of freedom of expression at the University includes peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations. At the same time, the University has long recognized that the right to protest and demonstrate does not include the right to engage in conduct that disrupts the University’s operations…”

Disruption is a difficult concept here. The civil rights protests in America were often disruptive. Gandhi’s protests were often disruptive. When you are trying to create big change, I’m not sure that polite protests will always get you there. They might work — it’s a good place to start, certainly. But maybe sometimes you need to shut down an expressway, or a campus building, because you believe with all your heart that there is something more important at stake than normal everyday business going on per usual.

I’m seeing a lot of chatter centered on incidents of violent language being used by protesters — it frustrates me that these reports often generalize to all the protesters, when it seems much more likely to me that it was one or two students out of hundreds or thousands.

I sympathize with university administrators who want to prioritize safety — that’s one of their primary responsibilities, just as it’s one of my responsibilities as a high school board member. Of course we want our children to be safe.

But administration responses often seem reactionary to me, moving very quickly to bringing in police, arresting students and faculty, locking students out of their dorms, banning them from campus — with what cause?

If we are going to give up some liberty for safety, if we’re going to cancel commencement speaker speeches, I’d like to know what safety, specifically, is being threatened, and what evidence we have of that threat.

I didn’t say any of that last to my students. It would be a lot for the last day of classes, a lot to squeeze into ten minutes between final projects and course evaluations, a lot of complication and nuance that I just didn’t have the time or the energy for. I don’t even have it for Facebook conversations, clearly, since I have mostly been silent on this topic for months.

(If you really want to hear me talk more on Israel and Palestine, I direct you to the podcast conversation Benjamin Rosenbaum and I held, right after the October 7th attacks. I have learned more since then, but it’s still pretty representative of what I believe. It’s episode 61: On Israel and Palestine.

I did tell my students, if you’re going to protest, be safe. Be smart. Look online for guides on how to keep yourself safe while protesting. Be careful with the police. Stay hydrated, and know where your medic is.

I told them, I don’t know if this is your cause. But I hope you protest something, someday. It is your right, and your privilege.

• I grieve for all of you who have a personal connection to this region and religions, and acknowledge how incredibly difficult it is.
• Try to take care of yourselves if this is affecting you on an emotional or physical level. It’s okay to take a break from the conversation, and come back to it when you’re ready.
• As senior faculty, I support the right of college students to peaceful protest. (Which may sometimes be disruptive.)
• Please protest as safely as you can. Take care of yourselves and those around you.
• I have no concrete solutions for the Israel / Palestine conflict.
• We need stories that help us find those solutions, and help us make sense of the world.
• I am for peace.

Comments. If you wouldn’t say it to me in my living room, please don’t post it here. I won’t tolerate anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or racist comments here, and will block freely as I deem necessary.

I’m going to attempt to leave this post open for comments, and will try to moderate it as best I can, but I’m telling you honestly that I am exhausted, and may just close the post when I hit my limit. I would prefer this post stay focused primarily on college students, protesting, and campus / teaching concerns, rather than turning into a political argument about whose side is right, and who are the villains in this story.

The books in the photo are ones I loaned to a student, who remembered to give them back to me on the last day of class. The Le Guin is Language of the Night, which I have read and loved so much that the cover has shredded. I commend it to you.

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