Classroom Beginnings in Chaotic Times

Beginning class in the midst of the current chaos is challenging for students and faculty alike in a School of Social Work. Just weeks before the semester opened we were faced with three mass shootings within a week, at least one of which was linked to anti-immigrant rhetoric and White supremacy. We were already reeling from a rally at which the President’s supporters began to chant “Send them back” about four, duly elected, congresswomen. A major American city had been disparaged to the point that the editorial board of the local paper saw fit to strongly call out the criticism. And now we’re supposed to cloister ourselves in a classroom and think about doctoral dissertations?

Doctoral study is about so many things. Learning the depth and breadth of a specific substantive area, mastering statistical and other analytic methods, habituating to writing one paper over and over again, gaining comfort with public speaking, and figuring out how to wear many hats on any given day. As Social Work doctoral students, our students are also asked to think about the direct impact of the work that they do. Most students come to our program with deep passion for a population that is marginalized, a set of policies which need revision to work as intended, or the desire to create and test new interventions to alleviate the suffering that comes with particular problems and life circumstances. Our students understand the connection between the social and political contexts and the issues upon which they focus their attention. They are in preparation mode to be change-makers, scholars whose work shifts thinking and practice, influences policy, advance equity, and changes lives. But it is hard to remember and to focus when the world feels, and in some places literally is, on fire.

– Adapted from a Franciscan Benediction

So I began our work with the adapted benediction featured here. My hope was to remind these students that discomfort, anger, tears, and “foolishness” are gifts not given to all. But for those that possess them, comes the responsibility to cultivate them on behalf of everyone. And to think critically about their research questions is meaningful and will have its moment whether that moment is next week, next year, or in the next decade.

A friend on Facebook posted a picture of the fires in Brazil and said she was thinking of quitting her job to become a full-time climate change activist. I know the feeling. And I also know that that full-time activism is not my wheelhouse. I am an observer, a reflector, an analyzer, an encourager, a researcher, a teacher, a writer. I will make the most difference when I use those gifts and platforms. They are the places I excel and I need to focus there to address our collective state of dis-ease. Others excel other places. All of it is important. All of it is necessary.

We need to be transparent with our students about this struggle, about the difficulty, or indeed the wisdom, of staying focused when every headline cries out for attention. We need to let them know that we are uncomfortable, angry and sad. And in the words of the benediction, we need to show them that we are foolish enough to believe that our work matters, so that we can do what others say cannot be done. There are times, and they are probably coming soon, where we will need to drop that work and do something else. Those moments may come every weekend or maybe once a month. The fear is that we won’t recognize them when we see them. When we live these questions together – students and faculty alike – we have a better chance of knowing exactly when that moment arrives.

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