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On Not Gaslighting our Students

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In August, as I was still revising my Fall 2020 syllabi, a former student shared a Reddit post on social media that stopped me cold:


“If teachers go back to school without a plan to talk to their students about Black Lives Matter, Police Brutality, and COVID-19, it will be the gaslighting of a generation.”

“The gaslighting of a generation.” Wow. I needed that reminder. I admit I’d been struggling—like many of us—with a desire to re-assert some “normalcy” in the classroom, er, Zoomroom, while recognizing that Fall 2020 is an anything-but-normal semester. Pandemic fatigue has set in, and students have said they’re irritated by instructors who repeatedly apologize for the necessity of remote learning (e.g. “In a normal semester, we’d be doing X, but because we’re not in-person, we’ll be doing Y”).

However, that Reddit post reminded me to direct my energy to the educational potential of our complicated present. What writing teachers do best is invite students to use tools to better understand our world. That means including BLM and COVID-19 in my materials. Absolutely.

In fact, I opened class by asking students to grapple with poet Caroline Randall Williams’s challenging New York Times column, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

This tour de force essay could be used to teach the power of defining and re-defining. Ask students to highlight all of Williams’s definitions of “monument” and you’ll find that the conversation takes off. Or, you could use the text to launch a discussion of ethos, pathos, and logos, or the value of multiple disciplinary lenses, or an examination of proof and evidence. Williams’s essay is also an invitation to engage—seriously engage—with the impact of generations of racism and the meanings of that history, both politically and personally. This is a text a class could return to many times over the semester as you introduce additional writing skills and engage students with big ideas from other readings or news stories, including police brutality. This is an essay that says to students: I will not gaslight you in this Fall 2020 classroom. Even if we are “remote,” these issues are present and pressing. The writing skills in this course will help you understand these issues with insight and enter these conversations with nuance.

The other part of that Reddit post, identifying COVID-19 as a second theme we must be talking about, could spark classroom conversations about visual literacy—as I began discussing in this March post.

Or, you might invite students to examine the layers of meaning in national or university COVID dashboards in relation to your campus dashboard or those of your state or county. I would love to hear how you are using these sources.

Really, I’d like to hear all the ways you are not gaslighting your students in this momentous time. Are you using the 1619 Project or other collections of voices from this moment? I’m ready to learn from you all in this semester like no other.

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

Loved this post, April! Thank you so much for the reminder and helpful teaching tips on how to not ignore the 'elephant(s) in the room' but rather use this unparalleled time to enhance learning and create deep connections with and among students. Brava!

Thank you!  I am continually inspired to live up to the expectations of our students.  Even on Zoom, I'm at home with "my people," since I am a student, myself. 🙂