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The Labor of Teaching and Administrative Hysteria

As art history professors, we have experienced our share of student responses to artworks like the one testified to by Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association at Hamline University: “It hurts and it breaks my heart to stand here to tell people and beg people to understand me, to feel what I feel,” she said in tears about a painting of the prophet Muhammad by the 14th-century Islamic scholar Rashid-al-Din. “I am 23 years old. I’ve never seen a picture of the prophet, never in my whole entire life, and it breaks my heart that a professor who is supposed to be my role model, [would] show a picture of the prophet with a trigger warning.”

And we are familiar with the hurt outrage of the students at Macalester College who sought to shut down an exhibition that included sexualized imagery of women wearing hijabs and niqabs by an Iranian-American artist supporting Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement.

Students have all sorts of sensitivities, not just those tied to religious faith, and we work hard to support them. While the language of harm can be used as a cudgel for other ends — particularly, in our experience, when it is adopted by administrators acting in the name of protecting students — we do our best to always take it at face value. This support typically takes two standard forms.

Whenever we are able to anticipate a sensitivity, we try to provide a content warning that allows students to prepare for what they will learn about or, if need be, excuse themselves from that section of class. While these warnings may not lessen the emotional response — as Wedatalla’s testimony suggests and most studies have concluded — they can help students balance emotion with reason and thus put them into a frame of mind where they are better able to learn.

Knowing when to provide such a warning, however, is not always possible. Art history is the study of the decorations of the rich and powerful and as such is never separable from histories of structural and manifest violence. At institutions like ours that serve unusually culturally diverse and largely working-class student bodies, these stories are all the more likely to intersect with a student’s personal, familial, or cultural histories in ways that can only partially be anticipated.

And when students are able to articulate their feelings or concerns, or we are able to sense them in their responses or nonresponses, we use the classroom to talk through their reactions. As with any supportive relationship, our first response is to recognize the legitimacy of their feelings. This helps to bring students to the point where the rubber of their embodied need can meet the road of historical understanding.

While recognition of feelings helps, the real benefit comes from the Socratic extension of this process, whereby the instructor prompts an emotional student to work through some of the different perspectives that the student might accept beyond their initial reaction. This helps students evaluate the historical conditions of their own understanding, beliefs, and feelings.

Less generous readers might judge this to be a form of misplaced group therapy, but in our experience it is simply effective pedagogy. It helps students approach learning with maturity and wisdom, rather than getting mired in regressive reaction. It is helpful for anyone — but especially young adults working their way out of adolescence.

“Hysteria” is outdated as a clinical term, but colloquially it simply refers to emotional overreaction arising from misunderstanding or other extraneous factors. Because this overreaction can be contagious, the concept of hysteria is useful for thinking through the ways in which universities have failed to realize their mission.

By her own account, Wedatalla’s strong reaction was based on the limits of her experience. Had Hamline’s administration given her the opportunity to process this experience with the aid of more educated perspectives, she might have come to a more mature understanding of what upset her. For example, she might have benefitted from those who know about the long and complex history of representations of Muhammad and the prohibitions on such representations, or those who toggle back and forth between the registers of religious faith and scholarly inquiry.

Instead, this educational opportunity was blocked for Wedatalla by administrators who — in what seems to be a case of hysterical contagion — adopted the student’s upset feelings and youthful perspective as their own. Hamline President Fayneese S. Miller said that a classroom display of a major historical art monument presented with multiple trigger warnings and ample historical framing was an example of “anything goes” teaching that transgressed the imperative that instructors act “professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students.”

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education