Friday, November 3, 2023

Jane Marie Law post about the humanity of her class

 My heart is so moved by this post, in our time of great sorrow for those who suffer, that I shed tears. It moves me to hear of genuine humanity showing up in response to what we are seeing. Many kudos to the professor who wrote this and many thanks… 🙏

Jane Marie Law’s post on Facebook:

An Everyday Miracle at Cornell University

It is unusual to have the university where I teach, Cornell in Ithaca, NY be in the national news for the same reason for an extended period of time. Usually, national news celebrates the accomplishments of some scholar, or some unusual student, and it’s a flash in the pan.  Someone wins a Nobel prize or a national or international award.  A new bird or bug is discovered. That’s sad, because that’s what should be in the news every day about my institution.  Amazing things happen at Cornell every single day. So it has been very unsettling to be on the front page of the major media day in and day out for weeks on end. I have many thoughts and opinions about the events that have transpired at Cornell and they probably don’t align with the main stream coverage.  But I don’t want to talk about that.

What will never make the news is what happens every day in classrooms across our beautiful campus. It should be what makes the news. Every day in seminars, lecture halls, labs, and field projects, students from the most diverse places on the planet get together and learn together, and make friendships that will last a lifetime and change the way they think because they’ve met someone different from themselves. Every day in seminar, lecture hall, labs and field projects, students fall in love with ideas, biology, poetry, film, languages, physics, and sometimes even each other. I know from having taught at this university for almost 35 years that the love affairs with ideas my students develop are intimately tied up with the people with whom they learn those things – – professors, teaching assistants, instructors, lecturers and other students. Ideas and knowledge don’t change people. People change people and at universities like this it’s often very beautiful to see. But you won’t read that in the news. It’s not even newsworthy here.

Let me tell you about a class  I’m teaching right now.  This class is held in the crappiest classroom I’ve ever had at Cornell, a basement room, devoid of any decoration, save a chalkboard and  tiny windows high up, overgrown with not ivy but weeds (some inside the room) because it’s in a basement and walls are painted an off-white, with desks that are not fixed and with utterly no charm. The room barely fits the 24 of us. Among those 23 students are just about every form of diversity one can imagine: racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, nationality,  gender, religious, dietary, able bodied and not, and political. In this small class I have eight different major religions represented. I have six different countries represented. I have all hues of political persuasion represented. I could give granular detail that would drive home this remarkable diversity, but this isn’t an essay on demographics. Perhaps it’s just what I teach, but this is how most of my classes are. And when I speak to my colleagues, this is what they say too. Incredible diversity is the norm here.  People are lovable when they are learning enhancing things, and they learn to love the friendships that form when they do this.  I know this.  I have watched it happen for almost 35 years. 

But let me tell you something really special about my students, particularly this group this semester. After the massacre on October 7 by Hamas against Jews in the kibbutzim and the subsequent invasion of Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces and the unfolding and unrelenting horror of the high casualties among Palestinian civilians in Gaza, my students did not scramble to find a simple position to take. They opened up to one another in remarkable ways and, led by our discussions in class and the kind of atmosphere that is actually fairly common in these kinds of diverse settings, they listened to one another, and showed an enormous care for one another that was beyond avoiding uncomfortable conversations.  They were filled with self-recriminations that they did not understand the situation with more nuance. And they also felt guilty to be continuing to go about their lives and their studies when the world was dealt so many horrible blows in such quick succession. Rather than hardening into ideological positions, the view you would have if you read the mainstream media, they got soft and open to one another.  They may have had to be reminded by me that as a class they represent nothing short of a miracle of humanity, but I think the real miracle is the realization that when you put a diverse group of students in a small classroom to do productive work together, something happens.  

Cornell University is closing tomorrow for one day of community reflection. But for my classes, we had class today, and I felt that that day of reconciliation and reflection could not come soon enough, so I declared today, “Zoomin’ in Your Jammies Day.” Students could come to class on ZOOM in their pajamas. They could stay in bed. They could have their stuffed animals. They could have a hot beverage. In fact, I think I might give extra credit to anyone who had a hot beverage. And everyone showed up on zoom and we read poetry together, poetry about putting your soul back together, poetry about the natural world and about bees, and about birds. There is a kind of special hush that comes over young people when they’re far from home and they’re learning the textures of their hearts and souls and minds without having it mediated by a standard curriculum. It takes my breath away sometimes, that hush. Today, even though we were on zoom, I could feel that special hush. I think we all felt very connected to one another. 

This won’t make it on the front page of CNN or the New York Times, but let me say this: donors and political figures and harsh critics of American academia need to realize that the students and the professors and scholars working at these major research institutions are doing something very difficult and very rare. We are actually living diversity.  We all deal with deep diversity every day and we know a lot about it. It isn’t all hatred and knives and people choosing sides. That makes the news. That makes for good stories. A tragically mentally ill young man who posts hateful and violent threats against Jews on the Internet makes the news. Students attacking one another at rallies, far from the norm here but happening elsewhere, makes the news. But that is not what we see most all of the time in the diverse communities that form at places like Cornell. On the contrary, we see people building relationships that will last a lifetime with people very different from themselves. People really do discover their shared humanity. 

At the end of this semester, I’ll be inviting my students over to my home for dinner.  I want to facilitate this moment in their lives, in every way I can because  they will remember that when their alma mater made the news for something horrible, they had a tight little community, as diverse as the world will ever be, and people were gentle and kind and cared for one another, and it doesn’t ever have to be any different. Miracles happen every day at Cornell and other universities as diverse as ours. But it’s so common place we never think to report it.

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