Post-Truth Teaching

11/19/2016 09:50 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2016
Dean Rader’s <em>Poetry Studio</em> class at the University of San Francisco
Dean Rader’s Poetry Studio class at the University of San Francisco

In my poetry class at the University of San Francisco, we spent the entire class period following last Tuesday's election looking at poems being circulated on Twitter and Facebook. I began class by pulling up my Twitter feed on the big projection screen at the front of the classroom. Then, I just started scrolling down. There was poem after poem after poem after poem after poem. Even if you don't write these poems, I said to the class, you can still reach an audience. You don't have to be a poet to share poetry.

This term, I'm teaching a brand new course I only recently developed. It is a creative writing class, devoted to writing poetry, entirely for non-English majors. There are history majors, data science majors, accounting majors, art history majors, philosophy majors, business majors, design majors, all reading and writing poems. So, they do not necessarily think of themselves as "poets" or even as "writers," though they are writing some great poems and learning a great deal about the role of poetry in private and public life. In fact, the week before half of our country went to the polls, we focused solely on political poems. We talked at length about Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" and how radical its claims for America are given the current political rhetoric about immigration and American greatness.

It was in this spirit that I had the students write a poem about some aspect of the upcoming election. In fact, they turned in their political poems on November 8. Even with this prep, on November 10, there was still a great deal of surprise at how many people were turning to poetry—a genre that supposedly makes nothing happen. When I asked the students why so many people were sending and posting poems—Hozier even posted a video of himself reading a Seamus Heaney 9/11 poem—they said a number of things, but most boiled down to the simple fact that poems express publicly what we are feeling privately.

Indeed, in times of extremis, poetry comforts and connects us. We turn to it for wisdom, a different kind of knowing than we typically get from news. I also think the poem is increasingly becoming an important mode of secular prayer. When the world (and in particular this campaign) deploys language at its worst, poetry delivers language at its best. The poem lifts us. It heightens our experience and emotion.

Or, just as appropriately, in the case of this poem by Danez Smith, catalyzes and voices our collective rage.

Sometimes, prayers need to be angry.

As for the outcome of the election, most (if not all) of my students were angry. Some were surprised. Many were not. Some were genuinely scared. But, like Smith, they were angry. What then, to do with that anger?

I scrolled to Adam Zagajweski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World." I've loved that poem for a long time. There are few poems that express anger, that channel fear, with the grace of this lyric. I also shared a poem by Bob Hicok that he emailed me that very morning. As we talked about the poem, I went off, as I often do, about poetry's ability to express the inexpressible, to name that thing that has no name, to find the words for that experience for which there are no words, and I felt like I was learning what I often teach--that poetry is a form of justice.

USF has a mission of social justice and is one of the most diverse campuses in the country. Those details and the fact that the university is in San Francisco makes teaching post-truth and post/pre-Trump both easier and more difficult. On one hand, there is very little (if any) political dissension among the students. Everyone pretty much agrees with each other politically. On the other hand, the kind of intense polarization experienced in communities and classrooms in other parts of the country is more or less absent here.

For this reason (and many others), I've been thinking a lot how I'm going to teach (and what) for the next four years. One English major came to my office last Wednesday to tell me she was changing her plans to travel in Europe after graduating in May. Instead, she wants to go to graduate school in public policy. "I have to do something," she said. "I want to put my English major to good use."

I love that, of course, but I would also say that writing and reading are themselves good use. They are always already dual acts of participation and resistance. "Engaging in art of any kind," says Dana Levin, "is 'soul work' — and it’s imperative."

The commitment to soul work, I've decided, is my good use.

Recently, Veronica Fitzpatrick asked, "what is art's role in crisis?" That is a great question. I would even extend that and ask: what is the role of teaching art in a time of crisis?

I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that teaching post-truth may be one of the most important duties--and one of the most patriotic.

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