Category Archives: Cocurriculum

Outlets for addressing psychic violence

You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.

Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.

When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.

The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”

There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.

As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.

My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.

After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.

In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:

Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.

Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.

After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.

Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.

Practical Competence

As I read this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education front-page article by Sara Lipka and Eric Hoover about a developmental or remedial English class at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland, it was as if I were there in that classroom. I felt the near helplessness of the dedicated faculty member, and I felt as if I were there as a student because I know what it’s like to have to separate your head and academic learning from the rest of your life. The article is titled “The Second-Chance Club,” and I think it would have unfolded as a second chance if Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant student, had miraculously passed the course.

As the narrative progressed toward the final decision about each student’s fate in meeting the requirements to go on to college-level English, it seemed as if Kenneth would certainly pass because he wanted to pass so passionately and he is a good person. As I read the narrative, I felt as if the music was about to swell for a happy dramatic ending since Kenneth was the last student to see the instructor about his course standing. I was really surprised at the final result because even his friend gets the green light to go on to the next level of English, and when he exits the meeting with the faculty member, he says, “Kenneth, don’t worry man, I’ll see you there OK?” Kenneth is so visibly nervous about his time with the instructor that one of the other students tells him, “Just know that, whatever happens, you’re smart.”

I think Kenneth is smart, but he did not pass the developmental course in English and he knows why. He allowed one of his essays to be published in The Chronicle along with the article, and he titled it, “My Two Greatest Obstacles.” In his essay, he admits that he allows himself to become distracted in class and he does not pay attention. He also realizes that he does not manage his time well. He stays up late watching television and he comes to class late. His realization of what may be hindering him from passing the course has come too late.

Having to retake a non-credit course puts Kenneth in the risky position of dropping out of college completely. Students such as Kenneth and some of the other students described in the class lack a critical skill for success in college and beyond, and that skill is practical competence. Practical competence is one of the seven student learning outcomes in Learning Reconsidered, a 2004 publication by ACPA and NASPA, two professional associations for student affairs.

Too many students like Kenneth can break the hearts of many faculty who feel helpless in moving them forward. I propose that student services work with faculty to offer what I call a cocurriculum laboratory that is connected to the class (read more on cocurriculum laboratories…).  In this laboratory, the objectives of the course are reinforced and there is a strong emphasis on helping students communicate effectively and manage their own affairs. Students who do not have role models who demonstrate these skills are at a disadvantage in meeting the requirements of a college education. Student services staff are trained to help students through the developmental phases of self-efficacy.

Faculty cannot do it all and could welcome the assistance of their student services colleagues who can work with students in a laboratory, of sorts, where the emphasis is on adjusting to college life and making connections with students and the student services staff on a deeper and more personal level. These students will share their stories, encourage and support one another, all the while being guided by a highly skilled student services staff member who will move students towardaccomplishing the goals of the course and the skills that all college graduates should attain. One of these skills is practical competence.