Late last Tuesday (November 8th, 2016: election night in the USA), I flew in to Columbus, Ohio to attend the 41st annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which is the big higher education conference for North America. Or, in other words, it’s the American higher education conference (we have a much smaller one in Canada). I was mainly going to attend the pre-conference of the Council on International Higher Education, and then to see what the current hot topics in higher ed were south of the border.
Rumour had it that the Democratic Party was headquartered at our hotel. Upon walking through the doors just before midnight, however, it was obvious that there wasn’t any partying going on. My colleagues and I compulsively checked our phones for election-result updates for a few hours but I fell asleep before the results were called. I therefore woke up to a new reality in the United States, as did most people around the world.
Colleagues were visibly rattled. Stunned. Shell-shocked. That unpredicted election result sent palpable waves of bewilderment and despair throughout the conference. Dismay ran deep.
As a foreigner at a by and large U.S. conference, I observed and tried to make sense of it all as best as I could. I also reflected on our own national context here in Canada. But most of all, I listened. I listened closely to what was being said by our U.S. colleagues in the wake of this seismic political shift. What struck me—and fellow international scholars—most, however, was the deep sense of alienation we felt.
Yes, this is a U.S. moment, and yes, this is a largely U.S. conference, but the discourses were not only U.S.-centric (hence the alienation), they were Democratic-Party-centric. And that was what was most deeply unsettling. I am by no stretch of the imagination a Trump supporter – nor were my international colleagues – but there was absolutely zero space in the conference for anybody who may have voted for the Republican candidate. And given the number of attendees, it is quite plausible that a few U.S. colleagues in attendance had voted Republican. They must have felt a very deep sense of isolation.
What I wondered most about, however, was the following: if there, at the conference, there was no space for colleagues—fellow higher-ed scholars—to engage in dialogue around different electoral choices or leanings, what must the climate be like on campuses across the United States today? Is there truly a space for all voices to express themselves and be heard?
This, in turn, naturally led me to think about our own campuses here in Canada. We like to think that we’re a tolerant, multicultural society accepting of all, but when was the last time we took a step back to think about and observe whether or not all voices get equal airtime on our campuses today? What are we, as educators, doing to ensure that dialogue is happening in our classrooms, to ensure that all perspectives are presented and put forth safely, without being shouted down or descending into condemnation, stereotyping, mutual loathing, vitriol, or vicious personal attacks? This may also involve playing devil’s advocate in contentious issues in order to get to deeper meanings and a deeper understanding.
Similarly, what are we as scholars doing in our journals to ensure that same calm balance? Or on our academic panels? Or in our symposia?
In other words, have we taken a moment to really look long and hard, and to think about whose voices are (now) heard and whose are (now) silenced?
As we well know, and as history has shown us time and time again, silencing voices doesn’t make them disappear; it marginalizes them and drives them underground, only to have them explode later to catastrophic effects.
Our campuses and our classrooms, our journals as well as our academic fora are privileged places and spaces for difficult conversations. This is where we are meant to hone and instill critical thinking skills. Where we are meant to listen and learn, to grapple with difficult concepts, to confront challenging ideas head on, and perhaps most importantly, to try to come to a sense of understanding.
If we lose the ability to dialogue, to exchange ideas, to welcome dissenting viewpoints, and to listen calmly and actively to each other—really listen—how can we hope to move forward together peacefully in the future?
In the coming days and months, I hope we all take a moment to open up spaces for dialogue, not only for our students but also for ourselves. For isn’t that also part of our role as educators, to lead by example? If we don’t make the effort to engage in dialogue amongst ourselves, how can we expect our students to do so, either now or in the future?