Archive for Education

Resolutions for a New Academic Year: A survival guide for higher education in perilous times (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Chronicle of Higher Education (logo)Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education today, I have a piece on “Resolutions for a New Academic Year: A survival guide for higher education in perilous times.” Here’s one of those resolutions:

Teach students to use language well. We can help them to be wary of lazy euphemism — not just because it is bad writing (though it often is), but because its bland familiarity can anaesthetize the attention. As George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” observes: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The president and his staff spend their days wresting words from their meanings. Amplified by repetition and news coverage, their linguistic nihilism infects our usage, and compromises our collective ability to make sense of the world. So encourage students to discard “alt-right,” “climate skeptic,” and “alternative facts,” and instead, say “white supremacist,” “anti-science,” and “lies.” Help them to resist the slippery idiom of propaganda.

The rest is over at The Chronicle.  Thanks to Robin Bernstein for putting the editor from The Chronicle in touch with me, and to that editor (is it appropriate to name her here?) for publishing this.

She — the editor — asked me to write something on “A column of suggestions for how professors (rookies and senior ones) can get the year off to a good start. Kind of a New Academic Year’s Resolutions.” I said sure! And then jotted notes, and more notes, … and wrote a half-dozen incomplete (failed) drafts. I kept getting stuck because offering the usual beginning-of-term advice felt reckless and irresponsible. It felt like the privileged giving advice to the privileged. In any case, there are lots of columns on the challenges of managing our various and proliferating obligations, or setting writing goals, and related professional predicaments.

Indeed, Robin curates an excellent page of advice. (Her own columns are also full of wisdom. I highly recommend them!)

So, instead, I wrote a piece inviting educators to consider how they might shine a light through the fog of lies that envelops us, nurture the capacity for critical thinking, and help others resist the allure of fascist blowhards. Of course, the younger generation did not vote for the tiny-fingered bloviator. But they will live amidst the damage he and his quislings inflict for many more years than their teachers will.

We should really restore that word — quisling — to contemporary discourse. It comes from Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), the Norwegian Prime Minister (1942-1945) who collaborated with the Nazis, and thus can refer to any short-sighted people who collude with those who do their fellow citizens harm. For instance, most (though not all) of the Republican Party have been happy to betray their country and its citizens. Sure, here and there, they’ll offer a few words of criticism. But will most back up their words with actions?  The majority still fantasize about a tax policy that will increase the misery of those in need, and so put their qualms aside to work with the grifter-in-chief. For instance, right now, will they join Democrats & support DACA legislation for immigrants who — though they lack citizenship — have known no other home than the US? Or will they stand by, while America’s fascist clown deports 800,000 hard-working members of their community? Most Republicans’ behavior thus far does not inspire me to hope. (But I would love to be proven wrong on this!)

Brian Herrera: "I'm With Us" (301 of 304): "Hope requires" — Philip Nel

By design, the administration’s cruelty harms minoritized communities the most. (This is what happens when a white supremacist becomes president.) So, in offering advice, I tried to take into account the fact that, for some of us, merely surviving the regime will be not only enough but truly miraculous. For some, simply continuing to be is itself a form of resistance. And I also understand that critical pedagogy animates some of us more than others. We all move through the world, bearing different and often unseen burdens. What works for one may not work for all.

But those of us who care about democracy and human rights are all in this together. We need to support each other, and — in whatever way we can — ignite beacons of hope amidst the gathering darkness.

A well-educated public is less likely to admire demagogues. So, we educators have our work cut out for us — important, necessary work. And we might locate at least some of our hope in that endeavor.

Related writing (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

Image from Brian Herrera‘s “I’m With Us” series added 7 Sept. 2017.

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A Weaponized Campus Can Be Fun!

Excited about unregulated firearms coming to Kansas State University’s campus?  Well, be sure to thank Representative John Barker and Senator Jacob LaTurner.  They refused to let the university campus-carry exemption bills even come up for a vote in the full House and Senate. So, thanks to them, the citizens who voted for them, and to all the NRA lackeys who create the laws in Kansas, as of July 1st, Kansas State University will be fully weaponized!

What does this mean for those of us who teach and study here?  Well, this morning, the university shared with us its new Weapons Policy Training module.  You see, as the announcement tells us,

On July 1, the university’s exemption from the concealed carry requirements of the Personal and Family Protection Act expires, meaning that the concealed carry of handguns will be allowed in university buildings at Kansas State University and other state universities. K-State continues its commitment to the safety of students, faculty and staff and all members of the K-State community.

The dark irony created by the juxtaposition of these two sentences is genius.  They tell us, first, that “concealed carry of handguns will be allowed” all over K-State campus and, second, that “K-State continues its commitment to the safety of students, faculty and staff.”  Because, you see, these two ideas are in no way incompatible!  Hahahaha. Ha.

But, for more fun, let’s get to that Weapons Policy Training module, shall we?

Weapons Policy Training module: first screen

Yep! “K-State Faculty/Staff.”  That’s me. (For now, anyway.)

Weapons Policy Module: screen 2

Ordinarily, I’d say “don’t repeat the same joke twice.” But I have to admit that the “dedicated to the safety and security” of everyone juxtaposed with WELCOME GUNS! is still pretty funny the second time around. Nicely played.

Weapons Policy Training module: screen 3

We have no choice about having armed and untrained students (to get a weapon, Kansas law requires no training, no background check, no license). But getting a choice of the order in which to complete the training makes me feel so much better. Thank you!

OK, I think I’ll start with “FAQ.”

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 1

Right, of course.  It’s much more fun to be surprised by the firearm accidentally going off or by the student using it on a classmate or the instructor.  Also, this policy helps protect the sensitive feelings of those people so cowardly that only being armed at all times makes them feel safe.  Poor little snowflakes.

Dropping a gun into a backpack seems like such an easy way to store it. Why bother to secure the weapon?  I mean, it’s not like someone could easily grab a classmate’s backpack or unzip the backpack and get the gun out.  That’s highly unlikely.  And since a person with no training on how to use a weapon will of course take all appropriate precautions, we can be confident that he (or she, but probably he) will leave the safety on.

Also, the need to keep the backpack “within the immediate reach of the individual” creates a fun new classroom game: Is That a Gun in Your Bag or Do You Suffer from Backpack Separation Anxiety?  The game works like this: Watch your students, and see who keeps the backpack very close at all times.  Is that student carrying?  Could be!  What about that student, over there?  Hmmm.  And why are those two students whispering near that satchel?  Points will be awarded based on the ratio of correct answers to survivors.

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 4

So, then: office hours cancelled until further notice.  Great!  I’m learning so much from this module!  Bonus: Not having office hours will save time, as will absenting myself from campus except when I absolutely have to be there.  This Weapons Policy is looking better and better!

Weapons Policy Training module: FAQ 5

Introducing my new policy: A’s for all students!  You are all brilliant, wonderful people!  You all get A’s!

Another part of the genius of concealed carry: by making every student a potentially armed student (and thus an implicit threat), faculty can treat them accordingly.  We can be spared the time of grading, by acknowledging that each and every one of our students is a certified genius!   Also, since campus carry revokes the safety upon which freedom of speech depends, why bother laboring over challenging discussion questions?  Fear inhibits discussion, and, well, we wouldn’t want a student to feel threatened by an intellectual challenge, now would we?  Of course not.  That would be rude.  I mean: the very idea of challenging students to think!  That’s so, I don’t know, pedagogically sound.

Extra credit question: Is there any chance that weaponizing the campus will lead to such egregious grade inflation that a degree from a Kansas university will become meaningless?  Let’s find out!

Well, this has been a fun survey.  I’d really love to take the rest of it, but no time at the moment.  After all, I have an exit strategy to plan — er, I mean, work to do!  I have work to do!  Bye!


To any academics who may be reading this: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature? Well, seek no further! Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)  I’d love to hear from you!


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

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Firearms and Fascists: Does the Kansas House believe in democracy?

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityFor nearly two months (since January 18th), Representative John Barker — the chair of the Kansas House’s Federal and State Affairs Committee — has refused to bring House Bill 2074 to the full Kansas House so that the entire chamber can vote on it.  The bill extends universities’ and hospital’s exemption for campus carry, and it’s a popular bill: the public testimony in favor has consistently far exceeded the testimony against it.  Instead, tomorrow, the committee will consider HB 2074’s nemesis, HB 2220.  It prohibits any regulation of guns on college campuses, and any current regulations are rendered “null and void.”  And no, I’m not joking.  Read the bill.

I cannot be there to testify at 9:00 AM Thursday March 9th in Room 346-S.  So, I have sent my testimony in advance.  It’s my third such testimony this semester.  Though I wrote it in haste, I make no apologies for its content.  HB 2220 is a fascist bill.  And the committee’s failure to bring HB 2074 up for a vote prompts me to question Representative Barker’s commitment to the democratic process.  Let the House vote!


HB 2220 is not only a bad bill.  It is a fascist bill.  Faculty, students, and staff of Kansas Universities are overwhelmingly against campus carry.  And so, has the House Committee on State and Federal Affairs advanced HB 2074 — which would continue the exemption for universities and hospitals — so that the full House may vote on it?  No.  Instead, it is now considering HB 2220, which forces guns onto Kansas university campuses against the will of those who study and work there.

My question for the committee is this: Do you believe in democracy or don’t you?  Why not let the House vote on HB 2074?  Why advance this dangerous bill (HB 2220) instead?  There is no evidence that weaponizing campuses makes them safer.  In fact, quite the opposite is true — as many have told you before.  In a state where guns are not regulated (where owners of firearms do not even need to learn how to use their weapons), inviting them onto college campuses is reckless in the extreme.  You increase the risk of death by accident, and by intent — the likelihood of a successful suicide increases when firearms are accessible.  And you do not prevent mass shootings.  The “good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” is an alternative fact promoted by the NRA.  Think about it: in an active shooter situation, an untrained but armed person will magically be transformed into a superhero?  Really?  (Hint: NO, guns do not turn untrained civilians into superheroes.)  If the military does not allow guns in its classes (except for weapons-training classes) or in its barracks, why should colleges?  The military are trained professionals.  Faculty, students, and staff on college campuses are not — by design, since Kansas refuses to adopt even the modest provision that gun-owners learn how to use their guns.

Though I offer these thoughts as a private citizen, my opinions are informed by my job as professor at Kansas State University.  I have enjoyed my decade-and-a-half living and working in Kansas.  However, now that the legislature insists on endangering my life, and the lives of my colleagues and students, I find that I enjoy it much less. Indeed, in addition to seeking another job, I find that I have to spend valuable time trying to convince my state legislature not to kill us all.  So.  Oppose HB 2220.  Bring HB 2074 up for a full vote.

Thank you for your time and for your attention to this urgent matter.

Philip Nel

Manhattan, KS


Representative John BarkerKansans, please contact every member of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, but especially Representative John Barker

Tell him and them to exempt university campuses and hospitals from firearms.  Advance HB 2074 to the floor of the House for a vote.  Oppose HB 2220.


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

Finally, to any academics who may be reading this: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature? Well, seek no further! Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)  I’d love to hear from you!

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Killing Higher Education, Literally: Kansas’ Campus Carry

No guns (sign)Yesterday, in response to overwhelming support for rolling back Kansas’ insane campus carry law, Senator Jacob LaTurner‘s Kansas Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee decided instead to prevent the full senate from voting on Senate Bill 53 — a bill which would have exempted college campuses from their imminent weaponization. Would the full senate have supported the measure? The committee’s decision not to bring the bill before the full senate suggests that it would have had a fighting chance. (If they thought it would fail in the full senate, then sending it there to fail would at least look democratic. So, my reading is that, fearing the possibility of failure, the majority of the committee opted to thwart the will of the people.  Their allegiance is to the gun lobby and not to their constituents.)

There is, however, a Kansas House bill that offers a chance to bring this idea — exempting campuses from firearms — to the House for a vote.  If it passes a House vote, the bill would then get sent to the Senate for a vote.  Thus,… more testimony in Topeka this morning!  I cannot attend today’s hearing.  So, I have submitted my testimony in advance.  Here it is.


Statement in Support of HB 2074

My name is Philip Nel. I am a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University (though, of course, I am speaking here as a private citizen). I’ve happily called Manhattan home for over 16 years, but — in response to campus carry — I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be calling it home. The legislature’s decision to force firearms into our classrooms, offices, libraries, laboratories, and student centers has me looking for another job.

My specialty is Children’s Literature. There are not a lot of senior positions in my field. So, I cannot predict when my departure may be. I may be here for a while longer.

I first went on the market last year and received the offer of an endowed Chair in Children’s Literature at a top university in another country. I very much wanted to accept the offer, but my wife (also an English professor) was understandably unconvinced that there would also be an opportunity there for her. So, for her sake, I reluctantly turned it down.

If campus carry does arrive as planned, I could not turn down such an opportunity again. Perhaps she and I will have to live in separate states or countries until both of us find a way out of Kansas. I don’t know. I do know that guns endanger the lives of students, faculty, and staff. I know also that in college classrooms, we discuss difficult, contentious subjects. Armed students make these difficult, necessary conversations impossible to have. Concealed carry turns each student into a potentially armed student — and thus into an implied threat to fellow students. Fear inhibits discussion. Campus carry makes it impossible for me to do my job.

So, I’m seeking work elsewhere. Since that may not happen immediately, I am also applying for fellowships out of state (and out of the country). I like my job, and I love my colleagues. However, if the state of Kansas wants to make it impossible for me to do my job, then I’ll need to find a way to keep doing my job somewhere else.

The prospect of leaving great friends, colleagues, and students saddens me. The great people I work with are the main reason I’ve stayed here, despite the legislature’s and governor’s persistent defunding of public education. I’m more than willing to put up with Kansas’ ongoing efforts to kill higher education.

But when Kansas also wants to kill me and my colleagues and my students, then I want out.

So. I urge the legislature to vote yes on House Bill 2074. Thank you.

— Philip Nel, 1 February 2017


I would add here that if I am unable to find employment elsewhere, my stance remains unchanged.  Should students wish to take my classes, they will need to disarm.  Period.  I will never teach armed students.  That is not negotiable.

In fact, the fact that I should even have to make this argument offers some indication of how insane this state and this country have become.

So, dear reader: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature?  Well, seek no further!  Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line.  I’d love to hear from you!

And, Kansans: contact every member of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee. Tell them to exempt university campuses and hospitals from firearms.  Do it.  Now.  Silence is complicity.


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

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Testify! Keeping Kansas Universities Gun-Free

Today, supporters of Senate Bill 53 arrived in Topeka (Kansas’ capital), offering reasons for why firearms should not be invited onto our campus and into KU’s medical center. If you’re from a more rational U.S. state or from outside of the U.S., you may be wondering why bringing guns into classrooms is even being debated. But, as of July 1, our campuses will all be weaponized. And, yes, I am serious.  So, I and three colleagues — two professors, one graduate student — drove to Topeka together in support of a bill that, if passed, would continue to exempt universities and the med center from the Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act — the official name of Kansas’ “Guns Everywhere” law. (And, yes, I am familiar with George Orwell’s works. Why do you ask?)

Photo by Regan Tokos, Topeka Capitol Building, 26 Jan. 2017

As you can see from Regan Tokos’ photo (taken just before the hearing), above, the room was packed: standing room only, with many people spilling out into the hall.  We supporters of SB 53  far outnumbered those who sought to invite guns into our classrooms, libraries, dormitories, lecture halls, offices, and laboratories. Last night, I learned that 53 people had submitted testimony supporting the measure, and only 5 people had supported testimony against it.  The rules were: testimony must be submitted in advance in print (could not be emailed), and if you also wanted to testify in person, then you also had to phone or email Senator Jacob LaTurner‘s office to let them know you planned to testify.

Photo by Regan Tokos, Topeka Capitol Building, 26 Jan. 2017

Citing our large numbers, Senator LaTurner (who chairs the committee granting the bill a hearing) gave supporters of the bill only 90 seconds each. He granted opponents of the bill between 2 minutes and 4 minutes 30 seconds each. (Senator LaTurner opposes the bill.) So, we all abridged our remarks on the fly. Here is my full statement.  I managed to fit in points 2, 3, and 4 today at the hearing.


Statement in Support of SB 53

Good morning. My name is Philip Nel. I’ve called Manhattan home for over 16 years. And I’m here to urge the legislature to vote yes on Senate Bill 53. Though teaching at Kansas State University has certainly shaped my opinion on the subject, I’m here as a private citizen only. Here are five reasons you should support SB 53.

First, unlike other campus-carry states, Kansas doesn’t really regulate guns anymore — you don’t need a license or permit or even lessons on how to use a gun. Inviting unregulated firearms onto college campuses does not make students safer. It places them at greater risk. Accidents happen. Suicidal students with a gun are much more likely to succeed in killing themselves. College can be an emotionally volatile time. Adding unregulated guns is dangerous.

Second, the military does not allow guns in its barracks or its classrooms — unless the class is actually on how to use those guns. So, if trained professionals prohibit guns from their classrooms and living quarters, why should we invite people to arrive on a university campus or in a hospital armed but untrained?

Third, that whole “good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” notion is what we might call an “alternative fact.” In other words, a lie. Between 2000-2013, the FBI found only 1 of 160 active shooter incidents was stopped by a civilian with a concealed carry permit. Again, that’s 1 out of 160. In contrast, during that same period, 21 incidents were stopped by unarmed civilians. In fact, armed civilians are much more likely to get in the way of first responders than help them.

Fourth, in a university, we are armed with reason, not weapons. University classrooms have long been a safe space for students to discuss important, contentious subjects. Campus carry would change this dynamic profoundly. In a concealed-carry classroom, every student is a potentially armed student, and thus an unspoken threat to his fellow students. In other words, campus carry revokes the safety upon which freedom of speech depends.

Fifth and finally, if the legislature passes SB 53, then it will be helping universities and the KU medical center by making them places that attract talented people — rather than encouraging those people to decide that, because of campus carry, they would rather take a job in another state.  So, please vote yes on SB 53.

Thank you for your time.

— Philip Nel, 26 January 2017


 Thanks to LoudLight (who filmed this), you can see and hear all of the testimony.

Senator Tom Hawk (D-Manhattan) begins, and hits all of the main points of our argument — even, I was pleased to see, a citation of the Kansas State University Distinguished Professors’ opposition to campus carry.  You’ll hear activist extraordinaire (and KU grad student) Megan Jones at around 12 mins. in, K-State UDP Elizabeth Dodd at 15:45, yours truly at about 27, K-State Associate Professor Daniel A. Hoyt at 29:15, and K-State undergrad & general force-for-good Regan Tokos at around 45 mins.

What now? Well, we next need Senator LaTurner to have the committee pass the bill out of the committee for debate of the full senate, giving all senators a chance to debate its merits.  We also will need support from the house, and the governor.  Incidentally, inspired by Megan Jones, I spoke with Governor Brownback before the hearing. (Megan spotted Governor Brownback first, and went up to talk to him. She was swiftly followed by Elizabeth Dodd. I was next.) We all asked him to support the safety of faculty, students and staff. He was polite and non-committal, appearing receptive to our concerns. However and given his previous support for the “Guns Everywhere” law, I doubt that he will in fact support SB 53.

That said, I would very much like to be wrong, and so shall continue to speak up — and encourage you to do so, too! In particular, contact the members the Kansas Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, and encourage them to bring the bill to the full senate for a vote. Thank you!

Photo credits: Regan Tokos.

News coverage of today’s hearing [updated 8:35 pm, 27 Jan. 2017]:

Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

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The Public University in an Age of Alt-Facts: Remarks on Receiving a Higuchi Award

Brief remarks on the university in an age of misinformation, delivered today when I received a Higuchi Award.


It’s a great honor to be joining Professors Christer Aakeröy, Judith Carta, and Randolph Nudo in receiving recognition for our research. It’s especially meaningful to be receiving this recognition right now, at a moment when facts and the notion of policy based on facts are being pushed aside in favor of — oh, let’s call it alt-truth. As I’m sure you know, the incoming presidential administration has nominated a climate-change-denier to head the EPA. And yet, here we are today, honoring scientists, as we should be — honoring a pioneering scholar in rehabilitation medicine, and an international leader in crystal engineering and supramolecular chemistry. light bulbMeanwhile, in decisions being made outside of our hallowed halls, the nominee to oversee our nation’s public education system wants to dismantle it, replacing it with unregulated, for-profit charter schools. And yet we’re here today honoring a national leader in early childhood special education. As we should be. This incongruity between what we’re celebrating now and what we face in the very near future makes the Higuchi Award feel even more special — a bright light in the gathering darkness.

I have been feeling lately — and I would imagine that my fellow Higuchi honorees may share this feeling — that our work has become much more urgent than it was before November 9th. My next book — which is on racism in children’s literature — will appear a few months into an administration with a White supremacist Attorney General, a White supremacist Senior Advisor, and an Islamophobic National Security Advisor.1 As we’re entering this period of backlash, I continue to believe that diverse, inclusive children’s literature is one of the best places to imagine a better future. Stories we encounter when we are young, when we are selves in the process of being formed, have a lasting impact on the people we become. Stories tell children that they belong (or don’t belong) not only to a broader community of readers, but also in their neighborhoods, their schools, and their country. As we face a concerted federal effort to revoke civil rights, we can — and we must — nurture a new generation that is less susceptible to bigotry and the many wounds it inflicts. That’s something we can do in children’s literature, and anywhere in higher education.

Whatever our role in the university system, I think we now must imagine ourselves as keepers of values that we probably have taken for granted. We know that evidence-based reasoning, that carefully tested knowledge, that peer-reviewed scholarship best serves the public interest, and we will need to defend this value repeatedly over the next four (and possibly eight) years. We know that, to create new knowledge, we will also disagree, but that we will do so with civility and respect for those we disagree with. This value — of respectful disagreement and the compromises that may result — we will also need to defend, and to model for our students. We know, too, that knowledge is created by people of all races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and faiths (or absence of faith). Indeed, intellectual labor thrives in diverse communities such as those at KU and K-State. We will need to defend this value, too.2

So. Thanks to KU and the Higuchi family for supporting these values by supporting our research. My personal thanks to Jim Guikema for assembling my nomination, to Elizabeth Dodd for her support, and to Karin Westman for her love, encouragement, and extraordinary patience over the past 23 years. And thanks to all of you, not just for coming today, but — through your roles in Kansas higher education — for continuing to work for a state, a country and a world where research matters, where facts matter, where education matters, and where all of us can receive the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Thank you.

— Philip Nel, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 13 Dec. 2016


Endnotes

  1. Scott Pruitt is EPA nominee; Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education nominee; Jeff Sessions is Attorney General nominee; Steve Bannon is Senior Advisor; Gen Michael Flynn is National Security Advisor.
  2. Third paragraph draws from Greg Downey, “The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a research university.” Greg Downey 9 Nov. 2016.

Final note

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post something as (frankly) inconsequential as a thank-you-for-this-award speech. But, in these dark times, I have been finding it helpful to read others’ affirmation of our core values. We need to keep speaking out. We need to affirm our shared humanity, our belief in civic discourse, our certainty that facts matter. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to post these remarks.

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Unregulated, untrained, unsafe: campus carry at K-State (in the K-State Collegian)

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityIn addition to increasing the risk of suicide and fatal accident, armed students make other students uncomfortable and squelch debate. A university should be a safe place where students can discuss important but uncomfortable subjects, where they can engage in vigorous exchanges of ideas. Campus carry changes this dynamic: when every student is a student with a potential gun, an unspoken threat revokes the safety that sustains freedom of speech.

— me, from my op-ed in today’s K-State Collegian

I would also add this: without freedom of speech, the university ceases to function as a university. So, if you’ve an interest in Kansas State University continuing to be a university,… VOTE!  In the November elections, support candidates who oppose campus carry, and who are willing to either repeal or amend the so-called Personal and Family Protection Act (which would more accurately be described as the Guns! Guns! Everywhere! Act).

[The title of this blog post is the title under which I submitted the piece. It was published as “Permitting guns on campus is unsafe, disruptive to learning.”]

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Armed and Unsafe: Why Kansas Universities Must Reject and Not Adapt to Weaponized Campuses

As of July 1, 2017, the Kansas legislature is forcing all state universities to admit guns onto their campuses — classrooms, offices, laboratories, libraries, student unions, dormitories, counseling services. Everywhere. The Weapons Advisory Work Group has drafted a “University Weapons Policy,” and we have been invited to comment. If you’re employed by or attending Kansas State University, please submit your comments.  In case you need some inspiration, here is what I wrote.


No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityDear Weapons Advisory Work Group,

Thank you for the time you’ve spent crafting the University Weapons Policy — a thankless job with an unachievable goal. Thanks also for granting us the opportunity to review the draft of this policy.

The key problem — as you likely realized, while drafting this — is the state’s (sarcastically named?) Personal and Family Protection Act is impossible to implement safely. For instance, the University Weapons Policy states, “There are no University locations that have been designated as prohibiting concealed carry with permanent adequate security measures” (p. 3).  None?  Not even the nuclear reactor?  Or labs with volatile chemicals?

Yes, the “adequate security measures” written into the law are prohibitively expensive to implement. Those who drafted the law deliberately defined the “adequate security measures” in precisely this way. According to the law, buildings equipped with metal detectors and armed guards are the only locations where guns may be prohibited. To secure all buildings at Kansas State University (including Vet Med and the athletics buildings) would cost $110,419,000. The state of Kansas’ annual contribution to the university’s budget is approximately $160,000,000. In other words, only by devoting 69% of the state’s contribution to “adequate security measures” could the university legally secure entrances to all buildings. That’s unlikely to happen, and the legislators who voted for this bill know that.

No guns (sign)Perhaps the expense is why you’ve marked stadiums as an exception to the state’s campus carry policy: “To the extent adequate security measures are used to prohibit concealed carry into stadiums, arenas and other large venues that require tickets for admission, the tickets shall state that concealed carry will be prohibited at that event. Signs will be posted as appropriate” (p. 6). It’s a great idea to attempt to protect people from lethal weapons at football games. But could we not extend this language to the places where the business of the university actually gets done? If we’re willing craft such an exemption for the stadiums, then why not issue “no concealed carry” tickets for labs, classrooms, libraries, and offices?

I am also puzzled as to how the university will enforce this new weapons policy.  In Kansas, anyone over the age of 21 can legally conceal-carry without a permit, without training, and without a background check. As a result, the policy — while well-intentioned — does little to maintain the safety of the university’s students, faculty, and staff. For example, I appreciate the University’s attempt to provide guidelines for “Carrying and Storing Handguns” (p. 4) and for “Storage” (p. 5). But how will these guidelines be enforced?  The sanctions are a start: “Any individual who violates one or more provisions of this policy may be issued a lawful directive to leave campus with the weapon immediately” (6). But what would stop the individual from coming back another day?  And how will we discover that the Weapons Policy’s provisions have been violated?  The individual starts shooting people?  A gun goes off accidentally, and kills a classmate?  Also, if there is no Campus Police officer in my classroom (and there is almost never a Campus Police officer in my classroom), what actions should I take when confronting a student or faculty member who has begun shooting people?  If a shooter threatens my classroom, what might I do to minimize the carnage?

The problem here is that the law — and the University Weapons Policy it has inspired — still allows students to bring guns into classrooms, dormitories, dining facilities, counseling services, and faculty offices.  It’s great to stipulate (as the university policy does) that students & faculty cannot store guns in classrooms and faculty offices, but… guns can still be brought into classrooms and faculty offices.

So, if a student has a grade dispute, am I allowed to ask if he’s armed before making an appointment to meet him in my office?  Or would it be safer to just give him whatever grade he asks for?  For that matter, if all of us can carry weapons, under what conditions are we allowed to fire them?  If a student is acting in a way that makes an armed faculty member feel the need to defend himself or herself, when would the faculty member be justified in opening fire?  The weapons policy says that when “necessary for self-defense,” one can “openly display any lawfully possessed concealed carry handgun while on campus” (p. 3).  OK, but what’s the criteria for “necessary” here?  If we are armed (and, for the record, I do not plan to arm myself), when would it be acceptable to shoot?  Similarly, under what conditions would the shooting of a faculty member or staff member would be justified?  If we’re allowing guns on campus, then guns will be used on campus. We need to establish clear criteria for their use: “necessary for self-defense” is dangerously vague.

What provisions will the university be implementing for those who are particularly at risk? For instance, a student goes to Counseling Services: she’s feeling traumatized, after being raped by a weapons enthusiast who is also a fellow student. What will the university do to ensure that she feels safe in Counseling Services, in her dorm, or in her classes?  What provisions does the University Weapons Policy have for her?  I would also be interested to learn how the university plans to protect those classes in which students have necessarily uncomfortable discussions about subjects that elicit strong responses: racism, genocide, sexism, transphobia. How will the University Weapons Policy ensure that classrooms are a safe space to explore difficult subjects?  How will the policy address the fact that, when any classmate can potentially be carrying a weapon, we — students, teachers — are less likely to talk about challenging subjects? A university is supposed to encourage the free and open exchange of ideas, but concealed carry makes this exchange less free and less open. Where does the policy addresses this problem?

Indeed, why does the University Weapons Policy not mandate a warning on the university’s website?  People (students, faculty, staff) who are both armed and untrained pose a threat to the safety of those who study and work at the university. All should be warned that entering Kansas State University’s campus after July 1, 2017 is dangerous.  The university posts advisories for other hazards — thunderstorms, tornados, and the recent “boil advisory,” when a power failure compromised the town’s water supply. Why not an advisory for the increased risk of gun violence?

Advisories: Campus Carry KSU

I understand why the weapons policy has been drafted, but it is insufficient. I realize that your mandate has been to comply with this law, even though the law itself poses a risk to the safety of all who work and study here. However, there are times when, given an absurd and dangerous task, you are morally obliged to question what you have been asked to accomplish instead of simply surrendering to its absurdity. Apply the critical thinking we teach here to the task of creating a University Weapons Policy. The university’s response to Kansas’ “Personal and Family Protection Act” should be: “No. We cannot both comply with this law and ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff. Indeed, inviting guns onto campus is incompatible with the mission of this university. With the exception of campus security or research involving weapons, guns have no place on campus.  Period.”

Sincerely yours,

 

Philip Nel

University Distinguished Professor

Director, Program in Children’s Literature

Department of English


Kansas State University

Guns in Higher Education

General Resources

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For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

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Just a Shot Away (in Inside Higher Ed)

When the state legislature decides to weaponize our classrooms, how do we respond? What should we do when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy?

Inside Higher Ed logoI tackle these questions in “Just a Shot Away,” published today in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s the opening:

        Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State — and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was, and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.

Students, faculty members, and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it — until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015), or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, fifteen wounded, May 2014). Then, we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.

As I say, the rest is over at Inside Higher Ed. No subscription required.


Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control

Activism Against Campus Carry in Kansas

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