Slant the Truth by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonSeems to me that our society nowadays “believes in” slavishly following step-by-step instruction found in “how-to” manuals.  By following such rigid-like instruction, we hope to find meaning that enables us to live fulfilled lives.  This became evident to me (all over again) during a recent departmental meeting at the university where I teach.  We put aside discussion of items on the agenda because our director had invited a guest speaker, the Vice President of the Division for Inclusive Excellence, to talk to our group about “equity and inclusivity.”

In the wake of the University of Missouri students’ complaints (Fall 2015) regarding persistent racism (among other things) and their demand for more inclusion within the university, a group of students recently made their way into our university president’s office to demand change.  More Black professors.  More Black counselors.  Cultural training on campus.  After listening to the students, the president invited them to participate in an upcoming forum on diversity and inclusion, promising that his staff would work to get them excused from class. 

This is some of the context from which sprouted the need to use our meeting time to insure that we (the faculty) possessed the necessary tools to be inclusive as we teach our students.  In addition to the office of the Division for Inclusive Excellence, our university has created the Council for Inclusive Excellence and Equity, the Inclusive Learning Council, and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Why, with all of these inclusive, multicultural, and equity offices in no short supply throughout the university, do some students still feel disenfranchised?  Why do these offices, set up exclusively to deal with the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, seem to be failing at their job?  I observed some things during our meeting the other day with the Vice President of the Division for Inclusive Excellence.

The Vice President asked, “What are some things you [faculty] do to insure that students feel included?”  “Do you let students know that some material you will be covering is sensitive?”  “Do students feel they have a safe space in your classes to speak?”  “Do you have a structure in place that assures students that what they say is important enough to matter?”  Several faculty members responded enthusiastically, ever so eager to show her that they did indeed fit neatly under the rubrics she outlined.  She seemed to be looking for “formulas,” some kind of “fail safe” measure we plugged into that would assure her that students were indeed “included” as we went about our business of teaching.  The Vice President’s next move was to recommend we hold workshops, discussion groups, and dialogue sessions to work on the problem of diversity and inclusivity on our campus.

I am convinced that in order to accomplish that broad, worthy, (and I believe feminist) goal of inclusivity in our institutions, we cannot employ the same methodology manufacturers of “put-it-together-yourself” furniture use in their instruction manuals.  There is something mysterious (in the spiritual sense of the word) at work when a teacher opens up subject matter in the classroom.  Our goal is to enable students to think critically while contemplating a wide variety of perspectives.  Students do not arrive there by joining “Piece A” (shown in the diagram) to “Piece B.”  These special committees and councils we’ve set up on college campuses to achieve inclusivity and equity rely on a “how-to manual” approach to achieve “inclusivity”–a goal that eludes us as more and more committees and councils insist on a formulaic fix.

In a university classroom, reflecting on material through research, writing, and discussion cannot be scripted or “pinned down” like an instruction manual does.  Emily Dickinson’s poem comes to mind:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Finding “Truth” (and isn’t this what we are about in the university?) cannot be discovered by implementing the formula. We realize “Truth” (dazzling us gradually) through creating and looking at art, writing and attending plays, reading and discussing lots of books and then reflecting (writing, performing, and reading some more) on it all. Expanding our worldview is often accompanied by a sense of discomfort, disorientation, and even alienation–symptoms surely to ease as we continuously put ourselves in that fluid position of being gradually be-dazzled.  Formulas, set in stone as they most often are, cannot accomplish this.

College and university classrooms have traditionally been sacred (set apart) spaces where transformation happens.  It is happening less and less in that venue.  We’ve come to value our didactic “how-to” manuals and seem unaware of their inability to reach our hearts–the locus of transformation.  Hearts do not become soft and malleable–able to embrace inclusivity and other such goals–by issuing directives.  The best we can hope for from that scenario is a patina.  See how shiny we look.  Scratch the surface, though, and we find the same ole’ dull structure underneath.

Our university president reflected this patina in his statement to the students who met with him recently when he invited them to participate in a forum on diversity and inclusion, assuring them that his staff would work to get them excused from classes–that very space where potential for transformation exists.  Forums on diversity and inclusion, attacking problems with formulas as they are wont to do, inevitably result in page after online page of dense, obfuscating prose called policy.  Look, everybody, here are your “fail-safe” measures to insure “inclusivity in the classroom.”  There doesn’t seem to be any understanding of Emily Dickinson’s line, “Success through Circuit lies.”

When we focus on enacting rules and policies at the expense of opening up to the possibility of transformation, we’ve put the cart before the horse.  Carts cannot show us the way.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Academy, Activism, Education, General

Tags: , ,

6 replies

  1. Teaching teachers to be sensitive to issues raised by students is a start but only a start. Teachers could be taught why it is important to allow students to identify with characters other than the protagonist and for them to care about things other than “great prose style.” Rebecca Solnit speaks of being told she is and was wrong to identify with Lolita. But not to identify with Lolita is to collude with the status quo that says it isn’t so bad to abuse a child if great thoughts or great prose are provoked by such acts or by thinking about such acts. Teachers could also be taught to allow students to ask about the life of Sally Hemmings and to raise questions about how great a man Jefferson really was.

    But these questions cannot be “contained.” Ultimately they provoke questions about what great literature, great prose, and great acts in history really are and who gets to do the defining. As long as the canon stays the same, slanted questions can be no more than sidelines to the central conversation.

    Unless we allow such questions undermine the whole edifice that is known as “canon” in both western and eastern traditions.

    So you are right that a few meetings and a few workshops in sensitivity will not solve the problem.

    Only putting the victims of western and eastern history first and looking for their authentic voices can do that.


    • Thanks, Carol, for your comment. I am reminded of the late Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, who is probably best known for his book, THINGS FALL APART. He told Bill Moyers about being awakened in one of his university classes (in the UK) when the professor was expounding on Joseph Conrad’s famous, “canonical” book, HEART OF DARKNESS. Chinua, at the time, identified with the British protagonist on the steamship traveling along the Congo River. And then it hit him, his professor (and others) placed him (Chinua) with the “savages” jumping up and down on the shore. That aha moment spurred him to eventually write THINGS FALL APART, a story that puts Okonkwo, a leader in his own tribe, at the heart of the narrative. It’s not a perfect work, however, I think it does well by questioning the status quo.

      We’ve a long way to go.


  2. Thanks Esther! I love your insight where you say: “carts cannot show us the way.”

    And I know, from my own experience, how tiresome it is to drag around all that baggage!! Emily Dickinson had a most endearing, wisdom-filled philosophy of the small — her poetry could sometimes turn a warrior into the innocence of a little child — she says:

    His Helmet, is of Gold,
    His Breast, a Single Onyx
    With Chrysophrase, inlaid.

    His Labor is a Chant —
    His Idleness — a Tune —
    Oh, for a Bee’s experience
    Of Clovers, and of Noon!


  3. Thank you, Sarah. Emily had a keen insight into the heart and meaning of life.


  4. Sounds like the administrators have hit a goldmine with “equity and inclusivity”. So many administrators to conduct meetings, write up policy,coordinate with other committees- and then excusing the students to meet with administrators and create policy! With all these administrators, who needs teachers?


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