Friday, January 16, 2009

Annoyed by the Inauguration

The first email has come. A student wanting to know whether we'd be watching the inauguration in class Tuesday because zie doesn't want to miss this "historic moment" blah blah blah but it would be a shame to have to miss class, especially given the attendance policy in the course.

First, let's just note for the record that I do not teach any of the following:
  • American politics
  • American History
  • Some sort of class on media
  • Journalism
  • Speech
  • A class focused on issues surrounding race
No, I teach literature. And in the class that will conflict with the inauguration? Absolutely nothing on the syllabus is even American. And we've just begun a long book and I really need to get the students discussing it in depth. Because, you know, it's my job to teach them what's on the syllabus.

But. This is a "historic moment" blah blah blah. And yet, we live in a world where you can watch anything you want on the computer any time you want. Perhaps I'd feel differently if they wouldn't be able to see this "historic moment" unless we watched it, but the reality is that they will be able to see it. Doesn't that make a difference?

It also would be different if we could just quickly watch the actual historic thing, which is the swearing in. But that happens at noon, and the class won't have started. No, we'd be watching the inauguration speech. Which, I'm sorry, is not a historic moment. Speeches happen every damn day. And we've all seen Obama give uplifting and inspiring speeches for years now. And again, it's not as if one won't be able to watch this particular speech at one's convenience later.

But then, how does one tell a student, "look, it ain't happening" without seeming like a total a) killjoy, b) shrew, c) Obama-hater (which of course I'm not), d) enemy of hope, e) enemy of the excited young people, f) all of the above?

What are you guys going to do about this issue, if, indeed, you just so happen to be teaching at that time? For the time being, I've just ignored the students' email. This, however, is not a permanent solution.


Jenny Davidson said...

I strongly share your irk! We start back next week, so Tuesday's the first day of classes - my upper-level undergrad seminar has its first meeting from 2:10-4 that afternoon - and SEVERAL students have written to say that they will not be there because they will be at the ACTUAL inauguration, but I know some others are going to be so mesmerized by the television spectacle that they do not show up! It is being broadcast on a huge screen in the Columbia quad - hmmmm.... grumpiness!

Unknown said...

Cupcakes and tv. It's a Woolf class. No connection, but, it meets 11:30-12:45 and I want to see it live.


No irk here.

Much joy.

LumpenProf said...

I am not facing this bind, but this inauguration is like the first moon landing. It is historic in its own right. It has nothing to do with if it dovetails with your subject matter. Nothing any of us has to say in our classes will measure up to the importance of this day and the importance of this speech. Sometimes teaching by example can be more eloquent than any lecture. Cancel your class. Watch the ceremony. Listen to the man speak.

AcadeMama said...

I actually have a student in my senior seminar who'll be missing the entire first week of class because she'll be attending the inauguration and its associated balls and receptions (she was an Obama staffer during the primaries). Clearly, this is important in terms of employment decisions she'll be making when she graduates this spring, so I feel like, as long as she's able to pick up the slack and make up the readings outside of class, then it's probably not going to hurt anything.

Now, the watching on t.v.?? Isn't that what Tivo is for? Seriously, even history can be recorded these days, so it's not like students won't have a chance to watch it later. I definitely don't think class plans should be changed; we usually end up running out of time in a semester anyway.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Can you blame it on school policy? You could say, "I'm sorry, but school policy forbids me cancelling a class, even for a historic moment" or "I'm sorry, but we have a syllabus, which is a legal document, which has promised to you that we'll be covering ____ on that day."

Or maybe I've just always taught at much more legalistic places, where I really could have gotten in some amount of trouble for cancelling a Literature class just for the sake of current events :)

Historiann said...

Stick to your guns. Presumably students won't fail if they miss one class. Let them know that it won't be an excused absence, and remind them that it won't be a problem so long as they don't miss too many classes later on in the term.

I'm sorry to disagree with LumpenProf on this, but please--those of you who are Democrats and Obama supporters, just imagine that it's January 2005 and a Republican student or faculty wrote to you to urge you to turn your class over to George W. Bush: "Nothing any of us has to say in our classes will measure up to the importance of this day and the importance of this speech. Sometimes teaching by example can be more eloquent than any lecture. Cancel your class. Watch the ceremony. Listen to the man speak."

Your students who are Democrats and/or Obama fans can watch it live or (as many of you have noted) on TiVo, YouTube,, etc. Your students who aren't Democrats or Obama fans will be happy to attend class as scheduled. I am an American historian, and although I'm not teaching T-Th this term, I wouldn't turn on the TV Tuesday in my class. (And p.s. to LumpenProf: one man's political fortunes are not transformative! The "historic nature" of Obama's presidency is yet unknown--he has to, you know, *be* the president before we can judge!)

Dr. Crazy said...

Some more context: part of what irked me about the email was that the student noted that zie wanted to watch it in class so as not to have to use an absence on the 3rd class meeting because zie gets sick a lot. (Not a chronic illness or anything - just apparently is susceptible to the common cold? And so anticipates missing class whenever is feeling under the weather? This is also the student who is planning to miss class because of hir birthday.)

As I've been thinking more about it, I wouldn't be opposed to taking, say, 20-30 minutes of class time to watch Obama speak, if it would then be possible to move on from that and to get some work done. The problem is, I don't think that there will be any recovery if we watch any of the coverage, and since it's week 2, I can't afford to lose the class meeting. (I'd be less irked if it were the first class mtg - I'd pass out the syllabus and that would be that - no conflict.)

I'm still not sure what I'll do. I do have one idea for how I could have them watch it and then connect it to the course, but that might not go over terribly well. Ah well. I'll let you all know what happens.

Historiann said...

Dr. Crazy: keep in mind, this is ONE request from ONE student. I would consider it more seriously if it didn't seem like a case of special pleading. But, if there's not a groundswell to watch TV in class next week, then why privilege one student's interests?

Dr. Crazy said...

Ann - Well, totally. That's part of the reason I just let the email lie rather than making a quick decision. Let's see whether any other students inquire about the possibility. But also, I'm in a very conservative area, and your point about the politics of taking the whole class period to watch the events are part of why I bristled at the request. Eh. Whatever. I'm on vacation until Monday :)

Rose said...

I cancelled my class. I want to see it myself, in real time, and I'm happy that so many of my students are so interested in the election. If McCain had won, I may also have cancelled class.

life_of_a_fool said...

I don't have this conflict since our classes haven't started yet. I did let a class listen to Kerry's concession speech after the last election; I felt a little weird about it, because it did seem to impose my politics on them more than I would normally. But I was upset about it, and I wanted to hear it, so. . .I don't know what I'd do here.

What stuck out for me though was the part about how the student thinks it would be a shame to miss class, b/c of the attendance policy, not because he/she doesn't want to miss the substantive part of the class. That, especially given the elaboration of this student that you added in the comments, would make me really resistant to change your plan b/c of this request. Whatever you decide to do, for whatever reason, *this* request is lame.

Rokeya said...

Would you feel differently if it were Hillary?

LumpenProf said...

Folks, the inauguration of our first African-American President IS historic. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. It's about us all. I find the idea of telling students to TiVo the event incredibly soulless and it strikes me as presumptuous to imagine that we might have something more important to say to our students on a Tuesday. Be real.

Unknown said...

If the student wishes to miss a class, so be it. It's a choice that an adult can make and it comes with whatever consequence it carries. Students choose to miss class to sleep, to attend track meets, to spend treasured hours with their sweeties...and yet, I teach because it is my job to do so and people pay the college money to receive instruction from me at a specific time and place, regardless of what I'd rather be doing or what's on TV.

Yes, it's a historic moment. I'm personally moved by it. But I'll be teaching as scheduled and if my students find themselves glued to the TV, they'll have missed exactly one class as they are permitted to do without penalty. And I'm ok with that.

Susan said...

Well, we told the clinic that my husband would be late for his Tuesday appointment because he was going to watch the speech first. But I wouldn't hijack the class. And while part of me buys the "historic" line, I actually HATE the term. We won't know what's "historic" for a long time..

Dr. Crazy said...

Some quick responses:
1) Yep, I'd feel the same way if Hillary had won, because in order to get in enough books in a novels class in a semester given the amount my students will read, I need every single class day. They've got 150 pages to read for next class. I honestly will feel like a jerk if we don't discuss any of it, and there's a lot about that material that we need to discuss in order to move forward. We can't afford to fall behind this early and be where we need to be by the time that they need to start on their research projects.

2) My attendance policy is such that every student get's the equivalent of one week's worth of free absences that they can use for any reason - no need to consult me about whether their reason is worthy - with no penalty, i.e., two free absences for a class that meets twice a week. The politically energized could without any penalty at all to their grades make a choice to watch the inauguration in its entirety, which we wouldn't be able to do on Tuesday in my class, as the class period doesn't match up with the inauguration schedule.

3) I wonder where we draw the line with what counts as historical when it comes to the ceremonial stuff. I think that disagreement about that is where the disagreement in the thread comes from. I agree that Obama being sworn in is a historic moment. I think that the speech, on the other hand, can't be evaluated as history-making or of historical significance until we see what happens because of it. I don't think that the concert tomorrow or the parade following the speech have any historical value at all. I think they are pomp and circumstance. Nice, ritualistic, but not exactly "history-making." Others may disagree. I don't think that this disagreement means that anyone on either side is "soulless" or "soulful" though, and frankly, I don't appreciate the implication in my comments that I or others who comment regularly on my blog are "soulless." So let's keep the name-calling to a minimum.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and one last thing: I don't find the suggestion that people can watch this stuff later if they're interested offensive at all, mainly because I don't think that watching something on TV is the same thing as being there or the same thing as participating in it. To me, if I'm not actually there, what exactly is the difference between watching it on a screen at 12:15 and watching it on a screen at 3PM when I'm done teaching? I recognize all people might not agree with me on this, but just because I'm not watching in real time doesn't mean it's not really happening.

(This is not to discount the desire of some to watch it in real time. I understand the impulse, and I can see where some would prefer this - sort of like preferring to watch the Olympics when they really are happening as opposed to in prime time. I just think it's important to be clear that this is a preference that has nothing to do with people being more or less politically committed or civically engaged.)

Historiann said...

"Soulless." Well, this is what happens when people believe their support for one candidate is evidence of their personal virtue. Anyone who doesn't evince the same level of devotion to the candidate is clearly lacking in virtue, patriotism, and humanity.

Dems resented this rhetoric when the Republicans created a cult of personality around Bush, ca. 2001-05. They should be skeptical when they hear it coming from within their tent, too.

LumpenProf said...

Ann, this is the second time on this thread you've basically called me a partisan hack. Please stop. We're about to inaugurate the first African-American President in our nation's history. It's kind of a big deal. This is an event that will mean a great deal to many of our students and I think we do them a disservice by making them choose between their grades and joining in with the rest of country in witnessing the event. It has nothing to do with Democrats versus Republicans. Nor has it anything to do with who I supported in the election or the primaries, and still less with any cult of personality surrounding Obama himself. For what it's worth, my reason for preferring canceling class to showing it during class is precisely because I'm hesitant to impose my values so directly on students. By giving them time, though, it is up to them to decide. Some may sleep in. Fine. But others will want to see and hear. I will recant my harsh remarks concerning TiVo. Perhaps there's a more soulful use of this technology that I'm simply unaware of. But please reconsider your rhetoric here. What will happen on Tuesday is something none of us has ever seen before. Taking a brief pause in our busy schedules to acknowledge this milestone does not seem out of place. I know many of my colleagues will be teaching during the speech. I won't think any of less of them for doing so. I certainly won't take it as any sign of my own personal virtue. But I would give them the same encouragement I am offering here. This moment is worth noticing.

Dr. Crazy said...

The point, LP, is not that TiVo (or whatever other technology) is "soulful" or that there are "soulful" uses of it. The point is that it's a tool that makes it unnecessary to cancel class to watch a ceremony in real time. Maybe you don't like the tool, but I don't think anybody is arguing that to use these technologies in this way has anything to do with their souls.

Finally, a "brief pause" does not equal half of a week's work of classes in my head. A brief pause - like watching the actual swearing in - I would be totally on board with. Spending all of class watching the speech and connecting material and talking heads? Yeah, I think that does a disservice to my students. Also, my students are adults. If adults in the working world - where these students are headed - want to watch the inauguration, most would have to take a sick day or personal day (if that's even an option). Otherwise, they have to go to work. The world isn't shutting down on inauguration day, and adults have to make choices about how they will mark this day. That doesn't mean that people who don't "notice" in the way that you suggest aren't "noticing" the moment - just that they're not doing it in a way that you acknowledge as counting.

Historiann said...

Lumpenprof, I have not called anyone names. I also have not suggested that there's only one way that people should observe Inaguration Day. You are the only person in this thread who is imposing a test of historical seriousness and patriotic correctness. If you choose to watch the Inaguration in class, bully for you. No one has suggested that your choice is illegitimate. However, you have hurled names at those who are making different choices. I think we should respect each other's ability as scholars and teachers to do what's right for our classes, and I'm unwilling to condemn others if their choices are different from mine.

Dr. Crazy, thanks for this post and fostering a discussion of this issue.

Rokeya said...

Coming back to this post, I'm shocked that you don't consider the inauguration speech of the first black president of the United States to be an "historic" moment. What are your criteria for judging the swearing in to be the "real" historic moment, but not the inauguration? Speeches do "happen every damn day," as you say, but presidential inauguration speeches do not. The criteria here seem pretty slippery. I simply cannot see how anyone could deny that this is a huge, indeed historic moment. I actually don't really care whether or not you want to cancel your class for this (so I apologize for changing the focus of the conversation here). If I were your student, I would not come to that class. The first black president of the U.S., a country that was built upon the labor of black slaves, is giving his inauguration speech. I'm simply stunned at what I see as the amount of denial going on here about how important this is. I don't see you as a killjoy, shrew, Obama-hater, or any of the other things you listed (and in fact, isn't each of those an exaggerated response you're constructing for people who might disagree with you?). I am, however, seriously questioning how you are defining what counts as historic--and the reasons behind your rationale for how you apply that standard. Yes, those reasons would get into your thoughts about the racial history of this country.

I mean this as a respectful comment, btw. I figure I should say that since some of the name-calling and bickering in this thread has just gotten silly. That's not what I want by offering this comment.

Cranky said...

Speaking as a 61 year old white man, I do consider this to be rather special. Frankly, if you really feel that in 20 years your students will be glad that they sat in your class instead of watching this inauguration, you must be teaching a hell of a class.

P said...

This is not an argument about whether or not one should let students watch the speech. It's just a little point about the idea that this event is historic. I know speeches in politics are inherently "fluffy," but the election and inauguration of an African American to the presidency is definitely historic. For a nation that was built on the backs of slaves (and immigrants), most definitely. So, I don't think you'll get very far if you argue against showing it in class by claiming that "it's just a speech" and "inaugural presidential speeches" are not historic. That strikes me as a bit unbelievable, actually, especially given the incredible nature of this moment in our nation's, um, 'history'?

FWIW, I teach on MWF so I don't have to worry about whether or not to show it. If I were teaching T/TH, I'm not sure what I'd do. I just know I wouldn't tell students that this speech isn't historic, that's all.

Dr. Crazy said...

Just a quick comment: it's not that I think that the speech does not have historic value. If I've given that impression, I think it's because of my resistance against feeling like I'm being told there is only one way to handle this situation and that I'm a bad citizen if I do otherwise. For what it's worth, I think that this speech will be important - definitely in the short term and most likely historically - and I intend to watch it after I'm done teaching and likely I'll glance at the transcript, too. I'm just not convinced that watching something on television in real time a) makes a person a participant in historical events (just like watching a football game on tv doesn't mean that one is actually playing in the football game) or b) that there is no way to acknowledge the historic nature of this moment without effectively canceling a class (whether by actually canceling it or by not doing work of the course on that day).

At any rate, I wanted to clarify because seriously: I'm not arguing that this is not important or that it's just a day like any other day. If I've seemed that way it's because a) I was really irritated by the student's email for the reasons that I noted in this comment thread and b) because I really resist being told that there's only one way to be a good citizen or to honor a moment or whatever. There are lots of ways - and, in fact, I kind of think that what I'll teach in class on Tuesday will be a nice *addition* to all of the current events stuff and will help students to think about those events in a different way. If I were teaching at 9 AM, I would be *excited* about how the work of the class would intersect with the events of Tuesday, and so I've been wondering why I have to throw that work of the class out because of timing when there are other ways to get to watch the inaugural stuff without doing that.

Also: I'm totally happy if students choose to miss class on Tuesday to do inaugural stuff. That's why I have a flexible attendance policy. But I don't think that the world should stop because they choose to do something else, just as I wouldn't think the world should stop if they chose to miss class for another reason.

All of that said, I still haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do on Tuesday. I think I'm going to decide right in the moment, after consulting with my students about what they'd like to do. I think the two options will be to give a half hour to the inauguration and then to move on to the regular work of the class or to just have regular class. Both of those options can work, so whatever.

P said...

Your clarification makes total sense. And I agree that if somebody casts you as a "bad citizen" because you decide not to show the speech in class, then pooh on them. Seriously!

I'm still seduced, though, by the idea that watching the event on TiVo just isn't the same as watching it live. It's like, of course, I'm not a participant if I watch it on television. Of course not. But watching it hours after the event? I could see why for a student who is completely invested in this occasion - black or white or brown -- the idea of watching it on an internet feed or from TiVo would be sad and miss the point.

life_of_a_fool said...

I don't think you're entirely right that working people will have to choose between taking a personal or sick day to watch live or go to work. I was thinking this morning that if i still had a "normal" job, I'd totally let people I supervised watch live -- for the inauguration itself and the speech. After that, it'd be on their own time. I'm betting a lot of people will be watching at work.

I also think there's something to be said for feeling a part of a community by watching live. There are levels -- with the "highest" level being physically there, and the "lowest" level not watching at all. Watching at the same time as others (especially with others) can be powerful, even if you're not physically present.

That said, your point about this equalling half a week's worth of material is a very valid one. An hour or so out of a work day isn't that big a deal; an unexpected half a week's of class can be.

And, I totally agree that a) there's no one right or good answer, and b) your specific student's request is lame and that would make me cranky about the whole thing. I do like your idea of giving them an option to spend part of class on that. In a way, you've got an option built in through your attendance policy. . .

(I do think, though, that I would feel obligated to hold class, because as the instructor, I don't get the two "free" absences that the students get.)

Professor Zero said...

I'd have wanted to see it. I don't teach at that time, and usually I don't cancel class for anything, but the one time in college a prof canceled a class for an event I learned a *lot* ... I might have taken a vote on it in this case ... I note that in some countries this day was a made holiday so people could watch, maybe it should be here.

Dr. Crazy said...

For what it's worth, we listened to the speech in class. They would have watched it, but the technology did not cooperate with me (indeed, the "smart" classrooms are not smart enough to get live feeds over the internet, and yet, there are no TVs). And then we went on to discuss the reading for the day. My irritation was more at the student's email because of other things related to that student. I'm glad that we listened to the speech, I'm also glad that we didn't cancel all of class for all of the talking heads stuff. I think what we did in class intersected in great ways with the historical moment and with the speech, and so it all worked out great. My resistance in this post (and then later in this thread) is that I'm not sure that it was *required* that all professors in all circumstances should watch the inauguration instead of regular work. That said, I'm glad we all listened (though it would have been nicer to have the technology to watch).