A Fight For The Soul Of My Classroom

by Tiffani Knowles
Courtesy of Tiffani Knowles

The fight was a doozie. In all of my 10 years teaching at the college level, I had never refereed such a brutal verbal fracas between two students on either side of the aisle.

Okay, maybe my public speaking students in 2011 tussled about whether New York City was better off with Giuliani as mayor because he cracked down on crime with a “successful” stop and frisk campaign. And maybe my debate students got a bit heated in 2014 when they jousted about whether same-sex marriage was a step above bestiality. A foul word here. A slip of the tongue there. But, my classroom has always been civil.

Until this semester.

It is further proof that character matters both on Main Street and on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Here’s what happened.

My university offered a flex learning plan this semester, allowing students to opt for either online learning or in-classroom learning. Most have chosen the former (for obvious reasons). But for those who choose to come into the classroom, the university required them to wear a mask for the duration of the class session.

One student, who made infrequent appearances inside the classroom (he usually reports online) said he believed that COVID-19 was being blown out of proportion.

“Do we really have to wear masks?” he’d ask.

I told him it was a mandate but he argued that “it’s just like the flu and it’s not a big deal.”

Since it was a media publishing class and the students read each other’s work online, everyone knew of his penchant for Trumpism. He blogged frequently about how the liberal media was pushing an anti-Trump agenda. We knew where he stood. But, as a professor of digital media, my goal is never to censor my students as long as there is a clear audience for their niche. And there was.

However, when he admitted to having COVID and coughing loudly while saying it, two other students were visibly disturbed by his flippancy. I know I was. This coupled with the content of his blog was enough to alarm us. What’s more, every time he’d show up, he’d forget about our social distancing rules, sitting just inches away from students, and he’d often pull his mask down below his chin to cough.

I found myself apologizing to the other learners for his behavior.

Still, he deserved instruction. Did he not?

I encouraged his conservative voice and pushed him to fact-find and hyperlink claims, keeping with the principles of modern digital journalism.

Then, it happened — the day that what was bubbling just underneath the surface and finally escalated to a fever pitch.

For the sake of the story, we will call the conservative blogger Student 1, and the other person involved Student 2.

Courtesy of Tiffani Knowles

Student 1: What’s the professor’s email address? (taking his mask down and leaning in to a female student nearby) What is it?

Student 2 begins inching away.

Student 1: Why are you being so rude? You’re so rude.

Student 2: I’m not rude. You’re rude. Stop getting so close to me.

Student 1: You’re f****** rude. Why don’t you go back where you came from?

Me: No, no, no. That was inappropriate. You cannot say things like that in this classroom.

Student 2: What??!!! You’re f****** racist. Just because I’m Latina that does not mean I don’t have the right to be here.

Student 1: I’m not a racist. I just meant for you to go somewhere else.

They continue on like this with more expletives and words that were designed to belittle the other. I attempted to remain unruffled enough to continue my lecture. All the while, though, I am burning up inside. I hated that I couldn’t come more vehemently to Student 2’s defense.

Coming from an immigrant family, I too may be included in the segment of the population that Student 1 and his political icon wanted to “send back to where they came from.” My mother is from Jamaica and my father is from the Bahamas. I’m pretty sure one of these nations are classified as s***hole countries.

Courtesy of Tiffani Knowles

But, Student 1 deserved impartial instruction. So, I served as a referee instead of a racial justice activist.

Eventually, Student 2 became so upset that she left the classroom in tears and went to report the incident to the Dean of Students.

My concern is a simple one. I will never silence a student who has out-of-pocket views in my classroom, either right or left. But, the ability to have a civil disagreement, to respectfully disagree with someone, to give your opponent a piece of your mind and still leave them with the dignity with which they entered the discourse is no longer required, it seems. I ask you. Where did my student learn to go for the jugular that way — to attack a person’s ethnic origin? And what made my other student feel so targeted that she couldn’t address the ignorance with kindness? This sort of ad hominem jousting was never customary in my classroom until now because at an institution of higher learning, there is an expectation of a higher order of decency.

Not so in the presidential office, not so at a White House press conference, not so at a presidential debate. So, why so in the college classroom, the students must ask themselves.

What we saw were disgraceful attempts at debate and uncouth rhetoric shouted out at rallies to curry favor with a group that polarizes this nation.

This is my statement and I’m sticking to it. If ever there was a need for decency, compassion and fairness to be reinstated at the executive level of our country, today is the day.

Considerable damage has already been done. That I know. But now, we repair, we rebuild and we renew our minds. We must do this for those who have been called to sit in public office, and we must do this for those who have been called to sit in the classroom next semester.