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Practicing Peace on a Weaponized Campus
I grew up in Alberta, where my family has a 640-acre cattle ranch in the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies. I learned to shoot gophers with a .22, to chase cattle on horseback, to brand and castrate and tattoo calves. I went to school with the children of the oil industry; during the energy crisis of the 1970s, neighbors’ cars sported bumper stickers reading “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark.” It’s a place I fondly call the Texas of Canada.
Now I live in the liberal heart of Austin, in a house with solar panels on the roof. The family beneath that roof includes my wife Madge, artistic director of the experimental theater company Rude Mechs; our teenage boys, Max and Milo; and Madge’s eighty-seven-year-old mother, a military widow Madge’s friends fondly call Colonel Barb. Colonel Barb drives herself to Catholic mass every week and voted for Trump. She presides over our Sunday family dinner, which each week includes our friend Jon, who donated his sperm so I could give birth to our kids. Max and Milo call him Dodo for donor, and so does their half-sister Millie, who joins us with her mother, a single straight woman. Sometimes Jon brings a boyfriend.
We have a rule that we don’t talk about politics at the table, but as a friend remarked after sharing one Sunday evening with us, “You sure do talk about everything else.”
I don’t have the luxury of avoiding conflict, is what I’m saying.
One thing I love about my job as a professor is that every day I get to create a laboratory for healthy conflict. Whether they know it or not, students go to college to conduct field experiments on their own lives. Especially in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts, a college classroom is a place to come face-to-face with the record of human knowledge and ignorance, greatness and failure, beauty and ugliness. Just as at the family dinner table, we can all get pretty uncomfortable in a college classroom. We can all say things we regret. And I very much include myself here.
But in my classroom, we get to practice speaking to one another, not just to be heard but to discover thoughts and feelings we may not have noticed beneath our habits and beyond others’ expectations of us. We get to practice listening in order to really hear one another, not to defend our own positions but in the hopes of interacting more skillfully with people and ideas.
The Security We Need
This kind of speaking and listening is some of the hardest work we can do as human beings, and some of the most valuable and rewarding. Lately, though, it’s been challenging in new ways. First, Senate Bill 11, the law that allows students to bring concealed firearms into university classrooms, went into effect on August 1, 2016. Then we experienced an especially divisive election season and inauguration. The University of Texas (UT) has seen demonstrations, walkouts, resignations, and the horrible murders of two students in two separate on-campus incidents.
We’re all on edge, and my students are rattled. The day the guns-in-classrooms law went into effect, I was teaching a summer class on Jane Austen. We had a lot to do, so I planned to make a brief announcement about my office gun policy, as surreal as that seemed. I’ve never felt the truth of Wordsworth’s phrase, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” ( 2012, 225), more forcefully than I did that day. An almost visible ripple moved through the room when I told students that while the new policy allowed them to bring concealed loaded weapons into the classroom, I requested that they not bring guns into my office. Eyes rounded in fear, shock, and horror. Some students gabbled questions, waving their hands for my attention. Some later confessed that, to their own shame, they had begun profiling their classmates to guess who might be carrying a weapon. A young woman with a military background said she would now make sure she always sat with her back to a corner, facing the door. Others shut down and stared at their desks. We did not talk much about Jane Austen that day.
In my first twenty-five years of teaching at UT, a student has walked out of my class upset exactly once. Since last August, it’s happened three times.
Like you, I’m sure, I’ve been horrified by the epidemic of gun violence that is gripping our country. To me, the college classroom is a sacred space—a place to practice dealing with conflict without recourse to violence. My professional judgment as a teacher is that the kind of security we need in the classroom is incompatible with the presence of a loaded firearm.
That’s a pretty widespread feeling on campus. It’s why UT Chancellor William H. McRaven and UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves both opposed the legislation. In another spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, a group of faculty animated by an instinctive sense of “no way, no how, not in my classroom” started a movement we call Gun Free UT. Our demonstrations, op-eds, window signs, T-shirts, and self-defense workshops have provided a platform for thousands of faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni to protest the legislation that President Fenves has reluctantly had to put in place. Gun Free UT has documented dozens of cases at UT in which invited speakers cancelled their appearances, potential hires turned down offers, and parents withdrew their children from college as a result of classroom carry. Gun Free UT has also allowed us to partner with national organizations combating gun violence, and that’s how I became the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Texas attorney general, the chancellor, and President Fenves—in their official, not personal, capacities, as the suit explicitly stated.1
I love my job, even though I’m suing my boss. I love my job, and that’s why I’m suing my boss.
In the era of the weaponized campus, it’s gotten harder to bring students into that priceless experimental space: to hold their attention, to get them to leave their fears behind and encounter the beauty and wisdom of the literary tradition. When their security is shaken, it’s hard for them to take risks, even—or maybe especially—intellectual risks. After years of conducting these classroom experiments, though, I know that their encounters with challenging literature in a strong classroom community can help them realize that their own struggles are actually what connects, not separates, them from other people. And that’s a powerful source of security for a person or for society.
So this year, I’m taking a risk. Inspired by our Gun Free UT Peace Zone workshops, I’m starting my freshman World Literature class every day with a five-minute period of guided meditation. I tell the students I need their full attention, and I need the sense of trust that can develop when we make ourselves vulnerable with other people on a regular basis. I tell them it’s an experiment, and they can judge for themselves what the effects of this kind of quiet-minded attention may be. I tell them it takes practice.
So we practice. We sit up straight in our chairs and feel our feet planted firmly on the floor. We notice that we’re leaning on the table or the backs of our chairs, and we bring ourselves upright. We close our eyes, which feels risky in a place where you’re not used to doing it. We feel that fear, however small it seems. We notice how we’re being carried from one moment to the next on a wave of breath. We try to quiet our minds long enough to notice where that breath moves our bodies—how it opens our nostrils and throats, causes our chests to rise and fall, expands and contracts our bellies. We let ourselves get soft and vulnerable alongside one another. Just for a few minutes, but it feels like forever. And then we arrive, together.
An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a talk in Dallas on January 29, 2017, at Meeting of the Minds, an annual gathering of alumni of the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Texas at Austin.
Wordsworth, William. (1802) 2012. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” In The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 4, The Age of Romanticism, 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Black, et al., 223–30. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
1. On July 6, 2017, a federal judge granted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. My co-plaintiffs and I are currently appealing the dismissal.
Lisa L. Moore is Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.