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Body Politics

URGENCY: On Teaching in Crisis

What does thinking about affect mean for the politics of the religious studies classroom?

The classroom ecology is nothing if not an emotional one. Even the driest, most informational renditions of content are still beset with felt subtexts: the economic anxiety of the student or the performance anxiety of the teacher, the melancholy backwash of what happened last night on campus, the anger circulating around the racial or gendered dynamics of who is speaking and what they are saying – just to name a few.

What I’m most aware of these days, however, is the feeling of urgency that characterizes so much of humanities pedagogy as of late, particularly for those of us who teach “topical” courses or, say, who work in identity-based disciplines. We are in a moment characterized by emergencies: local ones, national ones, global ones. And this urgency is a feeling that this moment demands parsing, demands that we define and describe it in all its distinctness.

I craft entire courses around some level of urgency, and after each new act of violence with all of the standard protocol and familiar collective reckonings; after each new escalation in political rhetoric or act of fascist daring; I recalibrate, adjust the content, ache and angst over phrases I will use or questions I will ask. I want to rise to the occasion of the moment, the moment which is urgent, I believe deep in my body. The moment demands new tools, and my students need a place to process, to know histories, to find modes of intervention.

I walk my seven year old to school, days after a(nother) school shooting, which pressed, I imagine, his teacher to think about the consequences of her position as the body that might need to come between an assault rifle and a room full of seven year olds, her own children under the care of another teacher at that moment. And I walk up the hill to campus, to teach Bible, Gender, and Sexuality, which is also the day after Christine Blasey Ford gives her testimony. I ask, to a classroom of first year students, at 8:30 in the morning, how much of sex is about power, and they are silent. I have no doubts that this conversation needs to happen, only doubts about how I’m doing it. How are you feeling today? I ask later, and more directly. They are sleepy, and it is October. They hover over cups of coffee. Do they know how they feel? Do they want to say?

“Of course sex is always about power, everything is always about power,” one student offers, in a soft voice, “so what now?” We haven’t read Foucault yet; that is her answer to how she is feeling. A student next to her spent an hour in my office in the first week of classes, wondering why we were studying “this stuff,” whatever “this stuff” was to him, and was asking me, implicitly, to make the case for my class’s relevance. He grew up a stone’s throw from Westboro Baptist Church. Was the evidence not before him? My students are not cynical as a population. And neither are they all especially privileged. What they are is tired. They are numb, by their own admission, partially out of necessity. They have another class to get to. They have a midterm exam. They did the reading for my class, we’re on the same literal page, and yet, I am reminded of the ways in which the classroom is an asynchronous place. How could it be otherwise? Some of them share my urgency. Some of them do not. For others, their urgencies lie elsewhere. For many of them this is just the state of the world.

The classroom’s democracy ironically lies in these asynchronous moments, when my timeline is not theirs. Urgency is a felt sense of crisis and crisis, as Janet Roitman has observed, suggests a moment of discontinuity; it can make it seem that these moments are something other than the desired results of the systems that bore them). But perhaps just as hauntingly, crisis draws our attention towards one particular object as the object that demands our energy. “[C]risis narratives are not ‘false,’ nor are they mere representations,” Roitman writes. “There is no reason to claim that there are no ‘real’ crises. Rather, the point is to observe crisis as a blind spot, and hence to apprehend the ways in which it regulates narrative constructions, the ways in which it allows certain questions to be asked while others are foreclosed” (94).

Roitman points out the theological investments in crisis, and the fantasies of prognostication and intervention it conjures: it is one of the bigger romances of being a historian that one knows exactly what time it is, and that, like a prophet or a preacher, one’s job is to locate for others where we all stand in that arc. My students are not wrong in their own experiences of the present. Is it my place to convince them otherwise? Do I see the world more clearly than they do? Or is it the lures of expertise or the dubious consensus that with age necessarily comes wisdom that make me think so?

Crisis creates narrow vision. It specifies our choices. Urgency is about immediacy of reaction, thinking fast. It is a good motivator. But acting out of urgency does not always beget our best decision making. In crisis, we lose other objects of thought. This is not a prescription to stop talking about the moment that we inhabit. Nor is it some wistful call for a return to those vaunted canonical objects of study in the humanities as if their ostensibly-eternal significance could transcend the trendy aura of “relevance.” It is rather a provocation to attend to what becomes queer marginalia in any given political moment. It is also to notice that urgency’s affective potency often shelves what does not seem “of the moment,” despite the fact that urgency is already a muscular, if terrified, read on how to define any given moment. What gets lost when we are moving from crisis to crisis? What gets lost in my urgency?  “Late” capitalism. The “post” colony. Queer theory “after sex.” What are these questions if not illustrations of the ways we manage time narratively, and poorly? We cannot know what moment we are in until long after it has passed, and even then it is a dicey game. It seems worth consciously separating intervention from a felt sense of urgency. But more to the point, it is worth thinking more capaciously about “relevance” such that we can take seriously our roles as adjudicators of time, curators of a moment, and still understand that the time we are in is one we cannot know much about. After all, it is a famous position of intellectuals that even at our most urgent, most relevant, we have already been outpaced. The question that those of us teaching in crisis might ask is: what happens when we find that, despite the fact that things are bad and getting worse, there is no single line, no expected point of culmination to vindicate us? What happens when we realize that we cannot manage the terms of relevance? What kind of teachers will we be then?

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URGENCY: On Teaching in Crisis

What does thinking about affect mean for the politics of the religious studies classroom?

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