It was the 1980s, and I was a first-generation college student sitting in a creative writing class led by the poet Audre Lorde at New York’s Hunter College. On the first day of class, she introduced herself as a Black lesbian with one breast and told us all that if any of this offended us, we should feel free to leave. I must say, I was a bit intimidated by this introduction and wanted to fade into the faces she faced.
But instead I sat timidly, waiting to see what else this woman with her one large breast would offer us. As it turns out, Audre became my mentor. She taught me how to love words, how to feel them deeply and how to use them wisely despite her initial in-your-face introduction.
As teachers, we never know what kind of impact we will have on a student, and for this reason, we cannot treat teachers as robots by legislating what topics are appropriate for discussion and what are not. Good teaching requires a freedom to be one’s self and to engage in the material without censorship. We must trust that those who have spent their entire academic careers teaching are adept enough to navigate difficult issues with professionalism and accuracy.
We do not tell our plumbers what tools to use. We wisely do not tell our doctors what ‘scripts to write us. Why then do Florida legislators feel it necessary to instruct teachers on how best to do the job for which they have trained? There is no teacher worthy of his/her degrees earned who would intentionally create an offensive learning atmosphere, something that the supporters of House Bill 7, otherwise known as the “Stop Woke” act, seem to think, with little evidence, is a pervasive problem.
Teaching is not something we do for our own power, or for the money. We do it out of love. We do it because we believe in the power of knowledge and have an obligation to our discipline to engage students with its issues. The “Stop Woke” act is yet one more step in creating an intellectually bankrupt system for our students because it limits how they engage with serious social topics and unfortunately puts them at a disadvantage to compete in a competitive global world where knowledge about the past becomes a foundation for the future.
Every semester, one or two of my community college students inevitably gravitate towards me. I believe they see in me the same things I saw in Audre — a woman open and honest, lacking any fear of confronting difficult issues. With my students, I open up conversations, not shut them down. Florida’s “Stop Woke” act, unfortunately, intimidates teachers into academic submission by threatening lawsuits and fines for colleges and universities whose instructors can be labeled as someone who “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates” negative racial ideas simply by the very nature of their subject matter.
I have been teaching for 30 years, and I have yet to meet an instructor who would knowingly create a hostile classroom. This is not to say that it does not happen. I’m sure there probably is a very small minority of teachers who might engage in such unprofessionalism, much as we find a very small minority of doctors and plumbers who take advantage of the position they’re given. Incidences such as this, however, call for individual action, not for sweeping actions that end up stifling an entire profession at the expense of the students who count on us to provide them with knowledge.
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Just a few days ago, I was talking to a member of Hillsborough Community College’s Honors Program about his search for a four-year institution and asked him, “Why not USF?” He defiantly told me “no,” and went on to say that he wants to learn and cannot do so in a state that bullies professors into shutting down discussions about critical issues. This student is an intelligent young man who represents perhaps the first drop of the drip-drip-drip that is certain to become the Florida brain drain if we continue to stifle discussions with a “stop woke” agenda that will send many of our best and brightest out of the state.
Suzanne Lynch is a professor of English at Hillsborough Community College.