Despite initial debate about the event’s purpose and execution, Thursday’s teach-in, “Intersections: Making Connections, Moving Forward,” was met with generally positive reactions from organizers and participants alike.
The teach-in featured plenary panels at the beginning and end of the day, panels on various topics, open classes, a dance performance, slam poetry and a music performance. All the panels featured Bowdoin professors, students and staff talking about various aspects of the intersection between climate change and social justice.
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. I feel really honored to have been able to learn alongside our students and to have been taught by both our students and faculty,” said Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Leana Amaez, who helped organize the event. “I hope the conversation continues because it has been remarkably meaningful for me and hopefully the rest of the community.”
Echoing Amaez’s thoughts, Briana Cardwell ’17 said she was “very overwhelmed and happy that things went the way that they were planned. At first I was like, ‘Is this Bowdoin? What school am I at?’ because I was happy to see the different people that came.”
Earlier this week, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Music Mary Hunter—an initial proponent of a teach-in—told the Orient, “My bar is that people learn something that they couldn’t have learned without the day, and that they converse in a way that they would not converse without the day.”
Some students’ responses mirrored this sentiment.
“Initially I was skeptical about how valuable an event like this could be, but I think I went to a few interesting events and was exposed to topics that I hadn’t really thought about before and interacted with,” said Julian FrareDavis ’17. “I think the really good thing about discussions is that it makes you think about what’s being discussed and work within your mind instead of just being talked to.”
Though reactions have been positive, some students and faculty did not or could not attend and the full extent of the event’s impact is not yet clear.
“I think it was a start,” said Director of the McKeen Center Sarah Seames. “I think it’s hard in a one hour panel, with an audience that big, to be able to help people get into what their specific interests are, so that’s why it’s important that people continue talking and exploring how whatever they’re passionate about can relate to broader policy issues.”
How the teach-in came about
Although introduced and proposed to faculty and staff last year, in December and February, respectively, the idea to have a day dedicated to climate change has been in the works since former president Barry Mills signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007. Mills then organized a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni to come up with ways to be more sustainable here at Bowdoin. The committee announced in 2009 that the College had a goal to be carbon neutral by 2020. Following the announcement, Bowdoin had a festival that “rallied around issues of climate change,” according to a 2009 Orient article.
Madeleine Msall, a professor in the physics department, was a member of that committee.
Following the rally, Msall says that motivation lagged. “There was a sense, after some years into the carbon neutral commitment, that we kind of lost our impetus to make the harder choices.”
According to Msall, then-President Barry Mills told her that he believed the best course of action needed to be faculty initiative. Msall rounded up a group of faculty and discussed what faculty leadership issues on climate issues would look like.
“One of the suggestions was that we should have a teach-in. We should make a moment where we took the idea of that this is so important that we need to focus lots of campus energy on it,” said Msall.
The week the teach-in was presented was also the week police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Student leaders of multicultural groups held a vigil in remembrance of Brown and the events happening in Ferguson.
“On the faculty floor, it was very passionate when people said, ‘We understand you’re very active about climate change, but if we’re going to have a teach-in at Bowdoin we need to have a teach-in about racism and all the ways it affects all of us both on campus and the greater world,’” said Msall regarding the initial presentation in December.
Since its conception, the teach-in has been a point of contention among professors. The content, format and timing of the event were all fervently debated at faculty meetings as well as in private discussions.
“It’s creating divisions amongst people that really should be working together. It has created a certain amount of hurt feelings,” Associate Professor of English Ann Kibbie said before the event.
Chair of the History Department Dallas Denery was concerned about the politicization of the day.
“We’re here to challenge students, we’re here to improve critical thinking, we’re here to open up horizons,” said Denery. “But I don’t know if it’s our responsibility to use our position as faculty to push specific political agendas that often have nothing to do with our professorial expertise.”
Although the faculty supported the teach-in by a majority vote, they did not support a campus-wide cancellation of classes. In an email to the student body, Interim Dean for Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon and Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster stated that the teach-in is not a “Bowdoin event.” Scanlon and Foster also stressed that “lack of participation in the teach-in should not be read as lack of concern for the issues of social, racial and climate justice that affect us all.”
Professors and staff who did participate in the teach-in seemed to be pleased with its outcome. Associate Professor of History and the Director of Africana Studies Brian Purnell, who co-taught a class about urban landscapes, says he was impressed with how engaged students were.
“Students asked hard questions about urban inequality and what role they will play when they leave Bowdoin and they go out into the world and probably live or work in cities. They asked some pretty tough questions about what they should do or how they should think about experiencing urban inequality as graduates, workers and homeowners, and that was powerful.”
Purnell was also excited to have heard from his fellow faculty on such heavy issues.
“It was great to learn from other colleagues. It was exciting to feel alive and learning in such a dynamic way, and that’s how I felt participating.”
Many students who had been skeptical about the day’s events felt the opening plenary and the panels and classes that followed exposed them to ideas they had not thought about previously.
First-year Emmett Ulian attended the opening plenary and felt that he left with a good understanding of the connection between climate change, race and social justice.
“I was a little bit curious how those three issues related, and I thought that that opening was a good way to illustrate all the connections between the three issues,” he said.
Senior James Jelin also attended the opening plenary and was impressed with how well the issue of climate change and its intersection with other aspects of society was addressed.
“The idea of climate change intersecting with race is interesting because it’s like an exacerbating factor,” said Jelin. “We know that race affects every aspect of life and it affects people unevenly and I think just reminding us all that that is true a well for lack of resources due to climate change, like homes going under water, that that affects people differently based on race, income, et cetera.”
Senior Matthew Williams was skeptical about the intersectionality of the topics covered by the events. By the end of the day, however, he had attended three panels on a variety of topics from science fiction to portrayals of Hurricane Katrina in writing.
“I thought the teach-in was really effective and something that was really powerful. It made me think about things that I would never have thought about before, like if the oceans get cooler it can change water currents which could change weather patterns which could change everything about the way we live in society. There were just so many great intersectionalities.”
Marina Henke ’19 was also impressed by how the event came together in a cohesive manner. She attended the opening plenary and commented on how interesting it was to be discussing so many different, but related topics.
“As I was sitting there and the people next to me were sitting there, we were talking afterwards about how it was a very unique experience to hear a discussion about polar bears and their social influence and commentary on the United States’s environmental understandings, sitting right next to a lecture on Ferguson and racial tensions in the Unites States, which was connected also to a climate change, science lecture,” she said.
Others were impressed with the dialogue that occurred throughout the day.
During one panel, “Is the US Political System Broken?,” first-year Francisco Navarro and Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in Government Cory Gooding went head to head.
Gooding recited a poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” and argued that because America had historically only benefited certain individuals, it was never truly “great.”
Navarro—a Cuban-American born in Miami and raised in Yucatan, Mexico—disagreed as someone familiar with multiple political landscapes.
“You said, ‘When exactly was America great?’ That bothers me,” Navarro said to Gooding at the panel. “I can see how privileged and how unappreciative we are of our democratic system. My problem with Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is that America is already great.”
Gooding replied, “What makes America great is our ability to keep trying to attain the greatness that we proclaim—but for someone who was just shot dead in the street by the law enforcement that was supposed to protect him or her, I’m not sure how much he would advocate for the greatness of the country.”
“I caution us against beating our chests so boldly that we don’t recognize the work that still needs to be done,” Gooding added.
“I was very appreciative of [Navarro’s] question,” said Emiley Charley ’17. “I really liked that dialogue. I felt as though that was what I came out to see. To see conversations start around people who don’t see eye to eye.”
Franco Sasieta ’16, who attended a panel about public health and how it relates to issues of social justice, liked the broad range of perspectives present.
“It provided a local, national and scattered global view of different public health issues which I was not fully aware of,” he said.
Junior Jennings Leavell was glad to be a part of the teach-in.
“Events like these are important and I’m thankful that my professor cancelled class so that I could attend, because engaging a community on issues like this is important.”
The McKeen Center will be hosting a debrief of Thursday’s events over lunch at 12:30 p.m. today in Daggett Lounge. All are encouraged to attend to reflect on the teach-in and explore ways of continuing effective dialogue.
John Branch and Joe Sherlock contributed to this report.