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I found myself facing an unexpected challenge as a teacher this week: I had to make a case, for the first time in my life, in favor of democracy as a form of government. It was a hard, and surprisingly emotional, writing task. I don’t know whether it reassured any of my students or shook anyone awake, but I’m glad I wrote it nonetheless.

US Capitol, photo Robert Easton

After she read it, my wife suggested I post it more broadly. So, for anyone who happens to chance across this blog, here is what I wrote my first-year writing students this Monday:

Welcome to week 2, fellow scholars:

While I have been meaning to experiment more with video announcements, I felt that this week, given everything that has been happening in our nation, it was important to me to write out my announcement. Writing helps us to clarify our thoughts, to identify what we really believe, and I can’t think of a time in my life when it was more important to me to clarify to my students what I believe.

I have some information about how the course is proceeding, but before I get to that, I want to begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Last week’s violence at the United States Capitol is unprecedented: never before in the history of the republic has a mob of citizens taken over the seat of American government. While I am sure we all have our own strong feelings about what has happened and what is happening now, I want to make sure that students understand my values and expectations as regards this class.

Let me make my allegiances clear at the outset: I believe in democracy. I am committed to government of the people, by the people, for the people. That principle is much easier to talk about than to practice, as Abraham Lincoln could surely have told us when he coined that phrase in the Gettysburg Address. Make no mistake: our country has a daunting amount of work ahead on questions of race, of political representation, of equal justice and opportunity. But, regardless of the difficulty involved, life in a democratic republic is preferable by far to life in any of the various authoritarian or totalitarian alternatives to democracy.

It is this commitment to democracy that brought me into my career: I would not teach at a community college if I didn’t believe that people can learn how to participate fully in a democratic republic. We study rhetoric, the ancient art of argument, for many reasons, but chief among them is so that we can learn to represent our interests with dialogue rather than with violence. If we do not have enough citizens who can make that simple—yet very difficult—commitment to dialogue over violence, the country will falter. We will not recognize the country that results, I promise you.

What does all of the above say about what happens in this class? In this class, I will guide my teaching practice by the following value: Every student, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, sexuality, ability, or political beliefs, is welcome here, as long as they conduct themselves with respect for all other students in this class community. In other words, I am making two commitments to you:

  1. No matter who you are, you are welcome here, and
  2. I insist that you treat one another with mutual respect.

Much of what we read, write about, and talk about in this class will relate to social or cultural issues which are by their nature political. Whether your political beliefs on these issues are similar to mine, or similar to the beliefs of others in the class, will have no bearing on your grade or your place in this class. As I said above, all are welcome here. However, I also expect that when you encounter someone else in this class with different political, cultural, or social beliefs than you, you will speak with that person as an equal, as someone worthy of your respect, as one who has as much right to participate in this classroom community as you do. Because part of my job is to maintain this classroom community in a way that provides a healthy learning environment for all, I will not tolerate behavior that belittles, ridicules, or otherwise disrespects any student or their beliefs. I trust you, as fellow scholars and as decent human beings, to commit yourselves to an environment of mutual respect.