The Spoke / How Should A Professor Be? Subscribe

Julie Walsh and Cord Whitaker
Parade in Moscow
If the world is a wheel, then words are its spoke.

How should a professor be? In the world but not of it? A passive observer who remarks on the world from the relative safety of her library carrel? An active agent who strives to effect change in the world?

We, faculty members at Wellesley College, believe that we are well positioned to take on the challenge of engaging with current and urgent world events. In the classroom, we often find ourselves addressing current events with students in near real-time—for instance, in response to the Paris Attacks in November 2015, North Korea's most recent nuclear tests in September 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s Marches, and most recently the Executive Order banning travel into the U.S. by people holding citizenship from seven Muslim-majority countries. The ability to react thoughtfully, insightfully, and with authority to matters of global importance is one of the Wellesley faculty's greatest strengths and the cornerstone of a Wellesley education. Students demand critical engagement with local, national, and global events both in and outside the classroom. And it is our position that professors have an obligation to respond.

And respond we can. A philosopher need not have special training in politics to be able to comment on, for instance, climate change. While the science of climate change is outside her area of expertise, her training, background, and interest in the topic may yield compelling and provocative writing on questions of legacy and responsibility with respect to future generations. Similarly, a geoscientist may be well positioned to comment on consumer culture with respect to the intersection between the health of our environment and the effects of mass-produced consumer goods.

We aim not to show that the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences can or must be applied to current events, but rather that Chaucer, Socrates, the American Revolution, climate science, statistics, and myriad other scholarly subjects are touchstones for contemporary discussions of the death penalty, suicide, political disillusion, poverty, entertainment fads, and so on. The point is not to water down our discipline-specific perspectives, but rather to show that our subjects are integral to our engagements with contemporary questions.

This is precisely what our students want—they want to see that their liberal arts education will better enable them to both understand the world and to develop the appropriate methods of communication to change it. When their professors model this behavior, the students see that it is a worthwhile endeavor. They work hard to understand the world, and then they go out to change it. Each year, 40 Wellesley women become Albright Fellows and spend their winter breaks working in multidisciplinary groups to develop new approaches to global challenges such as food shortage, economic growth in the developing world, and climate change. The total number of Albright Fellows now numbers 320. Living and working all over the world, they are striving to effect the changes that they believe will make the world a better place. Wellesley faculty, as educators and mentors, pave the way for Albright Fellows to go out into the world as changemakers. The Spoke aims to highlight the transformational work being done by visionaries at Wellesley as well as those working beyond the borders of our campus—and to share it.

Many of the conversations occurring in Wellesley classrooms today are about the power of words. Those of us who teach in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences alike trade in words. Yet, at the outset of 2017, we find ourselves in a climate where newly empowered forces deploy the most incendiary language they can muster only to then claim that “words don't matter.” We are thus more pressed than ever to address words and their relation to facts and truth. This topic takes many shapes, including the distinction between harm and offense, the nature of free speech, the nature of hate speech, and the chosen medium for speech—for instance, we might ask: is speech on Twitter taken less seriously than speech quoted in a newspaper? Understanding, critiquing, and wielding words is the cornerstone of what we aim to teach our students. It is our position that carefully analyzing the power of words and their connections to facts and truth is a necessary skill if one is to approach any understanding of the dizzyingly complex world in which we live.

How should the professor be? As she already is. Her words make her an active agent who effects change—whether they are words about Chaucer or the death penalty, Socrates or suicide, the American Revolution or political disillusion. If the world is a wheel, then words are its spoke.

Welcome to The Spoke, Dear Reader. Let’s change the world.


Photo Credit: Diego Rivera, "Parade in Moscow," via Mexico City, Banamex, 1956.