By Dr Kaley Kramer
Lecturer in English Literature
On Wednesday, seminars were quiet – and not just here: my colleagues across the UK shared stories of students in tears, students anxious in ways that permeated discussions; of colleagues unable to teach what had been planned and spending time with their students just listening and talking. The United States is a global superpower and this decision will have impacts beyond their borders – no less than the Brexit vote sent shockwaves in all directions. While we might feel sheltered by distance and difference from the US, we need to take seriously the psychological and emotional effects of the outpouring of vitriol, misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and prejudice that marked the presidential campaign and was so carefully and thoroughly reported in UK media. We know, from our own experiences post-Brexit, that political campaigns have cultural effects; that rhetoric used to sway votes can also create an environment that legitimates real violence. University is not separate from the ‘real world’. We are a community brought together for a short time and our borders are permeable: we each bring to this campus our lives, our struggles, our loves; we read literature through all of our experiences. We study the world without ever leaving it.
We stand against that violence.
Dear students: you are beginning, or finishing, or continuing your education in an anxious time. This has always been true but you are new and I would take that anxiety from you, if I could. If you wonder why we demand your best work, why we challenge what is accepted, why we push you beyond your comfort-zone it is because so much of the world asks for only superficial understanding – a sound-bite-click-bait-jingle-commonplace acceptance. Critical thinking breaks the black mirror: literature finds us ‘unexpectedly…living, thinking, acting, and reflecting [in ways that] belong to times and spaces we have never known’. How else, asked Judith Butler in 2013, are we to ‘find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known…to understand that…we share a world?’
Many of us might feel that we no longer recognize the world. And that is without question an anxious state of being. And anxiety produces fear and when we are afraid we forget to be kind. We forget compassion and community. Our world shrinks and we stop looking around us and reaching out for understanding.
Dear students: do not be afraid.
Do not allow fear to silence you. Do not ‘keep calm’. Do not ‘be good’.
Be brave. Listen. Learn. Disagree with each other – with your tutors – with respect and with love. Question what you think you know. Change your mind and change the people around you. We are ethically obligated, continued Butler, to live among those who are different from ourselves, ‘to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others’.
Dear students: be kind to each other.
We are here, now. You share a space and time to learn, to think, to take the time you need to look around you and decide what kind of world you will go on to shape. You are all welcome here. You are all precious. We need you all.
The world seems dark and anxious now. But there is a crack, wrote Leonard Cohen (‘Anthem’, 1992), in everything: that’s how the light gets in.
If you would like to read more about York St John University’s commitment to equality and accessibility, please see our Mission Statement (https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/about/university-structure/mission-and-values/).