In the past month we have witnessed the horrors – writ large in the news and across social media platforms – of the invasion of a sovereign nation; Russia has instigated a war against Ukraine and against the fundamental principles of democracy. We are reeling as citizens, as parents, as educators, and as leaders. Set against the backdrop of a global pandemic that is still very much ongoing, many are reporting feelings of exhaustion, disorientation, and grief. How are we supposed to make sense of the horror and heartbreak – and continue to learn, teach, research, and work in impossible conditions?
As I work through the deep discomfort in my own personal and professional spheres – while at the same time managing the anxieties of students who believe that chemical and nuclear war is imminent – I have been able to locate critical hope in the classroom, and by extension the work of universities more broadly as crucial spaces that champion democracy and combat despair.
Indeed, higher education has become more relevant – and more urgent – in the light of international atrocities. Below, I share my own experiences with the classroom as a beacon of hope in the darkness; this is just one case study amongst the many and multiple conversations ongoing in classrooms across our universities right now.
In Summer 2021, with the help of students through the Online Learning and Technology Consultants (OLTC), I designed a new version of my course “The Art of Rhetoric: From Classical to Contemporary Uses and Abuses.” At the time, I was concerned that students would find classical rhetoric – reading Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian – so removed from their own experiences that their interest would be hard to capture and hold. I was anxious that students would see medieval and early modern rhetoric as alienating and inaccessible in an unfamiliar idiom. I was worried that they would find Winston Churchill, Frederick Douglas, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King too far removed from their own historical moment.
My fears, as it turns out, were entirely misplaced.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Our class went on winter reading week, and when we met next, the world – and our relationship to rhetoric – had changed dramatically. On the day we returned to class after the break, students were assigned a series of deliberative rhetorical speeches: Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury in 1588 (as the Spanish Armada was invading England’s shores); Winston Churchill’s 1940 famous oration (where he declares that England will fight the Nazis on the beaches), Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), and William Wallace’s speech in the film Braveheart (1995) where he rallies rival clans to unite Scotland against English occupiers. Before the break, we studied Shakespeare’s orators Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (dealing with the political assassination of Julius Caesar) and Henry V’s St. Crispian’s Day speech where he urges his troops to run into the mouth of cannons for honour.
I had designed this cluster of orators in the peaceful summer months – with the help of student consultants – without any inkling of the context within which they would come alive in the classroom, brought to life by an international war that has caused death, destruction, and despair.
The day before we were to meet, on Tuesday, March 8, President Zelensky addressed the UK Parliament and quoted two people: Churchill — whom he quoted almost verbatim — and Shakespeare, invoking Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. And so, the next day we spent three hours together listening to Zelensky in conversation with Churchill, Shakespeare, and the other orators animating the course syllabus. It has been transformative to listen and study and analyze texts – literary, historical, political, philosophical – together in a way I could never have scripted, could never have planned, and could never have imagined while setting the syllabus. This is not serendipity as much as it is an example of design: universities have a mandate to tackle wicked problems that are complex, difficult, and always changing. We create agile spaces – in classrooms, research clusters, leadership, and knowledge mobilization – where we can respond in real-time, harnessing the depth and breadth of transdisciplinary expertise coupled with courage and curiosity.
This is not merely an intellectual exercise. The contexts and convergences are also deeply personal. One of the students in the ENG205 course, whose story I share with permission, is on international exchange this year at Bishop’s. Born in Soviet Ukraine (or Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as Ukraine was called at the time of 1991 before the Soviet Union collapsed), Daria has lived in Ukraine, Hungary, and across Europe. This semester, far away from her family, she has watched helplessly as her friends and family flee for safety. She helped to organize a fundraising event hosted at Bishop’s on March 20 (that also featured Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN), and she made a compelling plea to us all. As she prepared her speech, she deployed the rhetorical frameworks from ENG205 and workshopped her thoughts with me so she could harness her disorientation, combine the pathos, logos, and ethos, and connect with others in meaningful and authentic ways. Her speech, found here (58:30-1:03:10) is a compelling example of her fortitude and her learning:
Our fates are bound up together in a war happening thousands of kilometres away in Eastern Europe. But it is of immediate and pressing concern. …
From my Bishop’s dorm room, I am doing what I can to help my family and the Ukrainian community so far away, struggling in war and horror.
And I am asking you to help and support those Ukrainians who are coming here and joining the Canadian society.
I am grateful that you are here.
I am thankful that you showed up for people and democracy.
Thank you for giving me hope that together we can make a difference in a world that feels increasingly disorienting.
This is why we teach, why we learn, why we hope, and why we strive.
As we join in an international chorus of outrage, we also sit in the discomfort with our students, colleagues, and community members in defending the values of a civil, just, and peaceful world for all. In a recent article for the Guardian titled “The world is unpredictable and strange. Still, there is hope in the madness”, Rebecca Solnit uses a metaphor that illuminates the work we do together and alone in our work in higher education:
“We see no farther than the little halo of our lanterns, but we can travel all night by that light.”
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities