Stanley Fish’s recent editorial on the right of faculty to wear campaign buttons at work has me thinking. Having just finished a unit on political propaganda in my freshman composition course at the university where I teach, I am keenly aware of my students’ desire to be informed about candidates and issues as they look forward to voting in this historic election, their first. My goal in teaching this unit is to empower my students, to get them to realize that they have the capacity to make informed decisions about the initiatives on the ballot and all of the policies of the candidates who are running for office. Thus, they examine propaganda and the language of politics, in the hopes of being able to understand what lies beneath the rhetoric.
This semester, I have a graduate student observer, a woman who is going through a program in my department that trains students to teach post-secondary writing. She began observing my class during the propaganda unit, and one day shared with me, “You are so brave to discuss these things with your class.” I don’t feel particularly “brave” for helping my students navigate through language—that’s my job, after all. But I understood what had led her to say so: politics is a tricky area in any social context; it has the potential to create tension and bad feelings even in a casual setting. In a classroom, the subject can be even more volatile. However, I—like many of my colleagues on many campuses throughout the United States—believe strongly in citizen participation in the structures of our government, and this belief spurs me to foster that same enthusiasm for civic involvement in my students. My oft-repeated mantra to them during the propaganda unit is: I don’t care whom you vote for, as long as you know what it is you’re agreeing to when you cast your vote.
This mentality has kept me from wearing my Obama button in class because it seems an obvious contradiction to me to say in one instance that my goal as a teacher is for my students to have the power to inform—and therefore decide for—themselves what they value and who they think will best represent their values in government, while I then sport a button that espouses to them who I think is the better man in this election. Doing so, it seems, would undercut my entire motivation for teaching the unit in the first place: I can’t, on the one hand, stress the importance of researching the candidates and the various propositions and then turn around and send the message that all the information one needs can be gleaned from a button on one’s lapel.
Such a mentality does not mean that I do not wear my Obama button at all; in fact, I even wore it on campus this week, but on my jacket, which I took off and kept in my office while I taught in my classroom. Buttons and bumper stickers hardly count as elevated political discourse, but they do serve some purposes (particularly in this election) and faculty, when they are not in the classroom, absolutely have a right to enjoy the right to display them. First, wearing a button can invite moments of human connection between strangers that otherwise normal daily functions do not typically bring about. Frustrated and disgusted by the tone of the McCain rallies of the last few weeks, I wore my Obama button on my Saturday errands; below it, I wore another announcing my opposition to Proposition 8, which would effectively ban same sex marriage in California. As I walked from my hairdresser’s to my Muni stop, a man pointed at my “No on Prop 8” button and said, “The button looks good.” I smiled, he smiled, and the exchange—though brief—brought a moment of shared hope. Later, when I exited the Muni station downtown, a young African American woman smiled at me and said, “I like your buttons.” I said, “Thanks,” and then added, “Let’s cross our fingers.” She smiled and we went our separate ways. Earth-shattering, barrier-breaking connections these were not. Still, they offered an interruption to the anonymity of most daily tasks and communicated a solidarity between otherwise strangers. Had I not been wearing the buttons, I would not have had these interactions that boosted my spirit and reminded me that “we’re in this together.”
What’s more, the Obama button has a power that others of its kind do not, in part because of the historic nature of his candidacy, and even more so in light of John McCain’s relentless attempts to portray Obama as wholly other: un-American and profoundly—indeed, inherently—different from the “majority,” that is to say, white voters. I got the button three weeks ago, but haven’t been wearing it much; after watching the tenor of McCain’s rallies grow increasingly more disturbing, however, I brought the button out. Wearing it, to me, sent the message that the politics of hate have no place here in America, and that such hateful rhetoric only made me more resolved to embrace the change that Barack Obama represents.
Back on campus, in my classroom, with the button in my office, I listened to my afternoon class catching up with each other after the weekend. They filed in as I wrote the homework on the board, and their discussion focused on McCain and Palin, specifically their charges that Obama has terrorist connections. “They’re just saying that so they won’t have to prove to voters what they are going to do. If they attack him, they seem like the better choice without having to actually tell anyone about their policies and plans,” one student remarked. Another responded with, “Yeah—it’s just a distraction, and they don’t even offer proof for their attacks. It’s like they’re just saying these things with no proof, and then they don’t even discuss what they will offer America.”
This conversation made it plain to me that a button has no place in the classroom. It creates a barrier between teacher and student, particularly if the student does not share the beliefs of the instructor. What’s more, it has the potential to reduce political discourse to, “Yeah—that guy. I like that guy, too!” At the Muni stop, on a busy Saturday, that moment of connection—“Isn’t Obama great?”—can be a powerful reminder that we are not the only ones dismayed by the current state of the world. But in the classroom, what matters is that the students engage with their ideas and those of their classmates. If they happen to see what I see—that the McCain/Palin rhetoric is truly hateful and obviously the making of a desperate campaign, yes, that’s a secret moment of connection for me. More importantly, though, it tells me that they are listening, interpreting, looking for what is underneath the propaganda so that they might avoid blind support for one person or idea. They can do that, though, because they have instructors who support that journey of discovery, without erecting road signs along the way that shout, “If you are smart, you’ll vote for my guy.”