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Conversation #56: Ross Louis on the Monument Crisis

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Ross LouisA conversation with Ross Louis of Xavier's Communication Studies department on service learning.

Ross Louis joined the Communication Studies program at Xavier in 2003 and teaches courses from a performance studies perspective. He is the co-founder of the Performance Studies Laboratory at Xavier University of Louisiana. Recent projects include This Other World (a site-specific performance of Richard Wright’s haiku) and “Performing Presence in the Haiku Moment” (forthcoming in Text and Performance Quarterly).


Jeremy Tuman: This is Jeremy Tuman of CAT+ Faculty Development here at Xavier. I’m sitting with Ross Louis of the Communication Studies department.

Ross Louis: Thanks for having me Jeremy. I look forward to having a conversation with you about service learning.

Jeremy Tuman: Let’s begin. Tell us a little about the current service learning course you teach.

Ross Louis: I’m teaching the spring semester of an Honors Public Speaking class. It’s a class that we’ve taught a Xavier since before Katrina, so 2004 is when we introduced it. We introduced an Honors version of Public Speaking because we wanted to test the idea that Public Speaking has relevance in society. Rather than increase the number of presentations or the difficulty of the speeches, we decided that honors would note public speaking courses that take public speaking and apply them to a community need through a service learning project. Every semester we teach one to two sections of honors public speaking and the service learning projects have evolved over time. Often, the service learning projects and the students’ speeches, themselves, focus on a particular issue that is relevant to a community partner. This semester the course is addressing a theme we’re calling democratic participation and the monument controversy. The course is responding to this ongoing controversy in New Orleans. It was most recently introduced after the Charleston, South Carolina murders in an African American church by white supremacies. Following those shootings are Mayor Mitchell Andrew’s response to a jazz musician, Marcalis who mentioned that we have racist monuments here in New Orleans. The Mayor then suggested that monuments be taken down in New Orleans. That became the resurrection of an ongoing discussion protest around the presence of civil war era,historical figures, and events that have been linked to racism, genocide, white supremacy, etc. I was directly inspired by the activist group, Take Em Down NOLA and looking through the actions that they proposed, how they used public discourse, how they used speeches, how they used written rhetoric, how they used visual rhetoric. I also had been inspired by a text that I’ve been playing with over the last semester. Which takes public speaking and asks the question, “What does public speaking mean for democratic participation at a time when public discourse is at best wrought with division?” These authors of this textbook take the idea that public speaking is consequential. It has been. Our American higher education use of public speaking is an important skill. It sort of goes back to classical Greek rhetoric and the study of Greek rhetoric is embedded in what it means to be a Greek participant. The authors are asking this question, “What is our contemporary relevance?” They’re using cases of political divisiveness, both in the United States and globally. One of the things that they do is that they look at a form of public speaking called deliberative presentation where they take a controversial issue, which  they’re defining as an issue that implicates a public that has not been resolved, and they’re asking speakers to consider a minimum of three positions to that controversy. They argue that every controversy, however bifurcated it  may seem, can be complicated to include not just us versus them,  for, against, right, left, but when you start teasing out the right’s position, the left's position, there are variations there. They’re not seeking middle ground at all. They’re seeking to complicate the debate that we’re having around controversial issues. We’re applying that approach. Essentially, what we’re doing is a partnership with five high schools in New Orleans. We have this ongoing event that has been used over the past three or four years on a public speaking class that allows us to vary by theme and partner and it’s called Say NOLA, which is a name students came up with to define a public speaking event that asks college and high school students to come together, listen to dynamic speakers, and split into groups and have conversations, debates, discussions about that issue with ultimate goal of raising awareness about the issue and engaging democratic participants in democratic participation. In the past, depending on the issue, we would invite certain speakers. We might partner with a community organization. For example, last year when we did this, we partnered with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who helped us coordinate speakers addressing environmental racism and environmental justice and try to raise awareness about those issues historically and contemporary in the New Orleans semester. In this semester, we’re working with NOCCA. We’re working with students who will partner with Xavier students in facilitating small discussion groups. We’ll have about 120 high school students from St. Augustine, St. Mary’s, St. Katharine Drexel Prep, and McDonough 35 as well as NOCCA and Xavier students coming together to address these issues of what we’re calling the monuments crisis. Xavier students will frame the historical context and talk about what’s been said, done, and legally decided here in New Orleans, for example, the Robert E. Lee monument, the Jefferson Davis monument, the White League monument, Beauregard monument, and frame that historically and contemporarily. Then, they’re going to cite solution A, solution B, solution C, that have been proposed by groups. Right now, when you think about this, Take Em Down NOLA who is saying take down these monuments and replace them with. Then, there’s a number of groups who’ve fought Take Em Down NOLA and the city council and the mayor in court, Save Our Circle, a group that’s associated with families and descendants of confederate veterans. They’re simply saying keep them. We’re looking for, also, other suggestions that have been made. We’re not framing Team A and Team B and choose a side, but framing strategies that have been suggested. What are the strengths and weaknesses? What values are they based on? Who wins? Who loses? Who gains? What ideologies are promoted? Why one particular position? We’re asking the students having heard these three short presentations, hopefully, dynamic delivered by  Xavier students and high school students to work in small groups to go through a process called deliberative discussion. They’re asked to evaluate these various positions and to argue with each other and determine what is it that they believe ought to be done given the positions they’re presented. If they can come to agreement on what they think should be done in a small group, what’s the next action to be taken? If they don’t come to an agreement, where do they disagree? That becomes this moment of pause completion. It’s sort of like, “Okay, so what we’ve learned over this hour is that these are the main things that we disagree on.” or “We agree on these issues. Therefore, our next step ought be…” Our goal is to raise awareness to the historical debate that has gone on for some time around these monuments as well as to teach and experiment with what deliberative discussion looks like and feels like in an explicit goal of teaching democratic participation as a deliberative process which requires ethical listening, which requires critiquing a position you hold near and dear, which requires finding rational logic based reasons why you disagree with positions that you find deplorable and asking young people to do that in conjunction across campuses. We originally wanted to it as a multiracial audience as well. The racial makeup of the high school audiences will largely be African American, but there will also be present white students as well. It should be interesting. It’s not as racially balanced as I would've liked based on the schools we’ve historically worked with. There’s a number of possibilities that might come out of this talking about race in the time of this country is relevant and particularly salient post-election of Trump, etc. It’s a lot of long-winded synopsis project.

Jeremy Tuman: This skill delivery of discussion that you’re bringing to these high school students, is this something you feel that they’re not introduced to, not getting through traditional K12 education? Do you feel like you’re more supplementing, augmenting with what they do get? Where does what your students bring to the high school students fit into their overall education?

Ross Louis: Yeah, I can’t speak to what they’re getting or not getting. I think that’s actually a suggestion for future projects that we do if we’re valuing this process of deliberative discussion. Is it what you asked? What is augmenting substituting for? That’s not something we absolutely consider? For me, my thought was the issue itself. These monuments have been called anything from “white supremacists” to “tradition,” “Southern tradition.” Bringing awareness to the history, the history debate, and the history of the discourse to me is important. I can’t say yet whether it replaces or supplements something missing in historical instruction in K-12 schools. I do know our primary partner for this year, NOCCA,  has said this stuff tells really nicely with the history that we do for junior levels, like 11th grade students, among surrounding civil war and pre-civil war, civil war and reconstruction, the historical work. In terms of deliberative discourse, my own understanding of public schools in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana is there’s not an oral communication course that’s required. It might be offered, but those courses look a lot like those in colleges. They require the ability to do a research based informative speech to make an argument and support with evidence. So, persuasive speech, informative speech, a narrative speech, focuses on delivery techniques. Often times, this is an argument that we make for teaching this class in the department of communication studies. Those courses, like many required general composition based courses, can feel as if they’re happening in a vacuum separate from a world that is consequential. The idea of deliberative discussion for me is, if anything else, this is not a practice exercise. To participate in debate is meaningful. I would say even more meaningful at a time of post-election when terms of patriotism are being used to label certain groups of people and the questions of participating and protests.Using discourse in the public format to express decent, respectfully or not, is being called into question. It’s being called into question at the highest level by the President of the United States where states are introducing legislation, whether it succeeds or not, to inhibit American citizens opportunity to decent in public to use public discourse. To me, for those reasons, even if deliberative discussion is embedded into high school curriculum, this would  allow them to do it around an issue that they visually see everyday and to me those are good practices citizenly.To be a democratic participant in a democracy that’s fraught with always is ethical imperative.

Jeremy Tuman: Very good. It seems like this course really fills a community need on several levels with the delivery of discourse as one goal or one outcome, but addressing this debate of the monuments and engaging young citizens with the debate is another community need. It seems like it’s really meaningful with how it engages with the community. Talk for a minute about your students, the Xavier students and their outcomes and maybe how you see these experiences and the skills built in this class form their careers or lives.

Ross Louis: I guess continue with the idea that facilitating these conversations means that they have to participate in them themselves even as temporary residents of this city which has controversial monuments, monuments that have been linked to white supremacy. Participating in public discourse around a controversy, I hope would be training for being citizens in the world whether that happens to be in New Orleans, in the United States, or elsewhere. To me, the competency or the training is connected to participation. Participation, for me, feels sometimes or often challenging because it feels hopeless at times. Particularly, in our sort of ??? of slacktivism and online activism, petition signing and use of social media, all of which I think serve positive functions for awareness raising and mobilizing actual bodies on the ground. To think critically about when is public discourse is productive and to whom and what ends, when is public discourse unproductive and who says so, what means and methods can we use if we are going to talk about taking down these monuments and there’s a solution to physically take them down outside of some official sanction “Take them down” or a council ordinance. Those are actual moves made in the public framed by public discourse. We need to frame whether that’s efficient, effective, ethical when ethics change based on what groups are listened and what are not. Those are often based on race and gender. For me, it goes back to this idea of citizen training and I don’t think that it’s absent at a school like Xavier or other institutions. I’m not claiming that. It’s my 2017 citizenship reaction to being in the world. My employment involves teaching. I’m perfectly fine with politicizing teaching because it’s almost always politicized. We serve something, whether it’s economic reproduction or ideological reproduction. Whether we deny it or not, it exists. If anything else, it’s like participate. Feel what it is to participate. Feel what it is to let others participate. Feel struggle. Feel success. Feel failure. Make decisions on this issue for yourself. Decide to follow up on this issue for yourself and see where it takes you. It might move you away from future activities like that but it’s your body that’s been there to experience and say, “I want to do that, follow that pathway.”

Jeremy Tuman: Maybe follow up on some of your student specific moves and the reactions. Have you seen them become passionate, become engaged? Have you seen students withdraw from the issue? What have been some of the reactions?

Ross Louis: So the class caps at 18 students and we had 17 or 18 students and we’re at 14. This is week 3 of the class. This moment of our conversation. In probably three quarters of the way through the semester, we’ll have this event. We’re building to this event. The students we’re told on the first day that this is our project. This is the theme. This is what these monuments are. This is the process that we’re going to pursue. To take that seriously is something that you want to consider. 3 or 4 out of 18 dropped. I don’t know if that was because of the project or because of service learning or something else, but I welcome those decisions. Once we started to talk, I asked students to do some basic research on using local news databases to find out what have journalists said, what have these groups representing different perspectives said. We haven’t done full blown research on the historical perspectives on who these monuments represent etc. Then, where do you stand on this issue?  I have an entirely African American audience that seems to be natives of New Orleans, natives of the South that is not New Orleans, and some that are outside of the state. I was initially surprised that 2 to 3 students, maybe 4, out of 14 or 15 already knew Take Em Down NOLA. Some knew the history of the neighborhoods of which the monuments had been place in. I know Xavier students have been active in Take Em Down NOLA.  Some students have already said, “I have an allegiance to Take Em Down NOLA. These are white supremacist statues.” That didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that they were already familiar with an active organization, who’s been active and named in the last 18 months. That was encouraging because they invest in the issue. It also raises the opportunity for them to already joined a perspective or a side. By the nature of this process, we’ll be required to present information that critiques a perspective that they already endorse and support, then presents strengths and weaknesses,investigates the values, and talks one on one if we’re able to secure conversation and interviews with people who are attempting to save what they’re calling “white supremacist monuments” and what our students would call.  They’re having engage the other and as well as critique their own positions. I found these interesting moments. Nonverbally, I’m watching conversations where it’s like “Wow, you’re asking me to find what the authors of our text are calling characteristics of unproductive discourse, which might include things like divisiveness and lack of listening and a tendency to winning.” They’re analyzing rhetorical discourse that’s offered by Take Em Down NOLA. There’s this moments where students who have said, “I believe these are racist white supremacist monuments. I believe Take Em Down NOLA is correct.” At the same time, if I’m asked to attach these unproductive discourse characteristics to that rhetoric, I see connections of that. By this definition, it’s unproductive. So at that moment, there’s this moment where it’s sort of like, “Hm, how can something be unproductive that I believe in?” Then we’re able to look at the category, unproductive. Who says that these unproductive characteristics are in fact, unproductive? Unproductive for whom? For what? Then, we talk a little bit about how do we define productive and unproductive. What’s the productive use of anger? What’s the productive use of physical demonstration? Of exaggeration? Both rhetorical strategy, but as a strategy to provoke conversation. Does it shut down conversation? But it’s interesting to watch. I most interested to watch emotional reactions that we have and our attempts to apply logos, the use of reasoning and arguments and evidence. I think that  there’s a lot of name calling on both sides and they’re already looking at internet trolls on both sides of the debate. Largely racists to trolls. So, name-calling is easy to define. Okay, it’s unproductive. It takes us away from the issue and towards labels. If those labels are accurate, what do we do with that? It’s difficult for me to remind myself  to say, “Okay, the process is productive,” or “The process has value”  at the moments when what I most want as a citizen is different than what i might want as a teacher. What I want as a citizen is different. I have a particular stake in this. I want a particular action taken. I’ve acknowledged that. This is me. Our reactions are what I’m interested to watch, especially, because they’re supposed to be facilitators.

Jeremy Tuman: Sounds like some really interesting outcomes that will only become more interesting as you get further in. To finish, I know you’ve been involved with service learning at Xavier for a long time. Talk for a minute, if you would, about the progression you’ve seen in your years involved with service learning at Xavier. Your perceptions of service learning on campus.

Ross Louis: I think this probably speaks on other places as well. What I’ve watched and appreciated is faculty members as members of communities, of New Orleans, of Xavier following projects that largely follow their activist interests. Sometimes their communities, sometimes groups they’ve advocated for before or issues that concern them and, then, thinking through ways that those issues communities need to be addressed, social inequalities etc. It might connect back to the discipline that they’re working in. That’s sort of my bias but I’ve watched others. I’ve encountered faculty members off campus, working with an organization that I’ve worked with. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, for example, like “Okay so you’re personally engaged with environmental activism.” Now it makes sense how you’re trying to tie it back to this particular science course, this communication course. I think it’s an useful way in which our service learning at Xavier, and other places, can benefit the community, as we think about that traditional idea of collaboration and who benefits. Students getting an academic learning outcome and getting a credit of citizenship on their resumes and things like that or is it skewed towards addressing a certain problem. I would always, always air in the side, community need because I feel like the university is always already one up in the power dynamic. I think there always is the power. If faculty are always following-- and I think they always are. I think it’s selfish of us and self-centered. It’s like okay I’m interested in that issue. Issue A matters to me. Issue B not so much. What that creates is projects and faculty and partnerships that are more sincere. Faculty are concerned about the community outcome, which is a vague term. The concrete result of working in that place and in that issue, hopefully, will build sustaining relationships. Because, it’s driven by its investment.  That’s kind of what I watched.

Jeremy Tuman: That speaks to the benefits to the faculty of service learning projects and development as well. Thank you for your time.

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