Beyond “teachable moments”: Approaching the Log mural in an engaging manner

April 27, 2016 by Karen Merrill

What does it mean to say something is a “teachable moment”? I’ve been thinking about that question as the committee I chair, the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History, has focused its attention this semester on developing recommendations about the Log mural depicting Ephraim Williams and “King Hendrick” Theyanoguin (and other English and Mohawk figures), making military plans before they were ambushed at the Battle of Lake George in September 1755.

Should we strive to create a “teachable moment” out of this mural? In the end, I’m not so sure. And I have the students on our committee to thank for making me pause and wonder.

As most in the community know, after the College renovated and reopened the Log, some people raised concerns about the way Mohawks were represented in this decorative piece of art and around the deep irony that such a prominent depiction occupied in a student space when, historically, the College has enrolled so few Native American students. In November, President Adam Falk announced that he decided both to cover the mural and appoint our committee, charged with both working through the question of the Log mural and developing principles to help guide the College when questions about other public decorations emerged. We began meeting in earnest in January.

Knowing there was a lot of confusion about what concerns were raised by the mural, we on the committee began planning for a campus conversation about it. It seemed like a “teachable moment” – a phrase I heard over and over as I talked with people about how to engage or reengage the community’s interest in the mural. We on the committee all thought we should host a forum, but what would that look like? We needed a panel, we imagined at first, that included people with expertise who could help students understand the mural. Would those be “experts” from the outside, I wondered? Our own faculty? Whatever. No doubt, there would be some teaching in that “teachable moment,” along with, we hoped, good discussion.

I’ll digress for a moment and note that if you Google “teachable moment”… well, don’t Google “teachable moment!” It may make you never want to hear the phrase “teachable moment” in a college setting ever again, as it’s rooted in elementary education, connected to helping young children learn about their actions and behavior. Parenting advice these days is also full of talk about “teachable moments” and about seizing those moments in everything from life’s unavoidable challenges to just dumb mistakes kids make. The takeaway for educators and parents alike: Every moment has potentially some larger lesson or value you can instill in it for your children and pupils.

Beyond the fact that it’s exhausting to create endless “teachable moments” as a parent, and most kids wise up to the whole business by the time they’re tweens, what’s the problem here? Talk about the “teachable moment” typically hinges on how and when the person in authority (the teacher, the parent) intervenes or doesn’t intervene to offer insight. Often, too, the “teachable moment” has the end of the lesson plan already determined. But on Sunday night, when the forum on the Log mural took place, I saw something very different than a “teachable moment.”

The students on the committee had taken over the planning for the forum weeks before and had long since ditched the idea of a panel of experts. They took all the initiative for structuring the conversation, and using the rubric of Sunday night “Storytime” at the College, they decided they would each tell a very different “story” about the mural. Some were more personal than others, some more critical, some more narrative, some more analytical. They researched and looked at images; talked to professors and staff; wrote out their stories; shared their ideas and talked with and listened to each other. I can imagine the process wasn’t always easy for them. But they created a conversation that then allowed those who attended to expand on their observations and ideas. This, in turn, allowed us to learn a great deal as a committee.

Doesn’t this just describe a “teachable moment”?! Such a glib phrase actually got turned on its head in Sunday’s forum. Students, not teachers, were in charge of the event, and while teaching and learning certainly happened, the forum also offered individuals a place simply to reflect together on the questions raised by the mural. The lesson plan was not predetermined by anyone. As we on the committee eventually turn from the Log mural to looking at other spaces and decorations on campus, my great hope is that we can bring the kinds of fresh approaches the students used this past Sunday to help engage the community in the visible forms the College’s history has taken on campus.

Karen Merrill is the chair of the history department and Frederick Rudolph ’42 Class of 1965 Professor of American Culture. 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Benevolous April 27, 2016 at 10:28 am

It’s refreshing to see a leader of the faculty encourage students to take on the responsibility to address difficult issues on campus. It’s sad that it took an act of censorship to make that happen. Perhaps that’s the real “teachable moment” here—not for the students, but for the faculty and the administration.

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Cleave Carter April 29, 2016 at 8:16 am

The students ran the show. They did it well too. Very adept. We were lucky to have Native Americans as well as the one student veteran speak about this depiction of war. Very important voices in this discussion.

I get the sense from this article that Professor Merrill may be wondering the same thing that I am- that perhaps we put too little stock in how this generation can interpret something and see the nuances, contradictions and controversies in it? I would like to add, that the same is probably true for the generation of World War Two Ephs who commissioned the mural. There tends to be a projection onto what that generation “was thinking” in terms of “what they were portraying is a romanticized view of war, the college, etc.” I have my doubts it is that simple. I bet that generation of Ephs had more sophistication than we are (at times) projecting onto them.

It was interesting that the student led forum found a way to guide the discussion and largely avoid that terrible word- “censorship.” The impact of the act of censorship was largely absent from the discussion. I submit to you Ephs- that the thoughts incurred by building a wall around a monument, moving a piece of art, or destroying a controversial symbol, are every bit as valid and as important as the contemplation of the art and symbols themselves. But that perhaps these young adults were wise to avoid that topic directly, given the nature of the argument created- which was clearly against censorship.

The threat of censorship in this instance has created a tool to force populations to have conversations which would normally be avoided. One would hope we could have these discussions with large and passionate participation without this threat of censorship, but I am not convinced that would be the case.

There is a silver lining, and that lining is speech, not censorship. I think that is the thrust of what the students are telling us “elders.”

Very well done.

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anonymous April 30, 2016 at 7:17 am

Has the committee considered political theology? When you get around to looking at Haystack, it will help if you consider how close you might be to the consideration of salvation on earth.

What exactly is a “safe space”? What are the sociology of religion implications for the academy? Perhaps we are not as far removed from Haystack as we might think we are, as all of us are influenced by Western eschatological design?

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The quest for salvation May 1, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Will this round of moral cleansing leave the haystack in rubble as we pass judgment on the heathens of yesteryear? And what will be done with the soldier monument which assaults our sensibilities by displaying (gasp) war? Tune in next semester; same Eph time, same Eph channel, to see what survives the purges of 2016 .

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