I recently moderated a panel on Secularism and debated the benefits of an irreligious society with four respected professionals renowned for their contributions in related fields. This angered some people (most of whom weren’t in attendance), just as the bi-monthly Ask an Atheist booth hosted on our campus disgusts uninformed people who claim these students are advocating immorality. Women have a tendency to ubiquitously apologize for anything and everything that could potentially inconvenience anyone in the slightest, but neither the female president of the Club of Secular Understanding, nor its female faculty adviser are apologizing for their controversial presence on campus. And neither am I.
In the documentary film “Never Sorry,” the BBC interviews the influential renegade artist Ai Wei Wei as he is returning from jail in China where he has been violently interrogated for showcasing sociopolitical art projects that clearly offended the government. The reporter asks Ai Wei Wei if he thinks art is a vehicle for changing the world. Ai Wei Wei responds, “I think that art certainly is a vehicle for us to develop new ideas, to be creative, to extend our imagination…to change the current circumstance.”
“But do you think it is a responsibility… to continue to speak out?” The reporter continues to prod.
After his ordeal in prison, Wei Wei sighs, but hardly hesitates. “Yes, I think it is the responsibility of any artist to protect freedom of expression and to use ANY way to extend this power.”
I believe every single one of us is an artist, and we can learn to tap into our innate creativity, because creativity isn’t a talent; it’s a way of operating in the world. As Picasso suggested, “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”
I have been teaching college since I was 21. I have spent my entire adult life thinking about expression, how words and phrases and styles are codified, how technology changes our modes and rhythms of expression, and how students can best access and appropriate the hegemonic discourse without losing their most essential selves. I take my profession seriously, and perhaps even more so as a tenured professor at a “community” college, where I believe it is my duty to give underrepresented students access to modes of communication that will help them be heard.
In critical thinking, composition, and in journalism, I teach students how to research for credibility and how to express themselves in ways that will be respected in their chosen professions. In creative writing courses, I encourage students to take risks expressing themselves, above and beyond whatever vehicle through which they will ultimately choose to earn a living.
Every single one of them is creative in ways they have frequently squelched throughout their compensatory education. Learning to re-access and reactivate one’s recessed creativity is an act of courage. It requires us to risk being seen.
In curating a literary and visual arts journal, I ask students to create a space where artists and thinkers can convene, a place where the sheer diversity of voices can be celebrated beyond their commercial value. The freedom to express ourselves is one of our most fundamental, significant and cherished rights in this country, and especially in our California Community College system, which specifically upholds the right of students to be heard on their own terms, even if they offend faculty and administrators in the process.
I am grateful to my academic community for the opportunity to engage regularly in this vital conversation. I believe our job as teachers and as lifelong learners is to evaluate established voices for their relevance to our society, and to embrace emerging voices for their vision– whether or not those voices are conventional. Covert acts of censorship, on and off college campuses, take the power away from the individual and put it in the hands of authorities who have already obtained their positions of power and made up their minds. As academics, our job is to assure that these choices remain securely in the hands of individuals, who may or may not have access to disseminating information on a wider scale. Whether my students are naive or experienced, I defend their right to be heard. I understand and fully accept that I may not be liked, appreciated, or even respected for defending their right to expression. But as Ai Wei Wei suggests, protecting the voices of artists is not a luxury I dabble in; it’s a responsibility I uphold at all costs.