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Naomi Andrews: How and Why to Have Difficult Conversations 

Naomi Andrews is a history professor at Santa Clara where she teaches classes on the history of gender, race and human rights. Dr. Andrews got her Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D from UC Santa Cruz in history, and wrote a book, “Socialism’s Muse: Gender in the Intellectual Landscape of French Romantic Socialism” in 2006.


I took my Cultures and Ideas course for two quarters with her last year and it was one of my favorite classes because of the in-depth discussions we had about the philosophical, political and literary works that we were reading. More broadly, we had fascinating conversations about how these historical works related to current issues like politics, women’s rights, government surveillance and more generally how societal forces shape human behavior.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What were your career plans in college?


Naomi Andrews: I applied to and was accepted to law school at the end of college. Like every other idealistic person, I wanted to do constitutional law and fight for civil liberties and all that. At some point, I realized that I did not want the career path that would lead to corporate or criminal law, but what I was most excited about was the history that I had been taught. I took a year off then applied to graduate school.


I started a Ph.D program in Russian history at Colombia. I got there and realized I didn’t want to do it. It was very political science oriented, and I was much more interested in reading Russian novels and thinking about how authors understood social injustice in their world.


GC: Last year when I took my Culture & Ideas course with you, politics and other difficult things that people disagreed about often came up in class. How do you handle difficult discussions in your classes?  


NA: The last couple of years have been a learning experience for me about how to make students comfortable but uncomfortable at the same time. Generally speaking, this is a pretty liberal campus, but there was at least one student from our class that was raised in a Trump-supporting family and he or she was distressed by the tone on campus. It’s my responsibility to make sure that student feels comfortable and safe in conversation as well.


I feel like in the last couple of years, students have been increasingly polite in the classroom, and I think some of it is a hesitation about having real confrontation or uncomfortable discussion. I think we need to be working to overcome that.


We don’t all agree, and we don’t need to agree. Exposing our disagreements is a very productive way to learn something about our own assumptions. I’ve been trying really hard to get students to articulate their own positions.


As a campus, we need to remember that certain types of disagreements are healthy and are part of our democracy. It’s really easy to stay in your silo and never hear people who disagree with you. We have to be challenging each other more.

One of the things that’s really important is to, at the front of the discussion, ask, “What’s so scary? Why can we not talk about race, or political positions (for example)? What is at risk?


GC: Is it worth it to have that type of difficult conversations outside of the classroom?


NA: I think we have to. I’m worried about the fact that I don’t know if we’re doing it that much. People seem to be segmented out into their comfort groups. Our current political climate is making that worse, because the idea of free speech has become so politicized. The greatest proponents of free speech have always been the most radical and progressive people, but in our climate, there’s this spin where only conservatives are talking about free speech.


GC: Should we just avoid disagreeing with other people to preserve relationships?


NA: It’s an instinctive thing for all of us to do. Our friendships and relationships get better if we dig into differences. It’s often in the most trusting relationships where we’re afraid of disagreeing where we can be the most open and listen and change our minds, even. It does take a certain set of tools.


Asking questions and respectful listening are important. You can’t just immediately go to labels, like “my Trump-supporting friend” or “my communist friend.” We’re all walking around with labels on, and the labels are more definitive than they’ve ever been.


We need to ask each other what issues were important to us growing up. We can ask of our friends the same type of questions we ask of texts like, “Why do you understand this issue this way? What are the forces that have shaped your reasoning?”


GC: What is the value of engaging in discussions versus taking action on one issue?


NA: Without enough discussion, action is unreflective, knee-jerk, and usually is pursuing and agenda that has been set out for you rather than your own agenda. Discussion helps you refine your own worldview and perspective. That’s a bedrock value to me, that you have to encounter texts, professors and classmates that you disagree with.


GC: Are there any particular people you have studied that have inspired you?


NA: Historians have a kind of dour view on human nature, in part because all our heroes disappoint us. However, we can appreciate the complexity and plasticity within each human being-our potential to change and reorient our thinking in the face of new kinds of evidence or arguments. We see figures throughout the historical past who have changed their mind, moved out of their comfort zone and challenged the status quo.


You might remember our discussions on Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the declaration of independence, was an important framer of the constitution, was the third president, and while president ended America’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But he also died owning 600 slaves and not emancipating them on his death bed, which was a common practice. He contributed to the scientific and intellectual rationalization of the enslavement of people from African descent and it’s very hard to see those together and understand him as a kind of hero anymore. But we can also see the places in his writing where, as he got older, he came to recognize the flaws in the arguments supporting slavery to recognize that it was dangerous and unjust. He’s a good reminder that the conflict between action and words is very deep.

I think examining humans in the past and the ways that they have navigated moral, social and political issues can help us understand the choices we make. Admire them? Not necessarily. But, see their humanity and recognize ourselves in them? That’s more productive and useful.


GC: What’s one place that you have loved that you travelled?

NA: Japan. Part of why I loved it is because I don’t know any Japanese and I can’t understand or read anything. IT’s this wonderful out-of-body experience to not have any touchpoints for the society you’re surrounded by. So much of our energy and thoughts goes into decoding, understanding and processing all the sensory input, and in Japan, all of that is so unavailable that it’s extremely soothing and relaxing.

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