Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Dagmawi Woubshet says he tries give his students space to discuss contentious issues in the classroom.

November 17, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | English Professor Facilitates ‘Civil’ Debates on Contentious Issues

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“The University is the last remaining utopia,” said Prof. Dagmawi Woubshet, English, quoting Edward Said — a late Palestinian Columbia University literature professor.

“Without being too romantic, I believe the classroom is one space where real difficult conversation can take place,” Woubshet said.

At Harvard University, Woubshet said he originally planned on studying diplomacy, anticipating attending law school and eventually working for Amnesty International or the United Nations.

He explained that his early interest in politics was partially fueled by his childhood in Ethiopia. Living under a communist government for the first 13 years of his life made politics “part of our everyday diet,” he said.

However, the second semester of his junior year, Woubshet said he took “Literatures of New World Africa,” his first ever literature course and one that “blew his mind.”

“Ultimately, I think there are these moments where students — be it in a classroom, be it any experience during college — are totally redirected as to what they thought they would do,” he said.

Woubshet called the first day of his literature class his “inspiration,” reflecting on how the professor framed the course with one of Woubshet’s favorite songs.’

“The first day the professor played one of my favorite Bob Marley songs,” he said. “It’s ‘Babylon System’ from the Survival album, and then for the next 45 minutes, he talked about [the song] in a way that was totally inaccessible to me, using theory.”

Woubshet said he was inspired to learn how to talk about the things he loved with as much sophistication and depth as his professor demonstrated in the introductory lecture.

“The very idea that you can start … a literature course in an English department with a Bob Marley lyric and then expand and frame the course using that lyric — I thought that was so powerful,” he said.


Even though he shifted his focus from politics to literature, Woubshet maintains that his initial training in history and political science still influences the way he thinks about literature.

“Like how literature can intervene in a public sphere and talk about issues like AIDS and power relations, and I think literature can be a major conduit to think about these things,” he said.

In addition to teaching African American literature, Woubshet said he equips his students with ways to discuss race in American society, such as “how race intersects with other markers of identity like gender, sexuality and class.” “If a literature class can give [students] some way, without being prescriptive, without being polemical, to deal with pressing issues, at least they have a vocabulary, and they have a perspective to critically contend with these issues,” he said.

Woubshet said he advises students who pursue careers in medicine, law and public health policy, among many other diverse fields, citing critical thinking and analysis as important skills that help students succeed.

“The ways in which an English major has prepared [students] for all that they are doing now, that in itself to me is a testament that this is a major that is capacious, it’s expansive in terms of its reach,” he said.

Woubshet also highlighted the unique approach to learning he takes in a classroom setting.

“The sense that I have as a teacher is that I’m also a student in the classroom, and to be open to the insights that my students bring to the classroom, I think that gives a different orientation,” he said. “It’s another way of breaking down the hierarchy between the professor and the student — the idea that education is only one way — it’s breaking down that paradigm.”

By breaking down these barriers, Woubshet said he allows his classroom to be a place where contentious and difficult thoughts can be expressed, an interaction often made difficult in a public sphere.

“As we’re seeing in this political election … a public space where different clashing ideas can be critically analyzed,” he said. “You leave the classroom and the civility still remains. That’s a rare thing.”