For some students, the first day of a Princeton class — whether on campus or on a Zoom call — is very different than in previous eras, regardless of the pandemic. Before diving into the material, some professors begin with what is known as a land acknowledgement. A version recommended by the University includes the following: “In 1756, the College of New Jersey moved from Newark and erected Nassau Hall on this land with no recorded consultation with the Lenni-Lenape peoples, and now Princeton University sits on land considered part of the ancient homelands of the Lenni-Lenape peoples.”
Next, professors may discuss how they expect students to conduct themselves. Among the guidelines: Treat each other with respect. Assume others’ mistakes are made in good faith. When students get a turn to introduce themselves, some professors ask them to share the pronouns they prefer. These efforts seek to address some of the important — and at times divisive — cultural issues being debated in the last several years.
Brian Herrera, an associate professor of theater who has been sharing land acknowledgements for about four years, says they are important because they “open up questions: What are histories we don’t know about the places we call home? What are the ways we need to be accountable and attentive to these things, and to perhaps do more?” He asks students to introduce themselves in the ways they would like to be addressed.
The University does not have a policy requiring land acknowledgements, but it has a website offering suggested language and guidance (see bit.ly/princeton-land). Land acknowledgements are one of several initiatives undertaken by the University regarding Native American and Indigenous communities since a 2018 working group on Princeton history recommended that the University recognize its historical links with the Lenni-Lenape peoples. Shawn Maxam, the senior associate director for institutional diversity and inclusion in the provost’s office, says he does not know how many professors use them.
Daniel Rubenstein, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, establishes these ground rules with his students: “Active learning is better than passive learning. Listen before speaking. And one’s silence often encourages others to engage.”
Monica Youn ’93, a lecturer in creative writing, begins by describing her classroom as a safe space but notes, “I do not consider a safe space to be a sheltered space.” For her course “Special Topics in Poetry: Race, Identity, and Innovation,” she tells students that race is “the most difficult contemporary topic to deal with. Students are going to make mistakes. Within the community of our classroom, can we commit to each other that we assume these mistakes are good-faith efforts and reasons to continue rather than end dialogue?” During student introductions, she asks students to share the pronouns they prefer as well as their ethnic background.
After reading a land acknowledgement, theater professor Stacy Wolf asks students to suggest and discuss guidelines for class discussions, which she calls “community agreements.” They have included: Entering the space with empathy. Showing kindness to yourself. Taking risks when you’re comfortable. Embracing mistakes as coming from love.
For Sarah Rivett, a professor of English and American studies, land acknowledgements are an important place to start a class, especially one that will wrestle with the nation’s colonial past. However, she notes that they have limitations: “If it becomes a normalized part of what we do, it may lead to complacency and diminished power and effectiveness for political change.”