How to Organize a Teach-In

 

As teachers of American literature and culture, we are well positioned to bring our academic training and insight to bear on the social justice concerns of our political moment, such as women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, and anti-racist activism. Yet we may not know the best ways to discuss these issues with students and may wonder if it is appropriate to do so in the context of the classroom. Headlines about the weaponizing of free speech and attacks on faculty academic freedom may inhibit us from raising these concerns in our classes or on our campuses, especially those of us who are graduate student, pre-tenure, or contingent instructors. Some faculty who embrace social justice commitments may have pedagogical reasons for not addressing political issues in the classroom, particularly if the issues are not related to course content or learning outcomes.

How can we deploy our knowledge and expertise in support of our social justice investments if traditional protests, petitions, and demonstrations do not appeal to us or are not suitable for our role on campus? The “teach-in” format of the 1960s is an overlooked activist option for teacher-scholars who want to awaken their students and campuses to the urgency of the political moment. Through structured, organized educational events on campus but outside the classroom, teach-ins are an effective strategy for American literature instructors to use when the need arises to facilitate informed dialogue around social justice issues.

What is a teach-in?

http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86
University of Michigan students at the first teach-in. Source: http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86

At traditional teach-ins, a series of scholars speak on their areas of expertise in relation to a specific political or social justice concern. The first “teach-ins” on college and university campuses were organized in response to the Vietnam War draft. Professors at the University of Michigan planned a teaching strike and an off-campus “teach-out” in the style of labor movement “walkouts.” Faced with threats of retaliation, the faculty members reconsidered. Rather than strike or walk out, the educators chose to “teach in,” or “occupy” (to use the 21st-century term) the campus with their academic knowledge and pedagogical expertise. Along with lectures and discussions related to the war draft, the teach-in also included debates, movies, and musical performances. Similar campus-wide teach-ins soon followed at institutions such as Columbia and Berkeley.

Later on, teach-ins were used by the “environmental, women’s, anti-Apartheid, and anti-nuclear movements, into the 1990s and 2000s [by] the Democracy Teach-Ins . . . and most recently [by] Occupy and Black Lives Matter.” A teach-in is an opportunity to promote dialogue about current political affairs outside the classroom and regular curriculum, but still within an academic setting. Teach-ins are an occasion for faculty to model civil discourse and to demonstrate the academic relevance of social justice concerns by connecting social justice issues to the content and methods of our discipline. Teach-ins are designed to be participatory, with discussion and questions from the audience. Although the earlier teach-ins of the 1960s were sometimes disruptive, teach-ins are part of the tradition of peaceful protest and activism.

Some teach-ins may have the overt political goal of “producing knowledge for use by participants as members of an organized, politicized campus community.” Others may simply aim to raise an issue. For example, a colleague who organized a teach-in in response to the 2003 Iraq War explains that faculty did not want students to “walk out of class” in protest, yet wanted to send the message that a declaration of war “was momentous and needed to be thought about and processed” as a campus community. Faculty from across campus provided historical, artistic, political, feminist, ethical, and military history lenses to deepen the campus’s thinking “about Iraq, about war, and about the implications of U.S. actions.” By considering the issue from so many perspectives, students were empowered to come to their conclusions.

“Day Without a Woman” teach-in

day without a womanI helped organize a teach-in in conjunction with the “Day Without a Woman” strike sponsored by the Women’s March on March 8, 2017. Although many faculty at my institution were concerned about the matters related to the strike—women’s issues, labor issues, and anti-immigrant policies—we did not believe it would serve our students or the educational mission of our small, teaching-focused institution to “walk out” and not teach that day. Many of our students care deeply about social justice issues, but generally speaking, our student body is not “political.” Our students look to faculty for leadership on political activism, and we decided that a teach-in would provide a productive model of engaged citizenship and democracy in action.

We held our teach-in in the atrium of our library, a visible locale in the center of campus. Faculty from our Gender Studies program gave lectures on topics such as “Women, Science, and Feminism,” “Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist, Intersectional Feminist, Bad Ass,” and “The Value of Women’s Labor.” We also held a community reading and discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Our teach-in ended with a bilingual reading by two Mexican poets visiting campus that day, Marcia Trejo and Aurora Velasco.

To create a welcoming and fun setting for students and the entire campus, we provided catered refreshments and hot chocolate throughout the day. We publicized the teach-in to students, staff, and faculty over campus email listserves; we also posted flyers and announced it in our Gender Studies classes. Many students came to the teach-in on their own, and several faculty encouraged students and entire classes to attend the various lectures, readings, and discussions.

Once we had the idea, we were able to organize our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in in just a few days. My campus is small with few bureaucratic barriers, so we were able to find faculty speakers, schedule rooms, order food, and publicize the event on short notice. We had the support of key campus leaders who viewed the teach-in as a positive demonstration of civil discourse.

Other teach-in formats: Tours, panels, syallabi, Twitter

learningisresistance.jpg-largeWhen I recently posted a query about teach-ins on Twitter, I discovered that instructors in the broader field of American cultural studies are embracing some creative and unexpected teach-in formats. Trish Kahle organizes socialist walking tours of her university’s campus that “re-narrate” the typical college admissions tour. Guy Emerson Mount has organized teach-in panels (rather than using the traditional lecture format) on his institution’s ties to slavery, a shooting by campus police, and hate speech on campus.

Rhonda Ragsdale, a history professor at Lone Star College, began tweeting about “social justice from a historian’s perspective” every Saturday morning under the hashtag “#SaturdaySchool.” She now has more than 8,500 followers and co-hosts Twitter teach-ins on issues as diverse as the present-day legacies of slavery to the importance of art. Online teach-ins and podcasts may be an option for those concerned about adversarial relationships between activists and academia or those who want to eschew their “universities’ ideological traps” and perpetuations of injustice.

Peter Sahlins at UC-Berkeley designed a semester-long teach-in on “The US Election of 2016 in Global Context.” Designed as a pass/fail course that met every Tuesday night in spring 2017, this teach-in featured faculty speakers from a variety of disciplines who discussed scholarly questions surrounding the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Similarly, crowd-sourced syllabi organized around social justice and political issues such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus have been designed and circulated in the activist and pedagogical spirit of the teach-in.

Considerations and recommendations for organizing a teach-in

recommendationsGiven the chaotic political news cycle, you may find that your campus needs to organize a teach-in on short notice. Consider the institutional structures and relationships that can aid you. For example, our Gender Studies program was able to provide the staff, resources, and budget for our teach-in. Individual faculty members’ rapport with campus staff made it possible for us to schedule rooms, publicize the event, and regroup when the inevitable planning complications occurred. However, if institutional logistics, bureaucracy, and politics make it difficult to move quickly and efficiently, perhaps the creative, alternative formats suggested above might be useful to you. At large institutions, organizing a teach-in for students and faculty in a single department or program, rather than an entire campus, may be more logistically feasible and effective.

Keep the education and empowerment of your students at the center of your teach-in. With students in mind, our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in was designed to be fun and interactive. My only regret was that we didn’t provide our students with opportunities for action. Voter registration or a letter writing event would have been action steps in-line with my institution’s mission of promoting engaged, democratic citizenship. There are some who argue that it is pedagogically irresponsible to bring matters of social justice to students’ attention without empowering them to do something. But other educators maintain that it is enough to raise the issue and let students come to their own conclusions and determine their own next steps.

Although the teach-in format is an alternative to more disruptive forms of campus activism and protest, it does not come without professional risk. Each instructor will need to identify and evaluate possible perils. Depending on your institutional context and your status within your institution or department, you may not feel professionally protected if you organize or participate in a teach-in. In such cases, those of us with tenure need to defend our colleagues’ academic freedom and promote free speech, the very pillar of our precious democratic institutions. We have a responsibility to wield our tenured status to amplify vulnerable voices and perspectives on our campuses and within the profession.

Teach-ins today can take many forms and are an established and pedagogically sound option for peaceful political resistance for teacher-scholars of American literature. For me, organizing a teach-in was a rewarding experience that aligned my personal values, professional ethics, and my social justice investments.

Questions:

Share your ideas, thoughts, and experiences in the “comments” section. I would love to hear from you!

  1. Have you ever organized or participated in a teach-in? What was the topic and format?
  2. Should a teach-in have an action-based outcome or is raising the issue enough?
  3. If you were to organize a teach-in on your campus tomorrow, what would the topic be?
  4. What is the relationship between tenure and academic freedom? What should the responsibilities of tenure entail in our perilous political climate?
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Sherman Alexie or How does #MeToo affect the Texts We Teach?

The recent events surrounding Sherman Alexie, first the accusations and then his kind of admission and sort of apology, started a conversation among a few of us at PALS. When the news broke, I was mostly indifferent. Should I have been surprised? Should I have been upset? Should I have been enraged? Should I have had some sort of pause about it all? Probably. But that wasn’t the case. I was bummed, disappointed.

My Positionality (in the world/in education)

Before I go on, I would like to take a minute to set up my perspective and the elements that influence my response to Alexie.

    • I am not a creative writer, nor am I writer of color. There is a wonderful and painful reflection about Alexie’s betrayal by a writer who identifies as both of those and as a woman. For me, however, Alexie has not had an impact on who I am. This isn’t just Alexie; I do not connect emotionally with any writers or written texts, or any “famous” people.
    • Amending point one: I am not devoid of emotion. There has been the discussion of how literature helps heal trauma. That was not the case for me; it never had that opportunity. Literature always functioned as escapism, a place not only to escape my situation but to escape all my emotions.
    • Based on my research interests, I spent years submerged in both critical race theory and criticism about representation of sexual violence in literary works, and sexual violence more broadly. So when revelations like Alexie’s come to light, I move them through a variety of frameworks to rethink how we understand it all.
    • Amending point three: this informs what I do in the classroom. My initial reaction is not to remove Alexie from the classroom. So now I am wondering, how might students benefit from reading Alexie’s work with this new information about the author?
    • Alexie’s works only makes it onto my syllabus every three years or so, and he is rarely the only Native American writer represented. Since I don’t teach Alexie heavily, not teaching his work doesn’t impact my courses nor does it serve as some sort of protest. This last part I say without judgment. If Alexie is the only Native writer you teach, there is no time like the present to remedy that. For those interested in exploring more Native writers, here is a starting point. (Note: This list is not complete. There are Native writers I teach who are not on it.) Also, we have had multiple posts here on several Early Native American writers, like Handsome Lake and protest literature, poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Haida poets.

When the question was raised among the PALS editors of whether or not we needed to make some sort of statement or amend our posts that include Alexie–Repurposing the Captivity Trope and Bookending the Survey Part 2–or to suggest alternative texts, my initial response, in my head of course because I do have a filter sometimes, was “Why?” I was confused by the discussion. Why wouldn’t we continue to teach Alexie’s works after this revelation?

My indifference isn’t because I don’t care about sexual assault and harassment because I do. It’s because it is such a normalized experience for me as a woman that I really had to take some time to figure out my relationship with authors I teach whose personal histories are deeply problematic. Also, because I am me, I took it to the streets—in academia this is also known as the classroom.

My Students’ Responses

I am currently teaching as a part of the San Diego City College CCAP (College and Career Access Pathways) program which involves teaching college courses at high school campuses, specifically targeting students who are undecided about pursuing college. I had these high school aged college students do some in class writing on a broad prompt to get us started on a discussion that took the entire hour and a half class period:

Should a person’s personal behaviors have an effect on their professional lives/achievement? Why or why not? Explain.

I intentionally kept the prompt extremely vague for two reasons. First, we had just finished a unit on social media use where students were adamantly against the practice of potential colleges and employers creeping on perspective students and employees’ social media accounts. Second, we read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Super Man and Me” just weeks before he was called out for his sexual misconduct.

Of course my students, in all of their good faith in humanity and their buying into the American promise that hard work pays off, answered “no” to the question and followed with seemingly innocuous examples. People partying or getting a little crazy in their personal lives should not take away from their hard work or achievements in their professional lives. Because social media was on their minds, I had anticipated this response. Sexual assault and other crimes did not enter their thoughts on the subject.

I put the NPR article about Alexie up on the projector and read a few of the victims’ statements. My students were shocked and sad. They really liked Alexie’s essay. I changed the prompt to get at the question I have been trying to work through:

Should these revelations about Alexie’s personal behaviors keep me from teaching his creative writing in my classes?

Like me, this took a lot longer for students to process. There were a couple immediate “stop teaching him” answers. I was asked if I knew about his actions before I had them read his essay. Others said if they had known that going in, then they would not have read his work. Another student asked about the time frame, because if he had changed his behavior, then shouldn’t we give him a second chance?

Then the conversation shifted into one that involved understanding sexual assault. Not a single student in the room knew the name Harvey Weinstein or anything about the #Metoo movement. So we pulled up a list of films he has a producer credit on and the list of his accusers. Again, my students were surprised at how many of those names they recognized. This led down the road of how it happened to so many women over such a long period of time. Eventually we discussed the attitudes that dismiss or make light of women’s experiences and how all of it is compounded with race, class, and sexual orientation among other factors. And somehow we ended up talking about the back log of unprocessed rape kits and other logistical elements involving sexual assault.

We went down this long road in order for students to ask the question, “If we stop reading Alexie, does that mean we don’t watch any of Weinstein’s 300+ films?” I offered a few more comparisons for consideration: Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Even though I know my audience, I wasn’t sure if those examples were going to hold up, especially R. Kelly. But my students still listen to R. Kelly and still watch at least short clips from various Bill Cosby shows on Youtube, knowing about the allegations and charges against both of them. Why? Their answers: Because they still find enjoyment or connection with the art.

Do We Still Teach Alexie?

Bringing it back to the educational space, I asked them the question that particularly nags at me. Why Sherman Alexie? Why not others? Who else do we consistently teach despite their problematic behaviors and attitudes?

Ahem. Is it Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Racist? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Rapist? Does Sally Hemings’ posthumous #Metoo count? What about Jefferson’s musings about race in Notes on the State of Virginia? Did I miss the memo about no longer teaching him in early American literature or history courses?

The first time I read parts Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was in a southern history course among texts of white male southern historians. However, that wasn’t the first time I was exposed to the content of it. I first read about Notes in David Walker’s Appeal. And this is the way I teach Jefferson. Since I structure my courses thematically or by genre, teaching texts chronologically doesn’t come into play that much. So I teach Walker and include the excerpts from Jefferson along with it to enable students to see in writing what Walker is calling out. Students get a lot out of seeing this side to Jefferson that is sadly entirely new to them.

In grad school I did a research project for a film pedagogy course that involved D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I strained a muscle from the amount of eye-rolling I did as critic after critic tried to downplay Griffith’s racism. I’ve read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and Griffith added his own racist elements to the adaptation, in addition to claiming the film as representational of historical fact. Why is there the need to suggest Griffith wasn’t an awful person in order to acknowledge what he did for cinematography during the time period? Back to the classroom, I would not teach this film in an intro to film studies course. I might pull clips from it when teaching cinematography. I would possibly include it in an upper division film course. I would probably include it in a course that focused on the representation of race in film, along with proper set up and DJ Spooky’s remix Rebirth of a Nation.

Lakota woman

Likewise, I wonder about the importance of teaching Alexie in different ways. In another course, I often teach excerpts from Mary Crowdog/Bravebird’s Lakota Woman, primarily “Aimlessness.” Students LOVE her memoir. The chapter I bring in focuses quite a bit on the sexual assault of Native Women by both Native and white men. Perhaps one approach is pairing Alexie with narratives like Bravebird’s and bringing his sexual misconduct into the conversation of the course. What does it mean that Alexie is writing against power structures as he participates in and uses them himself? How many of his characters try to do that, and to what success? We don’t need to sing endless praise of those whose texts we choose to teach or try to explain away their transgressions in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about still finding merit in them. We can change the way we teach them. And, we can choose not to teach them.

Let’s not forget the presence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the times it has gone ignored or been swept away by the power structures that be. As a college student, I also saw plenty of inappropriate behavior between professors and both undergrad and grad students with respected professors looking the other way as though the power structure at play there didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem. Sherman Alexie who makes it a point of identifying as teacher and mentor in “Superman and Me” also opens up this conversation.

Whether or not we continue to include Alexie on our syllabi is an individual decision. But we should all take a moment to reflect on the personal backgrounds of all the writers we teach and continue to make purposeful decisions in our course designs.