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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PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.

 

By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.