Teaching as Activism: The Educational Intervention Project as a Tool of Transformation

“You can either talk about it as having a kind of toolbox or also talk about it as having a kind of toybox,” Fred Moten has said of the concepts in his coauthored book The Undercommons (Harney and Moten 2013, 105–106). “In the end,” he continues, “what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction.” Toys move us to a new way of thinking together. Like Moten’s coauthor Stefano Harney, in this post “I’m trying to show that I’m playing with something rather than that it’s finished” (Harney and Moten 2013, 107).

Pedagogical Interventions

The windowless basement classroom in Meliora Hall felt like a physical representation of how Harney and Moten (2013, 26–28) variously describe the undercommons: a place of refuge, the downlow lowdown maroon community, the underground of the university, a kind of being with others. At 9:05 a.m., I would close the doors to the outside world and twenty-one undergraduates and I—sequestered in a fluorescent-lit cocoon—would study the problem of whiteness. I asked my students to be what Karen McKinney (2005, 24–25) refers to as agents of epiphany—individuals who, through interactions with others, produce “racial turning points” or moments “of conscious whiteness” providing “insight into the racialized nature” of one’s life.

In the spirit of facilitating epiphanies, I want to share an action project assignment that I call an educational intervention. I have used it in two undergraduate courses: one semester of “The Social Construction of Whiteness,” and three semesters of “The Black Body: Intersecting Intimacies,” where the assignment was first born. The objective of the educational intervention is singular: to disseminate knowledge produced within the classroom beyond its walls. This intervention could take the form of a social media and/or poster campaign, a public dialogue or discussion, a performance, or some other event or form of communication.

I ask students to be creative: how can what they have learned be effectively disseminated to a wider audience on (or off) campus? In some ways, the freedom and flexibility entailed in this kind of assignment makes it high-risk, but I keep a close watch on what students are producing to make sure they are on the right track. In order to receive credit, projects must be in full compliance with the university’s code of conduct for students. Instructors who want a more structured and controlled set of intervention projects could experiment with forming student groups around given topics, themes, or problems. I am currently trying this strategy in the spring 2018 iteration of the whiteness course.

Pedagogical Adaptations

The educational intervention assignment was not part of the original course design for my class on the black body. I had planned to end the semester with a straightforward analytical essay, asking students to make connections between texts they had encountered in the class. However, about halfway through the spring 2016 semester, I encountered a small cluster of my students in the hallway after class, lamenting the fact that the students they felt “should” be in the class were not among those enrolled. In other words, it was great for a self-selecting group of largely antiracist and activist students to deepen their understanding of race by taking my class, but what about other students on campus who could benefit from education about race but might not choose to take such a course? Was there a way to reach them? I thought about this for a few days and then revised my final assignment. Students could still write an individual essay on a topic of their choosing (Option A). Or they could collaborate with classmates to teach someone something (Option B). Each Option B project would result in a reflective essay that:

  1. describes the intervention and its goals
  2. situates the intervention within the context of the course, by drawing connections between the intervention and course concepts and readings
  3. reflects on the intervention’s execution, and
  4. briefly details each student’s contribution to the design and execution of the intervention.

I have assigned this portion of the project alternatively as an individual essay (that is, everyone in the group turns in their own paper) and as a collaboratively written group essay.

Intervention 1: An Anti-Racism Campaign

I want to think through two student projects as a way to highlight how pedagogy can inspire learning outside the classroom. For their educational intervention, those students in the hall that day eventually created an antiracism campaign and website in response to a university-sponsored antiracism campaign—called “We’re Better Than That”—that was rolled out in the spring of 2016. The students’ version was entitled “Racism Lives Here” and was an explicit attempt to name the problem of racism on campus and to respond to it through the provision of educational resources. The website included a timeline of recent events that had led to the creation of the university’s antiracism campaign, as well as the students’ critique of and response to it.

Here is an abbreviated version of the timeline: in October 2013, a white student displays a Confederate flag in his window on the fraternity quad. In March 2015, after a student residence focusing on African American issues renews its housing contract on the fraternity quad, racial hate speech and bodily threats against students of color appear on Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app.  In November 2015, in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, students of color and allies march on campus and submit a list of demands to the president aimed at ameliorating the campus climate and improving conditions for underrepresented minority students. In February 2016, the university conducts a campus climate survey and rolls out its “We’re Better Than That” campaign at a varsity basketball game.

In addition to a well-articulated critique of the “We’re Better Than That” campaign, the students’ intervention included accessible explanations of structural racism, allyship, microaggressions, white privilege, and so-called reverse racism and black-on-black crime, as well as directing visitors to resources where they could learn more. The site lives on as a resource (though an imperfect one, subject to my own limitations in keeping its content current), and subsequent classes have expanded on the content by adding and contributing to a blog. It has also become a home for links to subsequent web-based educational interventions, including the one I discuss in the next section, an audio project about public safety and policing.

Intervention 2: A Public Safety Audio Project

This intervention also requires some backstory, and a widening of our geographic focus beyond the confines of campus. The University of Rochester, a predominantly white institution, is tucked into a bend in the Genesee River and flanked on the nonriver side by the sprawling Mount Hope Cemetery. Across the river lies the Nineteenth Ward, a gentrifying, predominantly black neighborhood. The city of Rochester as a whole is hypersegregated with respect to both race and income. In the spring of 2016, amid concerns from the university’s medical center about increased threats of violence in the Emergency Department, a security commission was established and charged with assessing whether or not to arm a subset of the sworn peace officers who patrolled the hospital. In the fall of that year, while I was teaching the class on the black body for the second time, there were a series of town-hall meetings to discuss the security commission’s report, which had concluded that yes, the officers should be armed. One such meeting on the River Campus was recorded and posted publicly by the Campus TimesFor their educational intervention, four of my students analyzed and reorganized the three hours of audio into “tracks”—addressing themes of belonging, materiality, public health, evidence, and safety—the way an anthropologist might organize portions of different interviews or sets of field notes to trace a theme or pattern in the data.

This project was exemplary for the way it rendered legible what had been an exhausting and disorganized public meeting, surfacing the political stakes of these conversations for a range of stakeholders. The track “Belonging,” for example, captured a profound sense of uncertainty and moral ambiguity around the boundaries of the university and community, and raised the question of whether or not, as one attendee noted, students were themselves part of the “locality.” The students plan to present this project publicly as part of an upcoming faculty research symposium on gun violence in March 2018.

Empowering Social Change Beyond the Classroom

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (2016, 12) notes: “When I think back to why I was apolitical in my mid-twenties, I see that being politically engaged means having a sense of your own power—that what you do matters—and a sense of belonging, things that came to me only later and that do not come to all.” In closing, then, I want to share the words of one of my students, taken (with her permission) from the final essays she wrote reflecting on her interventions. Kara worked with three other students to design an online dictionary called “The ABCs of Power,” complete with twenty-six action items, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Kara Rubio: “The goal of this project was to use education as a tool of empowerment. . . . This class transformed the platitudes about race, diversity, and inclusion into material, intentional directives that could be acted upon. This is how I wanted our project to be viewed and understood. The goal was never neutrality. It was always to speak truth to power.”

Following Harney and Moten, Robin D. G. Kelley has cautioned that the university itself can never be a vehicle of social transformation—but our students can. The educational intervention is a part of my anthropological and pedagogical toykit for reinforcing lessons about power and social change, while empowering students to think (and act) outside the classroom.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the creators of “Racism Lives Here” (Robin Graziano, Miles Meth, Darya Nicol, and Shakti Rambarran) and “UnPresidented” (Shanique Caddle, Nicholas Contento, Sunny Hutson, and Leah Schwartz), and all of my students, for inspiring me to think outside the toybox. This post was originally presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association on the panel “Making Anthropology Matter in the Academy: Application, Activism, and Community Engagement with Students in the Trump-Era United States,” organized by Nolan Kline and Rachel Newcomb.

References

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.  

McKinney, Karyn D. 2005. Being White: Stories of Race and Racism. New York: Routledge.  

Solnit, Rebecca. 2016. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Updated edition. Chicago: Haymarket Books.