Woker Than Thou: An Experimental Syllabus

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

Course Description

#BlackLivesMatter. #MeToo. Call-out culture. Cultural appropriation. Wokeness. [Fill in the blank].

This is a ten-week course on critical activist culture for community leaders, political activists, artists and organizers. It provides a space for those engaging in political activism to reflect on practices, beliefs, and ongoing conversations in social justice culture. In particular, we will be investigating how activist identities are formed through self-education, performance, and direct/indirect communication styles. We will also be taking a critical, yet gracious look at the collateral damage doled out by the antagonism in leftist activist culture. Although this course is not for academic credit, the readings and discussions will be heavily based on theory and cultural research. While this course is free to anyone who is interested, all students must commit to attending all of the classes (barring any personal emergencies).

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, students should:

  • Be able to map out the norms, patterns, language, and beliefs prevalent in leftist progressive activist culture and in their own communities
  • Have crafted an explicit understanding of the nuances, strengths, weaknesses, contradictions and evolution of their own political activist identities
  • Reflect on the limits of a modern social justice identity and its attendant values, and generate additional/alternative goals and frameworks for living a life of activism
  • Possess a basic grasp of performance studies and how performance broadly shapes identity

Assignments

All students will setup a private blog on a platform of their choice and will write weekly 500 word reading responses and reflections to the assigned content. Additionally, students are expected to share at least one reading a week on their social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) with their own commentary as a social experiment, and report back to the class on the dialogue it generated.

Guiding questions for weekly reflections:

  • How did you feel when reading the assignments? What was your gut reaction? What sensations did you observe in your body?
  • Where do you see these ideas reflected in your own organizing, writing, relationships, and/or communities, if at all?
  • How can these analyses be useful takeaway tools for you to share with your organizations and groups?
  • Some of these readings are highly theoretical and are taken from the academy. What role does lived experience play in these conversations? Or remain absent?

The final project for this class will be a visual, performed, or written piece that showcases learning in one of the course objectives. Students are encouraged to take liberties with the format and presentation of their final projects and create something that can continue being shared outside of the classroom. We will schedule an extra day to meet during Week 7 to workshop project ideas.

Course Expectations

  • All students are expected to come to class fully rested and having read/watched/listened to all of the assigned content. Some of the readings are of a more academic nature, and while I do not expect all students to be able to understand new theoretical content, I expect students to bring in a list of their questions for clarification.
  • All students are expected to bring all of their political leanings and political projects to this space. However, I ask that students stay open to dissenting or unpopular ideas for the sake of discussion, instead of foreclosing certain topics or ideas by judging them as not worthy of attention. I expect students to be be brave and listen to ideas they might not necessarily agree with, for the sake of sitting with another viewpoint.
  • For students with specific accessibility needs, please let me know early in the quarter so that we can work together to arrange accommodations to ensure your fullest participation.

Readings

Week 1: Shortfalls of Marxism & Privilege Theory

This week we are investigating central ideological foundations of modern social justice activism: Marxism and privilege theory. We will outline what is so compelling about these methods of framing social oppression as a structural problem, and also what other ways of understandings they might be obscuring.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. “Introduction”. A Postcapitalist Politics . University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Link to PDF

Hozumi, Tada. “Whiteness as cultural complex trauma.” Selfish Activist, 9 Jan. 2018, selfishactivist.com/whiteness-as-cultural-complex-trauma/.

Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with “Privilege”.” Andrea smith’s blog, 8 July 2015, andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.

treeorchid. “Guest Post: Privilege Politics is Reformism.” Black Orchid Collective, 15 Mar. 2012, blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-privilege-politics/.

Week 2: Interrogating Call-out Culture

This week we are looking at the more recent commentary on extreme call-out culture in activist spaces, and life-giving examples of other ways to address harm and error. We are intentionally avoiding pieces that harshly critique call out culture without modeling vulnerability and offering working alternatives.

deBoer, Fredrik. “Elena Ferrante and the Politics of Deference.” The Towner, 7 Nov. 2016, http://www.thetowner.com/elena-ferrante-politics-deference/.

Garza, Alicia. “Our cynicism will not build a movement. Collaboration will.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 26 Jan. 2017, mic.com/articles/166720/blm-co-founder-protesting-isnt-about-who-can-be-the-most-radical-its-a bout-winning#.hHLanqkdi.

Lee, Frances. “Kin Aesthetics: Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice.” Autostraddle, 13 July 2017, autostraddle.com/kin-aesthetics-excommunicate-me-from-the-church-of-social-justice-386640/.

Week 3: Intersectionality

This week we are digging into the origins of the term intersectionality, which is coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. We will chart how it has been used as a popular term and signpost in social justice discourse. We will discuss its ubiquity and growing commodification, and consider other less known terms for disruption.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. University of Chicago Legal Forum : Volume 1989: Issue 1, Article 8. Link to PDF

Puar, Jasbir. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics.” Jasbir Puar: ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’, Jan. 2011, eipcp. Link to PDF

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Introduction”. Critical Ethnic Studies. Vol. 3, №1, Spring 2017. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55807861e4b0847ced606181/t/594ad758b11be1154188 e99a/1498077017383/CES+3–1+Late+Identity+Editorial.pdf

Week 4: The False Promises of Empathy

This week we are considering the over-reliance on empathy as a key element of recruiting people to the left, and its hidden dead ends.

Anderson, Patrick. “I Feel For You.” Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations. Ed. Laura D. Nielsen, Patricia A. Ybarra. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Dernoot Lipsky, Laura van Dernoot. “Beyond the Cliff”. YouTube, 23 Apr. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOzDGrcvmus.

Ho, Soleil, et al. “Popaganda: You Feel Me?” Bitch Media, http://www.bitchmedia.org/article/popaganda-you-feel-me.

Week 5: Performance, Culture, and “Wokeness”

This week we are getting a brief introduction to the fields of Performance Studies and Cultural Studies. We will then use the concepts gleaned from both disciplines to discuss the modern Black term and concept of “wokeness”, and the function it plays it controlling social justice communities and discourse.

Schechner, Richard, and Sara Brady. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013.

Hall, Stuart. “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power“. Formations of Modernity. Polity Press, 2013.

Harriot, Michael. “The 6 Degrees of Wokeness.” The Root, http://Www.theroot.com, 12 Oct. 2017, http://www.theroot.com/the-6-degrees-of-wokeness-1819384614 .

Mohammed, Joy. “White People Ruined “On Fleek” And Now They Took “Woke”.” Wear Your Voice, 6 July 2017, wearyourvoicemag.com/identities/race/white-people-ruined-on-fleek-woke.

Week 6: Shifting Landscapes of Queer/Trans Politics

This week we are looking at the origins of Judith Butler’s gender theory. Then we will visit a few prominent cultural conversations about shifting understandings of gender identity, authenticity, and validation in queer/trans communities in the US.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, p. 519., doi:10.2307/3207893. Link to PDF

Chu, Andrea Long. “On Liking Women.” n+1, 3 Jan. 2018, nplusonemag.com/issue-30/essays/on-liking-women/.

Schulman, Sarah. “Introduction”. Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, And the Duty of Repair. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.

Week 7: Love and Connection as Tactic

This week we are reading modern scholars, organizers, and thinkers pushing social justice activism towards a practice of connection, kindness, and generosity. Note that the majority of these writings are coming from Black perspectives, and borne out of struggle.

Magee, Rhonda. “Addressing Social Injustice with Compassion.” DailyGood. http://www.dailygood.org/story/1570/addressing-social-injustice-with-compassion-awakin-call-editors/.

brown, adrienne maree. “By any means necessary.” adrienne maree brown, adriennemareebrown.net/2010/05/19/by-any-means-necessary/.

Werning, Kate. “10 Imagination & Critical Connection — adrienne maree brown.” 10 Imagination & Critical Connection, healingjustice.podbean.com/e/10-imagination-critical-connection-adrienne-maree-brown/.

Lewis, John, and Michael Dorso. Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015.

Royal, Bria. My Unapologetic Interpersonal Conflict Guide. Restorative Posters, 2016. Link to PDF **Please read and fill out this zine workbook before class**

Week 8: Embracing Uncertain Futures

This week we are focusing on the future- both the liberated thing we want it to be and our fraught relationship to a quickly degrading physical world.

Leguin, Ursula K. “Utopiyin, Utopiyang”. No Time to Spare. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Falling Together.” The On Being Project, On Being, onbeing.org/programs/rebecca-solnit-falling-together/.

Shotwell, Alexis. “Introduction and Chapter 1”. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Week 9: Spiritual Activism and the Inner Self

This week we are delving into activist-led discussions on spirituality and the spiritual self. The texts and ideas here are drawn upon Buddhist and Christian spiritual traditions. We buck the traditional devaluation of spirituality and religion in the academy and prove that they are sites of knowledge production.

Sales, Ruby. “Where Does It Hurt?”. The On Being Project, On Being, https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/.

brown, adrienne maree. “Introduction”. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.

Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 409–428., doi:10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15. Link to PDF

Stevens, Sufjan. “TONYA HARDING, MY STAR.” Asthmatic Kitty Records, asthmatickitty.com/tonya-harding/.

Week 10: Presentations and Group Reflection

Final Comments to the Reader

I wrote this syllabus as a final class project for Dr. Jade Power Sotomayor’s timely course BCULST 587 Performance and Belonging: Citizenship, Culture & Identity in Winter quarter 2018, when I was a master’s student in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. I chose to research and sketch out the topic of critical social justice activism I wish it was an actual class that I could enroll in.

Even in my cohort’s relatively radical conversations interrogating our own power, privilege, identity, and the ethics of being associated with the academy, us leftist students tended to dominate the class with our ideas and shut down any ideas we deemed as less radical or politically informed. I regret missing out on so many opportunities to build authentic relationships with my other peers by listening to their ideas and feelings, and being more open to shifting my own stances. While I am still just as committed to anti-oppression and fighting structures of inequity for people of color, Black folks, queer/trans people, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, Muslims, indigenous folks, and other folks who are marginalized in Western society, I hope that the conversation around how to do activism can be more curious about other ideas and collaborations with unexpected partners. Cultural change is constant, so we must be open to changing ourselves as well to fit the new conditions we and others have helped create.

To quote the late great Grace Lee Boggs paraphrasing Hegel: “What is important is not any particular idea but the process of continuing development as the contradictions or limitations inherent in any idea surface and require the leap to a new idea or a new stage of Spirit” (31).

Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

If you are an educator who wants to use this syllabus as a guide to your own teaching, hooray! I ask that you please just credit me for this labor: Frances Lee.

Follow me on my website and Twitter.

Want to read my other work (outside of Medium)? This syllabus is preceded and largely informed by two essays I published last year: