IN TIMES OF CRISIS LIKE THESE, I am constantly reminded of what makes my work both useful and useless. I am a professor at an Ivy League university, and as much as I believe that research and teaching can have a meaningful impactchanging both what we know and what we believeit is difficult to argue that working in the ivory tower today is anywhere close to political activism. I labor under no illusions that what I do in the classroom is the equivalent of joining protests, rallies, sit-ins, sit-outs, and strikes. And, in fact, it’s important to be fully aware of this difference. Distinguishing between activism and teaching allows you to be realistic about the limits of bothwhile at the same time offering two different arenas in which to move, two ways to contribute to some greater good.
In my experience, the line between teaching and activism boils down to where you put yourself, literally. Activists often speak of “bodies” these days, usually to emphasize the ways in which our fellow humans are reduced to raw material from which profit is extracted through everything from incarceration to low-wage labor, and to underscore the very real physical effects of this exploitation, such as food poverty and perpetual sickness. This emphasis on bodies makes sense, too, given that in activismand by this I mean the kind that requires you to put yourself in a specific place and participate in a collective actionyou are a body and nothing more. Which is a lot, in fact, because in bodies there is presence and powermuch more so than in voices, whose resonances are co-opted by the ersatz democracy of “being heard” but not heeded. (In fact, voice has gone the way of the voterecorded, tallied, dismissed, and forgotten.) A body, in contrast, can occupy, march, protest, congregate, mob, protect, fight, volunteer, supply, and build.
But activism is exertion, too. As an activist, I’m an ally in many struggles but gravitate toward issues of race and class, and that’s because I was raised in the Old South in the late 1960s and ’70s and have witnessed all kinds of exploitation that I won’t forget. There are timesespecially during demonstrationswhen certain memories seize me and move me to tears at the very moment I’m voicing my anger about the present. Obviously, there’s a connection between then and now. You could say there is a continuum of injustice. This is why activism entails mixed emotions. No matter how empowered you feel, there is always a sense of helplessness in the face of problems larger and older than you. But this psychological dynamic can also be a motivating force. Most activists recognize that their motives are partly personal and emotional in this way. Someespecially those who have faced down a military police force of jacked mercenaries fresh from murderous crowd control in the Levantwill tell you that their experiences have led to PTSD, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Activism of this kind always comes at a cost. Activism of most kinds depletes the body and the mind.
THIS IS WHY I WOULDN’T call what happens in classrooms “activism.” (Although some of my colleagues and friends do teach courses in which activism is a componentmeaning, the course is about activism and includes an activist practicum outside the classroom. And the campus itself can, and often does, become a focal point for activism: Witness the many university employees both within and without the academic ranks seeking change at their institutions on questions ranging from campus carry and divestment to unionization and livable wages for all workers.) What happens in the classroom can still serve a greater good, however, by fundamentally changing how we think about the world and what we understand of it. For decades I have taught all sorts of consciousness-raising materials, many written by activiststhis week in my seminar on critical theory, we read Frantz Fanon’s classic anticolonial manifestoThe Wretched of the Earth (1961), which is itself an utterly gripping essay on political awareness. I have seen firsthand how instruction has touched the lives of students. One, after a writing course on four particularly powerful textsDorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina (1992), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), Jess Mowry’s Way Past Cool (1992), and David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991)penned a letter to me in very formal, slanted cursive, which read:
My hometown of Rittman . . . is extremely prejudice [sic]. Under the WELCOME TO RITTMAN sign, someone painted “blacks and Indians leave before dark.” The sign remained that way for about six years. Although I was never hateful, I was prejudice before your class. . . . I can honestly say that I’m not prejudice anymore, and that you are the reason I am not. Please don’t think I wrote this letter to kiss ass, because I didn’t.
That was May 3, 1995. At the time, I was adjuncting at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Letters like thisand I have a stack of themare worth saving. Something is happening here, something good for young people who have been exposed to very little of the real world, and whose access to that world begins in books.
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT of debate latelyand since the ’80s at leastabout what college and university faculty do in the classroom. Early in 2017, US secretary of education Betsy DeVos remarked that “faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and, more ominously, what to think.” Ironically, with this accusation, DeVos is herself elevating teaching to a form of activism.A lot of my liberal colleagues nobly defend their classroom practices against such claims by insisting they don’t teach students what to think but rather how to thinkyou know, skills in “critical thinking.” These include a range of techniques in close reading: the analysis of such rhetorical forms as ethos and pathos, or a careful attention to logic and its fallacies in spoken and written discourse. Exercises of this kind aren’t reducible to content, to what in any sense. The advantage here is that lessons in critical thinking are lasting because they form habits. While students may forget the differences between types of sociology, the names of the founders of cultural anthropology, or the plot of Bleak House, they will remember these critical practices long after they graduate and enter the broader world.
Enter the world to do what, however? The answer is complex. Some humanities students ply their trade in various forms of nonprofit social work. Manyif not mostparlay their skills into advertising or another commercial field. It’s just a fact of life that the summa cum laude English major devises the most successful marketing strategy, the perfectly sophisticated name brand that boosts corporate profits, or the tweetable slogan for a politician whose campaign is funded by said corporations. It’s fair to say that there’s nothing inherently critical about this kind of “how-to” cultural analysis when it can be easily used to create a smarter and sleeker commodification. Even if this sort of pseudowoke, pseudointersectional advertising on occasion smacks of cynicism and appropriation, you can be sure it wasn’t a fat, monocled capitalist in a top hat who dreamed it all up. This is why I am always ambivalent about trending stories, eagerly shared on the web pages of academic departments,reporting the many job options available to graduates with a humanities degree or the fact that starting salaries for history majors are at an all-time high. It is true that these are arguments for the integral place of the humanities in public education, as well as evidence that they should be supported by the government on the local, state, and federal levels. But such tales are also object lessons in the instrumentalization of the humanities: indicators of the humanities working in the interests of capital.
And what’s so wrong with telling students what to think? Are we really supposed to pretend we don’t? When I am in the classroom, I share all kinds of whats with my students. Last I checked, this is called “knowledge.” If teachers aren’t exposing students to new things, then I don’t know how to defend their pedagogy. A classroom has no purpose if it’s not for sharing whats that students can wrap their minds around, whats that help them practice cognitive plasticity at a time when their brains are still developing. Whats involve stubborn facts and powerful narratives, valuable models of activist thinking about the most difficult topics facing humanity. And thinking about these whats transforms many students into intelligent members of a diverse democracy. This isn’t activism per se, as much as we may want to believe it, or as DeVos wants to claim, but for some students it can be the beginning of an activist life.Such whats can compel one to care, and that is the first step toward breaking through the liberal norms of awareness and starting, in plain terms, to give a shit. Activism is the pursuit of deeper, somatic forms of care that thrust you out into the world because you can’t stand spectating any longer from where you sit.
Andrew Cole is a professor of English at Princeton University.