By Caiomhe A. Harlock, Ph.D. Candidate in English
As a transgender woman who works in higher education, teaching classes on gender theory and feminist studies, it’s not possible for me to separate myself from my teaching persona. I am who I am – queer, trans, leftist – in a way that is immediately read onto my body and consequently becomes an unavoidable presence in my classrooms.
This, I argue, is a good thing.
I tell my students there is no point in learning about the humanities if you don’t care about actual people, no way to care about people without caring about the issues that affect their lives (racism, sexism, queerphobia, etc.), and no point in learning about those issues unless you’re prepared to act on that knowledge. Consequently, my classes have been a space that focuses on allyship and activism.
As incredible as my experience at Duke has been – and knowing full well that there are significant forms of privilege that I do embody by virtue of being a white woman – there are times when, as student and teacher both, I’ve felt alienated from those around me because of the circumstances from which I come. Besides being indelibly queer, I come from a background of significant poverty. I’ve lived in cars and worked in bleach factories and come through more calamitous experiences than I can recount. And when I eventually decided to go back to school and pursue my interest in literature and theory as far as it would take me, I started out at a small community college.
So, because of where I come from and what I hope to bring into my classrooms, I was happy to learn about the Humanities Unbounded Teaching Fellows Program, a Mellon-funded initiative at Duke University. The program pairs Duke graduate students with professors at Durham Technical Community College looking to revise their humanities courses in innovative ways.
Charting a Course
I met with Dr. Jason Moldoff, a communications professor from Durham Tech who was looking for a graduate student to help him reshape his classes on public speaking to focus on the advancement of allyship and activism. We agreed on what we wanted our students to gain from a project like this: a deeper understanding of social justice issues, the realization that allyship is not something in which one can become an expert in the course of a single semester, and a commitment to follow the lead of already committed activists rather than foregrounding their own position and ideas.
Drawing on one another’s strengths – Dr. Moldoff’s experience and insights and my social-justice-oriented research – we structured the class in a way that reflected these values. We developed a survey and sent it to a few hundred local activists and community organizations, asking for their feedback on what they considered most important in allyship and activism. Their responses became the core tenets by which we set about the work of restructuring the class and its usual assignments (informative, impromptu, and persuasive speeches) into means of digging deeper into pressing contemporary issues.
In several cases at least, I know that we were successful. One student told me that he thought research into gendered pay gaps was going to be an “easy” topic that wouldn’t require much effort, only to find himself studying the specificities of 30-year-old pieces of legislation and how they’ve shaped the strategies of current day activism for fair treatment and fair wages. Another student began with an interest in the racist tokenizing and fetishization of Native Americans in pop culture, and ended up engaging in a semester-long study of educational reforms spearheaded by Native American activists.
These kinds of insights were possible because we encouraged students to choose a topic early in the semester and then carry it through multiple iterations of research, finding details of the social issues that interested them and then diving deep into those.
We saw an example of this success in the fact that, for the first assignment of the semester, we had at least a dozen students tell us they wanted to focus on the issues of racial discrimination being fought by the Black Lives Matter movement. By the end of the semester, however, those students’ projects looked very different from one another: one focused on criminal sentencing disparities and their connection to race, another focused on a history of attempted police reforms and whether they produced measurable reductions in discrimination, another emphasized racist practices obstructing equal access to material resources such as housing.
The result is that these students, who began with the same broad interest, ended up with a dozen different practical strategies for connecting with ongoing activist efforts and addressing the problem from a wide array of perspectives.
Such experiences taught me that it’s possible to engage and cultivate students’ interests in pressing sociopolitical topics even when classroom size and external circumstances mean that dense grounding in theory is not practical. Putting in the work to help students identify and nurture their own interests is more than enough to start to make a difference.
More Work to Do
The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 radically affected the plans Dr. Moldoff and I were able to make for this semester. For instance, students had a diminished opportunity to engage with local activists and community organizations. Should Dr. Moldoff or other Durham Tech staff take up this framework again in future semesters, the overall aim of the class – to turn the skills of public speaking and research into a pathway towards social engagement – would be all the easier to attain.
Regardless, we made progress in just one (uniquely challenging) semester. The experience has proven what I already believed: that the integration of social issues and activism into pedagogy is not a distraction from the pursuit of knowledge; it greatly enhances it. It ties the dissemination of practical skills – literary analysis, research, public speaking, persuasion – to the world that students live in and hope to influence.
Students emerged from our class with the same amount of knowledge about public speaking as those who had taken the previous version of the course, but their knowledge was enriched by an immediate sense of its practical application to their own life and the lives of others around them. It’s an experience I’m truly lucky to have had, one which will inform all my future teaching experiences, and which I unreservedly recommend to other scholars, regardless of where you might be at in your pedagogical journey.