Activating the activists: The Activist Classroom goes to the University of Michigan

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan, where I gave a talk and a graduate seminar for students working in drama, English literature, and related fields. My talk was about my current research project (“Realism After Neoliberalism”), but my graduate seminar was framed by issues related to the blog. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded by a 90-minute discussion with graduate students I didn’t already know or work with to push at some of the core terms and ideas on which the blog is based, and to get a sense from them of what being “activist” in one’s teaching actually means, might mean, or perhaps should not mean. The students – Phil, Claudia, Charisse, Matt, Ann, Lauren, and a couple of others who wanted to remain anonymous for the purposes of this post – did not disappoint; over the course of the seminar we compared strategies, anxieties, and they helped me to interrogate and even unsettle (in a good way!) some of my core beliefs about activist classrooms.


I organised the session around four “prompts” – questions I posed to the group in succession about a series of related ideas. I offered a prompt, we free-wrote quietly in response to it for about 5 minutes, then we paired up (different pairings each time) and shared our thoughts locally before debriefing as a group and then moving on to the next prompt. This is an extension of thinking/writing exercises I use often in my undergraduate classes, altered here based on the nature of the session, its audience and purposes – talking to junior colleagues who are also beginning teachers.

These were the prompts:

1. What do you aim to do – really do – when you teach?

(This is a “tell me your teaching philosophy” prompt, but it asks you to reflect on your philosophy before you write it down, rather than repeat what you think you should be saying in your teaching portfolio.)

2. What does the word “activism” mean to you? Is it a word with which you identify?

(This question asks you to think about the term in any context that makes sense to you; that context need not be the classroom.)

3. For you, what would be the most important features of an “activist” classroom?

(Here, feel free to reflect on what you think might be activist teaching practice, or conditions for activist learning. Or both.)

4. Do you have concerns about the terms/ideas we’ve been working with today? How might we address these concerns in a productive way in our teaching practice, or in our teaching training?

(The idea of “activist” teaching or learning motivates me, but also carries some potentially troubling connotations. Should teaching be activist? What should the limits of a teacher’s “activism” be? What parameters should we be setting for ourselves? I’m aware here of anxiety in the North American public sphere around “activist” judges, for example. While I tend to sympathise with judicial “activism”, that’s because it often swings my way ideologically. I’m fully aware that my sympathy is a matter of my political perspective and also my cultural privilege – two things my students are absolutely not required to share. What, then, are the risks of activism in my diverse and poly-perspectival classrooms?)

Below is a brief summary, based on notes taken and shared by participant Ann, of three key problems we worked over during our time together.

1. Community.

In relation to my first prompt, several of us wrote separately about the notion of community-building in the classroom. I spend a lot of time working on making my classrooms true communities, partly because the students I teach need to be able to trust one another enough to become vulnerable in performance. Some of the other members of the seminar talked about related problems in English lit or Freshman Comp classrooms: in a space where many students are there simply because the course is required, building a community of learners is both hard and very, very important. Lauren noted one strategy for handling the “compulsory” hot potato: she invited students to reflect, in one late session during a recent course, on why they were there and on whether or not they ought to have been made to take the class. Such an approach is potentially dangerous – they might all gang up on you and tell you it’s rubbish! – but the most likely outcome is the one Lauren experienced: a mix of reactions, including some strong defences of the class, and some strong claims to the contrary. In such a debate, important opinions are shared, lessons learned, and, maybe, communities (or alliances?) born.

Matt helped us to remember that community can be, contrary to some expectations, a radical goal, as each of us belongs to many different communities, and it can be useful to reflect upon how we invest in those communities more, or less, at different moments and in different circumstances. No student is going to invest simply or singularly in their classroom community; rather, they are going to bring their experiences of their multiple, different allegiances to bear on their learning, and on their sharing with peers. That exposure to community experience can then, in the classroom, also be an important exposure to lived, human difference.

2. Risk.

The second and third prompts generated a number of reflections on the challenge of risk in the classroom. I’ve thought a lot about risk over the years – again, partly as a function of teaching drama, theatre, and performance, where students are required to take on a certain level of personal risk in just getting up on stage – but a panel on which I participated at the annual ATHE conference a few years ago helped me to remember that “risk” is a relative concept. It’s pretty easy for me to take risks, because I’ve been doing it my whole career; in fact, as an extroverted university teacher of drama I’ve made a career of taking certain kinds of risks (which makes them far less risky overall, right?). In the classroom, however, risk needs to be managed properly: the stakes can only be so high in order for students to be able to practice taking considered risks (and to practice not taking a risk too far).

Phil shared a terrific exercise: giving students the regular opportunity to assume potentially “risky” roles, like that of classroom leader. As he noted, when you give students the job of running the show, or picking the next topic for discussion and then explaining their choice, they take on responsibility for their peers’ learning; this is a risky role with manageable stakes, and it’s one that allows individual students to demonstrate their strengths and test their limits while also learning what it means to face potentially negative feedback from those (peers and teachers) whose opinions they care about. In turn, I shared some stories about moments in my classrooms when I’ve simply been honest with students about what I’m feeling: exhilarated, exhausted, or confused by what the class is or is not giving me, about what our dynamic seems to be that day (sample question: “guys, what the heck is going on?”). In those moments, I assume a level of risk: I expose myself as a human being to my students. It’s a manageable risk for me, as I’ve done it before, but it reminds students that I’m a member of our shared learning community, and that what we are or are not achieving impacts me affectively and thus personally, too.

3. “I don’t want to say I’m an activist teacher.”

I’m quite sad, in hindsight, that we were rushed in working on our last prompt, because it’s in many ways the most important one, and certainly it is the one I am most interested in right now. During our discussion of our second prompt (what does “activism” mean to me?) I talked about how I’m a bit worried that calling my classroom an “activist” one lets me off the hook. If I spend each class talking the activist talk, I can excuse myself more easily from walking the activist walk. I tend not to join picket lines. I don’t normally attend demonstrations. Unlike a number of my (brave) colleagues, I’ve never been arrested for taking a stand. Am I using “the activist classroom” as a get-out-of-jail-free card?

Matt had strong (and valuable) opinions in response to this question. He noted that one can be both an activist and a teacher, but for him these things are not, indeed cannot, be the same. How can one be an “activist” in the classroom without tacitly aligning oneself with the politics of one’s employer – an employer that might be, as my current employer, Queen Mary University of London, is right now, taking a decidedly conservative, even neoliberal stance on wages and workplace morale? We might use our classrooms to teach students to think like activists – Claudia called her pedagogical practice “activating the activists”, which I like a lot – but that should not be confused with our own practices of activism, practices which need to extend beyond the rarified worlds of university teaching (and university employment). Ann pointed out that the university (that is, the contemporary, generally risk-averse, generally for-profit learning institution) is only interested in supporting student activism up to a point (read here about the recent crackdown on student demonstration at University College London, to cite only one of a growing number of examples). How, then, under the umbrella of these institutions, can we teach students the genuine nitty-gritty of activist practice, including how to protect themselves from its sometimes extreme risks?

Although it was short, this last chunk of our discussion rattled me a bit. Ann, Matt, and the others were right: my classroom might offer regular opportunities to think and talk about the theory and practice of contemporary activism – social, political, artistic, economic, or otherwise – but my job as a teacher is to arm my students with a strong skill set, and that’s it. When I leave my classroom, that’s when my turn comes to put my existing skill set into practice by fighting for what I believe in: fair, living wages for all; a strong and independent arts community; accessible social housing; a government that listens to independent researchers and makes decisions based on the best evidence available in order to support the needs of the greatest number of its constituents. Teaching students about these problems, these urgencies, is part of my labour as a committed and politicised thinker, but it should not, cannot, be all there is to it.


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