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  • Teaching Protest (and Other Antiquities)
  • Brian Thill (bio)

For many students, literature and culture can appear to them in the classroom as an exotic artifact, a bequest from a bygone age, distant and inscrutable. There are a number of reasons for this, among them a general lack of historical consciousness about social movements as well as declining familiarity with traditional texts as technologies of cultural literacy as such. Far more consequential, though, is the imagined erasure of the particular causes and struggles being discussed, such as the persistent problem of institutionalized racism that some students (but not just students!) now believe has somehow largely evaporated in the wake of Obama’s historic election. Because of these challenges and others, the particular struggles that occupy the energies of the figures we discuss as exemplars in the tradition of protest can often be seen by our students as being relatively unimportant, or at least unnecessary, to their lived experiences, not because the causes were not important or just, but because more than a few of our students approach the very notion of protest itself with a feeling of belatedness, as though all of the major political struggles have already been fought. Meaningful forms of protest may still exist for them in the twenty-first century, but in the minds of many they exist in antiseptic or heavily mediated ways. To further complicate matters, this disjuncture becomes even more pronounced when we encounter the argument from some students that, in general, things are pretty good these days, all things considered. There are certainly pressing social issues, they acknowledge, [End Page 193] but they are less dramatic and demanding than those of eras past, and, even if this weren’t the case for some of them, the very notion of “protest” itself may strike some of them as part of an outdated worldview. This belief that the imperfect world we live in either does not need or does not allow for traditional forms of protest can be heard from students across a broad spectrum of political sympathies.

But these are only the first obstacles where the teaching of protest is concerned. Because students have been trained for so many years to see course content as information to be processed and repackaged in institutionally desirable forms, rather than as equipment for critical citizenship, many of them are already predisposed to see themselves as recipients of culture rather than participants in it. The classroom, simply by virtue of its being a classroom, remains a site where revolutionary activity is studied, not enacted. It’s important to remember this when we are constructing our syllabi and lesson plans, not just on the subject of protest literature, but on any and all subjects in which the implicit assumption on our part is that certain forms of culture, from minority discourse to hybridity to queer formations of sexual identity, are inherently performing the work of radical transgression, protest, and resistance to the heteronormative order that our courses are ostensibly designed to critique. In fact, the moment that we offer something like the term “protest” as an overarching rubric, whether for a single text, an entire course, or even as an explanatory category for a broad social formation, students can all too easily insert this pedagogical frame alongside the other coursework they’re burdened with and classify it as just one more set of institutional tasks to get through. So while students may become adept at moving with ease from texts focused on the struggles of the proletariat to fables of ecological catastrophe or anti-war poems, their educational training has already foregrounded institutional navigation as the primary critical skill for academic survival and “success.” As such, it’s not enough to train them in seeing—via daring syllabi, close textual reading, or the development of critical vocabularies—that this or that text is part of a crucial intervention into the pressing social issues of its time. For all of our methodological sophistication and difference, we as instructors generally feel compelled to find ways to concretize the categories of analysis we have established for our courses, a sort of textual fetish that the expansive movement into cultural studies still has...


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pp. 193-203
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