- Teaching (is not) Activism
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As much as we talk politics with our students, read political novels, and highlight the activism of the past, the walls of the classroom present a problem for radical teachers. Our meetings host passionate discussions where students begin to tackle assumptions, dismantle ideas of privilege, even critique capitalism. But when class ends, what happens to the political fervor? Where does that revolutionary spark go? Does it spread out into the streets? Or does it end up at the bottom of backpacks, forgotten like last week’s homework?
Increasingly, I have begun to believe it is the latter; and I have been frustrated by the lack of connection between the political sentiments generated by classroom discussion and political action. While it is easy to feel that teaching is a kind of activism, I have become increasingly convinced that thinking of it in those terms only aides the disconnect between the classroom and the streets. Wearing the cap of teacher-activist makes us feel good at the end of the day—and that is important—but what is politics without action? What good is interpreting the world if we are not changing it in material ways?
I am inclined to say, then, that teaching is not activism. But, like my title, I want to equivocate. In what follows I sketch out my own attempts to more clearly align what happens in the classroom to the activism—“a vigorous and even aggressive action in pursuit of political or social change,” as Linda Dittmar and Joseph Entin define it in a recent issue of Radical Teacher—that happens beyond it (6).1 Such a connection, I believe, will make good on the political hope that many of us feel during classroom discussions by linking it with more immediate action.
In this ambition I am hardly alone. Increasingly popular “service learning” courses, for instance, attempt to engage students in their communities—though sometimes with mixed results. And other, more radical incarnations of such classes exist, like Kathryn Miles’s Literature of Social Protest and Civil Disobedience, in which her Unity College students’ final project was an act of civil disobedience (Miles 865).
Yet not all courses can be service learning (and not all service learning courses are politically active). Nor can all courses be as radical as Miles’s. After all, the majority of instructors now teach without tenure, often in courses with pre-set curricula, both of which leave little leeway for radically inventive course design. That is why I have chosen the two examples I discuss here from an American Literature survey course—the kind of traditional, canonically-focused course taught across the academic spectrum: in high schools, community colleges, and elite universities. So while the classrooms I am describing are those of an urban public research university in the early 21st century—with all the attendant exclusions such institutions imply—I chose these activities with their broad usefulness in mind. Indeed, that such practices can reach out to a broad array of students—not just those who are predisposed to be “radical” or even “political”; not just those with the time for service learning—is perhaps their greatest strength.
What I propose then are some ways of shaping assignments so that rather than focusing on what a text says, students focus on how it has been—and could be—used in the world beyond the classroom. I call this pedagogical method teaching “texts as tactics.” Thinking about texts as tactics serves to constantly recall [End Page 15] literature as a means for particular and local—as opposed to global or ideological—intervention.2 What is important, when we are looking at texts as tactics, is not just that a poem or novel represents politics, but that the text is placed in a non-literary context and made to “do something” for someone. Thus, I try to teach my students about instances when texts have been deployed in unexpected ways and with meaningful results; then I try to help them think about how they can engage in similar practices.
The two classroom...