Scholars on Strike

Academics across the U.S. strike and teach for racial justice and an end to police violence against people of color.

September 9, 2020
 
Scholar Strike resources on YouTube

Thousands of professors and students suspended business as usual -- as usual as can be during a pandemic -- to promote racial justice Tuesday, the first day of Scholar Strike.

The two-day action, which continues today, was conceived of just two weeks ago, following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis., and a related wildcat strike by professional basketball players. Yet by Tuesday morning, the strike had dozens of contributed lectures and discussions uploaded onto its own YouTube channel, along with live panels and constant social media activity under the hashtag #ScholarStrike.

The National Communication Association’s African American Communication and Culture Division, for instance, organized an all-day, livestreamed strike conference. Panels ranged from those on understanding the Black Lives Matter movement to infusing diversity in the classroom and curriculum. The premise of the latter panel was that diversity is too often an afterthought on most syllabi and should instead be centered in many courses from the start. Student and faculty activists have of course been saying the same thing in their own campus organizing for some time.

"Brave Spaces"

Presenter Carolyn Cross, professor of speech at Houston Community College, said during that panel that faculty members’ anxiety about addressing diversity with students causes them to pursue a “comfortable curriculum” at the expense of an “uncomfortable curriculum” that pushes both professors and students to grow. Similarly, Cross discussed the idea of “brave spaces” for engaging with diversity in the classroom as a complement to better-known “safe spaces.”

In a business communications class, for instance, Cross asks students to interview someone from a different background and then “present” that person to the rest of the class as a candidate for a hypothetical job. She also often asks students to "pause" before answering discussion questions in class, and asks them if they've considered the topic from another perspective.

Cross said professors must be willing to get to know students, invite them all to be heard and demonstrate some personal “vulnerability” to build rapport. Such is “the challenging work of authentic engagement with regard to identity, oppression, power and privilege -- and this is whether you teach graduate classes or undergraduate classes or basic core classes.”

In one of about 60 recorded talks contributed by some 5,000 preregistered strike participants, Osamudia James, Dean's Distinguished Scholar and professor of law at the University of Miami, discussed the link between racism and anti-Blackness in education and in policing.

James said Tuesday that because she doesn’t typically teach on that day, she was spending day No. 1 of Scholar Strike engaging the work of other participants. She has classes scheduled for today and has invited students in her two canceled classes to a private Zoom discussion between her and Nick Petersen, a sociologist at Miami who studies race in the Miami area’s criminal justice system. Students also received an advanced reading on the topic, co-authored by Petersen.

Miami Law has supported James’s participation in the strike, she said, acknowledging that not all scholars, and especially untenured scholars, have that kind of backing. As for students, James said she hoped that her own contributions to the strike provide students “an opportunity to concretize the problems of racial injustice that are being discussed abstractly by locating those problems in their own community” in Miami.

More generally, she said, the strike and teach-in content provide students more insight into the “structural nature of racial inequality, as opposed to thinking about it as a strictly interpersonal problem” and time to “reflect on their obligations as lawyers in the legal system to recognize racial inequality and do something about it.”

Multiple Ways to Participate

Few institutions have openly endorsed the Scholar Strike, but colleges and universities haven’t gone out of their way to discourage faculty or student participation, either. Prior to the event, co-organizer Kevin Gannon, a historian at Grand View University, said he was paying attention to institutional responses to the strike, given that so many campus and system presidents issued statements of support for the social justice uprising this summer.

Some faculty unions have antistrike clauses. Gannon and co-organizer Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, therefore encouraged vulnerable, untenured scholars and contract-limited scholars to participate in the strike how they are able. That the action has such a heavy teach-in focus helps broaden scholars’ options.

The faculty union at Rutgers University, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, does not have an antistrike clause, said Todd Wolfson, president and associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers’s New Brunswick campus. So while individual participation was a legal option for members, the union also organized a speak-out for Black lives Tuesday night, which streamed live on its Facebook page.

Wolfson said prior to the event that he’d withheld his labor for the day, “but I am tenured and can do it easily with an asynchronous class. We have no expectation that others will have the same privilege.”

Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at the New Brunswick campus and chair of the union’s People of Color Caucus, said in a statement that now is another “pivot point” in U.S. history. “The depth and breadth of grassroots uprisings against white supremacy is exponentially larger than in the late 1960s,” she said, “yet the scale of racial violence and the threats to the rights and safety of the most vulnerable populations in this country is also devastating.”

Universities have long been “major sites of struggle,” Murch added, “and it’s crucial that we make them so once again. This week’s scholar strike is an important opportunity.”

Some professional associations endorsed the strike. The American Sociological Association said it supported all sociologist participants and efforts to "make a collective stand against police violence (particularly against communities of color) in the U.S." That goal aligns with the organization's values, which are informed by sociological scholarship, it said.

Meanwhile, the graduate student union at the University of Michigan went on strike for four days starting Tuesday. The Graduate Employee Organization’s action is not directly related to the Scholar Strike but has some related goals, including diversion of funds away from campus police and the cessation of ties to the local Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The union also objects to the university’s COVID-19 campus reopening plan.

"This is a historic moment; GEO membership has voted to strike in the middle of a pandemic at the beginning of the academic year, and is prepared to withhold our labor in pursuit of a safe and just campus for all," the AFT-affiliated union said in a statement.

Rick Fitzgerald, university spokesperson, said that most of the issues at play are “unrelated to the employment” and “encompass broader societal issues, student matters or issues impacting the employment and status of other faculty and staff.” He also noted that the union contract prohibits strikes, as does state law, for public employees.

In Context

Amy Woodson-Boulton, an associate professor of modern British and Irish history at Loyola Marymount University in California, called off Zoom class Tuesday for students in her Modern Global Environmental History class but had them do a series of preplanned readings and reflections on environmental racism. She also linked to The New York Times’ "The 1619 Project" and podcast.

“It is a great example of reframing a narrative and how choosing your beginning point changes your story. As you will see in this course, slavery and the legacies of the racism that produced it, that maintained it, and that it produced, [are] a key part of modern environmental history,” she wrote to her students of the project. 

Woodson-Boulton said Tuesday that she hopes students “see the strike as part of an ongoing conversation about history, resources and power. Today's work hopefully is just more clearly connecting the history we are working on in class to contemporary U.S. issues.”

Keisha N. Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, said that "academics need to be part of the movement to affirm that Black lives matter. It's not enough to use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or say that we are committed to racial justice. I think this moment calls for us to do a lot more."

The Scholar Strike is one recent example of how "scholars can come together, across institutions and in various locales, to challenge anti-Black racism," Blain added, citing the Ferguson Syllabus and #Charlestonsyllabus as other examples (Blain helped organize the latter). "It's certainly a historic moment, especially because it has been organized against the backdrop of national and global uprisings, as well as within the context of Covid-19. These developments have certainly provided a sense of urgency among activist scholars -- and allies in the academy -- to find ways to help bring greater visibility to the systemic problem of police violence and other manifestations of anti-Black racism."

A Canadian version of Scholar Strike starts today.

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