Well, the new year is here but the same challenges remain. It's hard not to feel like we're stuck on repeat in the cycle of fear, restrictions, and hope as we enter yet another pandemic year.
And yet, we are not in the same place. Time is passing: kids are growing, seasons are changing, vaccines are working, and all of us keep putting one foot in front of the other to try and make things just a little bit better. I appreciate the calls to find pockets of hope and beauty even as the challenges continue—this echoes what we have discussed together in terms of critical hope, or hope as a discipline.
Thinking back to our last reading group session, we found ourselves talking a lot about refusal. But refusal is only one side of the coin; on its own it will fall short. I've been ruminating on these questions:
Whether in the context of a collective action like a labor strike, the patterns seen in the great resignation, or individual decisions, saying no can be an act of strength and optimism. But is it always? What are the valences of refusal—courageous or timid, active or passive, toward change or simply a retreat? What are the ways that saying no can be transformative, can move towards a different kind of "yes", can be an act of support and solidarity?
It seems to me that there is value in maintaining a certain tension between contentment and dissatisfaction; between celebrating what is and striving for something better. For our next discussion, I'd like to push a bit further into this topic and think about the ways in which boundaries and limits—saying no, opting out, unlearning, refusing—serve not as ends in themselves, but as ways to open new possibilities.
With all that in mind, in our next session we'll focus on questions of ease, comfort, structure—and breaking institutional habits. We'll gather on Thursday, January 20, from 5-6pm EST; please sign up here for the link. We'll look at the following texts:
Sara Ahmed, What's the Use (especially ch1; I've also shared the intro and conclusion in that folder for context)
Clelia O. Rodríguez, Decolonizing Academia (especially ch1; again, there's a bit more shared in the folder if you're interested)
Part of what I appreciate about these writers, and these texts in particular, is the way they call attention to the constructed nature of the systems in which we live and work. I'd like to focus on matters of ease and comfort—and, more specifically, how and why ease/comfort can make change exceedingly difficult. Within this framework, I'd like to talk more about refusal, and how the act of refusal can interrupt an otherwise well-worn (but perhaps undesirable, unjust, or outdated) pattern.
I love the way Ahmed follows movement—the movement of a word through time and context; the movement of a document through an institution. That movement reveals more than a single snapshot could, and always reminds me of the angles of a prism. In What's the Use, consider not only the writing but also the images and captions—their repetition with variation, their content, what you see differently each time they are presented. Ahmed does something similar with the image of a brick wall in her earlier book, On Being Included; I'll likely bring in a few passages to discuss from that book as well.
In Decolonizing Academia, consider the ways Rodríguez uses—and breaks away from—familiar forms of academic discourse. In terms of structure, I'd be especially interested in discussing "Eleventh Layer: The #Shithole Syllabus." As she notes just after that section, "We must scrutinize the logic of power that is behind our syllabi and our research work. If we are truly committed to the work of decolonizing, we must listen to the silences, that which is not written" (p.33; emphasis mine). From an affective point of view, I'm curious about ways the questions of comfort and ease come into play in Rodríguez's work. Who is comfortable reading her words, who is uncomfortable, and why?
Bringing these two texts together will give us ways to think about barriers and boundaries. We often think of barriers as stopping points, obstructions—but as Ahmed's cover image suggests, a barrier to one may be necessary in order to ensure another's access. What is easy and comfortable for one is necessarily less comfortable for another. Perhaps rather than thinking in terms of barriers, we could think of diversions—like water flowing around a stone rather than stopping entirely. Where might these stones be beneficial in rerouting institutional habits, for the sake of justice and equity and hope?
Somehow the MLA Convention is this week. I'll be speaking on Thursday, Jan 6 at 3:30pm EST as part of a roundtable called "Pandemic, Academics, Gender, and Race: Effects on Women and Work." There are lots of great people in the discussion (Rebecca Traister!) and while I had hoped the session would be less relevant by now, it turns out to still be timely. And hey, there's a non-zero chance that some of us will have quarantined kids running around, so it'll be a demo as much as a discussion.
Thanks to those of you who expressed interest in proposing something for ASA! I'll be in touch about next steps.
If you have wanted to participate in the reading group but the time hasn't worked for you, would you let me know? I could potentially move things around in the spring semester.
With best wishes for health and hope,