This course centered on the the concepts of space, time, and language in American literature. By doing so, it considered the ways certain texts challenge the boundaries of the national literature by having complex relationships to different places, different times, and different languages. The texts dealt with the idea of revolution. One was a novel based on the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant (pictured above), a free black female business owner associated with the abolitionist actions of John Brown. This consistency in theme allowed the students to nuance their understanding of the concepts they were to focus on–mapping, national language, and close attention to time.
Mapping. Though I was not able to deploy an activity like this (see below), a course like this invites a pedagogical approach that allows students to think creatively and critically beyond the usual discussions of textual analysis that we often do in literature classrooms. All of the texts in this course could be mapped out to visualize their relationships to space, time, or language. Students could work on these maps digitally or in analog modes.
Teaching in Uncertain Times
Wildcat Strikes. My colleagues and I, graduate students at UCSC, facing rent-burden and other forms of precarity initiated a wildcat grading strike at the close of the previous quarter. The strike escalated mid-way into full teaching strike to gain a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). This, of course, disrupted the comfort of routines and shut down the campus for several weeks. Many undergraduates and faculty demonstrated alongside graduate students on the picket line, though the length of the action was a kind of war of attrition, leaving many folks exhausted, uncertain, unsatisfied, and in further precarity. The strike was met with the full force of the University’s disciplinary and police force. The violent response of the university is utterly incommensurate with the peaceful nature of the labor action and the sheer beauty of the organizing of various campus and local groups.
My role as a direct participant in the strike activities came to an end when the university took its first steps to begin firing its most precarious workers. It was simply not safe for me to continue and risk losing everything. I am humbled by my colleagues who went on to take the risk of losing employment, healthcare, and a regular paycheck to keep the strike going. I am also humbled by the outpouring of support from undergrads. Though there is much more to say, actions to honor, and fights to continue regarding the treatment of peaceful demonstrators on this campus and the precarity of workers like grad students, adjuncts, and other under-compensated workers, this is all to say that teaching in this moment was difficult, ethically, emotionally, and practically.
Improvising compromise. Returning the classroom once my part in the direct action was over was tricky because the picket line was still there, and I intended to honor it. My co-instructors and I settled on holding class by streaming an in-person session located near the picket line, in a kind of neutral space, the Women’s Center. It was imperfect but we managed. Finding this neutral space and maintaining accessibility is an important move in moments like this. Not everyone supported the strike, or they did in varying degrees, so we simply had to compromise yet fight for our own positions.
Communication. There was also an overwhelming flow of information about the strike. Keeping up with emails, signal chats, and social media became like a full-time job. Being informed both soothed anxiety and created it because everything was happening so fast and on several levels. It was essential to communicate this with the students, to keep them informed, and to put less pressing work aside because they too were feeling the effects of the disruption. It’s really important to remember in crisis that “business as usual” is a dangerous attitude. Talk to your students about what is going on, and let them share their thoughts.
Making connections. The strike was not irrelevant to the concepts and materials that we were studying. Though coming together to do the work of learning was messy and necessarily disrupted, the strike became a point of access to the texts we were reading, and informed the work many students did in their final projects.