May 07, 2007
Truth to Power:
Letter from a DOC Teaching Assistant
One day after the Diversity Symposium, where Dimensions of Culture director Abe Shragge responded poorly in public to an articulate critique the program offered by a Thurgood Marshall undergraduate student, Shragge went on the offensive. He started tacking passive-aggressive, quasi-threatening posters to his door. Directed at mutinous TAs, one detailed a thinly veiled allegory of a ship captain at war and promised us all, “I have not yet begun to fight!” I passed by Abe’s door and shook my head at his sorry intimidation tactics. “He’s going to shoot holes in the bottom of his own boat,” I muttered.
The battle over the leadership and direction of DOC is turning into a war indeed. As shots are flying from both sides, I am witnessing the faculty-representatives of DOC—Shragge, current lecturer Nancy Gilson, and the self-acclaimed “Godfather” of DOC, Michael Schudson, and others—launch their counter-attacks. They charge: DOC has not strayed from its original vision and mission, Scott Boehm and Ben Balthaser were fired because they weren’t teaching the program they were contracted to teach, the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition wants a program of radical indoctrination.
Well, the administration is fighting dirty. Simply put, they’re lying. And that these willful misrepresentations are coming from faculty members who are the pillars of a program that is supposed to stand tall for social justice makes the lying that much more despicable.
All this makes me wonder: how does one stand strong against abuses of administrative power? Rather than participate in the administrative mud-flinging, how do we keep a clear focus on the critical issues at stake in this debate? As I have heard from supportive faculty members from various departments, the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition is “fighting the good fight.” How do we win a fight for what’s right and necessary?
The answer I keep coming back to is humility. For me, this isn’t a war, or an ideological battle, or a power struggle. This is about the quality of education for Thurgood Marshall students, and what DOC is passing off as rigorous academic content is absolutely appalling. I am passionate about issues of social justice, and I want DOC students to get the best, most coherent, most inspiring instruction in these issues—and in writing—possible.
The changes to the DOC curriculum, content, and instruction in all three of its installations have been systemic, deliberate, and slowly effective. DOC is supposed to teach students critical thinking, and its lecturers are the poorest models for critical thinking I have ever endured in an academic setting. Shragge, Schudson, and Gilson can point to the syllabus and say, “See? These texts are hard-hitting! The course is robust!” They discuss the rationale behind their decisions to include this text, or cut that article, and they’re undermining the substance of the debate by intentionally narrowing the focus; this isn’t about specific texts.
Most of the material on the syllabus isn’t even mentioned in lectures, and if a text is mentioned, it’s stripped of its historical context and theoretical moorings so thoroughly as to render it meaningless. For example, thus far DOC 3 students have learned such astounding insights into cultural production and social movements in the United States as: the Cold War saved the US from communism, conformity is bad, jazz is important because it was made by black people and white people alike, and graffiti is art too. You see, the critiques about DOC curriculum are not just over what is taught, but also how it’s taught, or as is so often the case, how it’s not taught.
In her recent campus-wide memo to faculty, Gilson counters the argument that the program has been militarized by citing an event that DOC sponsored in which LGBTQ ex-service people spoke about their experiences in the military. What she fails to mention is that the event functioned as a recruiting pitch for queer students. The overall message was: “Queer people can fight the terrorists just as well as straight people.” When a lesbian undergraduate in the audience asked the panelists whether or not it was “worth it” to try to enlist to get financial aid for medical school, they responded with a resounding “yes.” It was liberal patriotic education at its finest, as are most DOC-endorsed events.
So much of the battle seems to be about who gets the right to critique the program. Part of the administrative horror at the intervention of the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition seems to be directed at graduate and undergraduate students who have the audacity to tell administrators and faculty how they should handle the course (the coalition’s demands are endorsed by numerous faculty members and whole departments, but that point keeps getting conveniently omitted). As Shragge protested in a recent DOC teaching meeting, “teaching assistants can’t just go around making demands.”
And I agree completely. As a TA, I don’t presume that I have any real input into the content of the course I help teach. I believe strongly in the freedom of faculty to select what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, and I’m certainly not one to march around making demands of my employers. But DOC is a collaborative program with a particular history, mission, purpose, and perspective; over the course of several years, DOC leadership has systematically ignored, suppressed, and pushed out numerous students, staff, and faculty who voiced valid and urgent concerns over the direction and leadership of the program. At what point, I wonder, after attempts at dialogue fail over and over again, is it legitimate to initiate a debate? At what point is it necessary for students and faculty alike to stand up and make demands, to fight for the quality of a program that is integral to the education of Thurgood Marshall students?
That Scott and Ben’s contracts were not renewed after they began to organize campus-wide critiques of the program is just another example of abuse of administrative power in a long, long line of abuses. Scott and Ben have both unquestionably been teaching the program that they were contracted to teach, and they each have years of glowing teaching evaluations from their students—and DOC directors—to prove it. The allegations I’m hearing from administration about why they were dismissed—that there was some problem with their grading, or that they were requiring outside texts in their sections—are calculated misrepresentations. Shragge reported in The Guardian that they were dismissed for their teaching, and he was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that it wasn’t about their teaching.
Gilson’s memo states that Scott and Ben were dismissed for teaching an alternative syllabus in sections. It is true that Scott (not Ben) asked his students to do additional outside reading for sections, just like the majority of DOC TAs. But when Shragge targeted Scott by informing TAs that outside required reading was not permitted, Scott’s students voted unanimously to perform the reading anyway. I should emphasize that the use of additional readings in sections and for student presentations is widespread among the majority of DOC TAs.
The administration has resorted to blatant lying in a last-ditch effort to save some shred of administrative integrity. But DOC leadership has been failing so thoroughly for so long, they don’t have any integrity left to save. In firing their ammunition, they’re shooting so many holes in the bottom of their boat that now it’s sinking. I refuse to let them take the whole program down with them.
As a member and representative of the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition, I am not advocating a program of indoctrination. I am not out to convert my students into radical, leftist politics. I don’t care if they’re democrats or republicans, if they lean left or right, if they’re pro-this or anti-that. I create a safe space in my discussion sections so that they can share and compare a wide range of opinions, and I don’t grade them on their political beliefs. I am advocating a program that teaches students critical thinking about critical issues, and that offers a coherent, sustained interrogation of dominant, hegemonic ideologies. I am advocating a program that is truly committed to the principles of social justice. Sadly, since the administrative witch hunt for program “outliers” may just be getting started, I am advocating anonymously. The Lumumba-Zapata Coalition has issued its demands out of respect and passion for the founding principles of the Dimensions of Culture Program and the activist history of Thurgood Marshall College. In suppressing these critiques, DOC leadership and administration are violating every principle the program is supposed to stand for, and they must be stopped. Call it mutiny if you’d like, but it’s a long-coming, well-justified revolt.
“Que Viva Lumumba-Zapata!”