#Syllabus #Paranoid

The basic concept of a hashtag syllabus excites me as a graduate student who is committed to open access education, and who questions the University as the epicenter of knowledge from which all information will flow downhill. While conceptually (and through my own practice and relationship with social media) I can celebrate the new horizons that have been opened by tools like Twitter to bring people and ideas together, there are a number of aspects to me that seem problematic, or that I have reason to be wary of. The tendency to over-simplify or not interrogate these tools, and to take for granted that the sharing of resources is always going to be a positive contribution to an online discourse is something I think needs some examination. Perhaps there is an aspect of Sedgwick’s “paranoia” that all graduate students are mandated to apply to every discourse, nothing left un-interrogated!

A text I read over the summer that I actually found really illuminating to this particular paranoid instinct of being distrustful of tools like Twitter, especially following the 2016 election, is Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right.

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I have been recommending this text recklessly to friends and family and anyone who is willing to indulge my ruminations on the “dark side” of all of this open access cyber culture. This text basically catalogs how the forces of anti-feminist troll culture coagulated into a material, right wing, politically viable population of voters in the years leading up to 45’s election to our highest position of government. While I take issue with Nagle’s harsh take on the touchy-feeling Tumblr generation of young Lefties (perhaps too close to home), the reason I bring up this text is her astute analysis of the other side of online free speech and resource sharing. Post-election breakdowns of how Facebook and Twitter affected the election and the spread of fake news sources (unreliable/ overtly deceptive/ purposeful misinformation machines) that sprang up seem necessary to bring into this discussion of hashtag syllabi. To me, this must be seen as the other side of the coin, or even, the reciprocal outcome of the positive influence the internet can have on enlightening young minds, is the darkening of others. No tools are ever unanimously good. For myself and others who were quite literally shocked by the election, I think expanding our outlook and seeing what lies outside of my insular social network is important if we are going to aim toward any substantial change. Otherwise, as I often fret to myself, we are preaching to the choir.

Perhaps what rubs me the wrong way is the hashtag syllabus is that it seems 100% reactionary, and therefore has a certain element of a frantic grasping to right a wrong. An aspect of my response also has to do with the reliance on the labor of people of color to educate non-POC. On whose shoulders does the demand for more information fall? Who is left doing this extra intellectual and emotional labor? What are it’s costs? I found the Black Perspectives piece on the parallels between Black women’s club movements and the hashtag syllabi to be particularly useful in articulating this. (Interesting to see as well that the author’s field is in “curriculum studies”, makes me want to look into that!) Just as with the book club’s in the early 20th century, exclusion and violence creates need. The need for open access, comprehensive, and most importantly FREE classes and resources is a need that has been created through a systematic denial of access and a hostile political environment. Take Black Lives Matter, one of the most prominent and explicit instances of protest moving from twitter platform to resistance in the street is as, in co-founder Alicia Garza’s definition, “an ideological and political intervention”. This intervention has resonated with millions of Americans and founded an expansive social movement precisely because its accessible to everyone. This seems to me a bit different than the spread of hashtag syllabi.

These syllabi are more than lists, but a rather communal commitment to critical thinking. However, not everyone has the time to commit themselves to education. The necessity to educate ourselves, and the power within that, dictates that for one, public education is not adequate. It also dictates that the responsibility to educate may no longer be of the nation, but rather of the individual. While I personally have benefitted from the practice of communal learning, community education, the passing back and forth of materials/texts/books, who are the people who are actively seeking this education? Based on the #syllabi that we looked at, those who have experienced a social injustice first hand and want to know how to empower themselves through education. And I have a strong feeling that those who seek out these hashtag syllabi are those who have already instilled values of continuing education and passion for thinking critically. Since I’ve been in grad school, I have to remind myself when recommending readings and sending articles to friends that they are not in a position to have hours set aside each day for the purpose of reading and thinking. I work to practice gratitude and thankfulness that I am in this position. However, there is a certain aspect of telling others to educate themselves, when they are working to make ends meet in a system that at times can make this difficult if not impossible, that is can be pretentious and thoughtless.

Additionally, while a syllabus can offer a more comprehensive approach to a topic than a reading list, or a grouping of articles, it is still modeled on a university class that is by the nature of it both challenging and a serious time commitment. It leads me to wonder what is lost when a curriculum is distributed online and does not require a classroom community. Will online curriculums replace colleges? Will online discourse replace the classroom discussion? Would that be so bad? Again, there is a need, and I hope that we can be a generation that helps to repair that. Higher education, for those willing, eager and able to access it, should be accessible! Point blank. Regardless if my instinct is toward nitpicking the politics and the issues that could arise, ultimately this is a shift from the containment of University-level knowledge to the distribution of its contents to anyone who wants to learn. That is huge and valuable. I think the trend toward (excuse this expression which I detest) “being woke” stems from more than this need that has been created in the wake of the election. I think that being educated, committed to social justice, and aware not only of one’s own positionality but the historical circumstance that led you as an individual to your state in the present has become valuable. It is because of this value that knowledge can move as currency that is can possibly be outside of this capitalistic thinking regarding “investment in a college education”. My hopes for future of hashtag syllabi will be in a move toward the communal. We are conditioned to think of education as an individualist hoarding of knowledge for personal betterment. With social justice education, perhaps we can begin to see knowledge as an investment in community, and not just in ourselves.

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11 thoughts on “#Syllabus #Paranoid

  1. I had not yet thought about how the syllabus, even in this new iteration, remains an essentially academic format — I agree. Nonetheless, as a foreigner, I have often encountered online valuable bibliography relating to my research, only to realize that most of it was hid behind paywalls. Hashtag syllabi can be game-changers wherein, in some cases, all contained works are made available free of cost. I find they are still very much centered around North-American and European knowledge and scholarship, due — I assume — to the English language, and thus specific and localized. However, I believe they could profit from more diversified sources, since some of the studied matters are manifested/understood concurrently in many different contexts. It would enable other populations to participate as well. I feel strongly that translation is still a underestimated tool for education and activism.

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  2. What a great post! I appreciated your interrogation into whose emotional and intellectual labor is being called upon to create these syllabi, and how you pointed out the privilege in having the time to access these resources and what is lost by not providing an intellectual community to go along with it.

    Something I was thinking about when I was reading was how might one conceptualize a reparative reading of the hashtag syllabus as a complement to what you proposed about a paranoid reading. I thought about the #LemonadeSyllabus specifically (http://www.candicebenbow.com/lemonadesyllabus/ for all who haven’t seen it) that Candice Benbow created after Beyonce released her visual album. Obviously the issues that are dealt with in Lemonade as well as in the syllabus are dealing with oppression of black women and necessitate a paranoid reading. However, I also wonder how the contextualization and historicization that the Lemonade syllabus provides can allow for a more whole and interesting reparative read into the visual (and audio) album that can lead to a healing or empowering result for the viewer/listener. Maybe, for a specific type of hashtag syllabus, there is potential for productive paranoid and reparative readings.

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  3. I love that you brought up the proliferation of online curriculums, increased use of technology in the classroom, and the reality of college degrees offered entirely online. This topic is absolutely part of the #syllabi discussion because they both deal with access, virtual communities, and curated information. It’s difficult to generally weigh what people gain and lose from obtaining a degree entirely online or educating themselves via a #syllabus because, as you have noted, the presentation of material differs from platform to platform, but also people have different circumstances–obstacles they must overcome to get educated. I’m not sure what answers I can provide (I’m sure studies have been done regarding online classrooms), but it’s interesting to think about how the #syllabi shares some of the same problems as online classrooms, but also seems to be an answer to some of the problems people have encountered with the online classroom.
    For example, if one can’t take a class online because of the expense, self-educating via #syllabi might be a good option (if they can find one on their own). The problem of not knowing is one to consider here; if people are not informed of various tools that are at their disposal how are they going to find useful/free resources?
    Besides the cost, another important element of the university system to consider is stress and strain of having deadlines. With the #syllabi these pressures are alleviated. There are no papers due, any seminars to attend, or pressure to perform. On the one hand, for some these features of the #syllabi are great because they might have other commitments, but on the other hand this feature might be disadvantageous for others who are not motivated.
    As a first generation college student and someone who has taken a few online classes, I think that the implementation of online curricula and #syllabi are “slippery slopes” and it’s good to question anything at your fingertips.

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  4. Your example about the echo chambers is interesting, precisely because these chambers are communal. While one would certainly hope that hashtag syllabi don’t have the same insular quality to their communities, but it seems an open question about how far they actually do reach. It seems to me that these very apparatuses (Facebook, hashtag syllabi, online classrooms, etc) are only one half of the picture. We may be able to guarantee accessibility, but we cannot vouchsafe access; that is, who chooses to use any of these tools. For any of these things to have a more penetrating effect, then, I think we need to consider issues of how people self-select their media, in addition to the merits of these platforms themselves.

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  5. Your questioning of the format of hashtag syllabi is a great inquiry into ways we might conceive of alternate pedagogical formats that fall outside of academia. What are other ways of knowing about the world and how can that be expressed? I was glad to see that the hashtag syllabi include examples of art that are relevant, but it could also extend even further afield. That these resources are available is magnificent, but the other part of the equation is asking about who is doing the labor. In terms of online learning, some things translate well across digital platforms, but other types of learning can indeed lose impact if they are not engaged with in a physical environment.

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  6. Your analysis of the #Syllabus form is critical in a way that does not neglect the larger network on which they are distributed. To consider these online resources as separate from the same network in which 4Chan users are circulating fascist-frog-memes is to again idealize the internet’s place in achieving social justice. As you put it: “expanding our outlook and seeing what lies outside of my insular social network is important if we are going to aim toward any substantial change.” Perhaps modifying the form to reflect the shortcomings of using dense academic articles to educate a wider audience could also help to situate it within the network outside of people with the same political views.

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    1. I think about this question of form a lot as well, especially as any one particular online feed has the capacity to bombard you with every range of human emotion. Ever open twitter and its like: Funny friend joke, long article about the prison industrial complex, meme about academia’s unrealistic expectations, picture of a cat… When the mode of absorption for all of these data is within the same format (and in the palm of your hand!) I wonder sometimes how our brains are affected and desensitized, and what the long term effects will be on our collective psyche.

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  7. Response to AnnaP

    “An aspect of my response also has to do with the reliance on the labor of people of color to educate non-POC. On whose shoulders does the demand for more information fall? Who is left doing this extra intellectual and emotional labor? What are it’s costs?”

    This is such an important topic to touch on. I’ve been applauding scholars and public intellectuals for their time and effort in putting together #syllabi, but it comes to a point where this knowledge and insight ain’t free. Nor should it be. That, however, challenges my belief that there should be no fee for information and knowledge. But then who organizes it and why would they do it for free when professors get paid? This brings up a lot of questions about labor and exploitation of crowd sourcing. Should this question and others like it be considered when creating a #syllabus?
    I’m just too caught up in the $$$ cost/benefit of these needed #syllabi.

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  8. I appreciate your cautionary (or even paranoid) tone about the risks of taking “for granted that the sharing of resources is always going to be a positive contribution to an online discourse”. I agree that we must be careful when looking at what’s shared online and that it really does what it says it’s doing. In the case of the syllabi, are they really democratizing knowledge? Or are they just expanding the hierarchical structure of the academy outside of it? Also, your comment on the syllabi being reactionary made me wonder how would syllabi that seek to prevent the conditions that lead to social injustice, instead of reacting to them, would look like? Maybe they would focus more on method and praxis, rather than just on historical background and contextual information?

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  9. Regarding your question of what’s lost in an online classroom, I wonder if there’s a mapping feature that could be included in #syllabus. Like, a literal map that people can check into, which shows their neighborhood, so that people could independently set up meet-up groups to discuss readings. Or there could be some kind of online chat room, or designated Google Hangout time, where interested parties (who are not necessarily the #syllabi creators) could “meet” online to discuss. I know that this complicates the question of labor (who has time to do these readings AND try to meet up/discuss), but these could be seen as a bridge between #syllabi and the black feminist reading groups of yore.

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