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.
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.