Haunting the Future

…unlike the ghost of the past, who is often doomed to repeat the same actions and gestures, the future ghost is unpredictable; its radical potential lies in its instability.

Ferreday and Kuntsman, “Haunted Futurities”

I tried to theorize haunting …[as] a case of rebellion, movement, a demand for a livable future….I have always been interested in movement…and how to live otherwise than in the putatively inevitable repetition of the degradations and depredations that injure us….I thought…we could locate some elements of a practice for moving towards eliminating the conditions that produce the haunting in the first place.…[an] emergent rather than fatalistic conception

–Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity”

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels called out the phantasmagoric: “a spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Communism”1 –to signal the human capacity to change the conditions of our lives. More than a century later, my grandfather Joseph lived and died a committed socialist, leaving a spectral legacy that nuances my classed experience and propels my teaching: pushes me to ask what being and teaching this capacity to change lives might look like now.

Avery Gordon muses that haunting can bring “a certain retrospective urgency: the something-to-be-done feels as if it has already been needed or wanted before, perhaps forever…and we cannot wait for it any longer.”2 In this final section, I speak to how this class on class might illuminate ways to approach the “something-to-be-done,” with pedagogies of acting, reflecting, resituating, re-acting.

Alice Lesnick, who wrote so incisively above about education as de facto instruction in class hierarchy, also enacted an intervention in this dynamic: Her college-supported program, “Empowering Learners Partnerships,” offered a philosophy and model for tapping into everyone’s rich capacities, by connecting students with staff members as adult partners in teaching and learning. Partners learned about Islam, jazz, digital photography, social media, how to conduct online research; and developed greater awareness of each other’s lives.3 Although powerful for many participants, the program is no longer active: institutional support receded, and there was fear about staff vulnerability.

This reminder of the precarity of individuals as well as of institutional interventions calls up vulnerabilities exposed during “InClass/OutClassed”: when students’ own access became visible in relation to others’ in our “Mapping Class Exercise”; when sharing their thoughts and hopes in public spheres generated push-back; when the high school student who dreamed of attending this college did not get in; when the housekeepers’ susceptibility to censure may have kept them from joining our workshop. If, as Alice asserts, education inherently stratifies by valorizing academic work, and if challenging this hierarchy exposes both complicities and susceptibilities, then we must work differently. Generating integration from the belly of higher education means moving forth in and from contradiction, generating multiple tactics, interventions arising from diverse, shifting positions that include a recognition of people’s precarities and positionalities.

In her introduction to Tactical Media, Rita Raley draws on the work of artist-activists to theorize alternative approaches to “revolutionary transformation”: She describes how they “critique and resist the new world order but do so from within by intervening on the site of symbolic systems of power.” These “campaigns comprise little tactics rather than bold strategies,” Raley explains. “Critical Art Ensemble’s understanding of power as diffused, networked, multiple, and a-territorial….’us’ and ‘them’ are no longer permanently situated,” rendering “the phenomenon of resistance fleeting, ephemeral, and subject to continual morphing.”4

This description offers another way to read the forms of activism described in this chapter. Our students’ work with high school students, their on-campus workshop on class matters, their interventions into the class presumptions of academic writing are all “little tactics,” instances of “fleeting…resistance” that challenge a consensus reality that figures impact as large, lasting, widely recognizable, and exchangeable in discourse. These encounters arise and recede, shape-shift into others, ripple, submerge, erupt over time and across space.

Anne and I are teachers who hold radical beliefs in relation to social class, who are deeply troubled by the injustice of social class divisions–and who go to work every day on a campus filled with trees that surround majestic stone buildings, at a college that outsources the labor of maintaining this beauty. We are critical of the political and economic arrangements that make students who are lower-income, of color, of a non-traditional age, and/or of non-conforming gender less likely to be enrolled at this college; where those who serve the students have less power in the community than those who teach them; where conventional academic writing helps to maintain such class divisions. In a course aimed at cracking open presumptions about education and class, we also teach students to move through a system that keeps those presumptions in place. And yet this is a system where we ourselves thrive, as we have opportunities and resources to teach in ways that engage ourselves and our students in exploring alternative possibilities.

We teach to question and challenge the system we work within. Collaborate with colleagues and young people to access power to impact power. Practice not shutting down when we encounter institutional resistance. Wait for a moment to forge another path in–or out. Aim to be “accomplices” to our studentsWe teach to question and challenge the system we work within. Collaborate with colleagues and young people to access power to impact power. Practice not shutting down when we encounter institutional resistance. Wait for a moment to forge another path in–or out. Aim to be “accomplices” to our students, “compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other,”5 in widening circles of writing, waiting, acting. Welcome hauntings as radical potentiality.

  1. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, rpted. in The People’s Cube, February 26, 2009, accessed June 6, 2016. 
  2. Gordon, “Some Thoughts,” 5.
  3. Alice Lesnick, “Teaching and Learning in Community: Staff-Student Learning Partnerships As Part of a College Education,”Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship 3 (2012), accessed April 8, 2016; Alice Lesnick and Alison Cook-Sather, “Building Civic Capacity On Campus Through a Radically Inclusive Teaching and Learning Initiative,” Innovative Higher Education 35 (2010), accessed April 8, 2016.
  4. Rita Raley, Tactical Media(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 11, 13.
  5. Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex, An Indigenous Perspective and Provocation,” Indigenous Action Media, May 4, 2014: 6, accessed April 7, 2016.

Writing Class

…contained in the assumption of neutral, impersonal writing styles is the lack of risk…we have lost the courage and the vocabulary to describe [the personal] in the face of the enormous social pressure to “keep it to ourselves”–but this is where our most idealistic and our deadliest politics are lodged, and are revealed

–Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights

Writing instruction is a political process

Julie Lindquist, “Class Affects, Class Affectations: Working Through the Paradoxes of Strategic Empathy”

These encounters with high school students and misses with support staff take place within the framework of a first-semester writing seminar. And so it seems appropriate to turn now to the deeply classed nature of writing itself, both pronounced and obscured by entry into an institution and a course where learning academic writing is paramount.

My goals as a writing teacher hover and tangle: To teach the skills of conventional academic writing, what literacy educator Lisa Delpit calls “codes of power,” to students who are diverse by class.1 And to help students learn to write in ways that take on conventional structures of language and power, becoming a source of power that can speak to power. And to open the space for those students to add their voices to the discourse, by taking up alternate forms of literate expression and offering us rich windows on different ways of being and communicating.2

Teaching college writing sits right at the hub of language, class, and power. As literacy theorists recognize, some students arrive still needing to learn conventions they’ll be expected to perform throughout college, while others are already prepared to play with those forms. Delpit argues for the importance of explicitly teaching “codes or rules…for participating in the culture of power” to those who have less power, not to dismiss home languages but to amplify students’ options.3 David Bartholomae also notes the value of teaching students various forms of expression, including but not limited to discourses of power. He offers Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights–a compellingly unconventional text from which we read in this final section of our course—as a text in which the “writing is disunified; it mixes genres; it willfully forgets the distinction between formal and colloquial, public and private; it makes unseemly comparisons.…features we associate with basic writing, although here those features mark her achievement as a writer, not her failure.”4 How do writers show that they know they are playing with convention, and why does this matter?

Even listing these goals and questions reveals a split: Academic writing–a code of power–is conceptualized as distanced, impersonal, abstract, not as narrative or concrete. How to nurture a weave, a richer, more full-bodied set of possibilities? Understanding that “class is experienced in terms of affect, nostalgia, and desire,” composition teacher Julie Lindquist coaches her working-class students in “narrative theorizing that enables consciousness of the particulars of class experience.”5 In this mix, class can operate as a source of power, integral to how and why people tell their stories.

Literary critic Barbara Christian also insists that “narrative” can be a form of theorizing. Focusing on differences of race more explicitly than of class, she clarifies how splitting stories from ideas, academic from personal, is a political act, and how refusing this split carries its own clout:

people of color have always theorized–but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic…our theorizing…is often in narrative forms…in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking….the women I grew up around continuously speculated about the nature of life through pithy language that unmasked the power relations of their world.6

Lindquist and Christian suggest that narrative can be theory, that telling stories can help create critical spaces for reconsidering the locus and purpose of writing. Teaching writing can tease out nuanced, contradictory experiences of class, where stories and speculations, in all of their “variety, multiplicity, eroticism,” are powerful, sometimes “difficult to control.”7 Telling stories can intervene in structures of power.

On the first of December, Anne’s daughter Marian Dalke, an urban farmer and educator, comes to talk with our classes about a “class autobiography” she’d written a few years earlier, when she herself was in college. Marian’s ‘zine, “For what(ever) It’$ Worth: Reflections, thoughts, and suggestions on Class Privilege, Inheritance, and Inequity from a young white woman of wealth” is a frank interrogation of what it means to inherit a lot of money. Anne introduces her daughter: Mar and I are both taking a pretty big risk today–she to come as a guest speaker and facilitator to her mother’s (!) classroom, me to come out to you all as the mother of a millionaire–and then we move into a silent discussion about class: moving around our classroom and commenting anonymously on large posted sheets with questions about key words–home, work, clothing, health, space, recreation, income, education. After we discuss this, Marian talks about writing her ‘zine, which infuses identity work with political analysis. Owning her membership in the “owning” class counters the debilitating “narcissism” of guilt and opens up her work in the world, as she asks, “What can I do with having money?”8

Students are intrigued by what Marian has to say, and curious, though uncertain, about the alternative ways she chooses to say it:

JHarmon

in this [academic] process of editing, paring, and abstracting, how much of our voice are we deleting and muting? How much of ourselves do we take out of our own equation? Here, I’m thinking about Marion’s zine and the way she kept it unedited. While it is messy and filled with typos, it reminds me of the journey of learning that Dewey alluded to in the beginning of the semester. It reminds me that this journey is just as important as the final product. Through Marion showing us an earlier work of what she hopes to accomplish, we understand her “unperfected” thoughts. Thus, we better understand her personal journey of knowledge, and from there we somehow relate and empathize with that journey and struggle…9

Michaela

I have felt similarly–I often sit down…to write an essay, and feel like there are very specific points at which I am supposed to insert myself and my own voice, and others where I am supposed to keep quiet and let the facts speak for themselves–but how does that work? Don’t I have to give light and interpretation to these facts?…I like Marian’s zine, because it did show the less-polished side of thoughtful, provocative writing–but that could never be submitted for a grade in a college course. Can we encourage more students to take on projects like these? Or is it asking too much, given the high amount of academic writing each…college student…is assigned? 10

What’s happening in the space opened up by the clarity–paradoxically “messy” and “unperfected” in its texturing of struggle–of Marian’s ‘zine?

In acknowledging that “people are poor, in part, because of the concentrated wealth that I have benefited from,” Marian opens the door to a personal way of going beyond the personal, a form of “narrative theorizing” from a position of power. Her ‘zine reorients our gaze, suggests how varied forms of writing might help unsettle our investment in classed ways of distinguishing ourselves.

Both to continue this unsettling and help our students imagine alternatives, we unbind our next assignment from conventions they’ve been working all semester to master:

By 5 p.m. Friday (Dec. 9): writing assignment # 11, 3 pp. (or equivalent) “de-classifying” your writing for this class, going beyond the weekly 3-pp. papers you’ve been writing for Jody and Anne. What would you like to say to the whole Bryn Mawr community — or to the whole world?? — about issues of class and education? What new format might you play with, to say these things? (Marian’s zine may have given you some ideas….)

Not surprisingly, the confidence with which students take up these options is inflected by class.

We hear quickly from Chandrea:

Chandrea

I was discussing my confusion on the next assignment we have to do for this class…,and my cluelessness reminded me of how dependent I am on writing academic papers. I remembered worrying, “What do you mean it doesn’t have to be in the form of an academic paper?!”…I’m so used to writing papers in this class as well as other classes …That’s all we did in high school! I mean, I could do a poster or something but I really am not that creative/artistic as I’d like to be. Maybe a slam poetry presentation would work for me because I think those kinds of things are fun. …I never expected to come to college and be told to do anything but write papers when it came to expressing my ideas…11

Several days later, she returns to our public forum:

Chandrea

ChandreaPoster

This is a poster-collage that I did last night. I was pleased yet frightened with the finished project and I ended up running to my posse. They were really proud of me and wanted to do their own version of the poster-collage. I was inspired by Marian’s zine and I remember being so amused with it because I could relate on so many levels – except that instead of being a millionaire, I decided to declare that I was FAR from that. I think I’ve always kept my socioeconomic status as a secret in high school and now that I’m in college, I’m deciding to own up to my status, just like Marian did. I’m actually thinking of posting it outside of my dorm because I don’t know what else to do with it. But I don’t know how the people on my hall will react or if they will react at all. I kept the class workshop in mind because we discussed broadening the audience when it came to talking about class. And my audience is the Bryn Mawr community as a whole.

On the bottom left, next to the picture of me and my little brother it says: “I graduated from Framingham High School in June 2011. I am the first in my family to go to college. The kid next to me is my youngest brother, Aaron. Hopefully, he’ll go to college too.”12

Chandrea’s poster plays with genre to invite and challenge viewers to examine our assumptions about who she is, and who we are. Her turn here from the conventions of schooled writing, revealing herself in relation to material goods, family, and friends, engages her in a creative act that maps her capacity to be in more than one place at the same time.13

Chandrea writes herself “poor.” Another student, “Hummingbird,” also struggles toward a more complex cartography, in which she gets written as “privileged.” Her final project for the class, which opens with a letter, is called “Classism v. Feminism and Why a Discussion about MTV Can Get Very Complicated Very Fast.” It is set in a college dining hall, where a disproportionate share of working class students work alongside regular college employees.

Hummingbird

“Dear Bryn Mawr College Dining Services,

You are all amazing people. To run this dining hall is like running the world. To deal with these dumb whiny bitches is too much! If they are trying to take the television out of the dining hall b/c they say that too many of the music videos objectify women, then they have meaningless and idiotic lives. You shouldn’t take the dumbass bullshit from these privileged students. If they feel as though they are being objectified, they should write to MTV who shows the videos and, most importantly, the artists who produce the music. To complain about music videos and a television?! Most of the women, girls really, who complain, don’t respect the spaces that they live in. They have no reason to complain about this place. Don’t take the TV away. Rather, tell the snooty dumbasses to SHUT THE FUCK UP! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT REAL OBJECTIFICATION IS!!!

Sincerely,

POSSE SCHOLAR”

Confused? I was too.

Actually, my range of emotions went from bewildered to outrage to confusion to (perhaps?) understanding and finally frustration. But this story didn’t start out being about class.

A few weeks ago Bryn Mawr College screened MissRepresentation. The documentary explores the ways women have been poorly portrayed by the media. My hallmates felt empowered by the film. My friend, Nina*, thought of the television in the back of Erdman dining hall and how the only channel is MTVu (the University/ College version of MTV). She commented on the way the majority of the programming objectifies women. Nina contacted Dining Services to see about having the TV removed. Dining Services said Nina would have to get a petition signed, as they didn’t have the full authority to act on a request like hers.

Soon afterwards, two petition sheets were posted and I signed the one that read “I do NOT think MTVu improves my dining experience.” As we were leaving, we took a look at the napkin notes and realized a debate was occurring.

Napkin Notes are a Bryn Mawr Dining Hall institution – pinned to a bulletin board for the dining staff to read. Students can request grapes at lunch, for example, thank Dining Services for a job well done. The MTVu conversation changed the Napkin Notes Board, though, because they were a conversation between students. When I first saw them, only two had been put up, both expressing a preference for ending the MTVu service. Nina and I were excited that napkin notes were being used to host a discussion. I wrote my own note to post on the board:

“I don’t want MTVu in the Dining Halls, because I don’t want to see degrading images of women while eating breakfast. We should be feeling empowered, not overdressed.”

I felt good after adding my own voice. My friends agreed with my sentiment and commended me for writing. And then, a few days later, I saw the note we started with.

I was shocked and felt the accusations that those of us who disagreed with the presence of the TV were “privileged” were unfair and unfounded. I was also struck by how this conversation very suddenly became about class and not about gender. We had been labeled “snooty bitches” and we “[didn’t] know what real objectification [was].” After the shock subsided, I was outraged. How dare she accuse me of being privileged because I didn’t want to have to watch degrading images of women, in a women’s college? Another note written in response to the angry note asked what gave her the right to conflate privilege with the ability to point out objectification. Then I reread the first note and noticed she’d identified herself as a Posse Scholar.

Posse scholars get a special scholarship based on their leadership skills. Scholars meet on a regular basis throughout their senior year of high school to subject, including race, gender, and class, and they seem to be some of the most socially aware students.

I decided to talk to my hallmate, another Posse Scholar….To my surprise, she said she could understand both sides of the story. She explained that when she was growing up she watched MTV all the time. She could understand seeing a level of privilege in those who didn’t watch MTV growing up. I was skeptical at first, but then thought about it. Could there be a classed difference in whether or not one grew up watching scantily clad women fawn over rappers? My hallmate also suggested the Scholar assumed our notes were directed to the staff – who work hard enough as is – instead of towards each other.

So I’d come to (almost) understand the student’s strong response. But if watching MTV as a child was, indeed, a sign of class difference, why did degrading women have to be a part of that? Every day, I felt as though I was being reminded that my job as a woman (or girl) was to be seen and not heard.

I understand that removing a television won’t stop MTV from showing videos that objectify women. I also understand that not everyone has the option to not view this objectifying media. However, I do think removing a TV which is currently owned by the MTV corporation is taking a step.

*Name has been changed
Names on the Napkin Notes have been erased for anonymity.14

Hummingbird’s account traces her recognition of how different backgrounds can lead to different perspectives, and suggests how complex and fraught it is to navigate toward new understandings and actions. While Pratt’s “literate arts of the contact zone,” which we discussed early in the semester, feature the reach and risk of those on the lower end of power relations, Hummingbird’s communication—also reaching, risking—invokes another source and purpose.

The way Hummingbird participates in the shared spaces of napkin notes and online dialogue suggests a confidence with putting forth her voice that may also be classed. She recognizes this as she reflects on her process: feeling “good after adding my own voice”; realizing that she’s one of the “snooty bitches” being called out by a Posse Scholar who is likely “socially aware”; then asking, “Could there be a classed difference in whether or not one grew up watching scantily clad women fawn over rappers?” On the other hand, her queries throughout the piece use the middle-class convention of framing questions rather than making assertions; as Delpit notes, such oblique communication can betray discomfort with the power one holds.15

In this early moment in her college experience, Hummingbird tries to write herself into understanding another upbringing. Both off-line and on,16 her writing generates a hot dialogue that includes “rage, incomprehension, and pain…wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom–the joys of the contact zone.”17 Hummingbird continues to struggle publicly, and to shift position:

Hummingbird

Last Friday (December 9th) I posted an opinion piece on the napkin notes and MTVu discussion….When I wrote it, I knew it would be public–that was part of the assignment for our class. However, I didn’t realize how quickly it would spread to be a topic of discussion. Even as we speak the MTVu situation is growing more and more complicated.…I no longer feel confident that removing the TV is our best option.…I think the school’s best option right now is to host more discussions like the ones I’ve had with my friends–discussions which focus on sharing our experiences and thoughts on all these intersecting topics: gender, race, and class. Bryn Mawr is not a homogenous group and I think pushing on these tense topics can only help the student body and college grow as a whole.18

As Anne and I had done with the high school partnership and on-campus workshop, Hummingbird turns to dialogue as a way to generate learning and “growth.”

From their differently classed positions, Chandrea and Hummingbird engage in narrative theorizing, calling on their experiences in transition to put forth risky thinking–not just to their teachers but to an audience that is both closer—in the dormitories where they live–and larger—on the internet. In her description of a “contact zone,” Pratt notes that “one had to work in the knowledge that whatever one said was going to be systematically received in radically heterogeneous ways that we were neither able nor entitled to prescribe,” and calls for “a systematic approach to the all-important concept of cultural mediation.19 Chandrea and Hummingbird occupy a contact zone, both in class and out of it, where their words shift meaning once exposed to others. I here lay their stories alongside one another, reading them as linked and mutually echoing, gestures toward futures that might surprise.

  1. Lisa Delpit, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Harvard Educational Review 58 (1988): 163.
  2. Patricia A. Sullivan, “Composing Culture: A Place for the Personal,” College English 66 (2003): 46.
  3. Lisa Delpit, 163.
  4. David Bartholomae, “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum,” Journal of Basic Writing 12 (1993): 11.
  5. Julie Lindquist, “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations: Working through the Paradoxes of Strategic Empathy,” College English, 67 (2004): 189, 194.
  6. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Cultural Critique: The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse 6 (1987): 52.
  7. Christian, 59.
  8. Marian (Paia) Dalke, “For what(ever) It’$ Worth: Reflections, thoughts, and suggestions on Class Privilege, Inheritance, and Inequity from a young white woman of wealth,” self published, January 2009.
  9. JHarmon, “Being Perfect,” December 2, 2011 (2:56 a.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  10. Michaela, “I have felt similarly—I,” December 3, 2011 (2:51 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  11. Chandrea, “Different Forms of Expression?” December 3, 2011 (4:56 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  12. Chandrea, “If I told you I was poor, would you see me differently?” December 9, 2011 (5:34 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  13. Walkerdine, 760.
  14. Hummingbird, “Classism v. Feminism and Why a Discussion about MTV Can Get Very Complicated Very Fast,” December 9, 2011 (6:46 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  15. Delpit, 284.
  16. Comments, “Classism v. Feminism and Why a Discussion about MTV Can Get Very Complicated Very Fast,” December 10, 2011 (2:39 a.m.)-February 2, 2012 (7:36 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  17. Pratt, 39.
  18. Hummingbird, “Gender, Body Images, and (M)TV,” December 16, 2011 (12:25 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  19. Pratt, 39, 40.

Dismissing Class

Back on campus, our linked sections of “In Class/OutClassed” are designing a workshop to reach out to our own community. We craft this invitation:

As part of the Bryn Mawr Class Dismissed Initiative we would like to invite you to participate in our workshop on Friday November 11th from 2:00pm-3:15pm in Rhoads Dining Hall; the workshop is titled Mapping Out Class. The Class Dismissed Initiative is an attempt to increase conversations about socioeconomic class on Bryn Mawr’s campus as a result of a campus survey that revealed that class differences on campus are the most likely to produce feelings of exclusion among students, faculty and staff. 

The Mapping Out Class workshop will be an opportunity to have an open discussion on campus about an issue that is seldom talked about, but that is very present on our campus: socioeconomic class. In which spaces do we feel comfortable? How are class differences displayed on campus? Why do we feel excluded? We look forward to exploring this topic with a diverse group of students, faculty and staff and we want YOU to help us do it. In the workshop we will also look for ways to move forward and to envision a better Bryn Mawr. What can we do as individuals and as an institution to ease class tensions on campus?

Our class brainstorms an outreach strategy: students will invite people they know and want to know across constituencies of the college, in hopes of parlaying this event into a “diverse group of students, faculty and staff.” Some who work in dining halls will invite co-workers; others look forward to inviting their housekeepers, with whom they feel a particular connection.

Although it’s often a challenge to get folks out to events such as this, responses begin to come in, and–with excitement—we sense a mounting interest. But then first one, then another and another of our students report that members of the housekeeping and dining services staff have declined their invitations. Several students describe “a gate coming down” between them and those they thought they’d befriended. We problem-solve, meeting with the head of staff, who writes a memo excusing employees to attend our workshop during working hours. Still, only one housekeeper comes, a part-time student who has been in my class.

Even so, we pull off a highly successful event: well attended and taken up, with participants generating insightful critique and thinking toward next steps. Suggestions range from the clear, dry “Acknowledge me when I’m serving you–I go to this school too,” to the acerbic “You have to get your…income tattooed on your forehead.” There are specific recommendations:

  • Please change international student orientation. Do not make students on financial aid stand up in front of others so that they must leave to go to a special financial aid session, when “wealthy” don’t have to go to the session.
  • [Talk] about issues from the beginning of each students’ journey here–so all students are more aware and educated of the assumptions and prejudices we bring to campus and discuss how we can more forward together.
  • Equalize the pay scale [for student jobs].

Many acknowledge the importance of discussions like this one, which “de-stigmatize the sort of class distinctions that dominate—unconsciously–the social imagining here at BMC,” and help us “teach each other with no judgment.” Yet absences speak loudly:

  • I know this is the first year that class is really being talked about but I think the discussion needs to be integrated into the school’s curriculum. Somehow, everyone needs to be forced to confront these issues because no matter how many optional conversations there are, the people who need to be there probably won’t be.
  • Respect for all levels of staff, especially such as dining, housekeeping, facilities. The folks who really keep the place going.
  • More areas of interaction between faculty and (different levels of) staff. Allowing technical/clerical/utility staff to participate in community dialogue without fear of being fired. Allow staff on all levels to collaborate and get to know each other.

On-line, then in class, we debrief the workshop, highlighting both dialogues that happened and those that didn’t:

Rae Hamilton

I invited people that I had constant disagreements/fights because of class. My original idea was for them to go to the workshop and maybe see might point of view better, yet I actually was one who learned a lot.1

lissiem

Participating in the workshop was very challenging for me. It was very uncomfortable, but that’s why we’ve having workshops like this in the first place!2

S. Yaeger

In many ways, the absence of housekeepers and landscapers from the workshop highlighted one of the difficulties in starting a discussion of this nature on campus. No matter how hard we work to be inclusive, there may always be a barrier between those in privileged positions, and those who are in positions of support. I wonder how we can bridge that barrier.3

These comments name a space of contradiction. Students note that we could have gotten the word out to staff members more effectively—made it clear that they could get released from work to attend–but also index tensions among staff members, acknowledge that “something else is going on with housekeeping”: Staff members worry that they may lose their jobs or promotions if they speak out; the “head person is mean to them”; if they “step out of line,” it would not be a “positive addition to their environment”; “you can attend but still have to get your work done”; “you don’t know how catty people can be.” Differences in age as well as class are signaled here.

Our group struggles not to deny complicity, to stay engaged. To understand these structures that classify and divide us, especially tricky since the work of the housekeeping staff overlaps with the work of mothers and with service work designed to be unobtrusive, effaced.Our group struggles not to deny complicity, to stay engaged. To understand these structures that classify and divide us, especially tricky since the work of the housekeeping staff overlaps with the work of mothers and with service work designed to be unobtrusive, effaced.4 A student reflects that if we invited support staff to other less formal events, like teas in dorms, this kind of invite wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Our position as faculty also occludes our vision: we might have extended our invitation through their organization, the Staff Association.

By inviting support staff to a campus dialogue, we presume shared community; by overlooking the unequal distribution, status, and visibility of labor, we inadvertently reproduce inequity. It is not only that the housekeepers’ absence from our on-campus dialogue is, in part, what constitutes the experience of being served, as a member of the intellectual elite, by others. It is also that the positions of college students and housekeepers are interlocked, as luxury of study for the former is enabled by the work of the latter. M. Carey Thomas’s vision still haunts, as the intimate, gendered connections between students and housekeepers discourage investigation of the very power relations we’d hoped to discuss.

Our student consultants join us in telling college administrators what we learned and what we suggest for moving forward:

We had 70 some attendees; 3 were support staff. Inviting folks to “come have a conversation” generated a definite class-based response; many support staff are not comfortable w/ that sort of set-up.

The notice to supervisors–to allow folks to take time to come–did not find its way to many (any?) staff members themselves. Housekeepers and other staff members said that their jobs could be jeopardized by their speaking out. And several housekeepers said that they “had nothing to say.” Should we have framed our invitation differently-and-less-explicitly?

Could “next steps” in this conversation include staging discussions among particular groups (folks in dining services, housekeeping, etc.) who would then “send some representatives” to a larger cross-campus conversation? and “speak for” their constituent group? When people are on campus, they are professionals, representing the college. They have to consider what it means to be in their position and when honesty may put them in an awkward professional position. 

If this workshop was truly valued, why wasn’t it funded and advertised like [the semester’s big event, a series of talks by] Judith Butler? How important is this Class Dismissed initiative?

In our report, we admit that our class was taken by surprise by the barriers to investigating class across constituencies on campus: the quiet, implacable structuring of roles in which only some of us are safely (and dangerously?) ensconced in positions of power. Our surprise is not so surprising: With the exception of living wage campaigns, the class divide on U.S. college campuses has been largely ignored. Alice Lesnick offers a sharp analysis of why this might be: that the very structure of educational systems teaches ranking, and so elucidates the staying power of these divisions: “education at all levels too often amounts to teaching students to divide the world…by ranking different traditions, forms of work, and people. These lessons are not always the product of instruction; they result from the social organization of work.”the very structure of educational systems teaches ranking, and so elucidates the staying power of these divisions: “education at all levels too often amounts to teaching students to divide the world…by ranking different traditions, forms of work, and people. These lessons are not always the product of instruction; they result from the social organization of work.”5

Our workshop and report–like other Classed Dismissed projects–are well received, with a reception at the president’s house, upbeat coverage on college media, promises that this is a beginning. Some efforts follow: the college becomes test optional, a strategy that tends to increase applications from lower-income students; an Admissions officer pilots a cohort model to recruit small groups of lower-income students of color; “diversity conversations” continue to explore dimensions of identity including class.

Tensions and inequities remain, as investigated by first-year students in later writing seminars we offer; and much more extensively in the college’s recent Community Day of Learning, “In/Visible: Class on Campus, Class in our Lives,”6 where a day of workshops for all constituencies on campus includes sessions that cut broadly, others concentrating on the college, others on personal demeanor (“knowing the right things, carrying yourself in certain ways”).

A century after Thomas articulated her vision of luxury and scholarship for select women, the Dean of the Undergraduate College, Karen Tidmarsh confirms that a Bryn Mawr education “requires solitude, quiet, freedom from everyday responsibilities”—in order “to train a new elite, an elite that will change the world.7 This twist, in which the scholar becomes the world-changer, doesn’t sit well. When I send a draft of this chapter to Anne, she writes into this discomfort:

It’s a gray and rainy day. I couldn’t be more comfortable, sitting in a big soft chair, in a beautifully paneled room at the back of our farmhouse, reviewing the draft of a chapter about “encountering class” that Jody’s just sent me.

Rhoda Coffelt, who is cleaning here today, asks me if I can move into Jeff’s study.

So she can clean mine.

This is less a ghost than an insistent presence. One that I rely on, in order to do my work. That unsettles me.

The word “school” is from the Greek “skhole” for “leisure.” We begin to account, here, for some of the relationships that make that leisure possible.

It’s unsettling, too, to realize that investigating class division on campus becomes a priority only when fissures among some of our students and the women who cleaned their dorms are revealed by our efforts to be “inclusive.” Even that language presumes the possibility of completeness, and, as Martha Minow points out, suggests that we know the ways of working with difference that are best for everyone.8 It also presumes straightforwardness–shared language and interests, equity of democratic structures–embedded in unstable social states. Teachers and students must disorient our gaze, reimagining with others across a spectrum on campus what it might mean to re-design life for-and-with the whole college community. A different kind of dialogue is needed, one that questions the economic underpinnings of the college, and begins to imagine other landscapes into being.

As Gordon points out, even when hidden in plain sight, people can “achieve a measure of agency and possibility…refusing to be treated as if one was…fated to a life of…spectrality” (Gordon, “Some Thoughts,” 15). Following her here, we can read the decision of support staff not to attend our workshop less as absence than as agency, a choice about priorities, a refusal of our terms; a claim for approaches that differ from ours.

Classed admissions and classed arrangements on campus work hand in hand to fortify larger structures, as “selective” colleges cultivate greater access to power for the few, situating others outside of and in service to. Anne’s and my own ambiguous location as continuing non-tenure track faculty comes into play here: we are both less vulnerable–in positions of some power vis a vis both staff and students—and more so–neither adjunct to nor on the academic hierarchy, shadows of “professors.” Our positioning nudges us to question a “system that…limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls.”9 As we press our students and ourselves to encounter classed experiences and structural inequities, we work the tension between interrogating the system, and a yearning toward membership in it.As we press our students and ourselves to encounter classed experiences and structural inequities, we work the tension between interrogating the system, and a yearning toward membership in it.

  1. Rae Hamilton, “The Workshop,” November 15, 2011 (3:52 a.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  2. lissiem, “Workshop,” November 13, 2011 (10:47 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  3. S. Yaeger, “Some Thoughts on Our Workshop,” November 13, 2011 (3:55 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  4. Bettie, 198.
  5. Alice Lesnick, “Teaching and Learning in Community: Staff-Student Learning Partnerships As Part of a College Education,” Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship 3 (2012), accessed April 8, 2016.
  6. Emily Wells and Emily Schalk, “2016 Community Day of Learning Examines Issues of Class,” February 25, 2016 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. Karen Tidmarsh, “The Highly Practical Liberal Arts,” Bryn Mawr Now XXVI (Spring/Summer 1997): 7, italics added.
  8. Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  9. Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 6, accessed April 7, 2016.

Dreaming class

It is a clear, bright day in mid October. Twenty-some first-years–majority white, also brown and black, from public and private, urban and suburban high schools and now all at this college–board a bus (though one misses it). One of our student consultants tells us to attend closely on our ride down the Main Line into West Philadelphia: Mark when we cross City Line Avenue, recognize when the walls, hedges, lawns, shops and restaurants of the well-to-do are replaced by trolley tracks, cement steps, corner stores in a “food desert.” She invites us to divide and class-ify, reminds us of power lines mapped over subtler differences: servants’ houses in midtown Bryn Mawr, large elegant homes visible over the city line.

We disembark. Move easily or hesitantly through the entryway of a wide, squat building that houses two schools, get checked in by guards, then up a wide spiral into a large corner classroom where twenty-some high school students, all or mostly black, sit interspersed amid desks and chairs they’ve left open for us. This is a small, school described by the principal as one of the least selective of the district “special admits”: there are fewer resources here, such as AP courses, electives, sports.

Fifty-plus cram into the classroom, not yet comfortable but alert, excited. Students talk and laugh with friends, glance at others. The college and high school teachers welcome everyone and explain our activity, the game of “Barometer,” in which we will read statements aloud, asking participants to respond by locating themselves on a continuum from “agree” to “disagree.” We ask for five volunteers from each school. The high schoolers put themselves forward quickly, the college students more tentatively.

I read out the first statement: People need to go to college to be successful. The high school students move quickly to “agree,” college students to “disagree.” The division is absolute. There is intake of breath as I ask, Why are you standing where you are?I read out the first statement: People need to go to college to be successful. The high school students move quickly to “agree,” college students to “disagree.” The division is absolute. There is intake of breath as I ask, Why are you standing where you are?

The high school students give the college folks a dubious look-over. Of course they want to go to college to become successful. Is this some kind of trick question?

The college students are in college. Fresh from reading Luttrell’s Schoolsmart and Motherwise, they are passionate about the value of life intelligence gained outside school. But the high school students are putting considerable stock in just the sort of education being (modestly, but firmly) dismissed by those in college. The college students defend their position and enter a limbo, unlearning from the high school students what they think they know about themselves.

We continue this conversation in an on-line, college-based “diablog” (the college students already have usernames; the high school students enter as “guests,” under the guise of names chosen from well-known African American figures):

Sarah Goode (guest)

I noticed that most Bryn Mawr students believed that you don’t have to go to college to be successful, and all of them are in college….1

George Washington Carver (guest)

I think that if you go to college, you would have a better job, and life. But what really got me was the college students, most of them disagree the statement when they are in college be successful in life.2

j.nahig

Considering the majority of the Bryn Mawr students’ responses to the question about college, I completely understand why you’re asking “why are you in college”.…I think it is easier for us to say that college isn’t necessary, because we have (to a certain extent) a choice as to whether or not we are in college. Clearly we have the means in some way or another to attend college, and so we have the luxury of being able to consider a life without college without having to face that as an actual reality.3

Louse Armstrong (guest)

College is in some cases to be successful….But there are thousands of people that have attended college at this day of times they can no get jobs.4

Chandrea

I do see your point about the irony of us college students stating that one doesn’t have to attend college to be successful. I suppose I chose to disagree with the statement because I was feeling pessimistic that day. My mom always told me that the higher up the educational ladder I go, the better for my future. But in today’s economy we constantly hear about how college students graduate with loads of debt and end up jobless. It’s a scary thought… And success has varying definitions. My mom had to stop attending her community college because she gave birth to me. The only thing she’s got is a high school diploma, and I can see that that doesn’t get much for her, so I work hard to get my degree from college and I hope for the best that there’ll be a job waiting for me as soon as I step off of Bryn Mawr’s campus….5

In mid-November, the high school students come to our campus, where we get re-acquainted through the interactive exercise “Where the Wind Blows”: “Everyone wearing the color red–go!” Students dart across the circle of chairs grabbing for a seat before they’re called out. In small groups, questions deepen: Where do you feel most creative and alive? Where do you have the most to learn? To teach someone else? Then groups of two college and two high school students head out to explore campus through “one another’s eyes.”

Students are learning from and teaching each other, as the diablog makes clear. A high school student brings boldness and self-confidence, for example, which a college student desires to emulate:

Maya Angelou

Something that i taught somebody in life is how to never worry about what people are saying about you.6

nbnguyen

This is the thing I really want to learn from you. If you have time, please tell me how to do that…I am easily influenced by people’s opinions. I try to be perfect so no one can criticize and look down on me. But I know, it’s quite impossible to satisfy everybody’s wants. Sometimes, I am not brave enough to make decisions for fear of mistakes and criticisms…. I wonder how you learned this skill7

In a deeply classed system of education, the value of what these two students bring may be flipped: the high school student’s confidence, her willingness to dismiss “what people are saying about you” echoes the intelligence Luttrell shows working-class women gleaning from life. The college student’s being “easily influenced by people’s opinions” maps to a common value of higher education, learning to be influenced by others, to read, quote, emulate them.

Walking campus together, students’ experiences of the space are altered by one another’s perspectives:

Martin L King Jr.

I learned how to interact with strangers in a nice and pleasant way. Also that by us coming to their school and this being their first year, we took them to places that they have never been before on campus, and taught them new things about their school.8

Zora Neale Hurston

Something I learned is that you can be apart of a community even if your new to it yourself. It becomes old to you once you share it with some other new people coming into the area.9

HSBurke

After walking around campus in groups on Tuesday, I realized how far I’ve come since I arrived at Bryn Mawr. Only three months ago, Bryn Mawr was completely new to me.…Now, as I proudly touted our campus to the [high school] students, I realized that Bryn Mawr has become familiar and comfortable, and that I feel a small sense of ownership: this is my home now.…I was able to take a look at the campus through new eyes.10

A college student envisions the partnership as a bridge to new possibilities:

snatarajan

I definitely loved having the [high school] students visit us because not only did we get the chance to show them some of our most favorite places on campus, but I was also able to learn about the hopes, dreams, and future goals of the students, some of which could potentially come to life on Bryn Mawr’s campus in the future.11

Another, however, sees a disturbing specter:

Rae Hamilton

It hurts me to think of all the [high school] girls who fell in love with Bryn Mawr, who might not be able to attend. It would be amazing to start some initiative program that would allow [these] students to come here instead showing something they can’t have. 12

At semester’s end, when the classes meet via Skype to exchange appreciations and thoughts, the college students write collectively, then read:

Thank you for calling us out on our inconsistency: a bunch of us [said] that college isn’t necessary for success, but you pointed out that we are in college now; it was easy for us to say that college wasn’t necessary…because we’re in college….Thank you for teaching us that it’s ok to identify ourselves as what we aspire to be…

Reflecting on the semester’s encounters, the college students talk about the “wisdom” and “maturity” of their high school partners, but also describe their “aspirations” as “heartbreaking”: they have “the desire…a dream of college,” talk about becoming pediatricians, nurses, college and professional athletes, but “don’t take the next steps…” Identifying as “what [you] aspire to be” seems to play differently for some than for others. None of us—teachers, students, student consultants–knows much about where the high school students stand academically or financially. Although we speculate about how we might intervene, step into that gap of knowledge and resources to address a disconnect between dreams and means, we agree that we’d need more regular visits, stronger relationships, college visits….A semester is much too short.

By the end of the semester, the clout of class difference is palpable: our classroom conversations reveal that even where class (and race) cross over, the college and high school students perform class differently. From their position inside an elite institution, the college students “negotiate [their] inherited and chosen identity toward where they are headed”;13 they also begin to look more clearly at their own complexly classed identities: one who works three jobs to stay here, several on leadership scholarships, another from an immigrant family stretched and anxious about their children’s education.

Our students move on to various pursuits; most have now graduated. Samyuktha, who notes above her pleasure at hearing the high school students’ dreams and goals, continues to work with the school. She reports that most of these students also have graduated; many went to community college or colleges in the area; some have since dropped out and have jobs, a few joined the military.14

Two high school students intern with Samyuktha to create a community garden, then visit her at Bryn Mawr to attend a poetry slam and other events. In their senior year, Samyuktha helps them with applications to colleges, including Bryn Mawr, where one yearns to go. But she is rejected, so devastated that she considers not going to college at all. Distressed, Samyuktha seeks counsel from the Education and Praxis Programs, which have supported the cross-school partnership. Along with Alice Lesnick from Education and Nell Anderson from Praxis, Samyuktha and I meet with several Admissions officers, but the situation proves intractable: the students’ credentials aren’t strong enough; what’s done can’t be undone; the college will try to offer more effective support in the future. Another meeting is planned, this time with the principal, and generates some shared goals, including more targeted collaboration on college admissions. This particular year was difficult at the high school, with no guidance counselors and little coaching for students about their applications; sharing this information is important to our collaboration.15

The two high school students attend community college, where they do well.

Although there is more outreach to students in Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr has yet to admit a student from our ongoing “community partner.”

The college remains haunted by those who cannot get in.

Our partnership with the high school engages many of our students in sharing ideas, respect, even friendship; blurs the divide. Yet in their friendly encounters with the younger students, the college students inadvertently glimpse what Lois Weis calls the “class warfare” of college admissions: they have access, the high schoolers do not.16 Being a “select” college means not admitting a number of students. Our efforts to use our educationally classed positions to invite others into dialogue are complicated and confounded by differences in access and unequal power relations. It is not only that the college students are in college now, at this elite institution in part because the urban high school students are not. It is also that what is made invisible, unaccidentally occluded, are the ways that the college and high school students are mutually embedded in and essential to each others’ positionings: each of our roles holds those of others in place. That these relationships can present as friendships, can be real and of value, renders the other dimensions of our interactions difficult to see, harder to get underneath.what is made invisible, unaccidentally occluded, are the ways that the college and high school students are mutually embedded in and essential to each others’ positionings: each of our roles holds those of others in place. That these relationships can present as friendships, can be real and of value, renders the other dimensions of our interactions difficult to see, harder to get underneath.

Even so, the encounters between the college and high school students gesture toward new possibilities for both the younger and the older students. Valerie Walkerdine notes that what people conjure as possible is as relevant to mapping and making change as their actual landscapes. The maps our students imagine figure both individual desires and visions of greater equity. Although vision “must be enacted in the world of what is possible,”17 moving imaginatively into that realm can help to create it.18

Growing out of this, Anne’s and my work with our students, and Samyuktha’s with hers, signal resistance to the strong undertow of things as they are, imagining into other possibilities…

I recount this story in major and minor keys: Desire and disconnection. Connection and critique.

  1. Sarah Goode, “I noticed that most Bryn Mawr,” October 20, 2011 (12:08 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  2. George Washington Carver, “Do you need college to be successful life?” October 20, 2011 (12:04 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  3. j.nahig, “Consider the majority of,” October 21, 2011 (5:37 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  4. Louse Armstrong, “Is college need to be successful,” October 20, 2011 (11:56 a.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  5. Chandrea, “In Response to Sarah Goode,” October 21, 2011 (5:27 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  6. Maya Angelou, “Something that i taught,” November 18, 2011 (12:45 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. nbnguyen, “This is the thing I really want to learn,” November 19, 2011 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  8. Martin L King Jr., “I learned how to interact,” November 18, 2011 (12:33 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  9. Zora Neale Hurston, “Something I learned is that,” November 19, 2011 (12:34 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  10. HSBurke, “After walking around campus,” November 20, 2011 (3:07 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  11. snatarajan, “This is the thing I really want to learn,” November 19, 2011 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  12. Rae Hamilton, “Hope for PHS students,” November 27, 2011 (1:40 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  13. Julie Bettie, Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity (2003; rev. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014), 192.
  14. Samyuktha Natarajan, e-mail message to author, February 26, 2016.
  15. Alice Lesnick, e-mail message to author, March 23, 2016
  16. Lois Weis, Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  17. Walkerdine, 761.
  18. Maxine Greene, “Coda: The Slow Fuse of Change: Obama, the Schools, Imagination, and Convergence,” Harvard Educational Review 79 (Summer 2009): 396-398.

Institutional Hauntings

The first woman president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, was raised among very different ghosts, the landed gentry in Virginia. Counseled by her mother that “It’s a man’s world, sweetie,” Faust reports arriving at Bryn Mawr in 1964: “I will never forget Miss McBride up on the stage telling us to be humble in the face of Our Work. I had not before realized that I had Work.…But Miss McBride’s address instilled in me a newfound reverence for learning and scholarship.”1

A century earlier, the second president of Bryn Mawr, M. Cary Thomas had developed a formative vision for the college, as a place where young, White, Christian, well-to-do “ladies” like Faust, often from prominent families, would be given the rare opportunity to become serious scholars of the classics, science, art history. Others would wait on them while they nurtured their intellects and prepared to become formidable and influential leaders in a male-dominated world. A lover of exquisite things who displayed her wealth extravagantly on the campus where she lived with women partners, Thomas was visionary about the rights of White women, yet profoundly elitist and racist: a highly vocal and influential supremacist and eugenicist whose fierce opposition to class-and-race equity also infused her vision of the college.A lover of exquisite things who displayed her wealth extravagantly on the campus where she lived with women partners, Thomas was visionary about the rights of White women, yet profoundly elitist and racist: a highly vocal and influential supremacist and eugenicist whose fierce opposition to class-and-race equity also infused her vision of the college.  Specters of this vision still lace through shadows, blossom across the green expanses of this place.

Bryn Mawr alumna and historian Grace Pusey explains how inequities embedded in the college’s history leave a profound legacy:

Having an all-Black and predominantly female domestic staff served to reinforce and amplify students’ status-markers of wealth and whiteness, and even Thomas’ successors found that recruiting students from elite white families…and subsequently catering to their prejudices (and their expectations for a certain kind of lifestyle, sustained by Black women’s domestic labor), proved essential to securing and maintaining the College’s financial stability.2

Current support staff tread in the steps of others, whose labor and invisibility were thought necessary for an institution championing women’s scholarship.

Now some students-–more diverse by class, race, language, geography-–call out these ghosts, underbelly of inclusion requiring exclusion; students and some faculty and staff speak the desire to change this place, to be in and of it.

The “Survey Highlights” of the 2009 Bryn Mawr Campus Climate Assessment reveal that “in the aggregate, social class is the category of identity that most clearly demarcates variation in the experience of Bryn Mawr’s campus climate (particularly among undergraduate students and non-faculty staff).” Class shows up as most “problematic” in terms of a sense of “belonging,” “a need to minimize or conceal characteristics,” and the presence of “disparaging or stereotyping jokes or comments”3.

In 2011 the college launches a yearlong, campus-wide initiative, Class Dismissed? Furthering the Dialogue about Class. 4 That summer first-year students are assigned Class Matters, a collection of New York Times articles purporting to analyze the “indistinct, ambiguous…half-seen hand that…holds some Americans down while giving others a boost.”5 In September, and again as fall turns cold, the students in Anne’s and my classes on class complain that they’ve done the reading, but the college has “done nothing” with it.

Not entirely true. Six collaborative projects are selected by the Diversity Leadership Group and Diversity Council to “spark dialogue on the topic of class.” Three will collect stories and generate dialogues, one relate stories to policy issues, another produce a documentary on staff and faculty contributions to the college. Our seminars will host a campus dialogue.6

Early in our seminars, students track stories that are less collectible: one follows a trail to her attic dorm room, reputedly haunted by a housekeeper who once lived there; others pursue traces in dorm “smokers” where students studied and talked while served by others; in the bell-tower where seniors announce completion of their work.

The topic haunts, at this college where first-year students are suddenly “unclassed” by eating and living in spaces designed by and for well-to-do White women, “reclassed” by eating in restaurants rather than dining halls, by clothes on bodies and in closets, by décor on their walls and words in their mouths. As political analyst Sam Fulwood suggests, college education–long touted as an equalizer–may operate more as a billboard advertising, even exacerbating class differences.7

Early on, when Anne and I ask our students to “map your access to education,” their very different trajectories to Bryn Mawr become visible: some with many, sturdy legs up, others with fewer, more tenuous supports.Early on, when Anne and I ask our students to “map your access to education,” their very different trajectories to Bryn Mawr become visible: some with many, sturdy legs up, others with fewer, more tenuous supports. Cracks open among us. An international student writes of her shock at this divide: “i feel like i am an inhouse example of inclass/outclassed.”8

During the semester, Anne, I, and our student consultants lay out classifications that don’t hold, in a shifting, sliding effort to determine what determines class: How to label and compare? What about language, geography, education? The class is “about” class, the noun and its related verbs and adjectives, in all their permutations: grouped into upper crust and lower down, class can elucidate, complicate, detonate learning; can be crossed, or remain intractable, as we and our students face others’ experiences and are caught short, puzzled, troubled. All are inflected in our expressions of class positionality in ways that, as Peggy McIntosh puts it during a campus visit, “Marx wouldn’t understand.”9

Class reading provokes sometimes troubling questions. From Richard Rodriguez10 and Sandra Cisneros:11 Is education about rejecting your heritage? Does class awareness separate you from family, heritage, even yourself? From the working-class women studied by Wendy Luttrell: Is talking about school “code for talking about class”? Why does education “make you somebody,” and what about the value of real life intelligence?12, bell hooks13 and Pedro Noguera14) provoke questions about how a white, middle-class teacher might engage in “transformative education” with non-white, working class students. And intermittently throughout the semester, along with our students, Anne and I ponder Paulo Freire’s directive to use education to “rewrite the world.”15

Out of these multiple confrontations, I call up three encounters in what linguist Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone…where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.”16 Each encounter highlights classed presumptions that get dug up and disturbed, instigating unexpected questions that are opened, shut, revisited. In the first, our students leave the suburban college classroom to enter an urban high school. In the second, we host an on-campus event, which is not attended by some of the people most intimate to our students’ lives at college. In the third, we take up writing as a space where classed expectations can be examined and interrogated, as several students try out the Derridean notion of “welcoming…an act that entails acknowledging the other that haunts the self.”17

Teaching that interrogates class structures and education in a college like this one spirals into complexity: the first semester writing seminar is tasked with helping students “master” the assemblage of skills, knowledge and expectations that hold power relations in place. Enmeshed in class structures ourselves, while teaching students the skills to navigate them, we also look to interrupt, to teach “‘against the evidence,” aspiring “to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality…and personal despair.”18 Amid the “level playing fields” and “savage inequalities” of our course description, we grapple for traction. What world-shifting work can we contribute to here?

square of light

  1. Claire Potter, “The Unfinished Agenda: Women’s Education in the 21st Century,” Tenured Radical, March 15, 2016, accessed March 23, 2016.
  2. Grace Pusey, “Response to ‘Slippage’ Essays from Grace Pusey,” January 1, 2016 (16:42), accessed April 7, 2016.
  3. Office of Institutional Diversity, “2009 Diversity Survey Highlights,” Bryn Mawr College, 2010, 1-2, accessed March 23, 2016.
  4. Claudia Giananni, “Yearlong ‘Class Dismissed?’ Aims to Spark Discussion of Socioeconomic Class on Campus,” Inside Bryn Mawr, May 3, 2011, accessed March 23, 2016, April 7, 2016
  5. The New York Times, Class Matters (New York: Times Books, 2005).
  6. Diversity Leadership Group Selects Six ‘Class Dismissed’ Projects for Funding,” May 12, 2011, accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. Sam Fulwood III, “Race and Beyond: Income Differences Divide the College Campus in America,” Center for American Progress, March 13, 2012, accessed April 7, 2016.
  8. Utitofon, “Polarized Access to Education,” September 13, 2011 (2:32 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  9. Peggy McIntosh, “Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey,” presentation at Bryn Mawr College, November 18, 2008.
  10. Richard Rodriguez, “The Achievement of Desire” in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (New York: Bantam, 1982), 43-73.
  11. Sandra Cisneros, “From a Writer’s Notebook,” The Americas Review 15 (1987): 69-79.
  12. Wendy Luttrell, Schoolsmart and Motherwise: Working-Class Women’s Identity and Schooling (New York: Routledge, 1997
  13. bell hooks, “Confronting Class in the Classroom,” in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 177-190.
  14. Pedro Noguera, City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003.
  15. Paulo Friere. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1990).
  16. Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,”Profession (1991): 34.
  17. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006: 208.
  18. Cornel West, qted. in Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, “Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete,” Harvard Educational Review(Summer 2009): 4.

Family Hauntings

Haunting Concentric Circles

 

Anne and I call our first-semester seminar “In Class/OutClassed,” and pitch it this way:

You have been in school for a number of years now, and you bring questions about the methods, means and ends of education. Wherever you may be positioned in this process, however settled into or skeptical of it you may be, this course is an invitation to reflect on the assumptions that shape education in the U.S., as well as on the habits of thought and action it encourages. Schooling in the U.S. has been subject to two competing claims: that it “levels the playing field,” giving all children an equal chance to succeed, and that—like our homes, neighborhoods, and employment—it remains deeply segregated by social class, characterized by “savage inequalities.” 

In this course we examine the complex relationship between social class, being “in class,” and being “outclassed.” How does class shape educational opportunities and outcomes? What kinds of changes does each of us expect education to bring about in our own social position? To help us address such queries, we will read a wide range of educational autobiographies and theoretical analyses, focus on the case study that is Bryn Mawr, visit with students from a West Philadelphia school, and conduct workshops and interviews on campus….Throughout, we will use a range of compositional (and de-compositional) forms to help us explore, analyze, and reinvent education—as we ask what kinds of alternative scenarios we might discover, imagine, and create together.1

Along with two seniors, Jomaira Salas and Sarah Jenness (Posse Scholars from working-class Boston, who are serving as our student consultants through the Teaching and Learning Initiative2 )—we are planning linked sections of this seminar. We all worry that it could become an exercise in shame and guilt, paralysis powered by intellect that hits at the gut. Can we find language to class and de-classify, act and re-enact our complex relations with each other and with others? How to teach toward “response-ability,” carrying the etymological call for students to develop capacities for responding to others, so that “people with different kinds of precarious lives can begin to recognize each other and to recombine their efforts in order to produce a new vision, a new autonomy, creating something together”?3

As I begin to outline the story of this class, other tales begin to haunt me, seeping through the cracks of my understanding, tugging, taking me into foggier landscapes…

My mother’s father Joseph was a Jewish intellectual, a communist who killed himself because (or so the story goes) of his anguish at not being able to provide enough for his family: my mother and her younger sister and brother. Their mother, who went on to raise her family on wages earned as a ticket-taker at the movie theater. Which meant we got into the movies for free when we visited her in that neighborhood in Brooklyn that now seems to me a made-up place, a movie itself. I never knew my grandfather, who died when my mother was 14. And we could afford to pay for the movies, though my parents never finished compensating: my mother by scrupulous attention to what things cost, my father the opposite–choosing law instead of teaching, honing his palate, buying a home in a neighborhood known for its schools…

Avery Gordon describes haunting as “an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known….The ghost demands your attention. The present wavers.”4

I feel as if I somehow witnessed my grandfather’s death: mangled body on the sidewalk thrown from the second story apartment on top of the candy store that was, perhaps, to blame. Or, in another version, the family found him in the morning hanging from a rafter in that candy store. I don’t know how I’d know these details, or how I might’ve come to make up these images, or which if either is true…since this story is never talked about in my family. Never.

Observing that “the available critical vocabularies were failing…to communicate the depth, density, and intricacies of the dialectic of subjection and subjectivity…of domination and freedom, of critique and utopian longing,” Gordon offers hauntings as a source of sociological insight: It’s the “inert furniture” that does the trick, she says.5

Before the suicide (there’s always a before), Joseph left Orange, New Jersey, where he’d been beaten for being Jewish, for being poor and for being a socialist. He moved his family to Brooklyn, took them into Manhattan to hear music and eat in restaurants and visit the museums; found a giveaway piano and, somehow, money for lessons for my mom when her teacher said she had an ear for music. But he also berated her for not working harder in school and favored her sister, my Aunt Rita, who read ferociously while one-handedly scrubbing out clothes in the washtub Saturday mornings, and yearned for another social order….

What lies in the space between body and fabric? Between the stuff of classed experience: where each of us went to school, whether we had health care, what we ate and drank? How might such detail help us creep into the cracks within and between, into what Gordon calls the “complex personhood” where people “remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others…suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves”?6

This chapter…juxtaposes analyses of personal and institutional histories…How do such shadows haunt the teaching of class in class? This chapter attends to such hauntings textured by class; juxtaposes analyses of personal and institutional histories “in which you touch the…ghostly matter of things: the ambiguities, the complexities of power and personhood… the shadows of ourselves and our society.”7 How do such shadows haunt the teaching of class in class? Although I never knew Joseph, his ghost has wended its way into my personal, political, pedagogical yearnings and commitments, pushing me to reach toward a different world. Reminding me how shadows where we live and learn might offer glimpses into other worlds.

Breathing shallowly now, I can feel the narrow hallways, even smell the permeating odors of Greek cooking next door to the apartment I was small in. I see the front steps in the tract housing of my elementary school years; the luxuriant athletic fields in high school, the courtyard where we got high and protested–chanting “fuck you” to the powers-that-be–and, in an interdisciplinary program in my senior year, calling teachers by their first names and analyzing familial dysfunction in A Long Day’s Journey into Night. This was my trajectory into the middle class. Where my parents could choose babysitters and vacations, and where I learned to buck those choices by some of my own: dropping out of college to work at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, saving my money for travelling around Europe with no end date in sight. Class mobility, choices…

and college waiting for me when I got back. Later, graduate school and then, via some side-stepping, a job in the academy. A rowhouse first in the formerly glorious Germantown, and then, as the cracks in that social network became increasingly deep and troubling, a twin in a middle-income suburb. Two children whose friends often sported a display of considerable wealth. In contrast to my husband, though, who grew up in a factory town, I still always had a sense of having enough and more. Or access to that.

Nevertheless, as I sit here thinking–where to begin writing about class?–it is the ghost of my grandfather Joseph who joins me: Joseph who never had that sense of enough—for his family and for all those others,

Joseph: after whom I’m named.

haunting1-crop

  1. In Class/OutClassed: On the Uses of a Liberal Education,” Emily Balch Seminar, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2011, accessed April 7, 2016.
  2. Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges,” accessed March 1, 2016. 
  3. Valerie Walkerdine, “Using the Work of Felix Guattari to Understand Space, Place, Social Justice, and Education,” Qualitative Inquiry 19 (2013): 763.
  4. Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity,” Borderlands 10 (2011): 2.
  5. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 5.
  6. Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 4.
  7. Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 134.

The Work of Play

Seger Park Playground, 10th and Lombard, Philadelphia (photograph by Jody)
Seger Park Playground, 10th and Lombard, Philadelphia (photograph by Jody)

Differences in teaching objectives and strategies are bound to emerge in the close quarters of a 360°. While we are inviting our students to play with the unexpected, and to do so en route to developing a political critique of “things as they are,” our creative consultant is eager to engage them very differently, in the kind of exploration and extended labor involved in the practice of making art. Some of the students push back on the expectation that they create “refined tight work,” preferring instead to experiment with projects they are unsure of. Trying to model for them each of the levels of hard work—inspiration, commitment, creation, edition, revision, presentation–that goes into art making, frustrated that they aren’t pressing harder to fine-tune their projects, the artist identifies their location in a nested structure—a larger culture that does not value art, a college without an art program, a 360° with no art course–that she feels discourages many of them from fully taking up the challenges and possibilities of the work she is asking them to do.

Structural obstacles also bedevil our shared project from the get-go. Although all of us co-teachers expect our students to do the creative work, we have not scheduled a fourth course that would grant both time and credit for this labor. Students feel that the cluster isn’t organized to allow them to focus on their art projects. Jody and I listen carefully to students’ concerns, respond by shifting expectations. And now we wonder: did our responsiveness discourage them from focusing on their creative work, rather than help them develop the discipline fundamental to making art? By allowing the students not to prioritize their own artistic endeavors, did we foster a light-hearted attitude toward the artist’s work, even a disrespect for her installation?

The dispersal of the installation pieces, and our own mixed responses to this story, bring the implications and consequences of “the politics of play” to a particularly fine point. As Deborah Rose and her colleagues ask of their own encounters among coyotes and ravens: Who is positioned to play, and what risks do different players encounter? When and how does the play of some risk the well-being of others? In our 360° in particular, what does it mean to play with things that are not our own? A friend and colleague, Michael Tratner, observes,

Moving the bundt cakes symbolizes moving the boundaries of what is presented to us–and yet seems a violation of what someone else has done. What kinds of violations of the rules we live by are playful, what kinds are hurtful to others, what kinds are liberating, what kinds are illusions of freedom?1

The students who “played” with the installation knew little of the extended negotiations involved in arranging the creative consultancy, or of the costs of placing the materials…. Is it unfathomable that an artist, trying to make her living by creating works of art, should be asked to countenance the risk of losing those creations? Yet this too is complicated: who actually owns (“should” own?) the installation, if its construction and placement are paid for by the college?

 

Questions about what enables playing, pointed queries about who is excluded from play, what the limits of play should be, can be and are, animated the planning for “Play in the City,” and lingered after that course ended. During explorations of environmental art in the following semester, we begin to see that the answers to those questions might be curiously “flipped,” that the sort of playful attitude we are seeking might not necessarily be enabled by material privilege. Precisely the reverse could happen, if an investment in property, possession and permanence entail attachment to outcomes and control.

Our friend Joel Schlosser, who is a political scientist, nudges us to acknowledge more frankly the limits of our claims:

Play is a “political project,” but how does it move from playing with politics–i.e. coming up against politics through play in ways that conventional academic approaches would miss–to playing politically–i.e. playing in ways that create power and use this power to disturb or disrupt regnant political orders? If it’s always only the former then I think you may be promising too much when you talk about the politics.…Are the “politics of play” doing anything more than showing how the neoliberal world most of us inhabit prevents play? Does this provide any basis for challenging the political orders of dispossession and exclusion themselves?2

In other words: is our argument for dispossession one that can only come from privilege? (We think here of artist Vincent Desiderio’s joyful celebration, when Kanye West appropriated his painting for a new music video: “A work of art goes out there, and there’s a stream that activates and widens the communal imagination.…There was no money involved at all.”3 Isn’t such a claim unlikely to be made by those who lack the public acclaim and wealth shared by Desiderio and West?) Asking this question, we recall Lisa Delpit’s caution against embracing creative grammar for students who are disenfranchised.4

In a system where we’re in a tussle about the “public” in “public space”–where art always runs the risk of becoming commodified, with no guarantees of who will gain or lose in this transaction; where space, art, and ideas are always subject to re-appropriation–the moving of the installation pieces simultaneously signifies loss and a taste of new possibilities. Like the woman crying in the bathroom stall at the public library, like the headless batik-clothed figures seated around the table of global politics, the circulating installation figures a form of collective interaction that, as Edensor and his co-writers say about play, is “potentially transformative or subversive of power.”5

From the moment that Mark and I first escort our students into city play, it is clear to us that “open-ended exploratory interactions” can have consequences in the real world. Our invitation to recognize such playful imagining as political is even more fully realized the following semester, when the 360° students re-arrange the installation. In doing so, they are threatening the artist’s work, and her concerns about damage—eventually mitigated by the return of each of her pieces–are real ones, needing acknowledgement.

In the earliest Tarot decks, The Fool is often shown as a beggar, a risk-taker with little to lose; unlike other figures in the Major Arcana (the trump cards which form the foundation of the deck), The Fool doesn’t even have a number, just the placeholder of zero.6We now see our students as enacting the roles of archetypal fools, tricksters who take risks and transgress boundaries in service of their own impulses, their capacities to tap into unknown possibilities.  The zone of play offers them a delicious, even purposive opportunity to experiment with such transgressions.

But what zone do we occupy, when we leave our classrooms to go “outside”? When we visit various urban spaces, encountering those who live there? When we return to our suburban campus, rearranging the pieces of art that have been installed there?

While we are urging our students to locate themselves in a zone of play, the artist occupies a different zone, one which encompasses both her aspirations and her livelihood. When our students put her installation pieces into circulation across campus, these two circles of work and play overlap, intersect, criss-cross in a border area where play gets serious, has very real consequences. Like the unpredictable, creative and consequential encounters of Deborah Rose and her colleagues with coyotes and ravens, our story describes an unsettled space of learning, where our students experiment with playing the trickster, and in so doing, carve a zig-zag path into a territory where art is taken seriously.

Taking our pedagogical direction from the politics of play means getting outside the classroom and questioning some of its primary presumptions, then bringing what we discover back in; it means continuing to grapple with nuances that sometimes feel like gaping divisions, sometimes like entering that “area of unrest” known as an ecotone.7

Bringing the concepts of political and ecological play into our understanding of the complexities of our interactions means that we are still wrestling with hard pedagogical questions: what can come of our going outside with our students to learn from the aftermath of what is unpredictable? We take up the startle of such encounters as openings into a world larger, more diverse and complicated than any of us can encompass. How to play in a way that helps students meet this world freshly, inventively, and respectfully; that recognizes and takes on some urgent injustices without ignoring other perspectives; without ceding to overwhelm? How to hover in a border ecology, where play, power, and property are always subject to question and revision?

Giving voice to such complexities are the sorts of activities we trace here: those of refusing institutional boundaries, the property they demarcate, the sort of “arrogant perception”8 that knows where to draw such lines, and (eventually) the distinction between inside and out altogether. In his introduction to The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Jack Halberstam refuses the “call to order” that occurs when the teacher picks up the book, and also quite wonderfully refuses “the academy of misery” that this order perpetuates. In the book that follows, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe at length an alternative to the “deadening labor” of the university, and ask, “What would be outside this act of the conquest circle, what kind of ghostly labored world escapes in the circling act….?”9

Our encounters in the Free Library mark some of this “ghostly labored world,” as do Yinka Shonibare’s “magic ladders.” The dispersal of the installation marks some more.

Playing “outside” the classroom leads us beyond “the circling act,” then invites us once again in.

 

  1. Michael Tratner, e-mail message to authors, June 4, 2010.
  2. Joel Schlosser, e-mail message to the authors, June 6, 2016.
  3. Joe Coscarelli, “Artist Who Inspired Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ Video: ‘I Was Really Speechless,’” The New York Times, June 26, 2016, accessed June 26, 2016.
  4. Delpit, Other People’s Children.
  5. Edensor, et al., “Industrial Ruins,” 65-79, italics added.
  6. “Tarots Marseille de Jean Noblet,” 1650, refreshed by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2001, accessed July 17, 2015, http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/noblet-marseilles/
  7. Rachel Carson, “ The Marginal World,” in The Edge of the Sea, 1955, posted on-line 2016, accessed June 20, 2016, http://bookanista.com/marginal-world/
  8. Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, “World”-Traveling and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2, 2 (Summer 1987): 3-19, accessed March 1, 2016.
  9. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 30-31, 34, accessed March 1, 2016.

The Impropriety of Property

William Warner Memorial, Laurel Hill Cemetery (photograph by Anne)
William Warner Memorial, Laurel Hill Cemetery (photograph by Anne)

Over the course of the next two months, “playing ecologically” in this way begins to stir up a range of further questions: from how we are being educated, to how we might live in the world, to what might happen after we die. The students have queries about permanence: how transient are we? How transient might (or should) our productions be? They ask about property: how might we think (think differently?) about ownership? When we visit the expansive, historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, for instance—rambling independently, then sitting and talking together among the tombstones–they are puzzled to see how much the wealthy people of Philadelphia have invested in creating permanent monuments of their having once been alive. Why haven’t they been able to accept their “transience”? Might we ourselves learn to hold our lives—and the record of our living—more lightly?

These questions get carried back to campus, where our consulting artist invites us to an open studio to witness her process for creating an on-campus installation. When we gather for the demonstration, she acknowledges that, in her representation of the natural world, she uses materials that are not ecological, manipulating color, size, material to make the real appear unnatural, even bizarre.

Some of the students blink at what they are seeing and hearing. Fresh from all those permanent gravestones in Laurel Hill, they express dismay that this new project will be made of concrete. Having researched a range of more transitory projects created by eco-artists, they are uncomfortable with the plan for an installation that uses such a heavy, permanent material to remake the landscape.

When advertisements for our final celebratory event go up around campus, we are concerned that some of the students may resist, by commenting on, even defacing, the installation, which they see as not aligned with their evolving ecological understanding and activism.

But actually? Something much more interesting–more playful, ecological, and transgressive–transpires.

We host the installation in an open space in the center of campus, where the students put on an interactive performance, in which they use pieces of the installation as props for “playing house.”

We picnic, and invite others to also move, enjoy, play.

Many do so, with gusto.

As various members of the campus community stop by in the days thereafter, the artist captures images of them playing with the installation.

The signage invites play at the site. Over the weekend, however, these activities extend beyond that space.

On Monday morning, we hear from the artist that every piece of the installation has disappeared, and that she is—of course!–upset, worried about possible loss and damage to her art. With the help of public safety officers, she spends the day scouring the campus, discovering pieces scattered behind dorms, on branches, beneath a hanging willow; arranges for them to be promptly picked up and delivered to her home.

As we help to track down the missing pieces—asking our students, the deans, the housekeeping staff and security team to keep an eye out—our own reactions are mixed. After such an intense academic semester, all those months of hard work, hard weather and ill health, we actually find ourselves smiling, to see students now taking up the invitation to “play,” even redefining the terms of the game. Their hands-on engagement with the public installation suggests, to us, that it has been a success.

As Anne’s husband observes,

students are like squirrels–they take what they like and ignore what they don’t….creativity is…a collective enterprise…like unscripted performance art, and here the movers and users were performers….It’s a story that evolved in a way that was not imagined (at least by me)….this is a happy story …impermanence is ecological; “permanence,” like “forever,” doesn’t exist….

Sara Gladwin, who has seen in Shonibare’s “magic ladders” an image of her own entrapment in the educational structures of progressive education, sees an alternative in the dispersal of the installation. She muses on how, when art is placed in public spaces, the unpredictable public may become part of the material, altering what is made, how it is understood and used. She explains that, when she first received her requests to help find what was missing,

In asking that we attend to the “varying channels” from which art arises, as well as to how it may best be distributed, Sara is again an intellectual saunterer, both taking up our invitation to free herself for play and finding the space to critique that opportunity structure. Making her questions manifest in metaphors, in unexpected winter storms and books stacked to create ladders, in installations that disperse and reappear, Sara’s reflections seem to us exemplary of how the politics of play may be made material. But as she herself points out, others may feel more snagged than freed by options such as those she’s selected, which don’t recognize other legitimate claims.

“Stepping Off the Magic Ladder”

Photograph by Anne Dalke, Trash at Tinicum, "America's First Urban Refuge"
Trash at Tinicum, “America’s First Urban Refuge” (photograph by Anne)

As humans we are (by nature or design) stakeholders: we act with intention and become invested in what we have made.  Play is (by nature) impermanent: sometimes attached to outcomes, sometimes only loosely so, or to outcomes that are negotiable. “Learning to play” is a contradiction in terms, if we understand it to be about the orderly acquisition of knowledge. But if learning is moving amid grid and chaos, if learners are permeable to the knowledge that exists both within and outside us, then learning is play–and it entails risk and transformation: the risk of harm, of loss, of being lost; the transformation of ourselves in the universe–as happens to Max, when he goes off with the wild things.1

Such encounters can happen anywhere someone is open, although Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner observe that they are more likely to occur in an urban site, “always a host space,” full of variety:

One of the most disturbing fantasies in the zoning scheme…is the idea that an urban locale is a community of shared interest based on residence and property….But…the local character of the neighborhood depends on the daily presence of thousands of nonresidents….’The right to the city’ (Henri Lefebvre) extends to those who use the city.2

Wanting to continue this line of exploration, the following semester Jody and I join a co-teacher in economics in requiring our students to make bi-weekly jaunts into Philadelphia. This time they do so under the aegis of an interdisciplinary course cluster called a 360°.3 Twelve students enroll together in three classes co-designed around the topic of ecological education. Experiencing and theorizing what it means to live and learn in the overlapping spatial zones of built and natural environments, including the diversity and disequilibrium of the natural world, again raises questions about the binaries of “inside” and “outside,” owned and stolen, permanent and “just passing through.” Rather than explicit instructions to “play,” however, this time ‘round, we offer a much more directed social and environmental justice agenda, with the specific goal of addressing inequity head-on.

Our group visits complex and highly compromised urban spaces of retreat and reflection—Wissahickon Valley Park, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Laurel Hill Cemetery–and once (when an ice storm prevents our planned travel to an arboretum) a special (and especially vivid) exhibit about colonialism at the Barnes Foundation, Yinka Shonibare’s “Magic Ladders.” When our transportation arrangements fail a second time, we spend a morning at Harriton House, a former plantation, once farmed by enslaved people, from whose grounds the College had been created (we discover that there is a graveyard on campus, where some of the house servants are buried). Across the river from Philadelphia, in Camden, which Rolling Stone magazine termed “America’s Most Desperate Town: Apocalypse, New Jersey,”4 we make three visits to The Center for Environmental Transformation, where we spend half-days working on a community-based gardening project with a class of neighborhood fifth graders.

We are joined in these pursuits by an installation artist, a creative consultant who designs a range of activities, guiding students on field trips and in responding to them by working with the material “stuff” of textiles and sculptures, paintings, photographs and songs. All of this rather expansively suggests how creating in and from the outside can disrupt settled habits of classroom learning, providing alternative ways of perceiving, doing, and being.

Some of the students embrace this dimension of the cluster, report that it offers ways other than the usual academic modes of understanding and expressing, and helps them confront fears about doing creative work. At the same time—since this rich additional dimension is a demanding one—there is a looming sense of overwhelm. Several of the college students are unwell, and the winter weather is harsh, so we frequently find ourselves low in number, occasionally not meeting at all, or meeting against all odds. One Friday afternoon, our planned trip to Mill Grove, the home of John James Audubon, an early naturalist and artist, has to be scuttled because the roads to the west of the city are ice-covered. We head downtown instead, to see an exhibit of Yinka Shonibare’s “Magic Ladders” at the Barnes Foundation.5

I admit that I am seriously dragging my feet this morning—it seems as if there are TOO MANY OBSTACLES, and I am convinced that the universe is telling us to GIVE UP. I feel that we are trying too hard to make something happen

But what happens is something of a revelation.

magicladder magicladder2

 

When we finally arrive, I am surprised and delighted by the Shonibare exhibit: grabbed first by the whimsy, by the color, and also as immediately by the complex representation of colonializing educational practices. Like others in our group, I am particularly struck by the “crossbred cultural background” of the Dutch wax textiles Shonibare showcases here, and later do a little reading to learn the history of how the Dutch came to peddle Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa.6 What strikes me in this account is how “ecological” it is–how demonstrative that “everything is connected,” not just biologically, but culturally and commercially (the web site for Vlisco, for example, offers free delivery to Africa and elsewhere). Like the students (including some in this class), who attended the Black History Month dinner the night before, and found these fabrics on the tables, I am implicated in this chain: during a recent craft fair at the College, I and some colleagues sold Shakoshi bags, to raise money for the book group we offer in prison.

Shonibare’s work is nothing if not playful–a very serious kind of play that showcases it as tantalizingly dangerous, political, and personal: in the form of the artist, his patron Barnes, and the figures that seem to illustrate and mock both the integrity of identity and identity politics. The exhibit gets me thinking about the sorts of appropriations and re-appropriations that have been enabled by colonialism; it gets me to apply some of my understanding of eco-systems, particularly the imbrication of everything in everything else, to social, political, historical dimensions. I begin to think differently about the assumption underlying “Play in the City”: that we could leave the suburbs for a place apart, a place where we could be other than and separate from what we have been.

One of our students goes much further. In “Colonizing the Museum Exhibit” (alternatively titled, “What’s at the top of a magic ladder?”) Sara Gladwin develops a critique of conventional standards of educational value:

sara.gladwin

I really did like the exhibit. It was thought provoking, and each piece was beautifully intricate. I especially appreciated the absence of subtlety in the allusions depicted; Shonibare unabashedly allowed the influences that shaped the artwork to be present and visible on the work…

As I was walking around the exhibit though, I felt distracted. I had come into the museum with a question already on my mind, planted there during our obstacle-filled journey to begin our field trip. I couldn’t stop asking myself whether or not we were truly being ecologically literate if we weren’t reading the signs from our environment that were telling us to stay home. What would it mean if we had made the choice to stop fighting the signs? Would we all have gone back and written posts reflecting on our environment that had obstructed our endeavor to become more ecologically literate, conscious and/or responsive through a field trip? Would we have opted for a different kind of trip, one that didn’t rely on a phone call or vans or train schedules? Might we have found ourselves talking a walk through the Morris Woods, listening to our environment, waiting for more signs from it?

As I circled the room, I realized that debating about what could have happened didn’t seem entirely ecological anymore either. We had arrived to Barnes now, and I needed to listen to my current surroundings. I began looking for answers in the art, though I only uncovered more questions. I wondered about the placement of the mirror on the parlor wall, and whether or not there was anything intentional about what you could see in the reflection. Did I become a part of the room? What about the artwork in the background of the reflection?.…I wondered about the boy, in the center of the left side of the room, casually lounging on his stomach and reading, and how I didn’t know anyone seemingly that young who would willingly read Plato. I bent down and read along with him, although I can’t recall any of the two pages that were on display, other then something about a “theory of ideas.” I left the side room almost immediately upon entering it, seeing that there were only men sitting at the table.

Berlin Conference, Shonibare
Berlin Conference, Shonibare

I examined every line of each description, and wondered who had written them, and whether Shonibare approved of the interpretations.

Then I read the titles of every book on the magic ladders. There was something unsettling about the metaphor of the ladder. I started to feel consumed with a new question: what’s at the top of a magic ladder?

I found myself I walking out of the exhibit, and wandering around Barnes. I felt directionless but somehow not without purpose. I was searching for something, an answer; but I wasn’t even sure what the question I was asking meant. As I walked, I was reminded of a piece titled Walking, by Henry David Thoreau, in which he writes:

… the art of Walking, that is…so to speak… sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre”–to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer–a holy-lander… Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering… the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea….For every walk is a sort of crusade…

I felt the different textures along the walls and sought out the corners of each room; experiencing the physical boundaries of the space as tactilely as possible….I ventured downstairs. I paid close attention to the feeling of my hand sliding down the stair railing, and heaviness in the feet as they collide with the floor and the floor pushes back. I think what I really wanted to touch and feel were those magic ladders; to put my weight on the cover of each book. I continued this kind of sensory exploration, until I felt that I had found another piece of the puzzle. It was a single sentence about the “Magic Ladder” exhibit, explaining that the books that Shonibare used for the ladder steps had come from the personal library of Albert C. Barnes. These books, which metaphorically provided the necessary knowledge to ascend the ladder, came from the creator of the museum. I started to further distrust the implication of the ladder, which seemingly dictates a hierarchy of knowledge. I became uncomfortable with the limited possibility of movement offered by a ladder, in which you could only go up or down….The ladder, when applied to my life, becomes a metaphor for feeling trapped.

What is so important at the top of a magic ladder?

And if we get to the top, will we be too far removed from ground to actually perceive the environment we live in?7

Sara raises a host of questions about what it means to be alive to the present in all of its ecological complexity–and then her physical and imaginative “sauntering” moves into direct confrontation with the ways in which different positions mark all encounters, distress all play:

sara.gladwin

….I walk down the stairs of the Barnes and…now I am worried about Henry and me, and what we think it means to walk.

I am picturing a scene, narrated by Virginia Woolf. The figure of a woman as she is walking, attempts to enter the library of a famous university:

–but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself…instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.

Not everyone is permitted to feel equally at home everywhere.

I think of the women I work with at [the] correctional facility. I think of their hunger for books. I think of the doors that shut as I walk out and leave them behind.

Sauntering, or the ability to be equally at home everywhere, is a beautiful but not always accessible art. For as much privilege as it takes to climb the magic ladder, and ascend to the top, it seems as though a certain amount of privilege is required to get off the ladder, to be a saunterer in the Thoreauvian sense. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.”8

As last semester, playing “outside” this time ‘round leads to an interrogation of what happens—and can fail to happen–in classrooms. Sara articulates here some of the far-reaching implications of our decision to leave the college and encounter the world of play and art, of woods, fabrics and ladders. What might it mean, she probes, not just to leave the classroom on a field trip, but to use that trip to step off the “magic ladder” of the educational system, and learn to saunter on one’s own? Who is free to do this, and who is prevented from doing so?  What are the risks?  Who and what is threatened when we jump the grid?

  1. Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons,” in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 7, 8, 10, 11.
  2. Laurent Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24, 2 (Winter 1998): 547-566. 
  3. 360° Course Clusters,” Bryn Mawr College, 2016.
  4. Matt Taibbi, “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch from America’s Most Desperate Town,” Rolling Stone (December 22, 2013).
  5. The Barnes Foundation presents Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders,” January 24 through April 21, 2014.
  6. Julia Felsenthal, “The Curious History of ‘Tribal’ Prints: How the Dutch Peddle Indonesian-Inspired Designs to West Africa,” Slate (March 1, 2012).
  7. Sara Gladwin, “Colonizing the Museum Exhibit,” paper written for the course, February 17, 2014.
  8. Sara Gladwin, “What’s at the top of a Magic Ladder?”, paper written for the course, March 17, 2014. 

The Problematics of Practice

Mosaic made by students using the names "Phoenix" and "Pomegranate"
Mosaic made by students using the names “Phoenix” and “Pomegranate”

In early September, we welcome twenty-seven first-semester students, and so begin to enlarge the scope of our game. The arc of the semester plays out largely in the way we imagine—which means that, like all courses (but perhaps more so?) it is full of the unexpected. The students are (mostly) engaged, (mostly) delighted by our frequent jaunts into the city, (mostly) willing to explore both the experiential and theoretical dimensions of our work. They are simultaneously resistant to all of the above, especially as they begin to discover how political it can be to “play.”

Cathy Zhou

The essay of Henig totally recalled my memory of family times, when my father always complains how technologies have been ruining my childhood: I have never climbed trees or catched an insect in my childhood…But there was little time for playing since I was attending preschool classes and take piano, drawing, handwriting, taekwondo at the same time. [My parents] don’t want me to be left behind by other kids, and arranged a busy schedule for me.1

Our students are even more tightly scheduled now, as they figure out how to juggle their new obligations at Bryn Mawr; our invitation to embrace play as a version of intellectual work provokes some grumbling about giving

Claire Romaine

carefully hoarded time for trips…between working on Saturdays, rehearsing for a play, and finishing homework.”2

The students’ reticence is a reminder of the pressures at an academic institution where playful exploration is elusive, seems pitted against the call to accomplish, to own, to earn one’s way through, to support others.

Acknowledging these constraints, we still insist that our students “unbind” from the classroom, go out from the line of seats or the circle of chairs that have (mostly) circumscribed their learning, and begin to engage the world more directly, with less teacherly mediation–and then reflect on what happens. Like Deborah Bird Rose and her co-authors in “Ravens at Play” (a lovely, deep piece on multispecies possibilities for social interaction), we have only inklings, setting out, of the diverse opportunities that may be “both opened up and foreclosed by any kind of play we might choose or be able to engage in with others”3 We saunter out for adventure, planning to make ourselves “at home” in the city. The hard questions of cultural crossing–of access and belonging, appropriation and trespass, the politics of “playing”—are yet to come.

On our first trip, we participate in one of the productions of the Fringe Arts Festival. Headphones on, we sit side-by-side at tables in the reading room of The Free Library of Philadelphia, following cues—some written, some whispered—that guide us through a pile of books in front of us. We are each performer and spectator in “The Quiet Volume,” a self-generated performance that engages us in a “drama of turning pages, pointing fingers and eerily drifting thoughts,” and so invites us to “listen to what’s going on in our heads when we read.”4

Quickly noticing that a number of our companions at the library tables are not listening to instructions through headphones, our students realize that they are participating in much larger, explicitly inequitable theater, both in the library and on the streets. They began to notice some “cracks” in the classic urban studies texts we’ve assigned them; the theories of Lewis Mumford, George Simmel, Sharon Zukin5 seem distant from their own experiences, romantic versions of what they are encountering. Another student from China, writing under the name “Everglade,” reports feeling

Everglade

dumbfounded…by so many homeless people in the brightest and most fancy part of the city….here they have the freedom to sleep in the perfect Logan Square or under the statue of a war hero, skateboard in Love Square, and look so vibrant under the warm Saturday sun. Just a few steps away, in the small streets straying from the broad and gorgeous Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, their scrawls are everywhere, and when they are merely standing there talking I can sense their movement like dancing. This is what Sharon Zukin says, “a kind of low-down but truer sense of where the self can develop”.

After wandering for a while, I went in the Free Library–also the territory of the homeless. I sat among them and started to enjoy the Quiet Volume….they were talking and smiling. They seemed warm, too, in their hoodies and caps.

It seemed that I was so interested in the homeless people and considered them artistic hermits in the city. But then I came face to face to one. It was a total shock, when I was sitting on the terrace looking for my water kettle in my bag and a straggly old man just walked towards me and started murmuring. Startled, I said I don’t understand English and left. Well I wasn’t lying, because I didn’t understand a single word he said. But as I walked away I heard a sentence that I could catch, “I just wanna give you a compliment!” This should be a great example of the “serendipity” that I’ve long craved, but what did I do? I ran away in panic, maybe because the stereotypical fear of the homeless people. I felt regretful afterward–I should’ve chatted with him and explored lots of things that’d surprise me….

So I’m not as open-minded as I thought. I should, and I will, open up more to different people and ideas, to surprise and excitement, to serendipity.6

Throughout this book, we celebrate the serendipity of surprise, advocate for openness to unexpected possibility. We also spend some time on the possible downside of such experiences: something unwelcome could happen, the students may not feel able to say “no” to what they encounter. We don’t attend much, however, to the jolt of awareness of our own limitations, the disappointment in ourselves for not being able to seize a new opportunity. Everglade names such experiences here: how her trip begins playfully, becomes threatening; the value and also the risk of her coming to the city, the sense of exposure this entails.

Everglade reports panic, fear and disappointment; a classmate describes another unsettling encounter in Philadelphia that leaves her feeling hopeless. Agatha Basia, who has lived in a number of different cities in Africa, Europe and the U.S., begins her account by challenging Mumford’s observation, that “The city…is art; the city…is the theater”:

Agatha Basia

Is that the responsible thing to do? Make art and poetry of human struggle?

I walk downstairs to the washroom in the Free Library in Philadelphia, because I still have a few minutes before the fringe festival performance begins…

I go into the third stall. There is no latch on the door; instead, the hole where the latch should have been is stuffed with a thick wad of toilet paper. It holds the door closed so I don’t mind.

There is a woman in the stall to my left. She is sobbing. I don’t know if she is standing or sitting, but she is shuffling her feet nervously. And she is sobbing, mumbling in a panicky voice. I can’t understand everything she says because it doesn’t seem to all be in English. But I can hear her words -–between sharp, ragged breaths–-that nobody knows, don’t nobody know. Nobody.

And her voice sounds like pain and fear. Airy, high and small. Choking and weary and trembling. Small.

And I can’t say anything. I can’t ask her what is wrong or if there is any way I can help. There is much more than just the wall of a bathroom stall between us. I leave my stall, walk to the sinks and wash my hands. The woman is still in the stall, crying, speaking to herself as I dry my hands and walk outside. And that is that. I remain simply with the voice and tearful, frightened words of a faceless woman in a stall next to mine….7

Like Everglade, unable to make contact with someone who is unsheltered, Agatha places her sense of individual hopelessness in a larger context, believing that multiple social structures—“much more than just the wall of a bathroom stall”—keep her from speaking to her neighbor. On our first trip to the city, “play” has quickly become unsteady, destabilizing, bringing students face to face with social inequities, leaving some of them worried and troubled. We have moved rapidly from the celebration of undirected play, with which our course began, into a range of more complex and subversive forms, both experiential and theoretical. Henig’s claims that “the aim is play itself”–with “unproductivity” its essential aspect, “open actions,” “occasions of pure waste8–are replaced now by challenging encounters with other people.

We begin to ask if we might use play to unsettle such situations, “to defy orthodoxy and top-down power, and envision a new society.”9 We read Mary Flanagan’s assertion that “play is never innocent,” follow her accounts of various forms of “critical play,” challenges to the status quo that are intended to shift paradigms, the boundaries of what is permissible.10 Slowly, as the students research a wide range artists who “play critically,” spend some time themselves alone in silence–first in a cell in Eastern State Penitentiary, next with a work of art they choose at The Barnes Foundation–then map their own trips into the city, exploring it in accord with their own desires and designs, they begin to recognize ways in which being playful in undirected but curious and thoughtful ways might guide them into larger questions, and also into larger meanings.

We now hear named some of the risks of what we are up to. We learn about Jeremy Betham’s concept of “deep play,” reprised first by Clifford Geertz,11 then Diane Ackerman: any activity in which ‘the stakes are so high that…it is irrational for anyone to engage in it at all, since the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.”12.

As we begin sharing examples, comparing stories about when we each might have experienced deep play, some students struggle with understanding the role of such “irrational” activity, how appropriate high risk might be in the classroom. I describe teaching as my own preferred form of deep play. A student realizes that she has had the experience of playing deeply at another academic task: Yancy, who has also come to Bryn Mawr from China, and who finds it difficult to speak in class, articulates her own experiences

Yancy

…in the library on Friday night, with my computer. Silence is everywhere, and there is no one else in my eyes. Friday night, the wonderful night, because others take part in parties or play in their room, the library seems so spacious for me. I sip some hot milk and stare at my screen, there are massive codes here….my spirit is concentrated in those codes….I do not care how much time I will spend in this work, and how difficult the work is. Time is passing, the milk is cooler. I just sit here silently, tapping on the keyboard….Those codes are…regular, beautiful and creative. The code is a new language used by people to express the beauty of the world and I just need to use a simple media to turn the codes into pictures to understand the writers’ ideas. Isn’t it amazing and fantastic?

I know when I am writing codes, I experience the deep play…based on mental happiness…special because of its meaning and privacy….I write the codes like the pilgrim looks for Mekka. We both need something to find the meaning of our lives.13

Slowly, other students begin to engage in writing that is deeply playful. Their work becomes more experimental. Mark and I create “text renderings” of their essays (noting words, phrases, sentences that have “heat,” or “energy”); then they do this for one another. These risky attempts put them into new relation with one another. They make (mostly verbal) mosaics out of Terry Tempest Williams’ fragmented text, Finding Beauty in a Broken World 14; then mosaics–(mostly) visual, though one takes the form of a sound track15–to represent their spirited excursions to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, then tracking down the street mosaics of Isaiah Zagar.

The students come to understand mosaic as a critical practice, a mode of playing with different juxtapositions of both visual and verbal material.

They learn to play with point of view, sharpening and shifting their “lenses,” making them “distinctive,” then “collective.”

They take more risks in their writing, finding doorways and openings into play. One student says that

tomahawk

this course gave me…the decision to write essays about questions that I don’t have the answer to. This is terrifying….But, more recently…I feel quite fearless…No reservations. No worrying about what Anne will say or what my classmates will say or (oh my!) what my future employers might say….After I take away the intimidation and the roadblocks, I just go. And it feels like joy. Really, I feel quite joyous writing this right now…16

Another student, Paola Bernal, finds that writing “without filters,”17 leads her into sharp political critique, an awareness of how cultural boundaries are policed. Paola appreciates

Paola Bernal

that museums ultimately mean well and all they want is to preserve these collections for more and more people to have a chance to enjoy as well. But, for my mother and many other underprivileged people who didn’t have the opportunity of receiving an education or the chance to pursue higher education, art museums have become an unwelcoming place….Art Museums are…feared.18

In Paola’s experience, The Barnes Foundation

Paola Bernal

is quiet and rigid; I’m walking in an architect’s wet dream. This isn’t a place for the people to learn about art, it’s a showcase for the pompous and wealthy to wander and critique at their leisure. I feel like I’m invading someone’s space, someone’s dream. It doesn’t feel right, I don’t feel welcomed….19

Paola and her classmates begin to ask hard questions about intellectual property: should art belong to particular individuals, or be accessible to all? What about forgery, understood as admiration and celebration? What about re-mixing?20 On their last foray into Philadelphia, when each student is traveling alone (as it turns out, in the midst of a snowstorm), they are not just playing in but with the city, tracing musical clefs in the snow, making their marks on a landscape where, as Tim Edensor and his colleagues observe, “play may best be conceptualized as always potentially emergent, with the potential to shift the actuality of the moment in unforeseen ways, generating encounters which could always have been otherwise.”21

Still emerging for our students, as this semester ends, are the problematics our friend Alice named the summer before: “Who is the ‘We’?” “Whose” is the city? Sited differently, Alice’s questions echo those Lisa Delpit asked twenty years ago, in Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. Delpit argued that process writing approaches fail to provide low-income students with access to the “codes of power” of “Standard” English:

there is a political power game that is…being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play….Only after acknowledging the inequity of the system can the teacher’s stance then be “Let me show you how to cheat!”22

In Delpit’s formulation, play is very serious, its possibilities circumscribed by variable access to power. play is very serious, its possibilities circumscribed by variable access to power. …What enables play, we ask again and again–and what prevents it?  Who gets to name the stakes at play? Who gets to play in the city, as in the classroom? Our course has been highlighting similar questions: What enables play, we ask again and again–and what prevents it?  Who gets to name the stakes at play? Who gets to play in the city, as in the classroom?  How much security do “we” need to have, before we are “free” to take the risks of playing freely? Is this never possible? Does play always take place within restraints? And also always entail unpredictable consequences?

Like the unexpected interactions that Deborah Bird Rose, Stuart Cooke and Thom Van Dooren trace with coyotes, then ravens, our own pedagogical play enters into and sets in motion a precarious, shifting landscape in which we encounter not only others but also ourselves as “strange strangers,” whose gestures puzzle and elude us, eliciting responses we didn’t know we had, restraints we weren’t aware of, hadn’t recognized as necessary. Rose, Cooke and Van Dooren say they are “willing to test the possibilities of contact, but…at the same time suspicious of where our attention might lead.” Reflecting on the consequences, for other species, of playing with humans, Rose and her colleagues ask,

Was the best gift we could offer actually a restraint—that we would withhold ourselves…our play? We couldn’t play in good faith, because while the game was a transient moment for us, it was a trajectory toward death for [them]….What we might become in the contact zone was thus constrained….23

We end our semester with many related questions about our own attempts to “play in the city”: Has our concept of a playground been based on a presumption of naïve users? How transient have our interactions really been? What have been the consequences of our play for those who live in Philadelphia, or for others who may visit there? Should we have played more expansively—tried harder to make contact–or been more constrained? How might we have acted differently, more thoughtfully, more responsibly?

Agatha reprises the time we have spent together by saying that she still feels uncomfortable

Agatha Basia

about the concept of ‘playing in the city,’ as if the city were a playground. It’s not easy for me to ignore all the hardships and political issues and absurd human drama that is played out in a city….24

The experiences of other students lead them, like Agatha, to develop critical perspectives on play, identity, education, the city-suburban divide, social inequities….for these students, now, the “usual conventions of property, commodity and value” no longer pertain. Recognizing play in the city as a space of “productive, generative practices,” “potentially transformative” and “subversive of power,” they offer a strong articulation of what going “outside the classroom” might mean.25 They query the sort of education offered on campus, and invite larger questions about what is “proper” both here and elsewhere.

Mark and I are left, too, with questions about the relationship between risk, privilege and play. How might locating play outside classrooms mitigate or invite play inside them? At what times and in what places might play be destructive rather than beneficial?

  1. Cathy Zhou, “Personal Reflections,” September 11, 2013 (1:20 p.m.).
  2. Claire Romaine, “Stubborn Writer,” December 19, 2013 (9:24p.m.).
  3. Rose et al., “Ravens at Play,” 341.
  4. The Quiet Volume,FringeArts, August 2, 2013. 
  5. Lewis Mumford, “What Is a City?Architectural Record (1937); George Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1950); Sharon Zukin, “The Cultures of Cities” (1995), urbanculturalstudies, May 21, 2012.
  6. Everglade, “Open to Serendipity,” September 16,2013 (12:01p.m.).
  7. Agatha Basia, “Spectacle,” September 16, 2013 (12:13 a.m.). 
  8. Henig, “Taking Play Seriously.”
  9. Pat Kane, “Protean Activism: The Constitutive Politics of Play,” The Play Ethic, July 12, 2009. 
  10. Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009), 1-15.
  11. Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
  12. Diane Ackerman, “Chapter One,” Deep Play (New York: Random House, 1999). 
  13. Yancy, “Deep Play,” November 18, 2013 (12:04 a.m.).
  14. Terry Tempest Williams,Finding Beauty in a Broken World (New York: Vintage, 2009).
  15. Agatha Slobada, “Julia of Eyes.” 
  16. tomahawk, “Ruminations on the Class,” December 20, 2013 (2:38 a.m.). 
  17. pbernal, “Learning to Write Without Filters,” December 18, 2013 (3:20p.m.).
  18. pbernal, “Art Museums: Do they enlighten or isolate people?” December 10, 2013 (2:48 a.m.). 
  19. pbernal, “Garden of Eden,” November 25, 2013 (12:19 a.m.). 
  20. tomahawk, “The Barnes Foundation and Intellectual Property,” December 1, 2013 (10:33 p.m), accessed March 1, 2016. 
  21. Tim Edensor, et al., “Playing in Industrial Ruins: Interrogating Teleological Understandings of Play in Spaces of Material Alterity and Low Surveillance,” Urban Wildscapes, ed. Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2011), 65-79.
  22. Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (1995; rpt. The New Press, 2006), 39-40, 165.
  23. Rose et al., “Ravens at Play,” 341.
  24. Agatha Basia, “Decided. Dreams Collection.” (December 17, 2013 (8:57 p.m.). 
  25. Edensor, et al., 65-79.