Magazine article Radical Teacher

Brief Introductions: Gender, Visual Culture, and the Carceral State

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Brief Introductions: Gender, Visual Culture, and the Carceral State

Article excerpt

In the Winter semester of 2016, I switched up the beginning of Gender and Visual Culture, a 200level course I teach regularly at Bates College, to take advantage of a one-time opportunity: extensive programming for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on "Mass Incarceration and Black Citizenship." Since the mid-1990s, Bates, an expensive liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine, has recognized the day with workshops, talks, films, performances, a debate, volunteer opportunities, a keynote, and other activities organized around a theme and developed by a committee of faculty, staff and students over the course of a year. This practice stems partly from campus activism. After the federal holiday began in 1986 came years of protest that Bates would not honor it. Many of us refused to teach that day. Meanwhile, on three different occasions between 1989 and 1994, faculty canceled classes for teach-ins: after the harassment of a female faculty member; after George H.W. Bush declared the official start of what is now called the "first Gulf War"; and after racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-queer graffiti generated stupendous student activism (also involved in forcing the other days) to have a day dedicated to coalition organizing. Suspending classes annually on MLK, Jr. Day for programming had the excellent purpose of regularizing the social-justice teach-in day--although ask yourself who benefits from such days being less disruptive to business-as-usual when you can plan for them in advance--and, fundamentally, of declaring the central importance of anti-racist, multi-issue activism and education in a majority white institution in the statistically whitest state in the nation.

I want to indicate for the record, however, since our official PR unsurprisingly omits it, that upper administration supported installing the teach-in model partly because it conveniently allowed the institution to recognize the day without giving hourly and salaried staff paid time off. Thus while Bates sometimes uses the "a day on, not a day off" associated with the designation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, since 1994, as a Day of Service, that usage camouflages its equal aptness to describe a labor issue for people whose "day on" and not "off" is mandatory and sometimes little altered by the day's events, although staff are supposed to have some leeway to participate. (None of this is surprising for an institution that, several years later, used dubious and duplicitous tactics ill-befitting its self-promotion as egalitarian to squash dining-service workers' attempts to unionize.)

In any case, while I always require students to participate in MLK, Jr. Day activities--not least because white students often skip it for skiing without a grade-linked assignment--I don't always alter my course design significantly for the theme. This year I did. The racist, gender-policing violence of the carceral state, which often depends on visual scrutiny, is integral to the context and content of the course. Yet I faced a challenge because MLK, Jr. Day occurred only a week after the term started. Since the course, cross-listed in Art and Visual Culture and in Women and Gender Studies, serves as an introduction to visual studies and/or gender studies for many of the first-year through senior students taking it, I had to figure out how to introduce those large subject areas and the prison industrial complex in two class sessions that also required time-consuming activities like going over the syllabus.

To do so, I assigned Eric Stanley's essay "Fugitive Flesh: Gender Self-Determination, Queer Abolition, and Trans Resistance" to accompany our discussion of beginning gender concepts. An introduction to the anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, the text, besides being keyed to the MLK, Jr. topic, appealed to me for the way that Stanley interrupts some prevalent tendencies, especially for my traditionally college-aged, often privileged students, to individualism and self-discovery. …

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