Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

687474703a2f2f7777772e7468656e65777374726962756e652e636f6d2f6f70696e696f6e2f7578697734332f7069637475726536323434303239322f414c5445524e415445532f465245455f3634302f7472756d705f746f6f6e[Updated: 23 November 2016]

I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting topic for my 100th post on this blog (hi, guys) for days, but I find that one thing overshadows all the others in my mind: the US presidential elections.

In the wake of 8 November, many educators have been re-evaluating the content of their teaching, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Some people have despaired about the value of teaching at all in this climate. MacSweeney’s posted a grading rubric that reflects the logic of the presidential debates. Many of my fellow PhD students and academics have voiced their sense of helplessness, while also sharing the unpleasant realisation that their research—on monsters, on neoliberalism, on class, race, and gender—is now even more relevant and urgent. And indeed, the appeal to popular culture metaphors in the wake of the election has been overwhelming. References to Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesThe Walking Dead or The Purge, are seemingly everywhere.

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While this is potentially a good sign for humanities teachers, it has its dangers and drawbacks as well. In particular, we must be careful that this turn to popular culture does not placate us into a false sense of familiarity, and stop us from taking action against the very real threat to the safety of the very real people around us. The rhetoric behind this election was monstrous, Trumpism is monstrous, and we must take great care not to normalise this monstrosity by comparing it too closely to the fantastical monsters running rampant on our screens.

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As Jacob Silverman pointedly wrote earlier this week, in an article you should really read in its entirety:

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.

Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?

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A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.

I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.

Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:

The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

Film and television scholar Dan Hassler-Forest has put together a five-part viewing list that ‘might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying’. This one is heavy on popular culture. Part one focuses on ‘Populism and Politics’, part two on ‘Commercializing Media’, part three on ‘Popular Fascism’, part four on ‘Racism’, and part five on ‘(Un)civil Society’. Spoiler Alert: The LEGO™ Movie makes an appearance in part two:

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.

[EDIT: #TeachingTheDisaster has since been updated with even more resources, including syllabi on the Welfare Reform movement, Standing Rock, and a number of other conflicts.

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:

This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

This philosophy-oriented discussion group on DailyNous.com has been taking curriculum subject by subject, allowing members to share and suggest resources for that particular approach. The first session focused on epistemology, but threads on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, critical reasoning / informal logic, and language have since been launched.

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:

The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.

The Zinn Education Project’s ‘Teaching After the Election of Trump’

This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:

Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.

Our Zombies, Ourselves: A Lecture with J. Halberstam

Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.
Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.

At guest lectures I usually come prepared to fully understand about half of the references made, and get excited about one or two particular sound bytes. Not so at Jack Halberstam’s lecture on Zombie Humanism at the End of the World (originally titled ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves: Queerness at the End of Time’), kindly hosted by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Halberstam’s talk on zombie humanism and biopolitics is right in the same theoretical zone as my own PhD work on monster mashups, and her walk through wildness, pets, mess, and bare life left me sagely (and embarrassingly) nodding in agreement for the better part of an hour. I’m most familiar with Halberstam’s early work Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), which takes a look at the social issues that accompany portrayals of monsters from the nineteenth century to the present. ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ presented these issues in a new jacket.

The lecture started with some of the work Halberstam is currently doing on ‘wildness’ as a theoretical concept. Wildness is a word with a lot of connotations in our culture, and can potentially be appropriated for anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-humanist ends. Wildness isn’t part of the mainstream, but is still a part of our environment and our society. It’s a place we’ve categorised as un-categorisable. A place where ideas about what’s ‘normal’ or ‘civilised’ go to die. This makes it an ideal framework for thinking about queerness, and about zombies.

In Halberstam’s conception of zombie humanism, zombies represent everyone relegated to the role of the ‘living dead’ in our society: people we’ve ‘rescued’ from death, but who only matter in that they make us feel good about that ‘human’ act of charity. Zombie humanism serves to make us more human and everything else less so, and who the ‘us’ and ‘we’ are in this scenario may not be the groups you expected. Zombies are everywhere.

You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven't seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.
You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven’t seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.

The first category of the ‘living dead’ Halberstam brought up in her talk was household pets – cats, dogs, goldfish, and any other animal we may ‘rescue’ from the category of food. Because no guest lecture in the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) is complete without a reference to Monty Python, she led with the infamous parrot sketch, offering the highly tweetable statement that ‘all pets are dead parrots’. The humour in the sketch lies mainly in the stereotypical dishonesty of shopkeepers (the object could just as easily have been a boat that didn’t actually float, for example), but the irrelevance of a pet’s physical or emotional state as an object is also a factor in this joke. Why couldn’t you have a dead parrot as a pet? What makes a live parrot better, really? We take care of our pets largely without considering whether they enjoy or appreciate what we are doing. We draw arbitrary boundaries (‘Nip, don’t bite’), preferring to overlook the fact that a pet’s whole existence, like that of livestock or other ‘edible’ animals, is primarily for the benefit of humans.

Frankenweenie, everyone's favourite zombie pet.
Frankenweenie, everyone’s favourite zombie pet.

The pet discussion sparked some controversy with the more aggressively progressive pet owners in the audience, and came up quite a bit during the Q&A at the end (‘But I’m a vegan’ and ‘I don’t tell people I have cats, I say I live with two cats’), but for me the super-anthropomorphising of pets among wealthy owners only complicates this issue further. It reminds me eerily of a recent trip to South Africa, where a vineyard owner was all-too-eager to tell me how they take care of ‘their blacks’ in the aftermath of apartheid. While I realise this is an extreme comparison to make, it also seems strange to me that we are often so unwilling to even think that we might be treating the animals that live with us in a demeaning or inappropriate way. This idea of the pet as a zombie is partly a response to Donna Haraway’s humanisation of the pet as a companion species (see The Companion Species Manifesto and Lively Capital in particular), it fills in some of the theoretical gaps in the ways we typically think about our ‘furry friends’.

The category of ‘living dead’ isn’t only reserved for animals. Prisoners, refugees, the poor: all categories of people we regularly argue we are ‘helping’ while simultaneously denying them humanity/personhood. While we’re on the topic of race, Halberstam offered a fun illustration from AMC’s The Walking Dead on the ease with which non-white subjects become ‘zombies’ – in both the metaphorical and the literal sense. Human characters die all the time on the show, but never quite in the numbers they do when the predominantly white band of survivors (led by cowboy-archetype Rick) encounters a prison full of predominantly non-white inmates.

Guess how long these guys lived.
Guess how long these guys lived.

For Halberstam, the US zombie is a racialised frontier metaphor: cowboys versus Indians. This also reflects US attitudes towards the socially undead ‘zombie other’. Things are quite different in UK-produced zombie media, for example, and here Halberstam made a reference to my favourite zombie series, In the Flesh. In this series, rather than putting down the zombie uprising through extermination, the Brits turn to a different kind of domination: rehabilitation. Sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are given a kit that includes anti-rage meds, special contact lenses, and makeup to mimic living flesh, and are returned to their ‘natural’ environments. Here they are naturally shunned, abused, and sometimes even killed by the angry and frightened survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

zombie-post-series-boxxThe attitudes towards zombies in popular culture again reflect widespread attitudes towards the dehumanised other in our society. We paint pictures of children and adults who are mindless, self-absorbed consumers and a burden on the economy. We rehabilitate those who don’t fit our idea of the normal. We fight wars against foreign terrorist groups, put criminals into prisons and the elderly into nursing homes.  The debate here is not necessarily whether or not these people should be rehabilitated, but rather that the way we go about it is fundamentally dehumanising for the objects of these efforts. Really, though we rarely think about it, our gestures of rehabilitation are designed to make us feel more human, and transform the recipients of that unsolicited help into people who, while they may still technically be alive, have been stripped of the agency that would imbue that life with meaning.

Bookending her discussion on wildness, Halberstam also brought the concept of ‘mess’ to bear on her analysis of zombie humanism, particularly as it relates to queerness. Citing studies by queer theorists Martin Manalansan and José Muñoz, which both seek newer and more humanising ways of looking at queer lives and spaces, Halberstam explored the use of mess as both an aesthetic and a theoretical approach. In the Western world we love order, and we love binaries – especially in academia. But if we can learn to embrace mess and chaos (whatever such an approach might look like in practice), we may discover a different but equally valid system of categorisation. At the very least we will be opening ourselves to new and much-needed perspectives. This approach will be vital if we ever want to ‘kill’ zombie humanism once and for all.

'I know exactly where everything is.'
‘I know exactly where everything is.’

These theories all form part of Halberstam’s current work on fascism and (homo)sexuality. All in all it was a very interesting evening, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Halberstam’s future work in this area. You can find a link to the original seminar description at organiser Paul Bowman’s academia.edu page.

I even got up the courage to ask a question at the end.