WGS 498/ GSJ 598 Cultural Memory and Social Justice
M/W 18:00 to 20:50
The course will introduce students to the vast field of cultural memory studies and its literatures. Students have the opportunity to work with specific case studies of violent traumatic pasts (usually cases of mass violence such as the Holocaust, Settler Colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, violence against women and queers etc.) to analyse how these pasts are transmitted and negotiated in the present and for the future. A focus will be on the various technologies of memory and commemoration (museums, monuments, days of remembrance, but also possibly film, literature, tourism etc.). A guiding question is how the difficult knowledge of state-sponsored or tolerated mass violence configures contemporary struggles for social justice.
Teaching is not just about the transmission of knowledge and that learning does not just happen because students are exposed to interesting ideas, good facts, enticing curricula, or inspiring teachers. Instead, I have come to respect that teaching and learning are complex processes that demand a lot from both students and teachers. This is particularly the case when teaching is committed to affecting social change and social justice. In this context we ask of students not just to learn about something but also to learn from the material studied. Deborah Britzman (1998) offers a lucid explanation of the difference between these two modes of learning when she writes:
"Whereas learning about an event or experience focuses upon the acquisition of qualities, attributes, and facts, so that it presupposes a distance (or, one might even say, a detachment) between learner and what is being learned, learning from an event or experience is of a different order, that of insight … Learning from requires the learner’s attachment to, and implication in, knowledge." (119)
Thus in the classroom we are always engaged in at least two learning modes. One concerns the encounter with new knowledges, information, and ideas at the level of comprehension. This learning is important: students need learn critical concepts and theories as tools that can help to rethink the world more critically and complexly. Fostering a critical cultural and theoretical literacy, however, requires something else that exceeds comprehension: Learning from requires that students begin to understand their own implication in the material studied.
This second learning mode is very exciting and challenging at the same time. It is exciting for both students and teachers because this is where we make the connection between the knowledges of the course and our own lives. If things work well, the encounter with new ideas and knowledges can feel like what bell hooks (2000: 28) describes as a “liberatory practice,” where new ideas help us “to make sense out of what [is] happening. [And we can] imagine possible futures, a place where life [can] be lived differently.”
The encounter with new ideas, however, can be very difficult. Particularly when the material asks us to reconsider cherished beliefs central to our own sense of self. Given the kinds of counter-knowledges that fields committed to social justice teach, students frequently find ideas not only unfamiliar and intellectually difficult, but, at times, new ideas may also feel like a criticism of their own views or of themselves. Indeed, encounters with new ideas can feel intrusive, punishing, and, even oppressive. Students may experience their encounter with new ideas as a crisis, as conflict, and confusion, accompanied by profound feelings of loss or unbearable uncertainty. These feelings can make it very difficult for students to consider, let alone attach to new ideas and to make them their own. These kinds of feelings also seem to contradict the popular promise that “knowledge is power” or that learning is empowering.
My task as a teacher involves working with students through the crises that new ideas might produce. My job is to work with them to create what Shoshana Felman famously has described as creating “a new condition of knowledge, the creation of an original learning disposition,” in which encounters with knowledge and an exploration of their implications become possible.
Part of this working through means that I as the teacher do not assume that the material is just information with stable meanings, which are the same for all students. Instead, my teaching is interested in how all of us in the class make sense of the material. I am particularly interested in the kinds of different interpretations and attachments to knowledge that we together and individually produce in the process. I encourage my students to make these different interpretations the site of their investigation, for example, by exploring the relationship between our social identities, the kinds of interpretations we produce, and the knowledges to which we attach or not. I want my students to become interested not only in how our interpretations are shaped by our social identities but also in how our interpretations make and exceed identities. Interpretations do not neatly follow from identities nor are they separate from them.
By making different engagements with ideas the site of class discussions, we can begin to understand how we are very differently implicated and, at times, refuse implication. By making the various interpretations of class members part of the teaching material, I want students to come away from my classes with the sense that their lives and the lives of others have become more interesting to them. Thus, my teaching is interested not only in what and how I teach, but also in what my students understand and, particularly, in that which makes their understanding difficult.
Britzman, Deborah P. 1998. Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. Albany: SUNY Press.
Felman, Shoshana. 1987. Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable. In Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, 69-98. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
hooks, bell 2000. Theory as Liberatory Practice (1994). Reprinted in Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (eds.), Feminist Theory: A Reader, 28-33. Mountain View CA: Mayfield Publishing.