Antiracist Pedagogies in Literary Studies

Antiracist Pedagogies in Literary Studies, Zoom workshop
Event date: September 18, 2020

With Professors Alicia Christoff, Brigitte Fielder, and Eugenia Zuroski

From Colloquium Co-organizers Diana Newby & Ami Yoon: A Note about the Event

When we co-founded the Columbia English Department’s new Pedagogy Colloquium, we believed it was absolutely necessary that we dedicate our inaugural event to racial justice and antiracism, both in and beyond the classroom. The recent murders of Black persons by police participate in a long history of state-sanctioned violence against communities of color in the United States. There is also a long history of BIPOC activism and scholarship dedicated to exposing and dismantling this violence across institutions, including in the academy.

Some of this activism and scholarship has been produced by groups both within and adjacent to our English department—including the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and the Institute for Research in African American Studiesand by faculty and graduate students whose work has always foregrounded race and racial justice. Our goal in organizing this event was to situate our conversation in relation to such ongoing efforts to develop and propagate not only academic discourses but real, lived practices of racial justice and antiracism in the institutional space that we all help to make.

When we invited our speakers to participate in this event, we suggested that they share with our audience three specific, actionable, and transferable teaching strategies that they have used in their own classrooms to enact antiracist pedagogical principles. With this ask, we were drawing on the frameworks of scholars such as Rasha Diab, Thomas Ferrel, Beth Godbee, and Neil Simpkins, who write in “Making Commitments to Racial Justice Actionable”:

A great deal of self-work is required on the journey of growth from articulating a commitment to racial justice to making that commitment actionable and sustainable. … Thinking dialectically, we understand self-work is done alongside work-with-others, which moves us toward institutional change. In making our commitments actionable, then, we suggest the need to work in complementary personal, interpersonal, and institutional domains. Cultivating a willingness to engage and articulate one’s commitment can help us understand how to effect institutional change toward racial justice.

Our event was intended as one instance of this requisite “work-with-others,” in hopes that our dialogue might help to “move us toward institutional change.” At the same time, since cultivating an antiracist teaching practice is not a matter of attending a single workshop, or of incorporating a few strategies into the teaching toolkit, we recognize and affirm what many BIPOC scholars have pointed out: antiracist pedagogy requires many years of reading, writing, reflection, and practice.

Further, we recognize and affirm that antiracist pedagogy alone will not undo the structures of racism both within and beyond the academy. As Saidiya Hartman put it in an interview with Artforum this past summer:

The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.

Given that the magnitude of the project of abolition encompasses far more than the classroom space, or even the space of the academy, we hope to occupy a productively uneasy space between two realities: the importance of actively practicing antiracism in our individual classrooms, and the practical insufficiency of pedagogy—or, the necessity of grounding our teaching practices in larger efforts toward a total “remaking of the social order” as it currently stands.

Below is a recapitulation of the workshop proceedings, following the order of the event. Some content has been edited or redacted for clarity and length.

From Professor Alicia Christoff (Amherst College): 3 Strategies from “Decolonial Love”

“Decolonial Love” is a course I teach as an undergraduate seminar (weekly three-hour class meetings), on contemporary multi-ethnic American literature and on postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial theory. The course interrogates how structures of racism and colonialism shape all scales of experience, from the geopolitical to the personal; it includes a variety of literary texts, both poetry and prose, such as Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Specific texts vary with each course iteration, but all share the fundamental interrogation of the term “decolonial love”: is it a possibility? What are its possibilities?

The course always begins with a foundational WOC collection edited by Anzaldúa and Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back, for setting the terms of course practices: building community, engaging across difference, bringing selves into the classroom space as fuller selves. This multi-genre collection offers many riches—Audre Lorde’s “Master’s Tools,” which I supplement with her “Uses of the Erotic,” and the Combahee River Collective Statement. Since antiracism means reimagining some of the fundamental structures that we’ve inherited, it involves rethinking authority, community, and also writing—why we write, for or to whom we are writing:

How can some of the stifling and familiar protocols of academic discourse be dislodged? How do we learn not to discount our personal experiences but trust them as analytical tools? How do we learn to respect difference and build coalitions across it for a common cause? And how do we learn to acknowledge and trust ourselves as women of color, to acknowledge that it is within ourselves that authority lies?

The course treats joy and longing, too, seriously as analytics. The composition of the course means that it is a joy to teach.

Writing assignments are therefore designed with community building and the politics of citation in mind, for thinking with students about how authority is replicated, whose work is counted canonical or authoritative, and whose is not. This builds relational practice in the classroom. Three strategies work toward this:

  1. Bringing in guest speakers who are experts in lateral fields and women of color: This introduces students to the WOC collectives whose work is sustaining both academically and personally—whose work makes my work possible and make my life livable as an academic. It allows opportunities for sharing experiences of working together and for the speakers to share their expertise. Visitors from previous course sections included Yomaira Figueroa (Michigan State University) and Anjuli Raza Kolb (University of Toronto).
  2. Developing writing assignments that allow for a range of possibilities, including personal and analytical writing: This can snap students out of the idea of a “neutral universal” writing voice. Writing assignments are varied, and weekly responses can be a low-stakes way of giving a place for experimentation, expression, and choice. Students are encouraged to think about why they’re writing, whom they’re writing for, and who they are writing as.
    • Example (first response paper prompt):
      For your short response papers this week, I’d like you to focus on Audre Lorde’s short and powerful essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” You always have the option in these papers of choosing a passage, doing close analysis, and using that work to raise questions for conversation and discussion. I will also always offer a more pointed question/prompt to respond to. Either option you choose, I imagine most response papers will be about one single-spaced page long—but there’s flexibility on this. So here’s the more specific prompt for this week. If you choose it, you should still draw from the text in framing your response, and work to define the basics of what Audre Lorde means by “the erotic.” However, this option allows for a more creative or speculative response, taking the ideas of the essay into the contexts that you personally inhabit:
      What would Audre Lorde’s “use of the erotic as power” look like in (choose one):
      1) some aspect of the culture of Amherst College? (sociality, sexuality, classroom or wider experience)
      2) another area of your lived experience, or in another cultural or subcultural space you inhabit?
      I’m trying to ask: how would some of these spaces and their social practices change if we really took Lorde’s ideas seriously? If we really let ourselves live in and through the erotic as Lorde understands it? Eager to hear what you think—consider this a first experiment in what Muñoz calls for: an aesthetic practice that calls new futures into being … what do we long for?
  3. Students responding to each other’s responses or final portfolio/project: These can be subsequently read aloud together in the final class session, as a celebration of work done together. It accentuates the importance of dismantling certain myths of authority, including (or especially) the tendency to turn to white men as the authority, by showing students that we work with others—in writing groups, for example—and inviting them to take up these practices themselves to find community in/for their work. Students can write as if they are writing an introduction to a poetry collection. A good model that is also a class reading is Carina del Valle Schorske’s essay on the poems of Mara Pastor in The Common, and students can think about questions such as: what is it like to encounter this work? what are the characteristic questions or gestures of thought? what have you learned from this writer? what are your favorite moments? what do you want to hold out to us for appreciation, recognition, celebration, further examination?


From Professor Brigitte Fielder (UW-Madison): The Promise of Antiracism in Teaching

Transparent discussions about our pedagogy and about antiracism are crucial. Discussions like these have been conspicuously absent from most of the pedagogical training we have received as academics, or they have often depended on what is not spoken: on what language not to use, rather than how to speak about racism. My specific approaches have to do with this articulation:

The language we use matters, and it’s through this language that we often unknowingly articulate our ideas about race.

While these approaches may seem simple in theory, they are difficult in practice. Talking about language practices urges us to teach students how to think and talk about race and racism both in everyday conversations as well as in academic settings. Some strategies for enabling this:

  1. Stop using euphemisms for racism: This elision is built into our institutions, even in the ways that faculty members are punished for speaking about racism, and it often manifests as gaslighting. If antiracism is an active opposition to racism, it is more effective when it is visible and transparent to students. Using words like “racist” and “racism” is key, and should not be so easily interchangeable with “racial” or “race.” Attention to language can serve as a form of corrective! Be accurate and clear about the problem—refuse to use vague or neutral terms about harmful things. This frequently takes the form of the passive voice in practice. People tend very carefully to use the passive voice to cover up or avoid naming racism. Being active in your language gives a more accurate picture that acknowledges nonwhite perspectives, that doesn’t mask whiteness.
  2. Stop prioritizing whiteness as a default position: This feeds the pretense of colorblind pedagogy, asking us to ignore the physical bodies of the people in front of us, as well as the bodies we inhabit. Even faculty of color are expected and at times urged to prioritize white students at the expense of our other students—but students of color understand that white students are being prioritized at their expense. In an example from my pedagogical training, a white tenured male professor told me to “put aside” issues of race and racism when discussing more “universal” pedagogical topics. This is a common experience in my pedagogical training. But putting aside issues of race and racism when teaching any topic is impossible and irresponsible. Many of our institutions actively mask whiteness as universality and thus contribute to the perpetuation of racism by not naming and calling out whiteness. For an easy example of how we can refuse to allow whiteness to stand as a default construction, stop using phrases like “women and people of color” when what’s meant is “white women and people of color.” Such phrases appear often in “statements” released by institutions, and the word “people” persists in standing for a number of racist positions.
  3. Don’t use history as an alibi for racism: This is much easier to do when we don’t center white authors in our course texts. I warn students against simply absolving racism in the past by pointing to the nonuniversality of racist claims. History is not an alibi for racism. I have this conversation every semester. Usually a student will make an argument like “People were racist back then; it would be wrong to judge them by present standards,” and it is important to pause the conversion and unpack the assumptions underlying such claims. As an instructor of color, when I have these conversations, nonwhite students will thank me afterward about how I handled this conversation and will describe how they have seen such a conversation in other classrooms, but with instructors who did not intervene. In those cases, students leave feeling degraded, helpless, unheard, and aware that white classmates are again being prioritized. We need to take a stand in these moments. Although in other situations, we might want to allow students to work out for themselves the right answer and come up with their own resolutions, we need to take the stance of refusing to prioritize white students at others’ expense. We need to take on that intellectual and emotional labor ourselves. We need to be signaling to our students that these are deliberate moves we are making in our teaching and in our language.


From Professor Eugenia Zuroski (McMaster University): “Where do you know from?”

I am a proud graduate of Columbia College, class of ’98, and until I arrived at Columbia in the fall of 1994, I’d never even heard the term “Asian American.” I grew up knowing I’m Chinese, Italian, Polish, and had a strong sense of family heritage, but I did not have a politicized sense of my identity, which is what the category of “Asian American” is. At Columbia I took a class on Asian American literature, which is when that phrase became meaningful to me and how I think about my place in the world. I am a product of antiracist pedagogy, and the things I will share are part of a life- and career-long process of grappling with unresolvable but perpetually urgent questions. The three things I want to mention might rise to the status of a technique, taken together:

  1. Asking “Where do you know from?”: This is an exercise that provides a series of prompts for students to introduce themselves not in terms of who they are or where they are from, but where they know from, where their knowledge is situated. The exercise was inspired by a comment I heard at a summit hosted by the University of Toronto on mentoring Indigenous graduate students—Minelle Mahtani described a tip from Katherine McKittrick that moves away from identity-based ways of presenting ourselves and foregrounds multiple epistemologies or pathways coming together in spaces of learning. The exercise rose out of a context that was about the ongoing practice of epistemicide in academia:

    “Where do you know from” is not a liberal exercise for celebrating diversity in the classroom, but a strategy for making space for sites and pathways of knowledge that have been systematically erased and disavowed by Euro-western universities and colleges—a history of erasure that is inextricable from genocide.

    It is more than “exclusion,” which is what the language of “diversity” and “inclusion” seeks to correct. These are educational systems specifically designed to eradicate Indigenous lifeways and epistemologies.

    “Where do you know from?” is therefore a technique for recognizing that every person in the classroom brings—legitimate!—ways of knowing with them already. It is a refusal of the Lockean model of the student as a blank slate, which in itself is a violent euphemism for the eradication of communal and alternative ways of knowing. To gather, then, “where we know from” is a technique for recognizing that learning will be collective and not an abstract exercise of disembodied ideas. It emphasizes thinking together nonviolently, and that a part of the process of learning together is learning how to negotiate one another as intellectual agents and sites of knowing.

  2. Setting, as the goal of antiracist teaching, the goal of sparking joy for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students: For me, the goal of antiracist teaching is not to trouble white students—although this happens, and that’s fine. This is essentially related to what Brigitte was saying about decentering whiteness. Western academic spaces were not created for BIPOC people; despite occasional success stories, there is no institutional history of racialized knowledge communities flourishing in the academy. Consequently, BIPOC students have learned not to expect that they will experience care, community, or joy in the classroom. This is not cynicism so much as a form of knowledge: it is something the students have learned through repeated, relentless experience. So, when I teach (eighteenth-century British literature), it is less important to me that students master a specific set of critical terms than that every single one of them be given opportunities to find joy in the texts that I have asked them to read. This requires some clearing space and dismantling assumptions about how texts have previously been read and used. But such reckonings are needed to make space for pleasure, for the learning to breed life into students rather than leeching it out of them. We might ask students what “sparks joy” for them, and use their answers as guidelines to frame the course material in ways that make the material and joy accessible to them.
  3. Recognizing that pedagogy alone is not enough: Active solidarity has to be demonstrated outside of teaching, for outside structures condition students’ ability to learn and be joyful. The classroom can and should be a key site of practicing antiracism, but it remains a space situated within the racist structure of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. This is the material fact of the university as we know it. BIPOC students immediately recognize the difference between well-intentioned and effective teaching, and active solidarity. The latter is what they need and want. Are you seeing your students as full people? Seeing the outside structures conditioning their ability to learn and learn joyfully? What are you doing to cultivate those conditions for them? I remember when I was a student at Columbia, participating in the Ethnic Studies protests, and I remember the professors who participated alongside the students; I also remember when Jean Howard moved our classes off-campus as an act of solidarity. These kinds of acts are meaningful and carry into the classroom by informing our relationship to our students. Students need our solidarity because they need those changes, and we need to support their actions toward justice and liberation by advocating for students in the terms that they have set.


From the speakers’ responses and the Q&A:

BF: One through-line of our shared practices is the importance of thinking about community and solidarity in academic conversations. Built into some of these conversations is the tendency toward individualism and a pretense about how academic work “works.” I ask students about who is cited, who is in literal conversation and solidarity with one another. You also have to talk about people’s races—there is no way around that, although many people don’t do it or don’t want to do it. These conversations are not comfortable because no one teaches us how to have them. But that has to be a part of our pedagogical practice and mentorship, although it is not something I have seen formalized in any way. It comes in side conversations, our water cooler talk.

AC: It is also a pretense that our academic fields are so separate. The uneasy conversations need to be staged; they are problems we need to encounter.

EZ: Thinking about the classroom as a space where students need to learn to speak to one another, to be oriented to one another, rather than the professor as the center of authority, is fundamental to the kind of teaching we are talking about. It is absolutely a practice of community building. I have also been thinking about this in my capacity as a journal editor, regarding the practice of single-authored scholarship—we all know that research doesn’t actually happen in a vacuum of individuality.

BF: It is also important to take seriously the conversations that are happening outside of academic spaces. How do we think about public-facing writing and social media in relation to undisciplining? If you want to understand interdisciplinarity and undisciplining, looking to Twitter and not just the gatekeeping journals is a good way. And teach students, too, to break down academic/nonacademic firewalls—as if those worlds don’t always bleed into each other!

Q: How can the classroom space be used for co-authorship and collaboration, to make it into a more democratic space, with student assignments?

  • BF: Group work! I once hated group work, but as I started to get into collaborative writing with other people, I started assigning group projects in all of my undergraduate classes—for example, with archival research. It has allowed me to give even introductory classes a complex assignment that four students can handle, which would have been too much for one student. In these group projects, I have taken to not telling them how to divide up the labor: I tell them what the end product should be, and then I collect from them a narrative of what they did, how they decided to divide things up. I assign groups randomly. Usually, a group of students who are individually all excellent students may not necessarily end up being the group that does the best; groups do well when they figure out how to play to each member’s strengths.
  • AC: I have been experimenting with co-authored papers. You could ask students to co-write an essay—writing a final project together, paragraph by paragraph. In lieu of a final paper, the assignment can be to write one paragraph per day in a set order (Writer 1 to Writer 2 to Writer 3). This can be time-saving for the students as well, and frees them up to think, analyze, and ask big and difficult questions instead of trying to perform intelligence. They had a “let’s work things out together” attitude, of building something together; it was more about the process than the product, although the products were also great. Students loved it. I have done this in all levels of classes.
  • EZ: A big problem revolves around grading. It is difficult to do the kind of pedagogical work we’re describing when grading is one of those violent structures bred by the institution as a pressure on students. Being an easy grader can lift the competitive framework of the neoliberal university.

Q: Regarding the “Where do you know from?” exercise, do you, the instructor, model or scaffold the exercise for the students?

  • EZ: The exercise is a series of guidelines, and I do explicitly tell students that they aren’t compelled to answer all of the questions, that it is just a prompt for generating ideas. I used to model it first, but then students would take up my model; now I let them figure it out on their own, and that goes better. Sometimes they are concerned with whether they were “doing it right,” but where we landed was a place where there were so many questions in the air about the exercise’s purpose, what it was supposed to do—then the collective exercise really started to operate meaningfully, as we discussed what it means to recognize different paths of knowledge arriving together. Students respond particularly positively to the last question of the exercise: “Is there anything you’ve already said that you want people to keep in mind when they’re in conversation with you?”

Q: How do you attend to student anxieties about what they think they should be prioritizing (texts, conversations, epistemologies)?

  • BF: I try to tell my students to think about their education as an amalgam, and my class as just one piece that doesn’t have to do every single thing or give them the foundations of a canon.
  • EZ: In my MA Core class, I try to fill my syllabus with more BIPOC writers and fewer white, canonical authors. Students come in with preconditioned hierarchies of epistemology, and one way this gets reproduced in classroom conversations is through casual name-dropping of things, as if everyone in the room who should be in the room already knows what that is, why it matters, and why it’s contextually relevant. From the beginning, I make clear that we’re inevitably going to bring references in our toolkit that not everyone will know, for helping to cultivate a better sense of equality in the classroom.
  • BF: Having graduate students think and talk about what writers they think they should know and why is great, especially if you have students from different fields or departments. I also talk to graduate students in theory courses about the theory classes I’ve taken and why I’m not teaching a replica of those courses.
  • AC: I’ve encountered this question or anxiety very little from students, but it seems like an excellent opportunity for interrogating how canons were and are built, and further troubling the individualist pretense.

Looking ahead, our colloquium anticipates continuing the conversation begun with our speakers during this session with a complementary event in spring 2021 on antiracist practices for Writing Studies. Please keep an eye out for more information and dialogue to follow!

Consulted & Further Readings

Author profile

Ami is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, specializing in American literature. Her research sits at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature, history of science, and environmental studies, with a particular focus on poetry and poetics. A current Lead Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching & Learning, she has taught classes in Columbia's undergraduate college as well as in its School of Professional Studies.

Author profile

Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.

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