When Your Curriculum Has Been Tumblrized

I teach three core courses: an undergraduate seminar in race, a graduate seminar in race, and a graduate seminar in digital sociology. This post is about my experience teaching the first.

My academic training is in political economies and inequalities. My intellectual training has always emerged from and been filtered through an intersectional framework. That’s how I end up teaching sociology of race through institutions, intersectionality and power relations. Boom-bap-zip.

I also use the Internet. I use the Internet a lot. I don’t think the Internet is evil. I think power and people are pretty gross but redeemable. The Internet mostly magnifies and reconstitutes the ways we are powerful, gross and redeemable.

I do not hate social networking sites. I gravitate towards text-based platforms (blogging, both macro and micro) as opposed to visual (memes and such). That’s about my skill set and not elitism.

I have used most platforms because I like to know what’s out there.

This is coming together in a moment…

In teaching race to undergraduates I immediately noticed a style and language that reminded me of tumblr. My friend Jade Davis likes to say that tumblr isn’t really social networking and that it is really more like a digital ‘zine, freewheeling digital re-mixing culture codified in a social networking architecture. I would add that tumblr seems to attract younger users who are drawn to counter-culture discourses.

You can think of the tumblr style as loosely bound thematic concepts about complex ways of knowing (see: the -ologies) with an emphasis on social cohesion within ideological groups. The language of race, racism, gender, sexuality and inequality is very sophiScreen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.04.38 PM.pngsticated on tumblr. That language often draws on academic concepts (some niche, many mainstream). There is less emphasis on intellectual traditions in this discourse. The terms float like loose teeth on an old comb with great spaces between them from use.

For example, students are very comfortable talking about “oppressions”, “intersections”, and the macks of them all, “privilege and microaggressions”. Those are all core sociological concepts. I teach them. You have to learn them if you are going to say that you successfully learned anything about contemporary U.S. sociology.

But, we often use those terms in sociology (and speaking specifically here of sociology of race in the U.S.) a bit differently than are developed on tumblr (using that as the exemplar of a style of platform architecture and type of discourse). For example, the term “microaggression” has a history in a debate about the level of analyses that define institutional racism from interpersonal prejudices. I understand part of my job as teaching
the spine that holds those teeth together on the comb.

The tumblrization of these concepts presents an interesting challenge in an undergraduate classroom. On the one hand, hallelujah at learners caring about big ideas! On the other hand, sometimes those ideas are disjointed in ways that can make it hard to assess if students know anything about the concepts or just know how to use them for social membership.

I have taken to sending some terms on vacation in my class (e.g. privilege) and pulling others out of retirement to play first string for a bit (e.g. power). I ask students to consider these other terms as ways to explain their ideas and ways of knowing for twelve to thirteen weeks before we revisit the more popular words.

There is some resistance at first. The biggest challenge so far has been confusion when I may not give the right amount of credit or praise for using words that I think students have intuited as being “right” and laudable. But, by the middle of the semester students tend to be taking more risks with new ideas and readings. And, by the end when I do throw the gates back open to talk about privilege, oppression and microaggressions students tend to use them much less often than they did at the start. I hope that is because they’ve developed a tool-kit with more scalpels than hammers.

10 thoughts on “When Your Curriculum Has Been Tumblrized

  1. “I have taken to sending some terms on vacation in my class (e.g. privilege)”….

    Now, if only someone could send the term “deconstruction” (and its homological variants) on vacation until folks could take the time to familiarize they-selfs with its academic referential-ities before placing it back into popular use.

    Amirite, people?

  2. I admire the surgical skill you use to trim away the bullshit and proceed to exposing damaged roots of society’s ills.

  3. I believe this is not just your undergraduates. These tendencies to use the terms du jour without necessarily understanding their full and deeper meanings have become widespread practice. Sounding smart and educated has gained new appeal in the rise of text based social media, including commenting in the news media, for trolls as well as for well-meaning contributors. I like the idea of sending some terms on vacation. That might make a fine Twitter chat challenge.

    1. Ha yes Sherri! I think Twitter thrives on terminology! Imagine an exercise where we remove certain words

      Reminds me of a Food Network show called Guy’s Grocery Games with a challenge called “uingredients” where u create eg Lasagna WITHOUT minced beef, lasagna pasta, tomatoes or a certain kind of cheese…and to solve it you have to discover the “essence” of a dish in order to reimagine it creatively. Hmmm now thinking of ways of doing this in my teaching. Not exactly the same way Tressie did but similar. Thanks for the inspiration, both.

  4. This was really interesting for me to read because when I finished my PhD (in which I read/wrote a lot about power and NEVER heard of the term microaggression) and started blogging, I kind of liked finding those new terms like microaggression and privilege. I didn’t in my mind make the (dis)connection between how mainstream/academic different terms are and therefore how (in)accurately one can use them. My mind is now whirring with all that’s lost when we don’t discuss power head on, with all its complexities. Feeling a little out of my depth all of a sudden, but grateful for this post. And wondering how far my own teaching pushes students outside their comfort zones in supportive ways

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