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 sophisticated 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.