I have been experimenting with an approach to grading and feedback that I haven’t seen many other teachers doing, and a couple of people have asked for me to write it down. In the below I’m going to explain the “menu of options” approach I’m now using, and also say a bit about using pass/no pass assignments in the context of still assigning grades to a class as a whole. And I’ll share the way I talk about this in my current syllabi.
I’ve been writing about grades as a hinge point in the epistemic extractivism of higher education, but I’ll try to not veer off into the theoretical underpinnings of why I think this matters. I’ll just say that in my experience people hate being graded, people hate grading, and grading is the point at which really painful things like plagiarism and disciplinary proceedings proliferate. Grading is the thing that brings out the parts of my role as a teacher that I hate most – acting like a cop or the functionary of an empty credentialing system, forcing people to do useless work that then becomes further useless work for me. But responding to students, hearing what they’re thinking about and what they’re into, helping them figure out things they didn’t know before, watching them build capacities they didn’t have and become more fully and interestingly themselves – I love these things! These are some really strong antidotes to alienation under the neoliberal edufactory!
Since assessment is a key part of my job, and since I don’t actually think it’s wrong to have points for pausing and reflecting on whether learning is happening, I’ve been working on making assessment schemes that do a few things. I want them to:
- Help me articulate what I’m teaching through getting explicit about how I’d know that students were learning stuff.
- Be an infrastructural bulwark against ableism, racism, classism, and other vectors that punish students for not being rich, white, Christian, and second- or more-generation university students.
- Again infrastructurally start from the fact that people including me have lives that can get weird or have ongoing challenges, and that I don’t want them to have to get doctor’s notes, disability accommodations, or even tell me if their kid or parent is sick or if they’re having a pain flare.
- In the context of Covid, assume that people will very likely need lots of slack time in the term.
- Assume that students are interesting, interested adults who can make their own decisions about what they prioritize in their life and learning and that this is not up to me to manage.
ENTER THE MENU OF OPTIONS
The “menu of options” approach to assessments that I’ve been doing for the past two years in my undrgrad classes has so far worked really well towards these goals, though of course it’s a continual work in progress. It’s like arriving at Subway, Harvey’s, or a poke bowl place: You arrive at the counter and choose what base, substance, and extras you want. In my classes, the base is self-reflections, the substance is “content stuff,” and the extras are a summative project.
Base: 10% of the grade comes from three self-reflections, which ask students to write up what they want to get from the class and how they would know they had done that, a mid-term check in about how that’s going and decision about changing goals, and an end of term backwards look at how it went.
Content engagement: 75% of the grade comes from “are you actually reading stuff, thinking about it, working on learning things the class is teaching you, getting better at articulating what you learned” and so on. What this actually looks like varies, but for example in the third year social movements class that the syllabus excerpt below is taken from the ingredients here can come from short weekly assignments or the take-home exam. The weekly assignments are themselves broken up into “capacity assignments,” “learning from movements,” and “investigating ideas” options, which means there’s three short assignment options each week. Some of these can be done in class if students attend, or always on their own timeframe.
All of these have a firm deadline, and there’re many more of them than they can actually count in their final grade, so if they miss a week, or only want to do the “ideas” assignments, that’s fine. My weekly assignments are just pass/no pass, but you could do this with graded assignments too. The magic parts, I think, are having the revision option, and having many more opportunities for work than they actually need to do well in the class. In this example, there are 120 possible points they can pick from in the “Content Engagement” menu option, but only 75 of those points count toward their final grade. If they do just the reflections and content stuff they can get an A in the class through entirely pass/no pass assignments.
I give them short responsive feedback (often on the level of “really great quote selection here!” or “you might want to read In Defense of Looting if you’re interested in property destruction and social movements”). If they didn’t do a good enough job to meet my minimum standards I tell them what they got wrong or need to work on (“So the question asked you to talk about x, but you didn’t ever do that. What does x tell us about y?”), and they have a week to submit a revision.
I can’t overemphasize how relaxing this is for me. I no longer have to negotiate with students who need an extension, because they can just skip that week with no penalty. Or they can put in an earnest but really crappy attempt and just revise it when it doesn’t pass. But I also can’t explain how much better their work is! I’m used to getting a lot of really stiff writing, often with tons of lifting from Wikipedia. These short pieces end up actually sounding like my students, I see the point of telling them things because they have the chance to revise, and they write much much more than in regular papers. I don’t grade in a defensive posture of knowing they’ll just be looking at the grade and that I’ll have to justify giving them a grade lower than they want.
If they want an A+, or they just like doing longer projects rather than piddly weekly work, they can do a summative project, which is a regular scaffolded writing or creative piece with a proposal, mid-way check in, and final product.
PASS/NO PASS GRADING
For the past ten years, I’ve been experimenting with including responsive rather than primarily evaluative assignments in my classes – that is, assignments where I’m giving students feedback but no grade. One way I’ve done this a lot in previous classes was to have a paper worth, say 20%, and then have a draft option worth 5%. If students did an earnest draft – answering the question, meeting the page minimum, etc, they would automatically get a 5/5 and responsive comments for revision. Then their final version would be marked out of 15 instead of 20, and would receive just a summative comment. Students who didn’t do the draft would simply be marked out of 20, with the usual marginal and summative comments. This worked really well, both as a grade boost and to make substantially better papers that were a pleasure to read.
This approach has evolved into the current menu, where all of the “during the term” work is marked pass/no pass, and only the final take-home and the summative project are conventionally graded. There’s a lot that can be said about this and a ton of really interesting work on ungrading, specifications grading, contract grading, and other approaches to assessment that aren’t just giving a grade. I think that much of this work is right that grades are racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, and just generally a way the existing power hierarchies of the world as it is are mystified and rendered as objective assessments of worth. But I’ve become concerned that approaches like labor-based contracts, where students are graded based only on how much work they put in, also replicate existing structures through rewarding people who have time to put in to the contract. I’m also convinced that it doesn’t work to only have short weekly assignments – many students do better with and prefer a deep-dive push of the kind you get with a big project or take-home exam. But it has worked well to integrate the pass/no pass options into a standard cumulative grade, since I’m still required to give a final grade.
ISN’T THIS SO MUCH WORK?
The main question I get from people about the menu option and about offering revision as part of weekly work is: Isn’t this just way too much work? I will say that I’m a super fast reader and so that reading a lot of written work might feel like less work to me than it does to others. Also I find commenting on written work much more rewarding when I know that it’s heading for revision if it isn’t up to par, so that’s qualitatively more satisfying work for me. Last Winter I had 95 students across three classes (one grad class of 15, one 4th year seminar of 25, and a 3rd year class of 55. I had a TA for my third year class. For that one, I didn’t have the TA mark any of the weekly work, instead using their time to meet with students, work on summative project drafts, and to help with marking the take-home. Only one of the classes was a completely new prep, the other two being just lightly revised syllabi that I’d taught at least once before. It was a lot of teaching work, for sure, but I don’t think that it was more than I would have done with conventional grading, and I liked it better. If you’re considering experimenting with these things, you could try having one pass/no pass assignment on term, and another term try incorporating more of the “menu of options” approach, and just see how it feels.
Again, I no longer: Require attendance or participation, require doctor’s notes for illness or disability, require students to disclose intimate details of their lives to me, or have extensive negotiations for extensions. I just tell people to choose different stuff from the menu – future weeks, or bigger projects. But for both my own workload needs and because I think it’s actually better for students, I do have firm deadlines. If they miss deadlines, there are many many other options for them. Weirdly I have had strong attendance and solid participation since stopping including these in the grades for classes. And the feedback I’ve gotten from students specifically about the flexibility of assessment options – once they figure it out – has been just great.
Here’s how I talk about this in my syllabus.
ASSESSMENT & FINAL GRADES
We will be using a pass/no pass grading approach for most of the assignments in this class, with a “menu of options” scheme.” This means that for everything except the take-home and summative assignment options I will evaluate only whether you have done or not done the assignments or tasks – you will pass or not pass each assignment. I commit to telling you this directly and clearly (so, for example, if you respond to a reading or capacity reflection without sufficient engagement, I will tell you so and give you direction for revision). If you receive a “no pass” on any assignment you are welcome to revise it within one week, as many times as necessary, to bring it to a satisfactory level. I will give you responsive feedback rather than letter grades on the work in progress, and a summative final letter grade based on the work you completed in the course overall. You decide what letter grade you get and do the work required for that grade.
You need to do Part A, and then it’s up to you how much of menu options from parts B & C you want to do.
A (required, up to 10 points/10%): Three self-reflections (P/NP)
• assessing what you want from the class at the start of term (due Sept 19th),
• how it is going at mid-term (due Nov 7th), and
• how it went at end of term (due Dec 5th).
If you do all of these, you’ll receive a 10% in the class, so you should add as many of the other menu options as you need to receive the grade you want
B (up to 75 points/75%): Content engagement. Choose your own adventure from as many of these as you want:
• Weekly capacity assignments (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)
• Weekly investigating ideas summaries (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)
• Weekly learning from movements quizzes/short papers/discussion posts (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each due each Monday at 11:30)
• Final take-home exam (conventionally graded) (thirty points/30% possible, assigned Dec 5th, due Dec 22nd)
C (up to 30 points/30%) Summative project (conventionally graded)
• broken down into 1. A 500 word proposal due Oct 17th 2. Earnest attempt amounting to half the work necessary for the project due Nov 14th 3. Final product or performance due Dec 5th. You must pass each developmental segment (proposal and earnest progress) to turn in a final project. In other words, this is not a project that you can do in a last-minute push. Please see the assignment sheet for more explanation about this!
The basic idea here is to give you the flexibility to choose what engagement with this material will best support your own learning goals and life. If you know that you vastly prefer doing large projects worth a lot of points, and you would like to receive a B- in the course, you could choose to do the take home and the summative project, along with the required reflections, and receive a score of 70, or a grade of B-. If you prefer to do short, manageable weekly work that keeps you engaged with the class in a low-stakes and ongoing way, you could plan to do the self-reflections and complete many of the weekly assignments to receive a score of up to 85% and a grade of A. Or you could do some weekly assignments and one of the longer end of term options. It is up to you. There is no way to receive an A+ without doing some weekly assignments and a summative assignment, however.
All weekly assignments open Monday at 11:30 am and close a week later. These must be in on time to be counted. If you want an extension on weekly assignments, simply turn in an earnest effort – really addressing the prompt at hand by the due date; if I judge it unsatisfactory you’ll have a week to revise. Submitting an assignment that just says “I would like an extension” does not count as an earnest effort – if small weekly work isn’t your jam, that is totally fine! Opt for the take-home and summative project menu choices in that case. Some weekly assignments will involve experiential learning, others will be quiz or short essay based, others will invite discussion.
- (this was an access copy for a conversation about this work, Thursday, May 12, 1 – 2pm EST)
- On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world always in relation with others; Shary Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body. We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.
I want to start by giving a few orienting guiderails for thinking about whiteness, especially in the Canadian context. Whiteness is a social relationship. It is made up, but it really exists and has effects. While there is no biological or physical marker that identifies someone as white, there are many social and political markers that do this.
- Michael Omi and Howard Winant write, “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate” (Omi & Winant, 1994, p. 54). They name the process through which race exists “racial formation.” This is the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Omi & Winant 55).
- So here, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.
Hamburg, 21 April 2022
(this was the access copy for the live version of this talk)
Jesuit priest, pacifist, and anti-nuclear activist Danial Berrigan once gave a famously short convocation speech at a New York high school. He came on stage and said only: “Know where you stand and stand there.” I’m interested in both parts of this instruction, the epistemic and the active. Knowing where we stand is a complex collective endeavor, in which we rely on networks of other people. Standing there is an activity, a form of holding space in the present and shaping the world to come. Knowing where we stand and standing there are achievements in which we express our personal, specific self. And they necessarily involve engaging the whole world, whether that’s in collaboration or opposition.
Part of the reason I come back to the intertwined injunction to know and to do involves Berrigan himself offering it. How can I think about this man, a Catholic priest who seems to have unflinchingly understood the wrongs of his church, remaining a Catholic priest in the face of fellow members of his faith using their position to harm others? Or knowing that the church promulgated “just war” doctrines? Or that it had historically been the motor for genocidal oppression through the church’s role in colonization? Berrigan interests me precisely because of his implication in horrific wrongs, and his formulation of what it means to respond to that implication by refusing to abandon the relationship. I think of my relationship with human-caused global warming, ecosystem damage, and ongoing extinction crises as similar in some way with Berrigan’s relationship with Catholicism – with the difference that there is no priesthood I can renounce as regards climate change.
I live in what is currently Canada. As a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Indigenous law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m implicated, and perhaps complicit.
A couple of people have asked for the actual final copy of this piece – it came out in this great broadsheet published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, available in a pdf in an issue called “Bearing.” I’m revising it for the book I’m working on, but of course that takes forever.
University of Hamburg, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
November 22, 2021
My core argument in this piece is: We should be in solidarity against straightness. I want to be on the side of straight people, against straightness as norm, institution, and system. While my own political orientation remains toward queerness of many sorts, I’ve come to think that my hazy earlier plan, to convince all my suffering straight friends that they should become queer, is both impractical and condescending. And I’ve become interested in the straightening of many non-heterosexual spaces, what my comrade Gary Kinsman is theorising as the “neoliberal queer”. In a moment when many young people no longer think of themselves as straight, where there is a certain proliferation of queer orientations, of ace sexualities and nonbinary genders, it is tempting to think that heteronormativity is dying a quiet death offstage. But, alongside these proliferations, straightness as a social relation of oppression and benefit weaves its way through our lives, a coproduction of eugenics, medicalisation, and neoliberal social structures organized around the monogamous, dyadic, reproductive family unit. How can we challenge straightness without recapitulating its core modalities?
I’m interested here and always in how the affect, practice, and fantasy of solidarity can offer something helpful to our work for collective liberation across and with difference. To get there, I’m going to try to lay out some diagnostic criteria for straightness and consider what it would mean to betray straightness. Here I think about betrayal in line with work on white people becoming treasonous to whiteness in the ways that Mab Segrest articulates that possibility, when one wants to abolish a social relation in which one is embedded and from which one benefits. Wherever we are placed in relation to straightness, we experience the torque of ways it distributes benefit and harm as a stabilizing social relation of oppression and benefit. So, wherever we are placed in relation to straightness we have traction for opposing it personally and politically.
(I’ve taken down the rest of this paper, since it’s still very much in process, but if you’re working on this stuff and would like to read it, you’re welcome to email me to get whatever is the current draft.)
Writing advice! I have given so much of it. As part of a general feeling of not knowing what the fuck I’m doing, I’ve been revisiting giving advice at all. In particular, I’ve been wondering if it’s ever good to give writing advice. This is because it is literally my job to teach people to write and to support student writers at all levels,
and so I’m interested in getting better at that. I’m also writing about diagnosis and spiritual crises right now and have found myself reading a lot of self-help books, and some of them are relevant to the whole question of advice and the more specific possibility of identifying writing typologies, ours and others’, with care.
Here’s the idea: We could be more deliberate in identifying what helps us write – and, just as important for those of us who mentor other writers, working with them in terms of what helps them write without believing that what helps us write will help them write. Maybe you’ve already got this figured out, but I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years now, and it feels like this month is the first time I’ve really understood this idea: Maybe the things that help me write won’t help anyone else write!
This shouldn’t really be a shocking thought. I was trained in writing composition in the mode of Peter Elbow’s injunction to support Writing Without Teachers – the idea that people have what they need and we can get out of their way while supporting their writing process, rather than imposing our own process on them. Much of my reading in the study of teaching and learning has been interested in what it means to support people in their own process. Still, for a long time I was a proponent of the view, advanced by Robert Boice, that the best way to write was in short daily units, despite the fact that this is not how I write. This view is helpfully demolished by Helen Sword’s article “Write every day!: a mantra dismantled”. Sword says:
“In this article, I call into question the Boicean premise – often preached, seldom challenged – that daily scheduled writing is the one true path to scholarly salvation. Based on an international study of 1323 academic staff, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in fifteen countries, I offer evidence that the vast majority of successful academics do not in fact write every day; that the correlation between daily writing and high productivity is a tenuous one at best; and that academics who explicitly reject the ‘write every day’ formula can still be prolific writers. This is not to suggest that daily writing is a bad idea (quite the contrary) or that Boice’s strategies for increasing productivity are ineffectual or unwise (indeed, I practice many of them myself – dare I say ‘religiously’?) However, my research underlines the importance, particularly for academic developers, of treating with caution any prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice that demands unquestioning obedience from its followers and imposes guilt and blame on those who stray” (Sword 312-313).
For two days last week, I was totally compelled by the book The Four Tendencies, a people-sorting modality by Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin . This was captivating because it’s a book about akrasia – willing or wanting to do something but then not feeling able to follow through – and I’m really interested in akrasia, in myself and others. This book really helped me identify something about how I am motivated to write, so I’ll start with what was so helpful.
On Rubin’s account, there are four fundamental tendencies that people fall into as regards our motivation to act. She is careful to say that this is a diagnostic tool just for this action-motivation, not for, like, whether you’re a nice person. We could be UPHOLDERS, who are motivated reasonably equally by external and internal expectations – who respond to things others ask of them, or also they can set expectations for themselves and then do the things. As writers, these folks would find out what the comprehensive exam or tenure review process is in their department, decide how to fulfill it, and then do that. We could be QUESTIONERS, who are not at all motivated by external authorities or expectations but who are very motivated by their inner, self-motivated reasons. As writers they might ask many questions about things like why the exams or review process is like that and only do things if they can square them up with their inner motivations. Questioner academics might have a really hard time writing stuff that they know is bullshit, like grant applications, or that they’re doing to fulfill some nebulous professional obligation that they don’t believe in. We could be REBELS, who refuse to act in response to either external or internal motivations and who in fact can be pushed into full on resistance whenever anyone, including themselves, sets an expectation. Rebel academic writers might write prolifically and with ease about something that they find interesting or compelling – but as soon as their supervisor says that they really could turn it into a publishable paper get completely shut down about it. Maybe worse, as soon as they internally think that they should turn it into something in particular they might get blocked and resistant. Finally, we could be OBLIGERS, who are extremely motivated by external expectations but have a terribly difficult time actually doing anything if the only motivation is an inner expectation. Obliger writers would be people who really like writing with others, or who can write with some facility when there’s a deadline or specific task needed but totally fall apart when they – or, I should say “we,” I’m a textbook obliger – are turned out into a field to roam and graze with nothing required of us. Obliger writers might be able to get lots done if other people require it of us but have a terrible time when we’re on summer break or if we have an advisor who doesn’t expect us to submit stuff. If you don’t immediately know which is your writing style, you can take a quiz to find out what you are.
Now, as soon as I read this it helped me understand why I’ve always set up writing groups everywhere I’ve lived, why the main way I write is through submitting an abstract, then having to write the paper, then submitting the paper to a special issue, and like that. As a writer I set up external scaffolding to help me do things and to make me finish things. Sometimes this causes me lots of suffering (for my second book, because I didn’t have to have the whole thing done before having a contract, I complained about Past Alexis and what a pickle she’d put me in signing a contract; now I feel much more forgiving! I would never have written that book without that contract and a deadline). Having external expectations is really the only way I write the things I want to write. When my doctoral supervisor – a very kind and hands-off person – submitted a narrative evaluation of my progress the term after I’d finished my comprehensive exams that said “Alexis has not made any progress on her dissertation this term” I was completely horrified – and suddenly I started writing, a lot.
The other thing this typology right away helped me think about is the way I work with my thesis students. I often try to set clear expectations for them, to hold them accountable, to check in with them. I have a monthly thesis group, where people come together to talk about what they’re doing and to share work or practice for job talks. These are all things that work great – for writers who write the way I do! But reading with this typology I can look at my seven thesis students and pretty quickly identify them in likely clusters, and it’s even easier when I look back at all the grad students I’ve supervised over the last fifteen years: There are Upholders, who set goals internally and in conversation with me, and then plug along and meets them. When we set deadlines, work comes in, but also these students keep working along even if we haven’t been in touch for a few weeks. There are Questioners, who only do thesis work when they’ve figured out what their internal goals dictate – setting deadlines and expectations for them just slides right off them. There’re Rebels, who gets grumpy when given direction, including self-direction. And there are Obligers, who ask me to help build in some external accountability for their work and who turn stuff in if they believe I really require it (though it’s also clear that this only kind of works, since they also know I’m not going to be actually mad at them, nor do they believe that they will hurt me if they don’t turn in work – so they also set up structures with one another for meeting to write or share drafts where they feel they’ll let someone down if they don’t show, or do the work). So being able to think about my mentees in terms of what works for them instead of what works for me can be helpful, maybe even necessary. Applying my own writing medicine – escalating external motivations – to my Rebel students or my Questioner students might actively shut them down instead of facilitating their process! A lot of departmental graduate handbooks are written as though everyone is an Upholder, who just needs to identify their internal motivations, understand the external obligations put on them by the university, and do the work. But if you’re not that kind of writer, you’d need to backwards engineer your own motivation for doing that work – lining up what your own internal motivation is, understanding the choices you have and the consequences for them, or figuring out how to set up a scaffold to help meet your goals.
A lot of self-help books, The Four Tendencies included, have the helpful orientation that we’re not actually trying to change how we are – we’re trying to figure out ways to have less pain in relation to how we are. I think deliberately and carefully choosing how we narrate “what kind of writer” we are is helpful. Along the way we could trust that actually we do know something about ourselves. I have a friend who says that sometimes when she notices herself asking herself, in a mean way, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do this?” she turns it around and asks that as a genuine question – “What’s wrong with you, dear one? Why can’t you do this?” Maybe some of the time what’s wrong is that we’re applying medicine for a different problem than we have; cranking up the expectations when expectations make us flee, lowering expectations when we need expectations to fulfill our own goals. It doesn’t have to be these modalities. I could narrate my tendencies through my Chinese lunar astrological sign – fire tiger – or my hippie North American astrological chart (I’m a Capricorn with a Virgo rising and a Taurus moon, and yes it is amazing that I can even walk with all that earth in my chart, you should see it) or my Enneagram type (I actually don’t know much about this but people tell me I’m a Nine) or my Buddhist five wisdoms orientation (Padma-Vajra, I know, it’s weird), or the Sorting Hat (actually I don’t know what my House would be).
Anyhow, here’s the more general point than this specific self-help modality. What if we who are supporting other writers consensually and collectively thought through the ways we talk about “what kind of writer?” they are, knowing our own tendencies and tuned our writing support accordingly? I think it might be good.
We often hear, or tell our students, not to just let quotes hang out in space. Sometimes we say that they should not end a paragraph with a quote, or that it’s important to explain why the quote is there, in the chapter or paper or whatever. This exercise is to warm up how to do that. So, pick a quote from something you’re working with – it could be an interview transcript or a text or a cultural artifact. Write the following four sentences in order. Don’t go back and fuss with each sentence after you’ve written it, just move forward.
1. The most obvious thing about this quote is (something that you think is really obvious)…
2. One could argue that (a contradiction or something that is not obvious about the quote)…
3. But what is really important to note/hear/understand in this quote …
4. And so/Thus/, “(Try to re-state a particularly poignant or important phrase from the quotation)”.
I think this is a useful exercise because it gives us some scaffolding for just getting an explanation out there about quotes we use – a subset of this exercise would be to look at several examples in your specific ongoing academic conversation and try to abstract out the general “moves” or implicit rules for unpacking quotes. When we feel like quotes are self-explanatory or just really brilliant, practicing laying out why they’re brilliant or what they’re saying is useful, because often we’re not conscious of just how much we’re bringing to the quote as writers. Bringing ourself to the quotes, and offering them to our readers, is really one of the things we’re trying to do as writers.
Against the Grain consistently offers incredible programming about social movements, history, books, ideas, and contemporary issues. They’ve been doing episodes on the politics of pandemics, including a number where they talked with experts who study pandemics and, latterly, people who more do analysis (like me). I was really happy to speak with Sasha Lilley last week about what I’ve learned from talking with long-term AIDS activists over the last six years. The episode is up in audio format, and because there’s a professor interested in including it in a class, my incredibly generous parents, who also happen to be speedy typists, transcribed the interview. I’ll paste that below. The episode aired May 4th, 2020.
Today on Against the Grain: The Coronavirus has laid bare the divisions and inequalities of our society. It has also exposed the stark differences and possible approaches to the pandemic. Radical scholar, Alexis Shotwell, argues that we need to frame our fight as one for collective care, rather than for containment and control.
SL: From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacific Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley.
In the throes of the pandemic, it’s hard to see our way to the end of it, much less beyond, but my guest today argues that we need to be struggling for a better world in the future, as well as in the present. She points to how activists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic fought on behalf of the larger collective good, and that we should re-learn those lessons of solidarity. Alexis Shotwell is Professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is also co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project.
It’s easy, Alexis, to think of the coronavirus simply as an infectious agent, to think of it simply in biological terms. But when we speak of what Covid-19 has wrought, we’re often actually talking about the political and social notions that have been created by human beings. What have you observed about how we are relating to the idea of the coronavirus?
AS: It’s a good question. So, one of the key things that I’ve learned about studying viruses, studying illness, thinking about how things manifest and what shape they take, comes out a lot in talking to people who do science and technology studies, that comes out in thinking about the social and political history of illnesses, and that’s to say that there isn’t a way to tell what an illness is or what a virus is without also telling a story about the social world that it comes out of and manifests. So this true when we look at historical examples, so thinking about even what it means to define a virus, to be able to put a boundary around it and know what it is, has always been a real question. One of the earliest kind of science and technology studies, books, was called “The Making of a Scientific Fact.” It looked at the ways that syphilis was something that was very hard to define, because it had lots of different manifestations, because of who it affected and how. So on the one hand, we want to be able to say: We know that this is a virus. We know that we can describe it. We can map it. But when we’re talking about it as a pandemic, maybe that’s an interesting way to make a distinction here—the difference between a virus and a pandemic, is largely about the social relations that come into being around what a virus is in practice.
SL: And you’ve written about how the notion of containment shapes our notion of the virus, but also shapes our notion of ourselves, of what policies should be taken, and of course we’ve seen this play out in pretty stark terms, in terms earlier on, with the notion that the coronavirus could be contained within the borders of nation-states.
AS: If we start thinking about viruses as relationships, then we can start seeing what kind of relationships are being practiced. And right away, when global responses to the coronavirus started, there was a tendency or pattern to say: We’re going to contain this virus in other places, in other countries. We’ll close our borders, and we’ll be safe if we do that. This is a reasonable, or we understand why that is a move. There’s this desire to be safe inside. Safe inside anywhere, really. Safe inside a country. Safe inside a neighborhood. Safe inside a house.
But the logic of containment has two problems. The first problem is that it doesn’t work forever and it maybe never really works, scientifically or in terms of transmission. So the practice of containment is never actually possible. It can have some good effects in terms of slowing down transmission of viruses, but pretty quickly, and certainly as soon as something becomes pandemic, it’s necessary to take on other approaches that mostly we talk about has harm reduction approaches, or approaches that look at what it means to say, given that this is here with us, how are we going to live with it, how are we going to try to protect as many people as possible from suffering and death. So the logic of containment, it never actually is possible to contain a virus through borders of countries.
The other problem with the logic of containment is it very quickly folds into policing practices, basically. So the idea that borders can be solid, that you can keep bad people out, and then good people won’t get hurt. And that logic of containment or policing the virus ends up moving through ongoing ways that people are practicing being in relation with this virus. So we see a turn using that same kind of approach toward asking people to police their neighbors, to call the cops on them if they are having parties, to put people in prison if they are endangering others.
So both of the ways that we think about the logic of containment as a sort of border guard or as a cop end up hurting the people who are already targeted by borders and policing. So both of those approaches, we can do much better than them, in terms of having different relationships with this coronavirus and with illness and viruses in general.
SL: So in terms of how we think of the actions we know we need to take, in terms of protecting each other, the kind of social distancing that is necessary, it is a complicated situation, of course. On the one hand, you’ve got people on the far right are saying no social distancing is necessary. Yet for us, the act of social distancing, which I think you could say is really an act of solidarity–I mean, it’s self-protection, but it is much more—also has other affects which are real and hard, and even have very direct health consequences, which is the kind of isolation that we need to take can be very harming to many people, or maybe to all of us. And how do you think about this question of social distancing as a collective action, because usually when we are acting on the Left collectively, it really means coming together physically, and we are, of course, doing the opposite.
AS: So the first, and I think the most important thing, is to really look at any of the times when we can be practicing social distancing as forms of community care. And absolutely, I think in North America that was really inspiring. Right? So right away, millions of people were substantially changing their lives, even before there were government orders to do this, in order to protect thousands of people. So a really profound and profoundly beautiful act of community care. That possibility is so clearly supported or disrupted by the kinds of social structures that are put in place as this pandemic goes on. So at this point, I think, and I’m speaking from Canada where things are not easy, but because of the money that the government is dispersing to people, they are substantially easier than things are there. And it also is substantially different that people have basic health care that is not tied to their workplace. So especially as this time continues, the question of what community care looks like past people able to do physical distancing, do so, is really something we need to think about and practice. A comrade in my political collective, Amanda Wilson, wrote one of the earliest pieces that I’ve seen about taking a harm reduction approach to physical distancing. There’s a number of ways we can hold this in mind if we say, we’re going to take an approach to this virus that is based on practice of community care, rather than a practice of containment and individualist, self-responsiblization to protect our own selves and our own family.
There’s a couple key things that I’ve seen coming out that feel really important and generative for us on the Left right now. The first I think is looking at the ways people like Sophie Lewis in her work on the abolition of the family. Michell O’Brian, as well, thinking about the abolition of the family form. And also Kim Tallbear who has been looking at the ways that structures of dyadic monogamy set up a perpetuation of settler-colonialism that is organized around the idea that you have a family unit who is protected in a single-family dwelling, and they’re going to be the unit at which all care will happen. In so many ways, we can recognize that this is a harmful lie. The idea that everyone will just suddenly be able to do everything for their kids, and people who are vulnerable or that people who live alone are going to be able to just manage—right away then it’s really clear that this is an impossible situation to maintain for very long. We need to have social worlds in which we take care of each other. We need that for people who are in situations of domestic violence that they cannot currently escape. We need that for kids to have social worlds that aren’t just adults who happen to be with them right now. We need that for elder people. These approaches to thinking about a world in which there’s the possibility of social and collective care for each other, it matters more than ever that we continue to claim those spaces and advocate for them, and imagine them. It’s really vital, especially as we look at how some, and it’s really been interesting to see how sort of disaggregated the Right is about the approach to coronavirus, but very strong tendencies, as the person’s sign said that was circulating on the news: Sacrifice the Weak. So the kind of eugenicist mode of let’s open up the country, let’s let the weak die.
The way we’re going to fight that is having a version of this world where it’s visible and palpable that we all want to take care of each other. And just because people don’t have jobs, they are not going to lose, they shouldn’t lose health care.
There’s a number of approaches of practicing being with each other against the kind of death regime that we’re always fighting. We’ve been fighting it before this virus came out. And that fight is just intensifying and getting more difficult, as we move further into this. But it’s not going to work for us to just say, we want everyone who can to stay home. We have actually need to start building networks of solidarity that support people that have to be working right, that support the people that are front-line care-givers. We just beginning to imagine that stuff now.
SL: I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s Professor in Sociology at Carleton University, and her writings on the politics of the coronavirus can be found on our website againstthegrain.org. I’m Sasha Lilley.
Well, Alexis, you have been deeply involved in documenting the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the criminalization and stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS and it’s telling how little the experiences and lessons of AIDS and the struggle around HIV/AIDS has been referenced by the mainstream media during these months of the coronavirus. I wanted to ask you what differences and similarities strike you in thinking of the two?
AS: I think about the question everyday of how this virus is different from HIV and how the response to the coronavirus pandemic is different than the response to the AIDS epidemic. One thing that is really remarkable is that it’s really similar between these, is the idea that somehow, rich people or mainstream, so that some people would be unaffected and therefore not need to take any kind of action. During the early years of HIV, the pool of people who were disregarded, who were related to as not being worth fighting for or defending were gay men, mostly. Although there was also the equally horrifying tendency to say also people who are injection drug users and people who were, there was this period of time in the early days of the epidemic, they were called The Four H’s—homosexuals, Haitians, heroin-users, HIV-positive injection drug users, and then hemophiliacs were the sort of innocents who were ones who didn’t deserve to have HIV, as the narrative went at that time.
There was a health official in Ottawa, Ontario, who said, actually on-record said, I don’t see what the problem here is. There’s HIV and there’s gay men, and the problems are going to solve each other.
AS: So this overtly death-cult quality of neglect. One of the things I think we can say happened also with Covid-19 is that some of the early narratives said, “This is a very serious virus, but don’t worry, it only affects the old and people who already have pre-existing health conditions.” So there was a nearly identical, but of course with very different content, move to say, “We do not need to commit social resources to this because the people affected by it are disposable.” And so that similarity, for me, has been, has cued me to think that one of the things we can do on the left is to say, “Let’s look at who is considered disposable and let’s orient our political response around deciding that they are not disposable.” So let’s start with the people who are in jail right now, let’s start with the people who don’t have houses to self-isolate in, let’s start with the people who don’t have money to live.
So if we begin with the people that are considered disposable, my research with the history of AIDS activism teaches me that that is a good footing for us to fight the intensification of immiseration that pandemics open for people who want to take advantage of them. The next thing comes back to something I was saying earlier about harm reduction. So during these years, as it became evident through peoples’ attention to their social world what practices were transmitting HIV there was a space where it became clear that it’s like, “Look, everyone could be HIV positive, and here are the practices that will quite potentially transmit this virus.”
And at that point some people did just stop doing all these practices, but there were quite a lot of people who took this different orientation and practiced a form of community care. So they said, “We are not going to give up the collective practices of having sex, of using drugs, of living with cats [laughs], we’re just going to assume that everyone we’re interacting with, everyone we’re have sex with, everyone we live with, everyone we use drugs with, they’re all positive. And so we’re going to have harm reduction practices that mean that that’s a safe enough thing to do.” So that meant needle exchanges, that meant getting latex into prisons, recognizing that people would still have sex, that meant eroticizing latex. So it was a massive community transformation that meant that you could have a whole lot of practices that were safe enough, and that that meant you had a lot of people who could continue the kind of collective life world that was so massively disrupted by HIV and AIDS.
Now, it is a totally different situation for us here. It doesn’t make sense for us to say, “We want to barbecue,” or like, “I want a haircut,” because this is a different virus. So we can collectively be asking, “What are the practices of harm reduction and care we can take that will not destroy everything that makes our life good, and lively?” And so that’s probably going to mean having really good antibody testing that we actually can trust, increasingly, and who knows in a month what the science will look like, but it does seem increasingly that if everyone is wearing cloth masks, transmission goes down measurable amounts that actually can make this a community-level survivable situation.
SL: One of the things of course that makes Covid different than HIV/AIDS is that although initially, as you say, there was in both cases you heard the voicing of sentiment that it was OK if some people died. But with the Corona virus we are now in a situation where most of the economy is shut down, so quite a different reaction than with HIV/AIDS. Not that that would have benefitted people during that pandemic, but there was no equivalent action taken. And certainly the massive harnessing of scientific research and medicine toward finding a cure that’s going on now, or finding a vaccine or anti-virals, again, nothing equivalent during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but you do, as you mentioned, have some populations who are really being left to be sacrificed.
And I’m particularly thinking here of prisoners, because there’s no way to social distance in prison, in the way that needs to happen, and the virus is spreading really rapidly. How do you see the plight of people in those kinds of circumstances, how people on the left should be addressing this, because obviously there has been work for many, many years around ending mass incarceration. But the fact is that that’s where we are right now and it’s quite difficult for us to protest and exert our collective power when we are all trying to socially distance.
AS: So thinking about the way that this moment can open space for us to transform social relations, which is one of things that I think is hopeful and that I want us to hold in view. Witnessing the ways that it has become more legible to people that right now prison is a death sentence really has been opening, I think, some spaces for people to say, Oh, mass incarceration doesn’t make any sense! So anyone who’s done work on this has been, Yeah, we need to de-carcerate massively. I feel like I’ve seen more people start to understand the absolute injustice and ridiculousness of people being stuck in prisons under conditions of this coronavirus, and seeing that actually open a window for them to contemplate that it was never okay that this many people were in these conditions in prisons. I’ve been heartened by that at the same time that it’s not, we’re not winning. The place that the prisons where the coronavirus is spreading so quickly and so terrifyingly, that didn’t have to happen. So looking at people like David Gilbert who was someone who did a lot of organizing around HIV and AIDS during the 90s and has now been working on how to protect people who are inside from the spread of Covid-19.
SL: And he’s a prisoner himself.
AS: He’s a prisoner himself, yes, sorry, I should have said that. He was involved in creating this very important project called PEPA, the prisoner’s education project on AIDS, which saved many lives inside. The difficult thing now is that this virus moves so much faster than any current institution is moving. Now, there have been some important wins on people getting out. But in the context of not a lot of social support, as they are moving to the outside and moving into where do you go? Where do you live? As you are transitioning out of jail or prison. So looking at what it means for us who are tracking who’s being made sacrificable, and how we can move on that when we can’t physically get together to protest? I feel like it’s one of these places where we can look at how we’re connected to the things that we care about, and that we can start leveraging and getting traction on some those things. So people who have lovers, friends, kids, parents in prison are really starting to amplify, I do not want this prison sentence to be a death sentence for them.
So some of the work that we can be doing is just starting to amplify where we are, but a lot of what we can be doing now is asking, What structures we can put in place that will build toward, as we move out of the current period into producing more collective care, less policing, more social support for one another. One of the things I heard a lot in doing this history of AIDS activism was this really important, amazing, brilliant man, George Smith, who was involved with a project called AIDS Action Now, his sort of tagline, which a lot of people took up, he said we need demonstrations and documents. So the demonstrations are how we manifest power, collective power. But we also want to move into any government office that’s making a decision about our lives and lay down for them the policy that we think they should put in place. So he was like, you can’t accomplish anything with just documents, but you can accomplish more with demonstrations if you also have the documents.
So I think that all of us are stressed out right now, so maybe it’s not the best time for us to be drafting policy and laying down plans for how things should go. But it is also not the worst time. It also is a time when we can set up some of the plans for the world that we want, so we’re ready. Because I think we know that people who make money off of other people’s misery, they are setting up plans for how to come out of the pandemic and make a profit. And I’d like us to come out of this as much as we can with plans for leaving the pandemic and changing the world, and making it a world where more of us can live and flourish. So we can’t do demonstrations, but I think we could work on some of the documents.
SL: This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley. I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, which documents the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the stigmatization and criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS. She’s the author of Knowing Otherwise and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. I’m Sasha Lilley. This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.
The point that you were making about drafting visions for the future, it seems that if there is one clear lesson that can be drawn looking at the history of the Right over decades, it’s that they organized with the long view in mind. And it seems to me that there is the danger in the middle of this pandemic as we are documenting the horrors, as we are considering all the different dimensions of the pandemic, who it’s most affecting, the forms it’s taking, that we lose sight of what we should be demanding now. And also coming out of this pandemic, I think it’s instructive to know that following the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza which killed so many people, that in the 1920s many of the countries that we afflicted with the Spanish influenza ended up adopting universal healthcare. But none of that would have happened automatically. That obviously came out of the organization and activism of people. I think it’s easy to get caught up in pessimism in moment of crisis, I mean why not, on some level, things are dire. But that that can cloud the capacity to think about demands, start formulating them and figuring out how to make them. And I know that you’ve written about how we in some ways balance these personal struggles with our greater politics. Do you have any thoughts on how in the middle of crisis, in the depth of crisis, do we think about the long-term, and even think about things that are positive?
AS: I think this is so important because the pressure I think a lot of us feel is to protect ourselves or to become smaller and try to shield the people nearest us, the theoretical or technical word for a lot of what’s being suggested to us is, “healthism.” So this is, “healthism” is the term for when there’s a big social collective problem that individuals are made personally responsible for, where, like it’s morally your problem if you have diabetes and therefore you’re more vulnerable. There’s many interesting things that we could say about who is being named as vulnerable to Corona virus and therefore responsible in some ways for taxing our health system, or going to hospital, or all these things.
So, I think one thing that I’m finding useful is just to recognize that that mood that we might feel is a real feeling, and it’s coming from a neo-liberal approach that says, “Individuals are responsible for what are actually social problems.” So as soon as we feel that, like, “I’ve gotta have enough for my household,” we can actually name that as like, “Oh, this is a demobilizing, individualizing feeling that I’m having.” It’s a real feeling, but it’s just the beginning, because what we can turn to out of that feeling, instead of increased paranoia, self-protection, a feeling that we’re all alone against the world, we can say, “This is a terrible feeling. I want to be with other people in creating a different world, where no one feels this way.”
So there’s this, I think, it’s like a fractal situation, where every time we experience our own precariousness, vulnerability, fear, we can turn out of that toward asking what that says about the kind of collective world we would want to build. And I think I’m not alone in feeling so inspired by the incredible arising of a whole lot of mutual aid networks, both taking the form of Facebook care-mongering groups, endless Google Doc spreadsheets of places that people can get help, but also just like, people reaching out to each other. So again, that understanding that we’ve seen manifest over and over again and that I think Rebecca Solnit has been theorizing over a long time now. In another part of my academic work I go back to Peter Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid and the impulse help, the impulse to care, as a basic impulse.
And we can say look, in all of these places right now people are already dreaming of a world that is not this, and it’s not just a world that is not this in the sense of, “I don’t want to get this virus and die. I don’t want people near me to be sick and suffering.” It’s actually like, not this, but, “I don’t want to be in a society where we don’t have the resources to take care of people who need help.” So there is this fact, I think, of massive social devastation of the kind that we’re experiencing right now, that this is a traumatic experience, it’s an experience that is unbearably hard, that that hardness, that difficulty, is so massively and so obviously distributed along already-existing vectors of wealth and whiteness. But it shows us that there’s a lot of people who don’t want this world. And so the more of us that tune into and start thinking about what that means, right, like what the world is that we do want, there’s actually a lot of space here for something else to arise. I feel like the thing that I have learned most from studying AIDS activism, and I said this at the beginning, but maybe it’s worth repeating, is that it really does feel to me that centering the people who are most targeted or who are most rendered disposable in that future dreaming, allows us to be most adequate and most expansive toward what the kinds of social transformations we want would be. But it’s not something we have to imagine, in the sense that, it’s not like, let’s wait a year or three and then we’ll imagine what kind of social world we want. It’s actually like saying “no” to this one gives us already so much footing for what could be otherwise. And that feels very hopeful to me.
SL: And yet it also raises the question of when we come out the other side of this, whatever that looks like, whenever that is, whether those memories, those networks that have been built up between people to look after each other collectively, will endure when things go back to whatever we call normal. Obviously, that begs the question, What’s normal? But is there not the danger that anything that goes back to a time that feels like it’s before the virus is going to feel sufficiently better, that people won’t necessarily struggle for more?
AS: Yeah, I think that’s a real danger, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in us really paying attention to the difference between logics of containment which produce call for more policing, and logics of care which produce a call for more care, more connection. So I think as we’re, and again, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not clear what it means to say that we reject or accept something. But we can look at what the practices are that we’re participating in or supporting. So if we’re saying we want more policing, we can know that that will predict we’re setting in place more patterns or policing, more infrastructure for policing. If we say, here are some of the ways that we’re planning to build lateral relations of support, or we’re directing our energy during this time toward keeping alive the people who are most targeted for dismissal or being considered disposable, there’s some sense that those practices build the possibility for the pattern, a kind of different path.
We can’t predict what will happen as things get back for normal, but we can do a lot of things that set us up for various directions. So for example, if we are going to move toward systems like contact tracing for increased movement, the people who are setting up those systems can ask, How are we going to set up contact tracing in such a way that we’re not intensifying social control over people’s movements? We can be alert to the ways that various shifts that feel unusual, or this is just going to happen for right now, can end up producing more constraint or control. So it’s totally coherent to be very, very concerned about Covid-19 and very, very concerned about state repression and control of liberties, and very concerned about everyone, how they are doing. Are they just hanging on because this is so hard? We don’t have to cede the ground of feeling very concerned about government over-reach to the Right. We can continue to hold that in an ongoing way and in the moment.
In other words, I guess what I really feel is that in a long crisis, and I think this is a long crisis, and this is something else we can learn from HIV/AIDS activism. So hopefully, we’re not going to be waiting and struggling and watching our friends die as long as people who were AIDS activists were. They held the line for years. And what they held the line on was, refusing the logic that they were going to render anyone else disposable, and continuing always to advocate for more people living and better lives for them. Maybe I could tell you just one story about that?
SL: Yeah, please do.
AS: So, in Ontario, there was this group, AIDS ACTION NOW!, and they were fighting to get access to drug funding, because many of the drugs that were available and showed promise for treating HIV and AIDS were, they were off-label. They weren’t covered by the drug plans. And there was a system in place. There was a rarely used thing that would allow this to happen, and the government just wasn’t allowing them to use it. So there were various kinds of activist work that obviously we can’t do right now. They did things like disrupt the Legislature. They burned an effigy of the Health Minister. They did a whole lot of different things. And one of the stories that we heard about this time was the Premier came to the lead organizer (there were two of them chairing it at that time), and he said, Okay, we’re going to do it. We’re going to give you funding for AIDS drugs, and you win. And they said, Are you going to give this funding for everyone. not just for AIDS drugs? Is it going to be for people who don’t have money to buy drugs that they need for illnesses that are not HIV or AIDS related? And the government said, Well no, we are just offering this for you. And one of the people who was negotiating this was himself dying and didn’t have access to the drug that he needed because it was like a $10,000 a month drug. And they said, No. We’re not going to accept this just for the people who are HIV-positive. This needs to be accessible for anyone who can’t afford the drugs that they need to live. So they refused to back down, although it was very hard, because there were people in the group that needed this desperately and right then. And they won. And there’s still a program in Ontario, the province where I live, called Trillium, that gives funding for anyone who doesn’t have money for off-label drugs or drugs that are being used in an experimental way that show use for their illness. No one really remembers that that was AIDS activists that won that. What I find so moving about that is that it’s often people who are directly at the friction points who are targeted for death or who are just on the edges who know best what social transformations that can happen that will change how the whole world is happening. They are often not remembered when they take that kind of stand. I feel like if all of us take the orientation toward coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that we’re always going to hold in view the most vulnerable, we might end up, as I am in this province, 30 years later continuing to benefit from that activity, although hardly anyone knows where it came from.
So that’s what we want to set up. If at every point where we’re struggling, we’re orienting in that way. We’re not just going to take it for our own group, even though we matter. But we’re always going to be thinking together. That’s how we build this kind of thing that holds more and more people’s lives as though they are worth living. I think there are lots of stories like that, and lots of points of connection, that people have—decisions that are being made to go toward a more conservative, self-protectionist, individualist way, or toward a more collective, opening, keep more people alive and see what they might do, kind of way. If we hold that, it’s better anyway. I don’t know if it will totally win, but we have a better chance.
SL: Alexis Shotwell, let me end by asking you about broadening struggles as you just described HIV/AIDS activists did, to be more inclusive, more collective. You have a recent essay that’s titled, “Survival Will Always be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start.” In that essay, you reference the slogan, from 1912, the Labor slogan that we want not only bread, but we want roses. Can you tell us what that meant then, and what that means now in the midst of the coronavirus?
AS: We’ve heard echoes and versions of that slogan, We want bread, but we want roses too. It comes from 1912 in Laurence, Massachusetts. The cotton mill workers went on strike. There were a lot of mill strikes that were happening at that time. The Bread and Roses Strike that came about in response to employers trying to cut pay, was one of the places where people said we are not just looking for the basics, we’re not just looking for mere sustenance, mere subsistence. We actually want more and we deserve more. When I think about, and there’s so much to say about that strike that I’m not going to get into. But the thing that resonates down or that we can hold onto now, is that the tendency in times of crisis and deprivation is sometimes to settle for just surviving. We can also look back at labor struggles from that time and in ongoing ways. In that article, I also talk about the Black Panther Party’s survival pending revolution and the community programs they set up, to say when we start thinking about survival, we can always be also imagining or claiming so much more than survival. So the question, of Yes, we need to survive, and we need to direct support for the survival of the people who are targeted, people in jail, people who are living in poverty, people who don’t have houses to go to, people who have lost their job and health care, people who are declared killable, we should support and help them to survive. Thinking about roses means, we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive, we want more, we deserve more. There’s this kind of rejection of a bare minimum as what we’re aiming for and what we’ll accept. It’s hopeful or it’s helpful for us to remember how long that struggle for roses too has been. How many years people have been working for more than just merely surviving?
SL: Alexis, thank you so much.
AS: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with me, Sasha.
SL: Alexis Shotwell is professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, and author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and Knowing Otherwise. You can find links to some of her writings on our website Againstthegrain.org. And you’ve been listening to Against the Grain. I’m Sasha Lilley. Thanks so much for listening and please tune in again next time.