“On Mattering” challenges traditional academic approach

As protests gained momentum across the country this summer in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, much of the media coverage described a renewed urgency propelling the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet for many in the Vassar community and beyond, the work of dismantling oppressive power structures began before this summer’s protests and continues to this day. 

Professor of Africana Studies Jasmine Syedullah designed the lecture series “On Mattering: Voices from the Movement and Beyond” over the summer to lift up the voices of those organizing in the communities that have been most affected by anti-Black police violence. Syedullah explained that the framing of Black Lives Matter protests in the mainstream media focuses on individual actions of the police and responses of the protesters. Instead of seeing these groups as oppositional binaries, she wants to focus the conversation on the deeper carceral structures that enable and support policing.

“On Mattering” is a prime example of multidisciplinary collaboration at Vassar. It is both a virtual lecture series and a class students are taking for credit in Vassar’s Africana Studies Department. The class (AFRS-186) is co-taught by Syedullah and Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn. Students in “On Mattering” participate in the lectures by doing contextual readings and engaging with the speakers. “Anti-Racist Learning Activism” (CLCS-121), which is taught by Professor of Hispanic Studies Eva Wood Peiró, also participates in and helps fund the lecture series. The lecture series is co-sponsored by the Dean of Faculty office, which also helped fund the series. Each installation is available online for the student body and are not restricted to students in these two classes. To get Zoom links for the remaining lectures, students can email [email protected]

While “On Mattering” invites professors from universities such as American University and University of Texas to speak, the series also features organizers and activists who aren’t professional academics. Activists from the Newburgh LGBTQ Center and Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley will host lectures this semester. “The most cutting edge analysis and understanding of the movement is not coming from the academy,” explained Syedullah. “Academics are coming in after activists to theorize social change. It is so important to lift up knowledge being produced on the ground.” 

Kahn concurred, adding, “While we on campus are doing our best to inhabit one model of an ethical learning community, there are other models of ethical learning communities continuing their work. In particular, the activist communities we are speaking to continue to construct modes of knowing and being that we need to hear from.” 

Syedullah explained that inviting organizers and activists to campus is not new for the Africana Studies Department. “On Mattering” is in the tradition of the student activists at Vassar in the 1960s and 1970s who organized to demand an academic curriculum that reflected the world they lived in. In 1969, the Black Studies Department, later renamed Africana Studies, was established after 34 Black students at Vassar took over Main Building in protest. 

Students participating in AFRS-186 emphasized the importance of hearing from similarly grassroots organizers at this political moment. “There is a certain degree of knowledge that can only be obtained through experience,” commented Kareena Rudra ’24. “You can read all you want about some things and call yourself an expert, but there will always be a dissonance until you experience things yourself.” 

Rudra mentioned Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia and Leroy Moore as two speakers who re-imagined traditional notions of knowledge production in their talk. Their lecture on Sept. 30 was titled “No Matter How Many Times You Study Me it Doesn’t Give Me A Home: Poverty SKolaz & Poverty SCholarship Inside Akademia.” Rudra explained, “They talked to us about the specific type of knowledge that comes from being poor, houseless, a person of color and being in any form of marginalized group.” 

Hayley Craig ’22 also spoke about the effect of Gray-Garcia and Moore’s lecture. “Their work questions the notion of who we consider to be scholars and centers the scholarship that is based on lived experience, struggle, survival and resistance,” Craig commented. “During their talk they were not afraid to criticize academic institutions like Vassar, which try to have a monopoly on learning.” Gray-Garcia co-founded POOR Magazine, which is an indigenous-led arts and educational publication started in 1996. Moore writes for POOR Magazine and founded Krip-Hop Nation, a movement focused around amplifying the voices of disabled hip-hop artists.

While the lectures have been completely virtual, the Zoom format has not hindered the experience for the speakers and students. “[Zoom] actually makes this series really cool because it is easier for people outside of Vassar’s community to join in,” said Craig. Syedullah explained that since she began imagining this series during the summer, she created it knowing it would be virtual, which allowed students to hear from speakers all over the country. 

Aspects of the virtual format created new methods for students to engage with speakers. Kahn explained that the chat function on Zoom has played a special role. “[The chat] allows each of us to express our gratitude and thoughts to speakers in new ways. If you think about it, an in-person lecture does not allow for so many voices to give specific words to what they are feeling.”

Students clicking on these Zoom links expecting a traditional college lecture would be surprised by what they find. Beyond being virtual, the learning environment itself is challenging established practices in collegiate education by creating a space of community and care. “We are organizing an emergent conversational feeling that actually allows everyone to get life from the space,” said Syedullah. 

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