Many of you don’t know, but my senior year at the University of Washington was quite tumultuous in terms of academics. Some of the courses I took last year were really terrible either because the instructor was egotistic, or because the instructor clearly didn’t bother to set up a consistent class structure. I plan to unpack that in a future post. But objectively speaking, those classes had decent content, and my experiences of completing them have taught me important things about myself and my communities. Today, we’re going to talk about a class that I think falls short in both areas.
The class is called Power and Punishment. Contrary to what I believed upon enrollment, this isn’t a very timely class for the coronavirus nor (and later) the current Civil Rights Movement and calls to de-fund the police. I’m not going to name the department nor instructor, because with today’s toxic “cancel culture,” I can’t trust people not to go out and harass the instructor. People need to cut that s*** out. Anyway, this is the worst class not because of the content and assignments, but because of the way the class handled the increased scrutiny of police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black lives at the hands of police officers. I felt the course quickly went downhill from ‘mediocre’ to ‘worst,’ because the course didn’t give enough space and attention for students to meaningfully process and make sense of the current events.
Part I: Emerging Events and the Height of National Tension
Let’s talk concrete evidence. On 29 May 2020 during the height of national tension, my instructor emailed everyone in the course regarding a due date extension for the second course paper. The instructor wrote:
The world feels particularly hellish right now. At least, our part of the world. The vast majority of our human family lives in pretty hellish conditions. But if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed or distracted by events in your personal life or on the news, please hang in there. Life experience is a much better teacher than I will ever be and so I am allowing you the time to engage with what is happening around us and maybe apply a power and punishment lens in your own ways.(Personal Communication, May 29, 2020)
From the generalizations in the first paragraph, I felt the instructor didn’t demonstrate that he fully understood the magnitude and timeliness of the Black Lives Matter movement. I would even go so far as to claim that him saying “the vast majority of our human family lives in pretty hellish conditions” is borderline “All Lives Matter.” That’s not exactly the right message to send when Black students at the University bear the brunt of trauma and lack of support for systemic and institutionalized racism. Also, when the instructor said “I am allowing you the time to engage,” the instructor is basically implying that the time is his to control and that he is not obligated to allow space for students to engage in healing and anti-racism work. I want to add too that depending on who you are and how you are positioned in relation to the current events, applying an analytical or academic lens can sometimes be harmful to yourself and others. This is a poorly written paragraph that doesn’t acknowledge the actual issues at hand—specifically, the heightened violence that Black communities (especially Black students) face today.
The instructor goes on:
I am extending the deadline for Paper II until Friday, June 5. If you can work on the paper early on, please still do so. Waiting until the last minute will probably make the process a lot more painful and detract from the quality of your work. My intention was to design the course so that you don’t get too overwhelmed and have time during Finals week to dedicate to other courses.(ibid)
While I don’t disagree with the instructor’s steadfastness in meeting his course objectives, I take issue with the way he uses that as a moral high ground to encourage students to prioritize the work in his course. Black folxs are literally dying in the hands of police officers and white supremacists. Finishing a paper doesn’t minimize the hurt and pain of police violence and systemic racism—regardless of where that pain comes from. Asking students to prioritize schoolwork so that they don’t get overwhelmed is emotionally manipulative and violent in and of itself. Again, poorly written paragraph that diminishes the instructor’s credibility and competency in addressing the current events.
Then, he had the audacity and the gall to assign regular readings for Finals Week that have absolutely nothing to do with police brutality and Black Lives Matter. I’ll address that in the following section.
Part II: Do “All Tree Lives Matter”?
Let me make it clear that I have no issue addressing assignments that are given to me at a moment’s notice. I am highly flexible and capable of saying ‘No’ when I need to. With that said, when the instructor assigned an additional week’s worth of readings on Tuesday, 2 June 2020, I have for the first time in my college career seriously contemplated not completing reading assignments. It’s abysmal. The readings were on surveillance capitalism and environment (read: “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects” [Stone 2010]). Logically speaking, I don’t understand how the instructor can pack a week’s worth of content at the last minute when he’s already made up his mind on when the last major assignment was originally due (30 May). To make matters worse though, the articles had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement, which in Seattle had only began to grow even further that week.
The Stone article specifically is the epitome of ignorance in the academic realm about the violence against Indigenous peoples and natural environments. In my analysis of the article, I wrote:
It is difficult to discuss corporate punishment of the environment without also discussing how Western settler colonialism and resource extraction disempowers the natural environment—a key point Stone’s article missed. The granting of legal rights to Mount Taranaki in Aotearoa (New Zealand) is a more recent example of the legal personification of a natural environment feature that possesses all the fundamental requirements for a legal rights holder (Roy, 2017). Māori worldview advocates for equal relationships and interconnectedness across humans, the land, and the waters. However, corporate resource extraction—through exploitation of the natural environment for profit motivations—continues to subordinate this and similar worldviews and thereby punishes Indigenous peoples and the environment at the same time. I urge an analysis of corporate and state punishment and power that considers the natural environment as part of a broader web of unequal racial/ethnic, epistemological, and economic relations. It is also worth asking: Is a legal rights-based discourse—which epistemologically centers individualism rather than interconnectedness—useful for such an analysis?(Kaimana 2020)
As I claimed in my analysis, Stone did not address Indigenous relationships to natural environments. I am very disappointed and angry that Indigenous issues were never addressed in the 32 pages of Stone’s legalistic approach to rights and the natural environment. For a course that discussed colonialism as a root cause for many issues of power and punishment worldwide, it is mind-baffling and untimely that this last course reading would avoid addressing issues of structural violence against Indigenous peoples. This ignorance enables the same institutions of violence to marginalize Black and brown bodies through policing, economic disenfranchisement, and community desecration. Overall, the last several weeks of the course were a complete s*** show. The course could not adapt to the sudden shifts in social issues, and does an abysmal job acknowledging and addressing the needs of students during this difficult time. The instructor, through his words and actions, reinforce the violence against Black and brown bodies contrary to the goals of the course that promote the exact opposite through analysis of power and punishment.
Part III: Now What?
I call Power and Punishment the worst course I have ever taken, objectively speaking. But the issues I presented in this post are only part of the more structural problems the University of Washington must address to ensure an equitable educational experience for Black students. (This is another reason why I don’t want anyone to come out and harass the instructor.) In Black Student Union’s #downwithwashington campaign, BSU listed the following seven final demands that the University of Washington must address (https://www.instagram.com/p/CCKetHNA11u/):
- Break all ties with SPD.
- Disarm and divest from UWPD.
- Allocate funds to Black RSOs and the American Ethnic Studies department.
- Hire more Black Faculty,
- Increase the Diversity credit requirement.
- Remove statues of racist figures.
- Fund and expand mental health for UW student. [sic]
The University of Washington must be accountable to Black and Indigenous students and take action on racial issues for which its leadership is currently lacking. As a personal memo to faculty and staff, please take notes. And never do something like this instructor did ever again. That’s it. Thanks everyone for bearing with me, and I hope to see you again soon.