The first week back to school this year looks significantly different this semester in comparison to previous years. ‘Back to School’ 2020 is marked by many unsettling events: online learning, the COVID-19 pandemic, and most importantly, the prevailing pandemic of racism.
On August 23, 2020, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police officers. This abhorrent display of anti-black violence and police brutality has sparked global protests within communities, and even within sports teams. NBA teams and players refuse to play in solidarity with Jacob Blake and to raise further awareness of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Similarly, this first week of school, academics are also resisting anti-black violence, but with a different kind of protest: the Scholar Strike. The Scholar Strike is described as a “labour action/teach-in/social justice advocacy” which took place at the beginning of the academic calendar year, September 9-10, 2020.
Many professors across Canada, including UBCO professors, cancelled class in alliance with the Canadian Scholar Strike (which originated from the US) to focus on these timely and important issues of racial justice. The strike provided various digital and informative teach-ins “on police brutality and violence in our communities from both historical and contemporary perspectives” for students and professors to attend.
It is important that academics listen to BIPOC voices and learn from them, and the Scholar Strike provided the opportunity for professors and students alike to engage with these important discussions and resist anti-black violence in a more (virtually) tangible way.
My professor, Dr. Melissa Jacques, cancelled class in solidarity with the Scholar Strike and encouraged students to attend the teach-ins in lieu of her class. She kindly accepted the offer to explain why she was participating in the strike and why it is so important for academics to likewise participate:
As someone who teaches “critical thinking”—who makes statements about the relevance of the humanities to the larger world—I see the Scholar Strike as an opportunity to walk the talk. Rather than accept the self-serving view that the academy is somehow exempt from the conflicts and tensions of the world, we are being asked to see it as a reflection of and complicit in the world’s many forms of violence. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are rife within university communities. Systemic inequities are pervasive, effectively limiting the participation of people who are traditionally (institutionally) disenfranchised. These inequities are the continuing result of unconscious bias, conscious discrimination, and an ideology of meritocracy that ultimately serves the status quo. What the Digital Teach-Ins of this strike make clear is that transformation will take more than well-meaning acknowledgements that these inequities exist. Change requires us to listen—attentively—to those who are willing to talk about their experience. For those of us who inhabit this space with privilege, it requires us to look at our own complicity, in spite of the discomfort such awareness might produce. We are being given a unique opportunity to radically reimagine the academy and to transform our world. As Min Sook Lee explains in the first video of the Teach-In series:
“We’re living during one of the biggest civil rights movements of contemporary times. The moment to make change real is now, and education, we know this as activists, as scholars, as artists who work for social justice, education isn’t about teaching students how to make the trains run on time. It’s about working with students to engage in the issues of our times. […] This moment is too too important for us to sit back and do nothing. Change will not be gifted to us; we make change happen together, collectively.”
Dr. Melissa Jacques’ statement and Min Sook Lee’s quote powerfully emphasize the importance of academic participation in the Scholar Strike. I am proud to be a student of such a professor who values the necessity of protest and recognizes the important role of academics in enacting political and social change.
However, I had only Dr. Jacques cancel class in solidarity with the Scholar Strike. One of my other professors did not have class to cancel on those dates, and they sent a class announcement encouraging students to inform themselves, but others simply stayed silent.
While I understand it may be a difficult decision for professors to make, the professors who do participate and support the strike show their commitment to anti-racism and show that they are willing to make small (and personal) sacrifices in order to focus on racial justice.
It is encouraging to see professors engaged in political protests and show their support and solidarity with Black lives. It is also equally disappointing to see other professors not only hold class during the strike, but fail to acknowledge the Scholar Strike at all.
The Phoenix’s Coordinating Editor, Emmah Barber, also noticed a lack of participation from her professors. Being a fourth-year engineering student, she was disappointed that more of her professors did not reach out to students with information and resources regarding the Scholar Strike. A lack of discussion surrounding social justice issues in class has been an ongoing issue throughout her engineering undergraduate degree.
As white students, both Emmah and I cannot begin to imagine how it feels for our BIPOC peers to feel unacknowledged during this important time of advocacy for racial justice. It is understandable that professors want to maintain their academic schedules, especially with interruptions that have been caused by switching lectures to online platforms; however, these issues are just too pressing for our professors to remain silent.