Reading Protests

How do we “read” protests? Museums are collecting signs from the Women’s March on Washington as well as those from sister events all over the world, Facebook’s live video feature brings the chanting to your own device allowing you to watch from anywhere, news stations report on these events with headlines like this one from the Detroit Free Press: “Thousands gather at DTW, around Michigan to protest Voldemort’s* ban.” Our textbook, Everyone’s An Author, includes photos from a student-led protest against low wages paid to campus workers (7) and of a Black Lives Matter protest with a caption that reads “Protestors use posters, raised fists, and more to communicate their positions” (6). Here are my own photos from yesterday’s protest at DTW and two from the Women’s March on Lansing:

Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.My daughter at the protest at DTW catching snowflakes on her tongue.One protest sign reads Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees. One sign reads
My friend Laura and I holding our signs at the protest. Mine says
A woman dressed up as a vagina at the Women's March. Her costume is pink and made of a feather boa, gemstones, and fabric. She is wearing a black Afro on her head and is holding a sign that reads Signs from the Women's March on Lansing. One reads
Yesterday, this image was circulating on Facebook:

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I shared it. Because I do not yet have tenure, which means that I lack the protection that some of my colleagues who have fulfilled their duties to earn tenure can fall back on, I have to be especially judicious in what I choose to share in the classroom and how. Unfortunately, I can’t come in and say “fuck Trump.”*** Fortunately, I teach writing, and part of writing is reading, which means we can talk about how to read these events – the artifacts, the rhetoric, the process of organizing, the role that communication and new media plays in mobilizing individuals and communities, the grounds on which they form and what they respond to, and that allows us a platform to explore and critique the messages we are fed, and the opportunities we have to participate.**

In ENG 131, I’m working on revising our song analysis assignment to include a greater variety of media and to emphasize the people responsible for creating that media; in other words, who was that person, what did they do, and why was it effective? I want to bring protests into our work because they are rich for rhetorical analysis: how do people decide what to put on signs? Which signs are most effective (which signs make it into photographs? Which signs are most memorable? Do signs have an impact on elected officials? Who are the signs for?)? What makes a well-organized protest, rally, or other similar event? How do people choose to make their values and beliefs visible? Who has access to these events? Who participates? How are these events written about in the news? Does it differ depending on the news source and their bias or relationship to the event itself and/or its sponsors? 

In ENG 132, we’re going to read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” which was originally meant to be performed as a radio documentary. This unit is framed in two ways: one, as an example of the second use of literature we’re talking about (knowledge), and two, as a means of reading critically, making connections, and establishing context. For the workers in BOTD, silicosis literally took their voices away. Because they were black in 1930’s America, they had little authority in court, and their representatives were all white men. Students will have an assignment in two parts: an annotated section of the poem that branches outward to illustrate context, and a transmediation that pairs the poem with another text, song, work of art, or film and puts them in conversation. We’ll talk about witness, a term used here to refer to our obligation as individuals and as communities to respond (Rukeyser would say that poetry demands a “total response”) when we encounter predjudice or discrimination, acts of violence or hate crimes, and/or systemic issues that oppress a group of people – something that we encounter in real time now thanks to new media and how quickly footage circulates. What kind of response is owed? What does it look like? Is clicking “like” or “share” sufficient? What action is appropriate? What is sufficient? What do you do when you feel powerless? How do you learn more?

Texts are not the only media we read. We read video, we read action, we read advertisements, we read music. Reading, as we’ve discussed pretty extensively in ENG 131, is a rhetorical act. It is purposeful, it varies depending on genre and use, and it is an active process that now more than ever requires you to dig in and around and beyond the initial document. I’m looking forward to working on these assignments this semester; I’ve done them before (or variations of them), but I think the current social and political climate in our country will make for an interesting next few months. That feels like a gross understatement, actually, but I’m being smart here and also trying to keep my head above water. 

*I installed the Chrome extension called Trump To Voldemort because I can’t bring myself to use his name. My daughter calls him Turd, I’ve heard people use “45,” and “President Electoral,” but I just…I’m not there. Voldemort gives me some hope, because I know from the Harry Potter series that good triumphs over evil, and that there is power even among divided houses (Gryffindor couldn’t have won the Battle of Hogwarts without Slytherin!).

**In the middle of writing this, my next-door office neighbor met with his Honors student; they are working on a project that provides a historical overview of protest music, and I’ve jumped on board. So excited to see what comes out of it! All the playlists! I loaned her my copy of Of Poetry and Protest, it’s a book I picked up last semester that I have yet to sit down and read all the way through. 

***I also want to reiterate here that I am not in the business of pushing anybody toward any political platform. All views get space so long as those views a) do not oppress or attack anyone, and b) can be backed up with evidence. This is a big part of what we do in composition courses. We talk about argument. We analyze texts. We evaluate evidence and learn to be media literate. We also LISTEN to one another (we covered this on Day 2 of ENG 131) before making judgments. We do not treat argument as war. We make sure to practice inclusive, intentional position-taking, including positions of resistance. Language can be violent. I am not in the business of violence. I am, however, in the business of teaching young people to step up when needed, step back when it’s someone else’s turn, and most importantly, to challenge and critique the systems that we participate in. On that note, I probably shouldn’t say “fuck Trump,” but we’re talking about the meme, here. Also, Pioneers Press makes good stuff. 

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