Chris Smith deviated from his regular curriculum during in his 50-minute zoom class on Wednesday morning. This small class of six centers around art performance—it’s an independent study course—but on this day, he talked about the Black Panther party.
It was the second day of a strike among professors and students on campuses across the country. Smith took part in the strike—or in his case, “teach-in”—by dedicating each of his class times to talking about racism in America.
He clicked through photos of the Black Panther Party. The first showed a group of female members posed outside of a west Oakland home in 1970. In the second, twelve children stood in formation, adorned in freshly pressed clothes and black berets. Another showed a handful of Black Panthers armed with long rifles.
Each told a story of strategy the group used. As he spoke, students nodded along. But Anne Wharton’s video was hidden—replaced with the hashtag: Scholar Strike—This strike wasn’t only for professors.
The day before class, Wharton had sent her classmates and professor’s an email:
Dear Professor, I will be present for class today but will refrain from regular class activity to demonstrate solidarity with the national hashtag, scholar strike for racial justice…
This two-day national strike started with a simple tweet: “I would be down as a professor to follow the NBA and strike for a few days to protest police violence in America.” University of Pennsylvania professor, Anthea Butler, tweeted it out on August 26. Immediately others agreed, including Dr. Smith. And quickly, that tweet turned into a movement, spreading like wildfire, Smith said.
“I was like I’m in, I’m so in. You tell me how I can help.” In a matter of days, educators from across the country came together to organize the two-day strike. Volunteers created social media accounts and a website stocked with resources for instructors. Educators from around the country, including Smith, contributed video lessons to the group’s YouTube page—tools to help guide these conversations.
"It was timely and because Twitter enables people to find others of shared perspectives, it spread very quickly,” Smith said.
Unlike other worker strikes, the Texas Tech professor argues, this one is not the product of the breakdown of negotiations. “It’s a bunch of workers on a job that say this is wrong and the only way we can bring home how really strongly we feel about this wrongness is by putting down our tools.”
Because Texas is a right-to-work state, instructors cannot strike. So instead, some instructors at Texas Tech decided to “teach-in”—or dedicate their class time to conversations centered on racism.
“It’s About time,” said Texas Tech graduate student, Rafael Powell. He first learned about the strike from that email Wharton sent.
“Even as a black academic I’m still the small percentage,” he said. “I’m still the minutiae and now I feel like as academia tries to take a stand as a whole, more of the voices and these items can get out there.” He’s excited to see where this goes.
People were asked to take part in the Scholar Strike in whatever way that fit them best. While some held conversations, others stayed silent, refraining from class discussion and turning off their Zoom cameras—like Wharton.
Going silent on Zoom was a lot more emotionally intense for her, she explained. Throughout her classes she had to tell herself it was ok to just sit and listen. But in each class she attended in silent protest, her professors brought up the strike and gave space for students to talk about racism in the country. One teacher even had her address the class to explain the strike.
Wharton thinks that the digital space has given this event a particular edge. “In the real world you can walk past a strike,” she said. “On zoom you’re looking at the professor—my little Scholar Strike square is right there—You can’t look away from it. So actually, the digital environment is amplifying it…it’s in your face. It is really aggressive.”
Her work doesn’t stop there. Wharton’s next plan of action is to meet with each of her professors to talk about how the school can do better. She is also helping to register voters—a place people can start to enact change.
Smith quoted the late John Lewis by saying, “Sometimes you have to make good trouble. And I think scholar strike is about making good trouble.”
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