on academic lectures

Over the past year and a half, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to organize some of ASSU’s academic seminars. From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Desmond Cole to Wab Kinew to Ben Wizner, seminars are part of our mandate as an academic union. Learning exists beyond the boundaries of the lecture hall, and we want our members to engage critically with the world and the topics presented. Ask questions, start conversations and take action. Intellectual engagement and academic curiosity is a key part of ASSU’s mandate.

But academia has its limits. We can take social justice classes where our classmates say cringeworthy things. We can take classes where the professor or a course text says things rooted in discredited ideas, long since abandoned. As bell hooks says, the classroom is not paradise. As great as speakers like Wab Kinew and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, and as honest their material is – I do acknowledge that these events attract progressive intellectuals and the middle class. There is a privilege inherent in attending lectures like this, and the danger is if we attend these lectures thinking “that was a good talk” but don’t critically engage beyond that. Our speakers have much to contribute, but we must make sure that we are getting as much as we can out of it, or we face a real risk of basking in the spectacle of academic lectures.

As a union, we have long believed that the academic experience and the lived experience are one and the same. The topics that are up for discussion are very much real, and not just interesting areas of academic inquiry. As a union, (that this year happens to have a majority POC executive) we believe in academic inquiry, but we also believe in grounding academia in the lived realities and experiences of people. We believe in anti-oppressive action, in using academia as a tool of liberation and social justice.

As you attend our lectures and events in the next few months, keep this mind. Ask yourself what can I do to take the speakers words and put them into action? This will be esp. relevant as we discuss the outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

I leave you with one of our favourite quotes at the union, on our website, from bell hooks:

“The academy is not a paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The Classroom, with all of its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”

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