U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Our Read-In

On Tuesday, February 7, professors, lecturers and graduate students in the school of Arts & Humanities at UT Dallas hosted an all-day read-in.  The theme of our read-in was “Humanists for Humanity” — “humanity” as an all-inclusive noun indicating that we stand against policies that make some of our students or colleagues feel unwelcome, and “humanity” as an adjective indicating that we stand for treating others with kindness, whether they are minorities or immigrants or LGBTQ folks or anyone else who is part of our university community.  From 9 to 5, volunteers took thirty-minute shifts and read aloud from whatever work or works each had chosen to share.

It was a very successful event.  But it didn’t start out as an event.  It started out as one person’s idea, then it became a shared goal among a few people with different ideas about how to best make it happen and who were willing to hear each other out, then it became a collective endeavor, then it became an organized event.  That process, or something like it, is probably fairly common for grassroots activism – though if you don’t engage in activism very often, it may all feel a little strange and new.  (Apparently, my “campus activism” clock strikes once every thirty years.  We have our moments.)

Still, everything feels a little strange and new for a lot of us right now.  At this historical moment, we seem to be in the midst of a new wave of political activism – a time of mass demonstrations, marches, protests, petitions, with small collectivities banding together to express shared values and call for action or change in accordance with those values, involving many people who have never before protested or demonstrated or marched for anything.  So, for the historical record – as an act of faith that there will be a time beyond this present moment, that there will still be history and historians who write it – I thought I’d put together a post describing how our own modest but meaningful event came to be, and how it unfolded throughout the day.

UT Dallas was among several Texas universities recently targeted by a white nationalist group who posted racist flyers in various areas of the school, including the building housing the A&H department; one flyer was posted immediately beneath the sign for the Ackerman Center for Holocaust studies.

This happened on Tuesday, January 31, and it happened right outside my classroom, and it apparently happened during the evening, when I was teaching.  I found out about it after I got home, and was looking at Twitter, and saw a post from a friend about flyers posted at Texas State.  The linked Twitter account for the hate-group that was bragging about those flyers boasted that they had also targeted UTD and posted  some pictures of their handiwork.

My sense of indignation, on behalf of our international students and our minority students – and, I have to say, on behalf of the idea of the university as a place of reasoned discourse — was immediate, as was my sense that this message of hatefulness and paranoia should be countered straightaway with words of wisdom and knowledge and kindness and inclusivity.  “We must do something about this” – that was my immediate and certain conclusion.

Of course there is an “I” folded up in that “we.”  And what a troublesome “I” it is! The temporal distance between my certain conviction that I am morally obligated to do something and my actually doing what I believe I ought to do can often be measured in milliseconds. When I believe that it is incumbent upon me to take immediate action, I don’t wait for anybody’s permission or blessing. This is neither a virtue nor a flaw – it is simply a feature of my character that can be useful or disastrous or something in between, depending on the circumstances.  Social movements need people like that.

But they need other kinds of people too, which is why my first course of action was to send out a message to several friends and colleagues on Facebook proposing that we hold an all-day read-in around the theme of “Humanists for Humanity” – or, if people preferred, “Humanists against Hate.”  That backchannel discussion prompted other backchannel discussions as the friends I contacted got in touch with their networks, and very soon there was a small cadre of lecturers, grad students, and professors in A&H that were interested in making this read-in happen.

I made a google spreadsheet so that people could sign up for time slots and post what they intended to read.  I didn’t want to post a link to the spreadsheet publicly, but I shared it among this backchannel network and encouraged others in the conversation to share it with their own circles of friends and associates.  I signed up for the early slot and asked a friend who is much better at poster-making (and many other things!) than I am to make a sign that we could display.

And I drafted an email that one of the professors had agreed to send out to the faculty mailing list.  But before that email went out, there were some details that people who were coming on board wanted to work through.  Should we ask the dean for permission to hold this event?  Should we put it off for a week so that we could generate more interest? Is it appropriate for faculty to organize a demonstration of this kind, or should we get some student groups to co-sponsor this?

On that last question, my thinking was as follows:  we should not leave it up to our students to organize an event affirming that they themselves are welcome on our campus.  That is the duty of the professoriate (to which, as a lecturer, I technically do not belong, though that never stops me from opining on what the professoriate ought to be or to do). And we should not look to students to shield us from criticism that we’re just a bunch of “tenured (and non-tenured) radicals” with an agenda. That criticism is going to come no matter what we do or don’t do.  As far as putting the event off went, that became less and less practicable as more people signed up for reading slots.

On asking the dean for permission, I recognized the wisdom of that course of action, but I wasn’t going to be the one to do it.  Nothing against the dean, but I chafed at the idea of obtaining anyone’s permission to read poetry with friends in the lobby. However, I knew that this was the sensible and professional and courteous thing to do, and I left it to someone else to do it with more deference and grace than I could possibly muster when I am in full Garrison mode.  Again, movements need all kinds of people, including the level-headed and circumspect.

It was a very good thing that someone asked the dean for his blessing. Not only did he enthusiastically support the idea of a read-in, but he signed up for an afternoon slot.  After that, a much more eloquent email than the one I had originally composed went out to all the A&H faculty. And once people got that email and saw the dean’s name on the sign-up sheet, the rest of the slots filled rather quickly.  Meanwhile, the partner of one of the professors who had signed on right away for the event designed a gorgeous flyer and display poster that we used as a graphic in a Facebook group created to publicize the event.  They also made a large posterboard display sign, cutting out the graphics and the letters by hand.

On the morning of the read-in, I got to campus an hour early and taped up some flyers on the doors coming into the A&H building.  As I was walking down the corridor on the fourth floor, I saw one of my students from last semester.  We said hello and he asked me what I was doing.  So I explained what the read-in was, and why we were hosting it, and for whom.  It was for students like him, I said:  for our international students, our Muslim students, our students who may be worried about their families in the wake of the recent travel ban targeting some groups and in the context of the larger wave of xenophobia that seems to be gripping much of the country.  “Come join us if you can,” I said.

In the foyer outside the A&H offices, there were a few students sitting at study tables – some reading, some chatting.  I went over and told them, somewhat sheepishly, that I was going to start reading out loud at 9:00, and I hoped it didn’t disturb them, and they were welcome to listen in or not.

When I started reading, I was all by myself in an otherwise empty circle of chairs.  I had chosen Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” a reflection on her experiences teaching Basic English at City College New York.  The essay is about the value of a humanistic education, especially for students who have been “tracked” by the school system or by society in ways that disempower them.  It’s about how the study of language and literature can be empowering and transformative.

A couple of minutes into what I feared would be a half-hour soliloquy, my former rhetoric student came and took a seat nearby.  How glad I was then to have chosen this piece about how much Adrienne Rich loved teaching writing and how she hoped that work would matter for her students beyond their time in her classroom.  Because that is always my hope too.

Not too long after my student came to sit in the circle, my friend arrived with her hand-made sign, painted on a piece of flat cardboard that she had cleverly shaped to stand up on its own.  For a while it was just the three of us in that circle, though I noticed that from time to time the students seated at the study tables would turn and listen for a spell.  Eventually, an undergraduate who was walking by stopped and sat down to listen in.  Then my turn was over, and it was my friend’s turn.  She read until about five minutes before she was scheduled to teach – she also read Adrienne Rich – and then I took over for the last few minutes of her scheduled time, reading the Declaration of Independence. A couple more faculty from the department and another student or two had joined the circle by then.

At ten o’clock, an hour into our read-in, I went to pick up the big display sign with our event logo; it was waiting in a professor’s office in another building.  When I got back to the A&H foyer, there were even more people sitting in that circle of chairs.

And that circle did not empty for the rest of the day.  The number of people in the circle waxed and waned and waxed again as the day went on, but there was always a little cluster of people there, instantiating and calling forth community through the act of reading and listening.  That’s what humanism is, that’s what humanists do, and it was important to all of us to publicly, visibly model that life and those values for our students and for each other.

Our reading circle said to those who passed and to those who paused (including many students, some of whom wanted to know the name of the author or the name of the piece that someone had just read), “This is who we are; this is what we value.  You are welcome here.”

For the record, here is a list of our readings, and a list of most of the readers.  (Even though it was a public event, I would not publicize the name of any participant without his or her explicit permission.  That’s just how I roll.)

9:00 AMAdrienne Rich, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions”Lora Burnett
9:30 AMAdrienne Rich, selectionsSara Keeth
10:00 AMFrederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”Natalie Ring
10:30 AMHenry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”; Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”Charissa Terranova
11:00 AMSelections from Conditions 5: The Black Women’s Issue; selections from This Bridge Called My BackShilyh Warren
11:30 AMEstelle Freedman, “Women’s Networks and Women’s Loyalties: Reflections on a Tenure Case”Annelise Heinz
12:00 noonSelections from an anthology of Arab poets of Andalusia; poems by Federico Garcia LorcaSean Cotter
12:30 PMWalt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (chapter one)Ashley Barnes
1:00Dorothy Sayers, “Are Women Human?”Pia Jakobsson
1:30Ivan Illich, “A Call to Celebration”; Herbert Marcuse, “New Forms of Control”Andy Amato
2:00William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public”
2:30writings by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales
3:00Langston Hughes “Let America be America Again”; selections from Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS; selections from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderland’s/La Frontera; selections from Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn; selections from Cheryl Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian; Judy Grahn’s “A Woman is Talking to Death” from The Work of a Common WomanAllene Nichols
3:30Speeches by Eleanor Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson
4:00Selections from Marcus Aurelius, from The Medea, Epictetus, and Juvenal
4:30Lillian Smith, selection from Killers of the Dream
4:45Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inaugural addressClay Reynolds

It was a good day, a good collective response by our community of humanists, working together to affirm our shared values and stand with each other and with our students.  It was also the first time many of us – including yours truly – have ever participated in a read-in.  But I bet it won’t be the last time.

Anyway, I thought it might be of interest or of use to give an account of this event, including some of the backchannel conversations and collaboration.  It’s important to recognize that successful efforts at building community draw from all kinds of contributors who bring all kinds of gifts and talents and temperaments.  While “my idea” is a good place to start, for any of us, “our idea” is always a better place to be.

This read-in ended up instantiating our idea of community. And our idea was a good one.

“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” – John Adams


4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for writing this, LD. And l find the list of what was read equally intriguing–reads (not surprisingly) like an intellectual history of dissent in America.

  2. Thanks Robert.

    It was fun and interesting to see the reading list take shape in real time on the sign-up sheet as people added readings and changed readings, added their names to share time slots, and so forth. At first, next to my own timeslot, I had written “Not sure — Emerson? Whitman? DuBois?” But I ended up sticking closer to my current project, and it worked out so well. I could not have predicted that one of my own writing students would be there to listen to an essay about the value of teaching writing, an essay that expresses a lot of my own values as a teacher — it was serendipitous, to say the least.

    But yes, I thought it would be worthwhile to publish not only an account of how this event came together, but also a record of what people chose to read. It was quite a mix of texts, an ad hoc syllabus of sorts. And people were so supportive of each other, and there was a lot of engagement from students. It was a good day, and I think we’ll probably do it again. (In fact, the aforementioned dean said that his office would be happy to sponsor such readings in the future, which was very generous.)

    And if I make it to my 70s, I guess I can look forward to another turn as campus-firebrand-for-a-day.

  3. Thanks Tim. There are some photos of the event at the link in the first paragraph — I didn’t take any of those pics, so didn’t presume to post them here. But they’ve been shared publicly, so people can check it out. It was a good day — a living demonstration of humanism at work. My guess is we’ll probably do something like it again. And even if it’s a one-off, it was very much worth doing.

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