American Studies Professor Reflects on Dissent Lectures in POV

The “Point of View” (POV) blog has been re-opened for posting by faculty in the arts and humanities broadly defined:  We encourage you to share your thoughts, either as individuals or by posting departmental statements.  All posts should be sent to DHI Associate Director Molly McCarthy (

Julie Sze, associate professor and director of the American Studies program, offers “A report from the Quad- the Dissent Lectures” in the most recent post to the POV blog:

If I had a penny for every time I heard the following phrase: “let’s make opportunity out of this crisis,” I’d be maybe just wealthy enough to send my kids to UC in 10 years.

And yet- that’s exactly what has happened in a post-pepper spray UC Davis. I’ve been on several email discussions where individual faculty members have welcomed the sensitive and informed level of debate and discussion among a previously fractured professoriate, where people have described our 7, 13, and 15 + years on this campus as isolating. Never in my time on this campus have I seen more cross-disciplinary and cross-college conversation on issues that truly matter- the future of public education, the role of dissent, the critique of privatization. Many faculty are galvanized, and that is a good thing.

One opportunity that came out of this crisis was the Dissent Lectures, where over 25 UC Davis faculty lectured on topics of dissent and social movements. This series was put together over a span of 3 days (!), working closely with student activists, and aided by the sunny (albeit chilly) Northern California weather. My contribution was to update the schedule and to help get the word out. The idea was splendidly utopian- learning for the sake of learning- no need to be enrolled in a particular class, or even to be an enrolled student. The idea of people coming together on any given topic in a particular moment in time in a public space invites chaos, unpredictability, and randomness- the polar opposite of business as usual. And come together people did, in groups as small as 5, and as large as 40 (see Attachment A for the original call). The values spurring the Dissent Lectures are the same that animate UC Berkeley’s Open University, which will continue in the new year.

The faculty who lectured are the leading experts in their fields (Comparative Literature, Theatre and Dance, Design, History, Sociology, Linguistics, Education, English, Ethnic Studies, American and Technocultural Studies). In another context, getting this list together would take months, fees, and planning.  In this context, all it took was a desire to teach what they knew, to learn from others and the situation, and patience/ good humor. All the lectures took place in either the geodesic Dome on the newly occupied Quad, or in Dutton Hall, where student activists occupied and renamed Paolo Freire Hall for 2 weeks in the Financial Aid offices.

I was fortunate to attend some of these events, some of which were taped and will be uploaded to some public site. Others were not, for it was finals week and none of these events were on anyone’s schedules to begin with. On the inaugural day, was historian Ari Kelman, speaking on Abolitionism. Later that evening was Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor speaking on the Alien and Sedition Acts and the legacy of the American revolution for free speech in the U.S. and Holly Cooper at the law school, working prisoner’s rights.

The rest of the week saw major scholars of art and radicalism, both historical (Ari Kelman from American Studies) and contemporary (Larry Bogad radical guerrilla artist with the Yes Men and Bob Ostertag), leading historians and sociologists of race (Orozpeza, Haynes, Kim, Deeb-Sosa), gender and sexuality (Freeman, Goodman), and of human rights (Ojeda). The Chair of the Native American Studies Dept., Ines Hernandez-Avila, who actually knew Paolo Freire, lectured in the renamed Freire /Dutton Hall. Noha Radwan spoke about the links between Arab Spring and the activism at UC Davis. Simon Sadler, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the radical structure of the dome, lectured in the Dome, on the radical art and architecture of the Paris Commune, 1968, and the UC Davis campus.

What happens when students return in January is an open question. Some faculty want to continue the Dissent Lectures. That would be a good way to continue the conversation that has been happening for a while, but which really became activated and enlarged after Nov. 18th. Some faculty want to “teach” the crisis, whether through independent studies, or within an existing class structure.

All in all, despite the cliché of “crisis/ opportunity,” that’s what happened under the auspices of the Dissent Lectures.

Attachment A

Here’s the email written by Sasha Abramsky, a journalist and lecturer with the University Writing Program in his initial call:

…. it strikes me that UC Davis has, however accidentally, suddenly ended up in a position that could place the campus in as pivotal a role in shaping the politics of dissent in the coming months and years as was UC Berkeley in 1964. Some of the students are aware of this fact; many of them are not yet. But, over the coming weeks, they will become increasingly aware of this.

This evening I took my writing students onto the quad. We sat in a circle and I had them take it in turns to read aloud from Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd) from two books on the Columbia University 1968 uprising, and from an Abbie Hoffman speech in which he looks back on the emergence of “the sixties” and the politics of protest/discontent.

The students were fascinated by this, and as the readings went on others drifted into the circle and joined the group. None of them had learned, either in school or at university, about 1968, in any way, shape or form; none of them had more than the faintest notion of what the 1964 Free Speech Movement was. I’m sure, if I’d have asked, that I would have found almost total ignorance of the other waves of dissent in US history, be it suffragist, or farm workers, anti-slavery, anti-war, or for union recognition in the 1930s. The one area they have some knowledge of, I would guess, is the Civil Rights movement.

They don’t know not because they don’t want to know but because this has all become hidden history. In moments like this, it seems to me particularly important to unhide such history; not because the past replays itself in the present, but because the past has at least some lessons for the present.

NOTE: For earlier posts, please visit