Professors, administrators plan to take part in Scholar Strike for racial justice in academia

Tali Natter and Josh Picoult

Weeks following a tweet from University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler on Aug. 26 reading “I would be down as a professor to follow the NBA and Strike for a few days to protest police violence in America,” the hashtag #ScholarStrike now boasts more than 242,000 mentions on Twitter as academics organize a strike to address police violence, racialized violence, racism and white supremacy. 

On Sept. 8 and 9 – days chosen for their proximity to Labor Day to acknowledge the American labor movement and the contribution of laborers – more than 5,000 scholars in higher education, among them professors and administration from the College, will pause classes and administrative services to host virtual teach-ins. Via platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, professors will host teach-ins strategizing ways to build more equitable campus communities and share resources with people who signed up for the mailing list or visit the website.

“It is time for the academic community to do more than teach classes and offer reading lists on racism, policing, violence, and racial injustice,” co-organizers Butler and Grand View University Professor Kevin Gannon wrote in a post on Academe Blog. “It is time for us to pause the endless meetings on diversity and inclusion, disrupt our institutions’ routines, look outward to the American public, and share our dismay, disgust, and resolve.” 

Brittany Meché, the College’s Bolin Fellow in Environmental Studies, retweeted Butler’s original tweet, reaching other faculty members at the College including Assistant Professor of French Cécile Tresfels. The pair, who attended a protest against anti-Black racism in Williamstown together in June, collaborated to bring the events and ideas of the strike to the College community and garner administrative support. In an email to the Record, the two said that the public display of professors and administrators leaving their positions for two days is warranted and essential.

“The start of the semester is always whirlwind, now compounded by COVID, [and] I hope students find time to pause and contemplate the ongoing legacies of anti-Black racism in this country,” Meché said. 

Despite the fall semester at the College commencing on Sept. 10, after the conclusion of the strike, both professors plan to halt all work activities, ranging from course preparation, administrative work, and student advising during the strike. 

“For me, it seemed like a good way to show solidarity, to pause, reflect and sit with the heaviness of this moment,” Meché said. “Strikes have been invaluable in the fight for social justice … because the act of collectively withholding labor reveals the fundamental interconnectedness of society, the ways that multiple forms of work scaffold the many aspects of our lives.” 

While the Scholar Strike is being organized by colleges to combat anti-Blackness and institutional racism, the virtual elements of the movement serve to encourage the academic community to use their position as scholars to inform not just a campus, but a nation.  

“Part of what we want to do is not only to strike but to do a teaching and allow others to conduct their own teachings,” Butler said in an interview with CNN. 

Meché agreed with that sentiment, adding that although academics often do not view themselves as laborers, they are. “Many of us choose this work because we love seeking answers to challenging questions, we love working with students and encouraging them to seek out answers to the questions that perplex them,” she said. “But this is still a form of labor.”

Tresfels, who said she also supports the work stoppages and teach-ins happening nationwide, noted that “not everybody has the possibility to do so, especially colleagues in precarious and vulnerable positions.” 

The strike campaign aims to bring the realities of racial inequities, in academic spaces and nationally, to the forefront of student and faculty agendas in the coming days as classes begin across the country, with teach-ins addressing topics such as intellectual gatekeeping and over-policing on campuses.

“We’re not so much protesting our individual universities as we are protesting police violence and racial injustice in this country,” Butler clarified to CNN. This holds true at the College, where the professors have been coordinating with faculty and staff working with the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI).

The two professors noted that Jacqueline Hidalgo, the Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, has been “especially supportive.” Hidalgo brought word of the strike to Bilal Ansari, Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement in the OIDEI, and Aseel Abulhab, Assistant Director of the Davis Center for Intergroup Relations and Inclusive Programming, who will lead a teach-in about policing and anti-Black racism in Williamstown at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

“I hope to make a clear connection between the recent events in Williamstown with the historical, ongoing and current national/international climate,”Abulhab wrote in an email to the Record, alluding to the recent WPD lawsuit in which a sergeant accused the police chief of racial harassment and sexual assault. 

“While Williams can certainly feel like a secluded bubble, we are not actually secluded,” she continued. “We can connect with folks locally, and communities surrounding us in more intentional ways… Large systemic issues are reproduced here over and over again, and to fight injustice locally is to fight it at every other level.”

In addition to the Davis Center teach-in, Meché will attend a virtual meet up with other BIPOC pre- and post-doctoral fellows at the College, and Tresfels plans to submit a teach-in video on the different ways that racism shows up in French curricula to the Scholar Strike YouTube channel.

“This fall, I am following the advice of Prof. Ambereen Dadabhoy [of Harvey Mudd College], who encourages us to make whiteness visible in the curriculum, instead of presenting it as ‘un-raced,’ ‘neutral’ or ‘universal,’” wrote Tresfels, explaining how her upcoming classes will address the white gaze on non-European populations, France’s colonial history and the relationship between the gender binary and colonialism.

“I believe that we need to operate a radical pedagogical shift,” she said. “Not only in terms of what we teach but in terms of how we teach, how we grade, how we share and produce knowledge, how we engage with learners, etc. And we need to really engage with the fact that white supremacy pervades many of our behaviors and practices.”

“At the same time, white professors like me need to be vigilant that our activism does not get in the way of the work that anti-racist activists and scholars have been doing for decades.” This summer, Tresfels also participated in several anti-racist pedagogy trainings both organized by the College and other institutions, activists, students and educators.

Like Tresfels, Meché also frames her teaching through a lens of racial justice, addressing topics such as empire, capitalism, policing and resource extraction. “As activists and scholars have argued for generations, there can be no environmental justice without racial justice,” she said. “This [philosophy] guides my approach to environmental studies.”

Tresfels underscored the potential impact of this strike for Williams students and faculty. “I encourage students to use this time to create community and solidarity while in quarantine or off-campus,” she wrote. Meché agreed, and also urged students to talk to classmates, friends and family members about the issues raised by the strike, in addition to attending the virtual teach-in and exploring the resources through the #ScholarStrike hashtag.  

Meché, Tresfels and Abulhab all encouraged students to engage with these themes outside of the classroom. “Williams is a place where all of us learn and grow, but it is important that we don’t wait to apply our knowledge outside of this community,” Abulhab said. “There are ways to apply our knowledge and use our privileges right here, and I hope tomorrow’s dialogue unlocks a desire to do so for folks.” 

Both professors mentioned the power of social media, particularly the @blackatwilliams account where members of the College community, particularly students, share testimonies of racism experienced at the College. “There are a lot of Gen Z students and activists who educate people about social justice and decolonial history 24/7 on TikTok, without any compensation,” said Tresfels. “It would be great if students in quarantine or at home could uplift BIPOC creators on TikTok during the strike and on a regular basis, especially because they often get shadowbanned,” referring to the practice of platforms blocking a user or their content so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.

Meché said she has conflicting feelings about social media, and while it was helpful to introduce her to this strike among other actions, she noted it is “just one tool of many… People organized and strategized before these social media platforms existed and will continue to do so with or without them.”

On social media, through strikes, in the classroom and via intrapersonal conversations, the Scholar Strike and its organizers emphasized the need for ongoing anti-racism reckoning. “Most of my colleagues in academia are overworked and exhausted, and we know that a lot of students and staff are too,” Tresfels said. “This is not sustainable. We need to take care of each other and to see this upcoming semester as a way to nurture community building and as an opportunity to redefine higher education.”