Movement Pedagogy: Beyond the Class/Identity Impasse

Mor­ris Louis, Alpha Kap­pa, 1960.

The left is buzzing. Two themes are emerg­ing as touch­stones: first, an excite­ment that social­ist ideas are increas­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty; sec­ond, an appar­ent impasse between what’s been called class pol­i­tics and iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. The two themes dance with and around each oth­er, one enliven­ing and the oth­er threat­en­ing. The sup­posed impasse between class and iden­ti­ty might be seen as one of the great­est threats to con­tem­po­rary move­ment strug­gles – that the old­est trick in the book is to weak­en the left by get­ting activists fight­ing about class, race, gen­der so that a coali­tion to cre­ate a bet­ter world is impos­si­ble. Yet what threat­ens the excite­ment, this dif­fer­ence, is also the most poten­tial­ly enliven­ing: if we can work through and with these divi­sions we can build (and have built) mass col­lec­tive action. 

None of this is new. Oth­ers have writ­ten elo­quent­ly about dif­fer­ence, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and col­lec­tive action. Some have engaged in insight­ful analy­sis of the sup­posed class/identity impasse. We want to inter­vene here by chal­leng­ing the fram­ing of this dichoto­my; rather than take one side or the oth­er, we see the impasse as the fig­ment of a cer­tain imag­ined rela­tion to the cur­rent polit­i­cal land­scape. As edu­ca­tion researchers and activists frus­trat­ed by the terms of this imag­ined rela­tion both in writ­ing and in move­ment spaces, we have a dif­fer­ent imag­ined rela­tion, anoth­er ide­ol­o­gy where this impasse doesn’t appear. Think­ing about orga­niz­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly – cen­ter­ing the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of activism, or the rit­u­al prac­tices involved in try­ing to change rela­tions of pro­duc­tion – gets us to this oth­er ide­ol­o­gy. 

Put dif­fer­ent­ly, if we think ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about the impasse threat­en­ing the left there is no impasse at all. 

Our approach rein­vig­o­rates and builds upon a con­cep­tion of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics root­ed in a cri­tique of struc­tur­al oppres­sion. Salar Mohan­desi notes that much con­tem­po­rary rhetoric on iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics lacks the struc­tur­al cri­tique that was so cen­tral to its his­to­ry in rad­i­cal social move­ments. As a result, he argues that “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has now increas­ing­ly become an obsta­cle to uni­ty.” Beyond an indi­vid­u­al­is­tic project of list­ing per­son­al priv­i­leges and dis­ad­van­tages, we see the pol­i­tics of iden­ti­ty as one of posi­tion­al­i­ty: a recog­ni­tion of our dif­fer­ent loca­tions with­in inter­sect­ing sys­tems of oppres­sion, includ­ing cap­i­tal­ism, patri­archy and white suprema­cy. This cri­tique was force­ful­ly made by black fem­i­nists in the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive, who chal­lenged a uni­ver­sal­ist vision of social­ism that denied racial, gen­dered, and sex­u­al injus­tice. Their 1977 state­ment called on orga­niz­ers to “artic­u­late the real class sit­u­a­tion of per­sons who are not mere­ly race­less, sex­less, work­ers, but for whom racial and sex­u­al oppres­sion are sig­nif­i­cant deter­mi­nants of their working/economic lives.” With­out address­ing these process­es, we risk repro­duc­ing these injus­tices in our move­ments.

In this essay, we sug­gest that when we think ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about orga­niz­ing, we arrive at a coali­tion between con­cepts that can appear to be incom­men­su­rate. Think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly ren­ders a coali­tion between the uni­ver­sal­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with class strug­gle, and the posi­tion­al­i­ty that is key to a rad­i­cal iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. Thus, we con­tend that the field of edu­ca­tion offers cru­cial lessons for today’s activists. Attend­ing to the actu­al arrange­ments of voic­es and minds and bod­ies in class­rooms and move­ments, what peo­ple actu­al­ly do when they come togeth­er to fight and unlearn oppres­sive rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, shows a link where most ide­olo­gies on offer today show a gap. By look­ing at the his­to­ry of where move­ments and class­rooms have met – crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy – we find exam­ples of how uni­ver­sal­i­ty and posi­tion­al­i­ty meet to form coali­tion. 

What fol­lows is a sto­ry from 30 years ago, about how a col­lege class, try­ing to study and orga­nize against struc­tur­al inequal­i­ty, had to change course. Mid­way through the semes­ter, pro­fes­sor and stu­dents aban­doned the ped­a­gogy and cur­ricu­lum they start­ed with, even chang­ing the name of the course to reflect their shift in strat­e­gy to cre­ate social change. In so doing, they offer an exam­ple of a ped­a­gog­i­cal approach to orga­niz­ing: how to build coali­tion across groups whose iden­ti­ties dif­fer, and how to build coali­tion between the con­cepts of iden­ti­ty and uni­ver­sal­ism.

Coalition 607

The sto­ry begins with a 15-foot racist stat­ue. In 1987, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son fra­ter­ni­ty named FIJI threw a par­ty fea­tur­ing a huge “Fiji Native” – a like­ness of a brown man with a bone through his nose. Racial ten­sions had been high on cam­pus, and Eliz­a­beth Ellsworth, a young pro­fes­sor in the School of Edu­ca­tion work­ing on pol­i­tics, media, and cur­ricu­lum the­o­ry, want­ed to teach a class exam­in­ing these ten­sions, with an eye towards activism. In an arti­cle reflect­ing on the expe­ri­ence, she explains that her goal was to “design a course in media and ped­a­gogy that would work not only to clar­i­fy the struc­tures of insti­tu­tion­al racism … but would also use that under­stand­ing to plan and car­ry out a polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion in that for­ma­tion.”

Ellsworth drew from the rel­a­tive­ly new field of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy to design the course and fur­nish its cur­ricu­lum. Cur­ry Mal­ott has argued that there are at least two his­to­ries of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy: aca­d­e­m­ic crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy and rev­o­lu­tion­ary crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy. The lat­ter is root­ed in the edu­ca­tion­al under­pin­nings of rev­o­lu­tions against rul­ing class­es through­out human his­to­ry. The for­mer is rel­a­tive­ly recent. Isaac Gottes­man makes the case that aca­d­e­m­ic crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy emerged from Amer­i­can cul­tur­al the­o­rist Hen­ry Giroux’s work in the late 1970s and 1980s. Giroux mixed post-Marx­ist con­cep­tions of ide­ol­o­gy and hege­mo­ny, a con­cern for youth cul­ture root­ed in cul­tur­al stud­ies, and lib­er­al con­cep­tions of cit­i­zen­ship, pub­lic sphere, and nation-state to form a crit­i­cal the­o­ry of school­ing. Asso­ci­at­ing it with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work of Paulo Freire, specif­i­cal­ly the book The Ped­a­gogy of the Oppressed, the the­o­ry became pop­u­lar among promi­nent edu­ca­tion schol­ars like Stan­ley Aronowitz, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, and Joe Kinch­e­loe. Crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy – Giroux’s term – became a pow­er­ful cur­rent in edu­ca­tion­al research in the 1990s.

As it gained pop­u­lar­i­ty in the US, crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy cast the class­room teacher (from kinder­garten to grad­u­ate school) as an organ­ic intel­lec­tu­al who con­fronts unjust social struc­tures through class­room dis­cus­sion, pro­mot­ing crit­i­cal con­scious­ness to achieve val­ues like democ­ra­cy, equal­i­ty, and lib­er­a­tion. At the core of this ped­a­gog­i­cal per­spec­tive was the idea that dia­logue can be used as a tool to fight exploita­tive social struc­tures: the crit­i­cal ped­a­gogue fos­ters stu­dent empow­er­ment by invit­ing them to speak open­ly about expe­ri­ences of oppres­sion, ana­lyze the insti­tu­tions of oppres­sion around them, and decon­struct oppres­sive mean­ings in the broad­er cul­ture. Ulti­mate­ly, Giroux would use the word “resis­tance” to char­ac­ter­ize the the­o­ry, call­ing on teach­ers to raise stu­dents’ con­scious­ness in the name of rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy.

Ellsworth had stud­ied crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy care­ful­ly and incor­po­rat­ed it into her course, which she called Cur­ricu­lum and Instruc­tion 607: Media and Anti-racist Ped­a­go­gies. She describes the diverse group of stu­dents it drew, includ­ing “Asian Amer­i­can, Chicano/a, Jew­ish, Puer­to Rican, and Anglo Euro­pean men and women from the Unit­ed States, and Asian, African, Ice­landic, and Cana­di­an inter­na­tion­al stu­dents.” This diverse con­text seemed ide­al for engag­ing in crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy. And yet, prob­lems arose as soon as the class began.

When invit­ed to speak about injus­tices they had expe­ri­enced and wit­nessed on cam­pus, stu­dents strug­gled to com­mu­ni­cate clear­ly about racism. They had a hard time speak­ing and lis­ten­ing to one anoth­er about the main sub­ject of the course. Rather than dia­logue pro­vid­ing grounds for sol­i­dar­i­ty, “the defi­ant speech of stu­dents and professor…constituted fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges to and rejec­tions of the voic­es of some class­mates and often the pro­fes­sor.” Ellsworth began to ques­tion the lim­i­ta­tions of an approach to dia­logue that assumes “all mem­bers have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak, all mem­bers respect oth­er mem­bers’ rights to speak and feel safe to speak, and all ideas are tol­er­at­ed and sub­ject­ed to ratio­nal crit­i­cal assess­ment against fun­da­men­tal judg­ments and moral prin­ci­ples.” These assump­tions were not bear­ing out in her class­room due to the vast­ly dif­fer­ent his­to­ries, expe­ri­ences, and per­spec­tives of those in the room.

There was dif­fi­cul­ty, pain, and dead­lock in com­mu­ni­cat­ing about the social struc­ture of the uni­ver­si­ty, a dead­lock that fell along classed, racial, gen­dered and nation­al lines. Like a bro­ken win­dow, fis­sures between the expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives of Ellsworth and her stu­dents formed cracks, which then caused more cracks, until no one could see each oth­er clear­ly.

Con­trary to crit­i­cal pedagogy’s promise of lib­er­a­tion through dia­logue, Ellsworth’s class­room was filled with uncom­fort­able silences, con­fu­sions, and stale­mates caused by the frag­men­ta­tion. The stu­dents and pro­fes­sor could not achieve their stat­ed goal of under­stand­ing insti­tu­tion­al racism and stop­ping its busi­ness-as-usu­al at the uni­ver­si­ty. She recalls that

[t]hings were not being said for a num­ber of rea­sons. These includ­ed fear of being mis­un­der­stood and/or dis­clos­ing too much and becom­ing too vul­ner­a­ble; mem­o­ries of bad expe­ri­ences in oth­er con­texts of speak­ing out; resent­ment that oth­er oppres­sions (sex­ism, het­ero­sex­ism, fat oppres­sion, clas­sism, anti-Semi­tism) were being mar­gin­al­ized in the name of address­ing racism – and guilt for feel­ing such resent­ment; con­fu­sion about lev­els of trust and com­mit­ment about those who were allies to one another’s group strug­gles; resent­ment by some stu­dents of col­or for feel­ing that they were expect­ed to dis­close more and once again take the bur­den of doing ped­a­gog­ic work of edu­cat­ing White students/professor about the con­se­quences of White mid­dle class priv­i­lege; resent­ment by White stu­dents for feel­ing that they had to prove they were not the ene­my.

The class seemed to be repro­duc­ing the very oppres­sive con­di­tions it sought to chal­lenge. As they reflect­ed on these obsta­cles, Ellsworth and her stu­dents decid­ed to alter the terms of their engage­ment. They replaced the uni­ver­sal­ism of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy, in which stu­dents were imag­ined to all enter dia­logue from sim­i­lar loca­tions, with a sit­u­at­ed ped­a­gogy that fore­ground­ed the chal­lenge of work­ing col­lec­tive­ly from their vast­ly dif­fer­ent posi­tions. This shift com­plete­ly altered the tac­tics in the course. Rather than per­form­ing the teacher role as an eman­ci­pa­to­ry expert pre­sumed able to cre­ate a uni­ver­sal crit­i­cal con­scious­ness through dia­logue, Ellsworth became a coun­selor, help­ing to orga­nize field trips, potlucks, and col­lab­o­ra­tions between stu­dents and move­ment groups around cam­pus. These activ­i­ties helped to build rela­tions of trust and mutu­al sup­port with­out pre­sum­ing that all stu­dents entered the class­room from the same posi­tion. Rather than hold­ing class togeth­er in a tra­di­tion­al way, Ellsworth met with stu­dents one on one, dis­cussing par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences, his­to­ries, and feel­ings with them, talk­ing through these new activ­i­ties.

As trust began to form out of the morass of divi­sion, stu­dents cre­at­ed affin­i­ty groups based on shared expe­ri­ences and analy­ses. The groups met out­side of class to pre­pare for in-class meet­ings, which “pro­vid­ed some par­tic­i­pants with safer home bases from which they gained support…and a lan­guage for enter­ing the larg­er class­room inter­ac­tions each week.” The affin­i­ty groups were a par­a­digm shift. The class went from a col­lec­tion of atom­ized indi­vid­u­als to a net­work of shared and unshared expe­ri­ences work­ing in uni­son. Ellsworth writes that, “once we acknowl­edged the exis­tence, neces­si­ty, and val­ue of these affin­i­ty groups we began to see our task as…building a coali­tion among mul­ti­ple, shift­ing, inter­sect­ing, and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry groups car­ry­ing unequal weights of legit­i­ma­cy with­in the cul­ture of the class­room. Halfway through the semes­ter, stu­dents renamed the class Coali­tion 607.” Ellsworth describes this move from frag­men­ta­tion to coali­tion as com­ing togeth­er based on what the group did not share, rather than what they did share. Ulti­mate­ly the class gen­er­at­ed pro­pos­als for direct action to con­front struc­tur­al inequal­i­ties at the uni­ver­si­ty.

Why doesn’t this feel empowering?

In 1989, Ellsworth pub­lished her now-famous arti­cle reflect­ing on the Coali­tion 607 expe­ri­ence. Provoca­tive­ly enti­tled, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empow­er­ing? Work­ing through the Repres­sive Myths of Crit­i­cal Ped­a­gogy,” she used her expe­ri­ences in this course to cri­tique what she saw as a uni­ver­sal­ist mod­el of voice, dia­logue and lib­er­a­tion embed­ded with­in the assump­tions of crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy. At the heart of this prob­lem was a fail­ure to rec­og­nize the fact that stu­dents do not all enter into dia­logue on equal ter­rain. Instead, the social con­text of the class­room – like any oth­er – is shaped by the very unequal his­to­ries and struc­tures that crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy seeks to address. Thus, the idea that Ellsworth and her stu­dents might set aside their dif­fer­ences in order to tack­le insti­tu­tion­al racism on cam­pus proved naive, and even harm­ful. Instead, it was through a ped­a­gog­i­cal shift to coali­tion that they were ulti­mate­ly able to build col­lec­tive action. These actions were root­ed not in claims of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, but in a com­mit­ment to build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty across struc­tur­al divi­sions.

Ellsworth’s sto­ry offers use­ful lessons for con­tem­po­rary move­ment debates – debates that are often framed around an appar­ent dichoto­my of class uni­ver­sal­ism ver­sus iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. The ques­tion, “why doesn’t this feel empow­er­ing?” ges­tures toward the sub­tle (and not-so-sub­tle) process­es of exclu­sion that occur with­in many move­ment spaces, where the seem­ing­ly neu­tral terms of debate obscure the spe­cif­ic per­spec­tives that guide our agen­das, strate­gies, and dis­cus­sions. As Peter Frase notes, “appeals to class as the uni­ver­sal iden­ti­ty too often mask an attempt to uni­ver­sal­ize a par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ty, and exclude oth­ers.” Yet, Ellsworth and her stu­dents did not sim­ply retreat into sep­a­rate cor­ners when these divi­sions flared; instead, they rethought the terms of their engage­ment in order to devel­op strate­gies for work­ing togeth­er across dif­fer­ence. It was by think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about orga­niz­ing that Ellsworth and her stu­dents arrived at a strat­e­gy of coali­tion.

Of course, the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of move­ment spaces dif­fer from those of the class­room, and these dif­fer­ences hold par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges for the ped­a­gog­i­cal project we are describ­ing. For one, folks who come togeth­er in move­ment spaces – from meet­ings to social media forums – are often com­ing from even more dis­parate his­to­ries and expe­ri­ences than those found in the class­room. The mem­bers of Ellsworth’s class occu­pied diverse posi­tions, but they all shared the insti­tu­tion­al loca­tion of stu­dent. The same can­not be assumed of those who come togeth­er to fight for uni­ver­sal health­care, or hous­ing jus­tice. A sec­ond issue is one of reten­tion. The mem­bers of Ellsworth’s course may have dis­en­gaged when prob­lems arose, but they con­tin­ued to return to class because they were insti­tu­tion­al­ly oblig­at­ed as stu­dents. By con­trast, when these kinds of fis­sures emerge in move­ment spaces, they are like­ly to dri­ve peo­ple away entire­ly. Thus, the stakes for think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about orga­niz­ing are that much greater.

Ped­a­gogy is often sec­ond nature in class­rooms, where­as in oth­er spaces, while just as impor­tant, it is a dis­tant con­cern. Yet we are not the first to draw con­nec­tions between what hap­pens in class­rooms and in move­ments. As not­ed above, crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy is deeply indebt­ed to the work of Paulo Freire, whose approach to dia­logue in pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion was not designed for school­ing, but as a move­ment strat­e­gy for orga­niz­ing Brazil­ian work­ing class adults. Con­tem­po­rary edu­ca­tion schol­ars like Aziz Choudry high­light the learn­ing that hap­pens in social move­ments, such as the Que­bec stu­dent strike of 2012, through “talk­ing, exchang­ing, march­ing togeth­er, claim­ing and cre­at­ing space, con­fronting pow­er, build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ties and trust.” What we can add to this is a con­sid­er­a­tion of the lessons edu­ca­tion has to offer the con­tem­po­rary US left, in the face of what many per­ceive as an impasse. Coali­tion 607 reveals what’s pos­si­ble when we take seri­ous­ly not only the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions we seek to change (i.e., racism on cam­pus), but also the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of activist work itself (i.e., forg­ing col­lec­tive action across struc­tur­al divides). It was through this ped­a­gog­i­cal approach to orga­niz­ing that Ellsworth and her stu­dents reached coali­tion.

We find the Ellsworth exam­ple par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful because it takes place in an edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion where ped­a­gogy is front and cen­ter, but her class­room is devot­ed to chang­ing the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion at the insti­tu­tion in ques­tion. Coali­tion 607 is a par­a­digm case of peo­ple estab­lish­ing rela­tions of activism while try­ing to change rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. They estab­lish those activist rela­tions posi­tion­al­ly, tak­ing seri­ous­ly where each stu­dent comes from in the social struc­ture, rather than eras­ing those dif­fer­ences in the name of some uni­ver­sal val­ue. Ellsworth jet­ti­sons crit­i­cal pedagogy’s strat­e­gy of teacher-as-eman­ci­pa­to­ry expert of uni­ver­sal lib­er­a­tion for a new strat­e­gy of teacher-as-eman­ci­pa­to­ry coun­selor amidst posi­tion­al dif­fer­ence, and this cre­ates move­ment towards the col­lec­tive goal the for­mer strat­e­gy sought to achieve. In doing so, she shows us what think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about move­ments can reveal: a coali­tion between uni­ver­sal­i­ty and posi­tion­al­i­ty where the impasse between iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and class strug­gle is not an impasse at all.

Ellsworth’s coali­tion – what we call think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly about orga­niz­ing – is an exam­ple of how to get to the imag­ined rela­tion that dis­solves the alleged impasse between class strug­gle and iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics: think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly cre­ates an ide­ol­o­gy of coali­tion rather than an ide­ol­o­gy of impasse.

We can apply this insight from class­rooms to activist spaces by exam­in­ing a recent pro­pos­al adopt­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca. At the nation­al con­ven­tion in August 2017, DSA mem­bers debat­ed a con­tro­ver­sial res­o­lu­tion call­ing for a rig­or­ous pro­gram of orga­niz­er train­ings. “Res­o­lu­tion #28: Nation­al Train­ing Strat­e­gy” pro­posed to train “some 300 DSA mem­bers every month for 15 months” with the goal of ulti­mate­ly pro­duc­ing “a core of 200 high­ly expe­ri­enced train­ers and 5,000 well trained lead­ers and orga­niz­ers to car­ry for­ward DSA’s work in 2018 and beyond.” The pro­pos­al asked del­e­gates to devote a sig­nif­i­cant amount of DSA’s nation­al funds ($190,000) toward cre­at­ing this nation­wide activist train­ing pro­gram, which includes mod­ules on Social­ist Orga­niz­ing and Social Move­ments and Polit­i­cal Edu­ca­tion.

The res­o­lu­tion emerged from a plank of the Prax­is slate of can­di­dates for the Nation­al Polit­i­cal Com­mit­tee. On their web­site, the slate described this “Nation­al Train­ing Strat­e­gy” in detail, empha­siz­ing the impor­tance of teach­ing and learn­ing a “wide array of orga­niz­ing skills and tac­tics so mem­bers devel­op the skills to pur­sue their own pol­i­tics” (empha­sis in orig­i­nal). Not­ing that “Poor and work­ing peo­ple – par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple of col­or – are often treat­ed as exter­nal objects of orga­niz­ing,” this edu­ca­tion­al strat­e­gy explic­it­ly sought to use posi­tion­al­i­ty as a strength. They elab­o­rate: “If DSA is seri­ous about build­ing the pow­er of work­ing peo­ple of what­ev­er race, gen­der, cit­i­zen sta­tus or region, we must re-build the spine of the Left to be both strong and flex­i­ble.” Aware that DSA mem­bers would be com­ing from a vari­ety of posi­tions, the slate made edu­ca­tion a cen­tral plank of their plat­form. Mem­bers pur­su­ing “their own pol­i­tics” based on their pre­cise struc­tur­al loca­tion would cre­ate a flex­i­ble and strong spine for left pol­i­tics. They write: “It’s not just the analy­sis, but also the meth­ods of orga­niz­ing that we pur­sue which cre­ate the trust, the self-knowl­edge, and the sol­i­dar­i­ty to make durable change in our world.”

While we can’t know for sure how the train­ing strat­e­gy will work out, we high­light the res­o­lu­tion as an exam­ple of ped­a­gog­i­cal think­ing in the terms we have set out here.

To be clear, this is not sim­ply because of the focus on polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, but because it advances an approach to move­ment build­ing that explic­it­ly tack­les the chal­lenge of work­ing togeth­er across dif­fer­ence in rela­tions of activism. The train­ing strat­e­gy is nation­al, encom­pass­ing the entire coun­try, yet it is struc­tured to pro­vide tools for activists work­ing from vast­ly dif­fer­ent struc­tur­al loca­tions.1 This is an ide­ol­o­gy of coali­tion, nam­ing spe­cif­ic social cat­e­gories and tak­ing seri­ous­ly how they inter­sect to cre­ate dif­fer­ence in social struc­ture. Work­ing from this per­spec­tive, the ide­ol­o­gy of impasse out­lined at the begin­ning of this essay one that pits class strug­gle against iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics makes no sense. The impasse dis­solves.

Coalition’s Promise as Strategy and Theory

For us, Ellsworth’s sto­ry and Res­o­lu­tion #28 illus­trate the lim­its of uni­ver­sal­ism and the promise of coali­tion. In the cur­rent polit­i­cal con­text, coali­tion is not only a cru­cial strat­e­gy for orga­niz­ing across struc­tur­al divides, but also a way of think­ing beyond the dichoto­my of class uni­ver­sal­ism vs. iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. Rather than fram­ing this as an either/or debate, we see promise in a the­o­ret­i­cal coali­tion between the uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar. Such a coali­tion would work toward a sit­u­at­ed cri­tique of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, but remain ulti­mate­ly ori­ent­ed toward mass col­lec­tive action. Ellsworth’s change of course sug­gests that a recog­ni­tion of our sit­u­at­ed­ness does not under­mine col­lec­tive action – in fact, it’s essen­tial for it.

More broad­ly, Ellsworth’s sto­ry high­lights the polit­i­cal lessons to be found with­in the field of edu­ca­tion, as edu­ca­tors con­tin­u­al­ly reflect on the rela­tion­ship between ideas and prac­tice. The work of orga­niz­ing and move­ment build­ing is deeply ped­a­gog­i­cal. If we fail to rec­og­nize the spe­cif­ic his­to­ries that inform our own per­spec­tives, as well as those around us, then we will encounter sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles. A ped­a­gog­i­cal approach to col­lec­tive action encour­ages us to think about how knowl­edge is pro­duced through sit­u­at­ed encoun­ters, not only in our class­rooms, but also in our homes, work­places, com­mu­ni­ties, and move­ment spaces.

Ellsworth’s ulti­mate con­cern was how to run her class. Rou­tines, activ­i­ties, and ways of speak­ing were her bot­tom line. While she had been steeped in uni­ver­sal­ist dis­cours­es and prac­tices, and while she was engaged in impor­tant reflec­tion on them, she trans­lat­ed her think­ing into action – how to lis­ten, how to speak, and how to move for­ward giv­en the strug­gles she encoun­tered. We offer her research as an exam­ple for con­tem­po­rary move­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly those groups seek­ing ways to cre­ate coali­tion across dif­fer­ence, to empha­size that our bot­tom line should not only be an analy­sis of the prob­lem we are fight­ing – such as exploita­tive work­ing con­di­tions, mass incar­cer­a­tion, or envi­ron­men­tal racism – but also the qual­i­ty of the every­day rou­tines and prac­tices in our move­ments as we fight to cre­ate the social rela­tions and struc­tures we want. How will we lis­ten? How will we speak? How will we plan agen­das, facil­i­tate meet­ings, and con­verse? Uni­ver­sal­i­ty flat­tens the dif­fer­ences between us, while iden­ti­ty frag­ments us accord­ing to these dif­fer­ences. Nei­ther is enough on its own for a the­o­ry-strat­e­gy towards change.

Movement Pedagogy as Articulation

In his care­ful trac­ing of the his­to­ry of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, Mohan­desi draws from Stu­art Hall’s con­cept of artic­u­la­tion to think through this prob­lem. This per­spec­tive chal­lenges the assump­tion that one’s pol­i­tics are imme­di­ate­ly deter­mined by their social posi­tion, and instead, asks “under what cir­cum­stances can a con­nec­tion be forged or made?”2 We share this inter­est in the con­di­tions that make pos­si­ble par­tic­u­lar expres­sions of uni­ty amid dif­fer­ence. Mohan­desi uses artic­u­la­tion to chal­lenge the notion that iden­ti­ties are sta­ble things that straight­for­ward­ly dic­tate one’s polit­i­cal views. Artic­u­la­tion is use­ful here because it chal­lenges deter­min­ism and draws our atten­tion to the con­di­tions in which a par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion occurs. It’s not inevitable that women will have a struc­tur­al analy­sis of patri­archy, for instance, just as it’s not guar­an­teed that a mes­sage that is encod­ed with a par­tic­u­lar mean­ing will be decod­ed in the pre­ferred way. Artic­u­la­tion pos­es a chal­lenge to deter­min­ism by look­ing at the con­tin­gent con­di­tions in which a par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion occurs – e.g., in which ide­olo­gies take hold, or in which uni­ties are forged. Artic­u­la­tion is always con­tin­gent, and thus “with­out guar­an­tees,” as Hall would say, but it is a the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice that cre­ates uni­ty through dif­fer­ence by mak­ing con­nec­tions – such as the links forged among uneven­ly posi­tioned peo­ple and groups in social struc­tures. It is to put things togeth­er in ways that cre­ate uni­ty out of dif­fer­ence, but using the exist­ing dif­fer­ence as a start­ing point. Hall writes that artic­u­la­tion is “think­ing dif­fer­ence in com­plex uni­ty, with­out becom­ing hostage to the priv­i­leg­ing of dif­fer­ence as such.”

If Jen­nifer Daryl Slack is right in her inter­pre­ta­tion, there is a prob­lem for artic­u­la­tion: it’s a think­ing exer­cise. In oth­er words, it’s too the­o­ret­i­cal – a dif­fi­cul­ty which Hall wor­ried about in his own writ­ing on the con­cept. Our account of ped­a­gogy can help here. We have con­ceived of ped­a­gogy in move­ments as the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of activism; it is the rit­u­al prac­tices involved in actu­al move­ment work. We would there­fore claim that ped­a­gogy enacts artic­u­la­tions in spe­cif­ic moments.

In the intro­duc­tion to his Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry (1977), Ernesto Laclau uses the exam­ple of Plato’s cave to illus­trate the con­cept: what Pla­to want­ed to do was dis­ar­tic­u­late the mean­ings of shad­ows as real­i­ties and reartic­u­late them as fal­si­ties. Con­sid­er the per­son who leaves the cave and then returns: there is a dif­fer­ence between (a) know­ing that shad­ows are false and that the chained peo­ple have to be freed from their illu­sions, and (b) what this per­son actu­al­ly does to free the chained from their illu­sions. Does she lis­ten to each of them, devel­op rela­tion­ships over time, then slow­ly bring them to a real­iza­tion about the shad­ows? Does she bring an axe and just chop the chains with­out talk­ing? Does she con­stant­ly insist that because they are all chained they should there­fore break those chains togeth­er and rise up? Where­as artic­u­la­tion gives her a the­o­ry for the first step, ped­a­gogy gives her a strat­e­gy for the sec­ond step.

Indeed, reflect­ing on Hall’s con­tri­bu­tions, John Clarke points to “an ori­en­ta­tion to ped­a­gogy as artic­u­la­tion that runs through­out his work.” Ref­er­enc­ing the banal idea that a good teacher starts from “where the stu­dent is,” Clarke sug­gests this notion takes on new polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance in the con­text of Hall’s approach: “Iden­ti­ties are mul­ti­ple and rarely fixed; com­mon sens­es are het­ero­ge­neous and frag­men­tary, and the work of artic­u­la­tion is to build con­nec­tions that lead towards a set of new con­fig­u­ra­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties”.3 This for­mu­la­tion of ped­a­gogy as artic­u­la­tion fore­grounds the prac­tice of cre­at­ing con­nec­tion amid frag­men­ta­tion; rather than con­sti­tut­ing an obsta­cle to uni­ty, a recog­ni­tion of our struc­tural­ly dif­fer­ent and uneven loca­tions cre­ates the con­di­tions for artic­u­lat­ing new align­ments.

Think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly there­fore might fill a gap for the the­o­ry of artic­u­la­tion: the prob­lem of how artic­u­la­tion hap­pens. Ped­a­gogy pro­vides a mech­a­nism for this process. Ped­a­gogy artic­u­lates. In the case of build­ing coali­tion among dif­fer­ent­ly posi­tioned groups of peo­ple, ped­a­gogy is the con­crete func­tion of artic­u­la­tion: what real­ly ends up hap­pen­ing when some­one or some group artic­u­lates. Take a group of peo­ple who want to end racism on cam­pus, like in the Ellsworth exam­ple. This shared desire alone isn’t suf­fi­cient for build­ing rela­tions of activism that will end racism. Some­thing else has to hap­pen. That some­thing else is ped­a­gogy, which artic­u­lates their dif­fer­ent posi­tions in such a way as to get them – at that time in that place – to col­lec­tive action. The DSA Prax­is slate had this notion, but instead of a uni­ver­si­ty class­room, they used it to think about the DSA and US left in its cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tion. In each case, ped­a­gogy facil­i­tates uni­ty in dif­fer­ences that can result in col­lec­tive action, with­out being held hostage by the dif­fer­ence itself.

Ulti­mate­ly, our pro­pos­al is a the­o­ry of move­ment ped­a­gogy as artic­u­la­tion, yield­ing a coali­tion between the uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar. This coali­tion prax­is demands a ped­a­gogy that artic­u­lates the frag­ments of dif­fer­ence towards col­lec­tives that can take pow­er and make gains for our com­mu­ni­ties.

Where­as uni­ver­sal­ism con­structs flat­ten­ing gen­er­al­i­ties and iden­ti­ty decon­structs wholes into frag­ment­ed his­to­ries and expe­ri­ences, we pro­pose a reartic­u­la­tion process: acknowl­edge dif­fer­ences, per­mit frag­ments to break apart, and then work with the pieces to build a col­lec­tive aim­ing at lib­er­a­to­ry change. Uni­ver­sal­ism and iden­ti­ty can work togeth­er as con­cepts – since they do in real­i­ty.

As a coda, con­sid­er the effects of impasse. Isaac Gottes­man, in his recent his­tor­i­cal account of the crit­i­cal turn in edu­ca­tion, traces the respons­es to Ellsworth’s arti­cle in the crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy lit­er­a­ture. What he found were reac­tions that – strong­ly word­ed and lengthy as they were – nev­er respond­ed to Ellsworth’s claims seri­ous­ly, on their own terms. The con­se­quences of this spe­cif­ic stand­still in edu­ca­tion­al the­o­ry were eso­teric: fem­i­nist and post­struc­tur­al research on ped­a­gogy flour­ished, and crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy con­tin­ued more or less as it had been. The divi­sion large­ly remains in place today.

The stakes for our his­tor­i­cal moment are much greater. The stand­still that emerges when class uni­ver­sal­ist posi­tions refuse to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of rad­i­cal iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics will have con­se­quences for the left, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Unit­ed States. If we want to mobi­lize a broad base to fight in the strug­gles of this new moment, our orga­niz­ing strate­gies and move­ment spaces must attend to these dif­fer­ences. Uni­ver­sal­i­ty and iden­ti­ty need each oth­er for orga­niz­ing, and Ellsworth’s method shows us how to put that coali­tion into prac­tice.


  1. There are many exam­ples avail­able of think­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly. A recent episode of the social­ist fem­i­nist pod­cast Sea­son of the Bitch is a good recent exam­ple: the hosts talk exten­sive­ly about read­ing dense the­o­ret­i­cal texts as left­ists and women. In terms we’ve used, they con­sid­er the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of activism, the rela­tions of activism, in this case the prac­tice of read­ing dif­fi­cult things. Lau­ren Berlant does the same for jok­ing in this inci­sive piece

  2. Stu­art Hall and Lawrence Gross­berg, “On Post­mod­ernism and Artic­u­la­tion: An Inter­view with Stu­art Hall,” Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies 10.2 (1986): 53. 

  3. See John Clarke, “Stu­art Hall and the The­o­ry and Prac­tice of Artic­u­la­tion,” Dis­course: Stud­ies in the Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics of Edu­ca­tion 36.2 (2015): 281. 

Authors of the article

is an assistant professor of education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

is an assistant professor in the department of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden.