How to Occupy Your Education

by Holly Fetter, ’13

When I tell people that I’m studying race and ethnicity, I get one of two reactions. The first, undoubtedly inspired by my pale skin, is the inevitable “Why did you decide to major in that?” The second comes from a more practical perspective: “What are you going to do with that?”

It seems that the dominant perception of a college degree is that is must be lucrative. It’s fine to use one’s undergraduate years to experiment with new hairstyles, narcotics, and sexual orientations, but the end result must be a good shot at a six-figure salary. College is only “worth it” if you gain some marketable skills.

As soon as I declared my love for interdisciplinary thinking, I felt that I had to make a decision — would I major in Econ and be ushered into Stanford’s college-to-consulting pipeline, or shun that world in favor of classes in which I could write about queer rappers and racist Halloween costumes? I entered sophomore year with a notion that these were two divergent tracks, and that it was imperative that I pick one over the other lest I spend my post-graduate years in some sad, unemployable limbo.

I think this dynamic helps explain the infamous Stanford apathy. Embedded in our campus culture is the notion that pursuing a pre-professional major and getting an activist education are mutually exclusive acts.So we’ve constructed separate camps, one embracing activism and the other avoiding it. And the theme of each group usually correlates with the career goals of its members.

But the more I interact with students from “mainstream” majors, the more I understand how destructive that notion actually is. There are plenty of folks who would be happy to use their years at Stanford to experiment intellectually and ideologically, taking courses outside their major and joining political VSOs.  The question becomes, how do we destroy the barriers that separate these students from the well-rounded education that they seek? How do we ensure that everyone can “occupy” their educations?

First, let’s talk it about what it means to “occupy” an education.* Jason Del Gandio, a Temple University communications professor, recently wrote a piece for the Monthly Review about how one might go about it. He writes,

Is college about earning a higher paycheck (usually at the expense of someone else) or about making the world a better place for everyone?  These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but the first is no doubt the status quo of contemporary America. But it does not have to be like this; you do not have to reduce your college education to a future (and unguaranteed) paycheck.  You are free to reappropriate — that is, occupy – your education in order to learn about, participate in, and organize movements for social justice.  Just as the Occupy Movement is reclaiming and transforming the democratic nature of this country, so too can you reclaim and transform the nature of your education.

He then describes three possible methods of reclaiming one’s education, regardless of major or intended career. The first is to obtain what he calls “skills of ‘self-empowerment’” in order to “creat[e] more effective social movements.” These skills can be picked up in any Stanford class, from PWR to Econ 1A – reading critically, writing analytically, speaking publically, and conducting research. Del Gandio offers examples for how these tools might be particularly salient in an activist context:

Reading complex social analyses, writing narratives and journalistic accounts, speaking in public and to the media, researching important political information, and analyzing everything from poverty rates to presidential discourse are necessary practices of every social movement.

His next suggestion relates to which courses you decide to take each quarter. Try taking a class or two about “specific topics pertinent to social change,” he says.**  He encourages the reader to put those close reading skills to good use by critically analyzing entire histories and subjects:

The purpose [of an “occupied” education] is to develop a body of knowledge that resists and overturns rather than accepts and perpetuates modern-day oppressions and inequalities.  

Finally, Del Gandio suggests that we make the most of these celebrated years of “freedom, exploration, and experimentation.” Let’s envision our educations outside the confines of the classrooms, and realize the potential for learning that can occur during our free time:

You have the chance to meet new friends of different backgrounds, persuasions, and orientations, which enriches your inner mind and worldly experience.  You have opportunities to attend on-campus meetings, public talks, and film screenings, which increase your knowledge about political, intellectual, and artistic controversies.  And you engage in late-night dorm room discussions about numerous topics and issues, which expose you to new relationships and modes of interaction.  The overall experience is nothing less than a laboratory for personal growth, social development, and political practice.

Although the author goes on to criticize those who have purely mercenary incentives for attending college, he doesn’t blame us for wanting a good return on our significant investment. He believes that we have been led to perceive ourselves as nothing more than consumers of a pretty pricey product:

Students then internalize this discourse and decide that they, too, want something in return: they want a degree and future paycheck in exchange for their time and money.  The logic of economic transaction thus trumps the experience and value of an education. 

This paragraph also includes his first mention of the role that “privilege” plays in this story, a late entrance that is both disappointing and unsurprising. But despite his lack of any explicit discussion about the infamous “p”-word, I found his ideas to be refreshingly accessible to all students.

Unfortunately, however, there are still impediments to giving every Stanford student the opportunity to “occupy” hir education as Del Gandio suggests. Perhaps our more radical courses and organizations are hostile to the curious and open-minded Econ major that wants to expand her horizons, or the Bio major that bravely represented the male end of the gender spectrum in his Feminist Studies seminar. I’ve been in several classes that completely alienate students unfamiliar with the subjects – classmates compete to out-pretentious each other with constant references to obscure theorists while the first week’s assigned readings are unbelievably dense and complex. And when a new student enters our activist collective’s weekly meeting, we might stare as they enter and snicker as they leave. As students who have already made the decision to completely “occupy” our transcripts, résumés, and diplomas, we should be more welcoming and kind to those who are making a bold attempt to branch out.

It is also the responsibility of Stanford’s professors and administrators to develop the possibility for every student to “occupy” an education, regardless of hir major. GERs should be added to courses addressing inequality and identity. “Techie” departments should lower the amount of units required to complete their majors in order to allow students to pursue more elective courses and extracurricular activities. IHUMs should become increasingly radical (perhaps taking a hint from the more subversive PWR courses already available). These are only a few of the ways in which the school could make educational “occupation” a bit easier.

Let me make it clear that I recognize the intersecting privileges that allow me to major in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity while pursuing an inevitably low-paying career in social justice. But regardless of one’s privilege or motivations for attending Stanford, we all have the opportunity to “occupy” our educations by taking Professor Del Gandio’s advice. And we can help make this experience more attainable by lobbying administrators and professors for the aforementioned changes and opening our minds, classrooms, and meeting spaces to each one of our peers. Occupying the future begins with occupying our education in the present.

 

Holly Fetter is a junior from Texas majoring in CSRE  with a focus on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. She is the co-creator of this site and is actively involved in identity-based communities and activist groups on campus.

 

*I’m not a fan of the “occupy” rhetoric as it ignores the destructive nature of historical occupations, but I use the term throughout this post in quotation marks in order to connect this piece to a larger contemporary social movement.
**Here are just a few relevant classes offered at Stanford this quarter, in case you’re inclined to take Del Gandio’s advice:

  • AFRICAAM 165E: Residential Racial Segregation and the Education of African-American
  • EDUC 207X: School: What Is It Good For?
  • ILAC 187: Queer Raza
  • HISTORY 53S: Race Riots and Rebellions in 20th Century Urban America
  • SOC 142: Sociology of Gender
  • CHICANST 168: New Citizenship: Grassroots Movements for Social Justice in the U.S.
  • FEMST 111: Emerging Feminist Media: Magazines, Blogs, Spoken Word
  • RELIGST 162: Spirituality and Nonviolent Urban and Social Transformation
  • HISTORY 9: Human Rights and Humanitarianism: A Global History
  • ETHICSOC 10: Ethics in Theory and Practice
  • CS 546: Seminar on Liberation Technologies
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5 thoughts on “How to Occupy Your Education

  1. Eric Nelson says:

    Well said, Holly. On a somewhat related note, I can recall a time when I was in college when I realized that instead of ME working for my PROFESSORS, my PROFESSORS worked for ME. After all, it was my tuition that covered their paychecks! This revelation made me a better student… asking better questions, insisting that I actually learn/master a subject rather than just learn what I needed to pass a test.

    Keep up the great work. I love this site!

  2. CSRE Major says:

    fact*

  3. CSRE Major says:

    I really appreciated this article, but I just ask that everyone be cognizant of the face that majoring in CSRE and having a lucrative career are not mutually exclusive. CSRE majors have gone off to work for McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and ascend the ranks of Google.

    I just got the vibe from reading this that all CSRE majors will “inevitably” have “low-paying” careers in social justice.

    Just my .2. But again, good article.

    • Holly says:

      Hey fellow CSRE major,

      Sorry for giving off that vibe! They’re definitely NOT mutually exclusive, and I’m sure the big banks would be lucky to have one of us in their ranks.

      HF

  4. s says:

    “Perhaps our more radical courses and organizations are hostile to the curious and open-minded Econ major that wants to expand her horizons, or the Bio major that bravely represented the male end of the gender spectrum in his Feminist Studies seminar. I’ve been in several classes that completely alienate students unfamiliar with the subjects – classmates compete to out-pretentious each other with constant references to obscure theorists while the first week’s assigned readings are unbelievably dense and complex. And when a new student enters our activist collective’s weekly meeting, we might stare as they enter and snicker as they leave. ”

    thank you!

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