Head, Heart, Hand: Ohio State University Students Respond to Blues for Smoke

Wed, Dec 18, 2013

Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the  Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. Maurice is also a member of the Wexner Center's Shumate Council. We'll be sharing those responses with you throughout the coming week. First, Maurice provides some background on the project.

Head

This Autumn Semester I held a course called Comparative Studies 4921 "Intersections: New Approaches to Theorizing Difference" that argued for the interrelation of various axes of social classification or “Intersectionality” as a useful way to understand difference. Rather than imagining race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability as separate and at times additive modes of social experience, this course assumed and asked participants to investigate how these always-emergent categories work in conjunction with one another in very profound ways that produce both typical and novel contexts for social relation. This comparative and interdisciplinary course examined specific intersections while also emphasizing broad understandings of the social, political and cultural processes that shape lived experiences of difference. Students in this class engaged academic theories of difference and intersectionality.

Heart

In this course, though, in addition to an analytic framework, “intersectionality” also indexed a mode of encounter and awareness. That is, in this course we took seriously the fact that we show up in the world as subjects with political, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual spheres of experience, and that these spheres are intersecting and co-productive. Thus, being able to wake-up to our multi-faceted experience of the world actually offers us more and useful information about our surroundings. Intersectionality in this sense recognizes that we are fluid and shifting. Students in this class engaged their own and their peers’ responses to course materials and experiences.

Hand

"Intersections" also called attention to the intersectionality between knowledge produced in familiar ways and places like classrooms and the academy, and knowledge that is, everyday, being produced through expressive culture as individuals and communities work to define and address their needs through creative cultural production. Typically, theories are produced in academic contexts and then applied to, imposed upon, ‘texts’ that are somehow ‘over there.’ For students in this class, taking an intersectional approach meant ‘listening in’ and ‘learning with’ creative actors in participatory and experiential ways. Students in this class will engaged expressive culture in the form of music, art, and performances hosted by the Wexner Center’s Blues for Smoke exhibition.

Finally, “intersectionality” in this course meant an interflowing of practices of Head, Heart, and Hand.

Students in "Intersections" built on earlier coursework and developed more sophisticated interdisciplinary approaches and more complex models for understanding difference. Students in this course examined the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, sovereign agency, and ability in various cultural sites of investigation, and engaged in interdisciplinary modes of critical thinking, reflecting, responding, and writing. Focusing on Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, Sovereignty Studies, Critical Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Disability Studies as intellectual locations that sometimes make use of intersectionality to evaluate their objects of study, students in this class considered the role of social institutions in the systematic production, identification, and “management” of communities defined by difference, and the struggles undertaken by and within those communities to respond to those efforts in their own expressive practices.

A productive tension emerged in the course as students engaged academic and creative work. On the one hand, theorizing difference in an intersectional way proved to be an ideal practice. It is a theoretical movement that works wonderfully in the abstract, but proves quite difficult in its specific application as a political strategy, as it is never still, always in flux, and deeply situational. On the other hand, living and, thus, creating intersectionally is, in some ways, a strange kind of absolute experience or expression of personal truth. In a sense, people are where they are, and there’s a sense of reliability in the idea or mantra of ‘it is what it is.’ In moving through the course, weaving around various kinds of experience and ways of knowing and sharing it, our class encountered this tension again and again. It was in turns enthralling, informing, and frustrating, but our Learning Community never let this tension immobilize. Instead, we responded to what the tension between what we understand as the truth of experience and the suspicion that comes with engaging someone else’s expression demands of us.

The students were divided into groups that focused on particular works in Blues for Smoke. One facet of their work was to produce blog entries that reflected their engagement with the work. Each day in the coming week (beginning December 19), we'll be sharing those responses with you.