Intersectional Justice Reading Groups Part of Orientation 2020

POSTED ON: September 23, 2020

As part of this year’s new-student orientation, incoming students participated in reading and discussion groups, centering on the theme intersectional justice, led by academics and writers from Cooper and other schools. The initiative was the result of conversations between the school’s Black Students Union, the Cooper Climate Coalition, as well as other students, administrators, and faculty. “We wanted to come up with a way that this can be the first thing you do when you get to Cooper,” said Alisa Petrosova A’21, who, as an organizer of multiple social justice initiatives, was anxious to raise the consciousness of new students even before their academic life at Cooper officially began.

The student activists approached the associate dean of humanities, Nada Ayad, to brainstorm how incoming students could be introduced to the critical ways that forms of oppression interact, a theme they called intersectional justice, inspired by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theories. The renowned scholar and lawyer coined the term “intersectionality” to give language to the cross-sections that lead to an individual’s oppression (for example the intersections of class and race; or gender and ableism). It is a complex concept that must be carefully unpacked to be understood; indeed, its meanings are dynamic and continue to unfold. The group resulting from the collaboration of the BSU and Cooper's Climate Change wanted to expose the myriad ways that race and gender prejudice are intertwined with other issues including climate change and class. Professor Ayad says that when confronted with a problem of any kind, she turns to existing literature and theory: “The answer is always to study scholars who’ve done this before. This is not new—we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

At the same time as the students were brainstorming these ideas, Chris Chamberlin, dean of students, approached Professor Ayad to help organize a common read for incoming students. The group hit upon the idea of offering new students at Cooper the chance to take part in a 90-minute reading and discussion group that would be led by scholars and writers versed in subjects related to decolonization, critical race theory, gender theory, and creative writing. The group also compiled a reading list of important texts and videos providing insight on social justice. The goal, the group decided, was to introduce new students to a body of knowledge that could inform their education at Cooper and beyond.

Eleven academics, some from Cooper, most not, led the reading groups and chose one source as a starting point for discussion. They included the novelist Simeon Marsalis, scholar of AfroFuturism and visual culture Marcus Anthony Brock, architect and lawyer Neena Verna, among other young scholars and artists. Professor Iris Moon, a curator of European ceramics at the Metropolitan Museum and an adjunct assistant professor at Cooper, led one of the groups, choosing to share the introduction from Anne Anlin Cheng's The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (2001). One of the goals of the reading groups is to explicitly define terms, especially since structural racism is frequently inexplicit and therefore difficult to confront.

She facilitated the reading group as she would any other Cooper seminar, by asking questions and encouraging students to read critically. She found that they were highly engaged with the reading and was impressed with "their openness to considering race not only through the lens of intersectional justice, but also from a psychoanalytic angle. A lot of them were not familiar with Freud's notion of melancholy, but by talking it through they saw how this psychoanalytic concept--an ongoing notion of grief surpassing the normal timeframe of mourning---related to the issue of racial grief. The students grasped what Cheng was talking about when she discussed race not as a "problem to be solved,' but in terms of an ongoing dynamic that affects both the majority population and minorities. I think we quickly figured out that nobody lives in a bubble that is unaffected by the question of race."

Lindsay Griffiths, who is a Princeton graduate student in English, decided to take advantage of the online medium when leading her reading group. Her students had read the first chapter of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903) entitled "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" and before they discussed the text all together, she instructed them to first meet in smaller groups in virtual "breakout rooms." She gave them five questions about DuBois both to provide some direction to their discussion and to give the students, who had never met before, a chance to speak in smaller groups before reconvening the larger class.

Another of the reading groups used video as the text under discussion. It was led by Caresse Jackson-Alger, a graduate student at Princeton writing her dissertation about the classics in relation to the Black Atlantic, a term used to describe race identity among North American, Caribbean, and British Black communities. Her work includes analysis of the portrayal of Ethiopians in Homer as well as the work of Black classicists such as William Scarborough (1852–1926). For the reading group, she shared a famous 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley that took place at Cambridge University that asked if the American Dream was at the expense of Black Americans. Together Ms. Jackson-Alger and the students watched the debate and though the meeting took place over a Zoom call, she noted a distinct shift in atmosphere once Buckley yielded the dais to Baldwin. "For Buckley, the question was a kind of thought experiment and then James Baldwin made it clear that this was his real life. There was complete silence when Baldwin spoke. Before [Baldwin] there had been laughter; after they couldn’t make eye contact." Like Professor Moon, she was struck by some of the students' incisive commentary and their willingness to engage in the conversation.

"Revisiting James Baldwin and William Buckley's debate from 1965 only served to strengthen how important and relevant this topic is today," said first-year architecture student Zara Zulfiqar. "This group was merely a beginning of so many important and essential conversations that need to be had and although they should've been held centuries ago or perhaps never had to be held, now is the time to start."

Ms. Griffiths found that the students in her workshop were equally aware of the relevance of the DuBois reading, though written more than one hundred years ago. "Each student was engaged, demonstrated a solid understanding of the text, and seemed able to make the leap from theory to reality. They came to each question with a healthy critical eye and were able to draw from their own experiences and previous knowledge to really carry on a rich discussion. It was a joy to engage with them."

Professor Moon noted that many students asked her if their discussion could continue, an idea she thinks would benefit the Cooper community. "I think it would be a helpful way for students from different areas of study to connect the ideas discussed in class with the rollercoaster of emotions we are all going through during this period of pandemic, racial trauma, and economic crisis, and to be hopeful for new possibilities about how isolation can actually help us become more considerate and compassionate individuals, and to help us learn how to love and trust our own selves."

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.