Activist Professors

, Allie Winegar Duzett, Leave a comment

The 2011 Modern Language  Association (MLA) Annual Convention featured more than just lectures on language.  One roundtable, entitled “Transmedia Activism,” dealt with both “technocultural innovation” and the more controversial idea of increasing political activism among students.

Anne Balsamo of the University of Southern California talked about “designing culture” through “technocultural innovation” and argued that universities have a “responsibility” to create “publications and outreach in new modalities,” including modalities such as ebooks and Twitter.  Radhika Gajjala of Bowling Green State University talked about the need for electronic representation in “global civil society,” and discussed the technological disparities across the world.

But Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California had the most radical things to say by far.  His presentation was called “What Would Dumbledore Do?” and used the Harry Potter Alliance as his main example.

The Harry Potter Alliance has many local chapters worldwide, and in each local chapter people team up to do charity work.  According to Jenkins, it’s a way of bringing fandom to life.  Jenkins said that to involve kids in politics one needs to “frame cultural things in political terms.”  He argued that “kids get culturally engaged, but not politically engaged,” and that groups like the Harry Potter Alliance show that cultural engagement can be channeled into political engagement.

In the Q+A, moderator Anna Everett of University of California said that Jenkins’ presentation “encouraged” her because of his evidence that teens are taking cultural things like TV shows and books and “turning it against dominant structures.”  She did not elaborate on why it was “encouraging” to see students turning “against dominant structures,” or to which “dominant structures” she was referring.

In the Q+A, Jenkins mentioned the Tea Party only in passing, but in conjunction with the KKK: “The Tea Party Movement represents itself as resistance; the KKK represents itself as resistance.”  He didn’t equate the two but the juxtaposition was alarming.  He said that “we on the left” need to study the Tea Party movement because “resistance means it’s progressive.” He explained his belief that resistance to anything is inherently progressive (unless, presumably, it’s resistance to gay marriage, or communism).  He seemed to assume that if the Tea Party were actually resisting anything then the movement would be a progressive one, and that since the Tea Party is clearly not progressive, then it must not truly embrace any form of resistance.  This is a logical fallacy, but it was not a fallacy pointed out during the roundtable.

The Transmedia Activism Roundtable, in short, raised some legitimate questions as to the role professors should play in inspiring student political activism—and the role professors do play in providing unbiased education.

Allie Duzett is the Director of Strategic Operations for Accuracy in Media.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail