A more learned occupation

Professors support Occupy movement by teaching, speaking, signing

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Corrections appended.

When Professor of Economics Glenn Loury first heard about Occupy Wall Street, he was not surprised. In fact, he was amused.  

“The first thing I thought was, ‘See, I told you so,'” Loury said.

In an August conversation for video discussion blog Bloggingheads.tv, Loury predicted the Occupy protests when he said he believed it was time for a massive social movement to “get our money back from these suckers.” One month later, Occupy Wall Street began.

Though Loury may have been the only Brown professor to have publicly prophesied the rise of the movement, others have since rallied to its banner. Over 130 faculty members signed a petition in support of Occupy two weeks ago, and professors have visited the encampment in Burnside Park, spoken at Occupy Boston, participated in a campus teach-in and brought the movement into the classroom.


Rallying the troops

Associate Professor of History Naoko Shibusawa thought up the petition after receiving an email from a former student, Derek Seidman GS, who is now a visiting assistant professor of history at Trinity College and Brown. Seidman asked her to sign a faculty petition from the New School supporting the Occupiers. This sparked Shibusawa’s interest in the attitudes of professors closer to home, and she began feeling out her colleagues about the possibility of a similar petition at Brown.

The idea behind the petition was, “Let’s see how we can get involved. Let’s not just sort of be here, up here on College Hill. Let’s see how we can try to contribute towards something that might work towards a greater social good,” Shibusawa said.

Shibusawa said she has circulated many faculty petitions before but has never received such an immediate, positive response. She said the petition’s reception has led her to believe Occupy “might turn out to become a different sort of moment … in which we can have a more just society.”

Shibusawa’s queries also gave rise to the Oct. 11 teach-in, organized by Vazira Zamindar, associate professor of history.

“We had this great sort of show, which was really wonderful, really sort of exciting,” Shibusawa said of the teach-in, which featured professors and community members. But she said she was disappointed the organizers scheduled community members to speak after the professors had finished their presentations, by which time nearly half the audience had already left.

Loury said his name is not on the faculty petition because he was not aware of it until it was too late to sign it. Though he has visited Occupy Boston and discussed the protests in another Bloggingheads.tv video Wednesday, he said he has not seriously discussed the movement with colleagues in the economics department.


Why they signed

Professors cited a variety of motivations for supporting the Occupy movement, though many pointed to increasing inequality as their primary concern.  

As students at an elite university should be aware, education is a facet of American life especially characterized by inequality, and Zamindar said she hopes the movement will work toward making educational resources more widely accessible.

Professor of Sociology Patrick Heller, who spoke at the teach-in and signed the faculty petition, pointed to political inequality in America, saying the wealthiest 1 percent “exerts undue influence over the political system.”

Though some have claimed the movement lacks direction, Heller said its amorphous nature makes historical sense. “No movement in its infancy has a platform. Movements start as reactions to something,” he said. “Maybe over time, as they consolidate and as they organize, they may start to generate specific proposals.”

Lynne Joyrich, associate professor of modern culture and media, said she signed the petition and spoke at the teach-in because she believes the movement is trying to deal with the integration of many issues, including gender, race and class disparities. Joyrich has also visited the Occupy Providence encampment in Burnside Park to show her support.

She said the media has oversimplified the Occupy protests in order to sell a product.

Some media only give a story serious consideration “if it can be quickly encapsulated into a sound bite,” Joyrich said. “The fact that (the Occupy movement) does not do that means that people dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have a message.'”

She said she hopes the movement will push the media to reconsider the definition of “meaningful conversation.”

In addition to signing the petition, Bianca Dahl, postdoctoral fellow in anthropology and population studies, discussed the movement in class with students. During her lecture, she presented articles, statistics and anthropological theories published about the Occupy movement. By sparking an in-class discussion about the media portrayal of Occupiers, Dahl said she hopes students will apply the theoretical tools they have learned in class to gain a better understanding of the protests.

As of last Thursday, Dahl said she had not yet visited an Occupy encampment.

“In some sense, (lecturing about the movement) is the strongest vote of solidarity that I can give,” Dahl said.


Beyond the Hill  

Mark Blyth, professor of political science, has also lectured on the movement — not in a classroom, but at Occupy Boston. Blyth, who hails from Scotland, told Occupiers he immigrated to the United States in search of a “multi-cultural, exciting society” that no longer exists.

“This isn’t the place I joined 20 years ago. This is Brazil in the 1960s. This is Mexico in the 1970s. This is the income distribution of a developing country,” Blyth said in his speech. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report Tuesday confirming that income inequality and the relative affluence of the top 1 percent of earners continues to grow.

Professors at other schools, including Columbia, Oberlin College, t
he University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, have also signed petitions supporting the Occupy movement.

Ania Loomba, a professor of English at Penn, organized a faculty petition in support of the movement at her school to promote “greater consciousness about what is the problem in America,” she said. The petition received over 100 signatures, mostly from humanities professors. A few Penn students expressed discontent with the wording of the petition. In an Oct. 16 editorial in the Daily Pennsylvanian, senior Brian Goldman wrote that Loomba’s petition expressed a number of political beliefs, such as anti-war and anti-Medicaid sentiments, that he believes are unrelated to the Occupy movement. Goldman told The Herald he feels the professors are imposing a “democratic wish list” on a financially focused movement.

Across the board, professors expressed a desire to see more campus engagement with the movement.

“We, as scholars, as researchers, as students, have a particular burden to pay attention, to engage more, to learn more from a movement like Occupy rather than judge it at a distance,” Zamindar said.

Due to editing errors, a previous version of this article referred to Derek Seidman GS as a visiting assistant professor of history at Trinity College and referred to Vazira Zamindar, associate professor of history, as “he.” In fact, Seidman is a visiting assistant professor of history at both Trinity and Brown, and Zamindar is female. The Herald regrets the errors.

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