Does Anarchist Pedagogy Demand the Impossible?

Does Anarchist Pedagogy Demand the Impossible?


Does Anarchist Pedagogy Demand the Impossible?

By Theresa Mendez, SUNY Cortland

“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”

-Herbert Marcuse

Educators interested in radical pedagogical practices are deeply invested in cultivating and sharing approaches to teaching that foster student-centered, interdependent learning. Increasingly, there is a push to de-hierarchize the classroom space, to enable students to become more responsible for their own learning. Cathy Davidson states: “Active learning / radical pedagogy / engaged learning [are] basically about students not learning from an expert but becoming an expert, largely by designing and executing a knowledge exercise that they then teach to others.” Syllabus design is one activity that invites students to participate in the terms of their own education. But how to de-hierarchize this crucial map of the course? One possible solution I explore here is a student-designed, teacher-facilitated syllabus that draws on anarchist philosophy and action (which is ultimately about de-hierarchizing spaces and relationships) in its goals and organization.

When given the opportunity to design my dream course in a recent graduate seminar, I immediately thought, yes, Anarchy 101. Anarchy–a term and concept inaccurately synonymized with chaos, with destruction, violence, and a lack of rules–is a topic of study not easily found in the academy. Histories of anarchist movements may pop up on a history syllabus during a larger discussion of the Spanish Civil War, or it may garner brief mention in a political science class, possibly as a failed and extreme version of Marxism. But I’m interested to design a course around the topic of anarchy, to trace the classical anarchist thinkers through to the anarchist thought and action of today, and to explore the implications of the anarchistic imagination.

My syllabus is designed with an anarchist approach to pedagogy that, I think, will be interesting to anyone who is invested in inviting students to participate in the terms of their own learning.

At its core, anarchism is about smashing not the “state” but hierarchical relationships in general, from the personal to the institutional, while simultaneously developing relationships based upon mutual aid rather than survival-of-the-fittest. Equally important for anarchist thinkers is the inseparability of theory and praxis. That said, is it ethical, in the anarchist sense, to teach a course on anarchy that doesn’t also do anarchy in some way? What does it mean to apply the doing of anarchy to the space of the classroom and the relationships there cultivated? I have a multi-pronged approach:

  1. Assess our environment: the university is a hierarchical institution.

  2. Recast the “professor” as a course facilitator.

  3. Give students the tools to design about 90% of the course, from weekly readings to assessment.

The goals of this approach include the following:

  1. Students will learn implementable strategies for coming to consensus in and out of the classroom.

  2. Students will learn about anarchist thought while practicing anarchist ideas in the making of the syllabus and course.

  3. Students will develop a thorough sense of how anarchist thought and action interacts with other modes of critical thought, social action, and social paradigms.

While an introductory course on anarchy is likely to be “sexy” enough to attract students, I anticipate that many may not would find anarchist work to be appealing, at least to the extent that I may be able to offer it in the classroom. I attempt to preempt this in my syllabus. Asking students to design the course front loads their work to the first few weeks of class. I expect that many students, especially those new to university study, may be comfortable in a passive student role. The anarchist imagination requires a certain amount of vigilance and a willingness to participate, to be heard and seen among your peers, your community. If they’ve just rolled out of bed for this 8:00 a.m. class, is it reasonable to expect that first or second years would relish the chance to participate in the terms of their own learning? Does my syllabus, a reflection of anarchist thought, demand the impossible?

I welcome feedback on my project, but in the meantime, I’m inclined to suggest that this method of radical pedagogy neither demands too much of students nor does this method need to be relegated to course content specific to anarchy. Perhaps one way to introduce students to the process of becoming experts is to assume and expect that they have enough expertise to collaborate with their peers on the terms of their own learning right from the start. Even in the face of indecision and missteps along the way, collaborating on syllabus design from an anarchist perspective will provide students a valuable learning experience about collaboration, consent, accountability, and group responsibility; their direct experiences with this process may be just as impressionable, if not moreso, than the course content itself.

NOTE: Please access the pdf version of the syllabus for access to all suggested readings and for reading ease. 

AnarchConnections – Anarchist Thought and Action Across Social Paradigms

Theresa Mendez ~ Facilitator

A decent education should seek to provide a thread along which a person will travel in his or her own way; good teaching is more a matter of providing water for a plant, to enable it to grow under its own powers.

-Noam Chomsky

Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.

-Lucy Parsons

Colloquially, anarchy is often used synonymously with the word “chaos,” and often invokes images of destruction and violence against the state. When not discussed as inherently dangerous, anarchy is largely dismissed as unrealistic: “But, if there’s anarchy, who will build the roads?”

According to anarchist literary theorist, Jeff Shantz, some goals frequently stated by anarchists include, “critiques of corporatization, prisons, and patriarchal relations as well as explorations of developing anarchist perspectives on revolution, ecology, sexuality, and mutual aid.” These explorations occur within a seemingly inescapable, statist, socio-political environment, and entail an understanding of social interactions as a dynamic balance between the desires of the individual and the goals and well-being of the group. One of the central tenets of anarchism includes, as Jesse S. Cohn writes, “a special concern with the coherence of means and ends.” For anarchist theorists and activists, this means that the tools chosen to facilitate social change must be sustainable and reflective of the idealism of the speculative future. Destruction of the state is only sustainable when the state is perpetuated. Collective, fully participatory democracy displaces the need for a state, and reflects the symbiosis of means and ends.

As such, this course reflects anarchist pedagogy, fusing theory and praxis in the course design and in the content we will choose. Because anarchists prefer facilitation rather than leadership, I will be a ready facilitator for each class, enabling discussions as we go, and sharing my acquired knowledge of the subject when it helps to elucidate important concepts and keep us on track. There are few class requirements, mostly shaped by the demands of the academy in which we find ourselves. They include:

  1. Students will receive a letter grade at the end of the course.

  2. At least 25% of the final grade will be based on out-of-class writing.

  3. Class participants will collectively organize the reading list, course assignments, and methods of evaluation.

You may be asking, “but isn’t it your job to construct the syllabus? Isn’t this what we are paying for?” The short answer, which I will delve into when we discuss anarchist pedagogy, is “no.” The purpose of anarchy is to fuse theory and praxis. If we sit in class in the vertically organized roles to which we are accustomed–teacher=dictator, student=passive receptacle–then we are falling short of anarchist goals. We may be reading anarchist literature, but we won’t be doing anarchy.

However, we would be remiss if we ignored those power dynamics in the classroom which we inherit from the institutional educational paradigm that we have chosen to join. This paradigm does designate me as the “leader” in charge of submitting your grades, being here during class, sharing my “expertise” in the subject matter, and outlining our goals. So this is what I’ve done. I’ve started us off with the first two weeks of readings, activities, and facilitation. I have also provided suggestions on topics and readings you may select, assignments you may choose to commit to, and ideas on how you might like to be evaluated by the end of the semester. I have recommended the texts listed below that, I think, will be relevant and useful across multiple possible topics. Still, it is up to you, collectively, to choose.

When we meet during week 3, we will use class time to solidify the syllabus. That gives you at least 2 weeks (from the start of class) to explore the suggestions and come prepared week 3 to help make decisions. To some, this may seem like too much time to decide–some may feel anxious about not knowing how you’ll be evaluated or what you’ll be reading. Others may feel like this simply isn’t enough time–some may feel the need to read all the things before committing to a decision. Setting a 2 week time limit is meant to reduce stress on both sides. You can’t read all the things, but what you do read will lighten your load later in the semester.

Course Objectives:

By using anarchist pedagogy to design the course, I’ve already suggested an objective: to explore anarchist theory through praxis. Are there any other objectives that should be included? (We will “ratify” these objectives week 3).

Possible Grading Scheme / Assignments:

In addition to deciding which activities will be graded, we also need to decide on due dates.

  1. Class Participation ~ in class; online; student facilitations; student activities; present original work

  2. Syllabus Design ~ should syllabus design count toward a grade? It is, after all, a requirement

  3. Term Paper ~ 10-15 pages due at the end of the semester

  4. Keywords ~ collectively create a set of anarchist keywords and concepts with notable theorists, activists, definitions, critique

  5. Weekly Writing ~ blog / journaling due before each class

  6. Public Writing ~ create a wiki; write for submission to anarchist ‘zine or blog

  7. Activism / Organizing ~ on or off campus: film festival / screening; protest; conference; social media blast

  8. Exam ~ teacher designed & graded; student designed & graded; collectively / individually designed; collectively / individually graded

Course Evaluation:(cited from Dana Williams’ 2010 Anarchy of Sociology Syllabus)

Conventional: Standard method in which instructor establishes requirements and students comply with those standards. No student input beyond past performance.

Random-lottery: Grades are allotted based upon random selection. No instructor or student control over grades.

Student-decided: Students evaluate their own performance in class according to class-established standard (based upon created rubrics). No input from teacher.

One-on-one contractual: Each student negotiates an individual “contract” with teacher detailing work they will accomplish over course of semester. Students hold tehmselves to this contract and teacher evaluates student based on how well student meets goals. Highly labor intensive for teacher.

Portfolios: Final assessment is based upon the creation and completion of a “portfolio” that summarizes a student’s learning and accomplishment over the course of the semester. (Peer or class evaluation could be used for assessment).

Group-grading: Entire class (or subset of) evaluates each student’s performance in course according to class-determined standards or rubric. Little to no input by teacher.

Strategies for Collective Decision Making: (cited from Dana Williams’ 2010 Anarchy of Sociology Syllabus)

  • Identify problem(s), brainstorm solutions, narrow-down options to best fit the whole group

  • Be honest about your feelings and expect the feelings of others

  • Be helpful with your suggestions, but also willing to meet others half-way

  • Give everyone a chance to contribute; not everyone is an extrovert; be mindful that society tends to silence many

  • Avoid a “winner-takes-all” process (like voting), since this marginalizes the “losers”

  • Find solutions that all can live with

  • Listen to what others say and give it fair consideration

  • When disagreeing do so graciously / politely; use “I” words instead of “you” words

  • Stay on task; tell stories and jokes later

  • Resources: ; ;

Recommended Texts:

Each of these texts is published by or available at AK Press, an anarchist-collective publishing and distribution house. At the website, you can find summaries and get pricing information. I’ve chosen the first two on the list to work from for week 2. Pdfs are available online if you can’t / won’t / don’t purchase the full-texts in time.

  1. Amster, DeLeon, Fernandez, Nocella, Shannon, eds., Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy

  2. Jay Gillen, Educating for Insurgency

  3. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

  4. Black Star, Quiet Rumors: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader

  5. Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy

  6. Jeff Shantz, ed., Specters of Anarchy: Literature and the Anarchist Imagination

  7. Barry Maxwell & Raymond Craib, eds., No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms

Possible Topics / Readings:  

Keep in mind: you may decide to split these topics into multiple weeks; you may add to the readings or specify which parts of certain texts to focus on; you may have other topics in mind that do not fit my suggestions; you may decide you’d like more time with anarchist history or pedagogy (the topics I’ll facilitate weeks 1 & 2); you may decide you’d like me to provide a more traditional “lecture-style” presentation of one or more of these topics. Think about how much you’d like to read each week. Typical graduate seminars focus on one full-length text supplemented with 3-6 articles–you may find this to be too much (I do). Maybe think about setting an average page limit each week. Don’t forget: you’ll have assignments that will likely accompany readings on certain days.

Please see pdf copy for full reading list

Final Note:

Making collective decisions is not easy. It is time consuming and requires an energetic investment from everyone involved. An additional hurdle to this class includes unlearning the hierarchical student and teacher roles you’ve likely internalized. Representative democracy has taught most, if not all of us, that we should give our voices away to a “representative.” Most people, at one time or another, have experienced the inadequacies that accompany this method of representation. In this class, we will practice the process of direct action. Your full involvement in every condition of the course–from syllabus design to handing in the final assignment–will introduce you to (or reinforce) critical thinking and conflict resolution skills, acceptance, tolerance, and compromise that, I hope, will help you in this class, within and without the academy.