Marcia Chatelain talks #FergusonSyllabus at Dal

- November 18, 2015

Marcia Chatelain speaking at Dal. (John Roy photo)
Marcia Chatelain speaking at Dal. (John Roy photo)

Earlier this month, Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, delivered the 2015 MacKay History Lecture to a very attentive and enthusiastic crowd in the Potter Auditorium of the Kenneth C. Rowe Management Building.

Hosted by Dalhousie’s Department of History and the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, the topic for the November 5 lecture was “Teaching in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: Social Media, Social Justice, and Social Change in Classrooms and Communities.”

More than a year after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri sparking widespread protest and civil unrest, educators across North America are still talking and tweeting about it and reflecting on the contours of, in Dr. Chatelain’s words, “a moment that has really become an incredible movement.”

In her lecture, she reflected on the protests that broke out, the tear gas that was released, the police presence that was rising, and the moment she realized that because of all of this unrest, the students in Ferguson would be delayed in returning to the classroom for the start of the new school year.

She knew there would be many questions, and a need for conversation surrounding this crisis and the broader issue of racial inequality. She also recognized the effective use of social media in crowdsourcing and campaigning, as has been shown with the #BlackLivesMatter movement which campaigns against violence and discrimination towards black people.

Inspiration through collaboration

That’s why Dr. Chatelain started the #FergusonSyllabus campaign as a collaborative approach for educators across the country to share resources and advice on how to talk about the crisis in Ferguson with their students and a means to bring some order to chaos.

“All I wanted to do was bully my colleagues into devoting the first day of class to Michael Brown,” Dr. Chatelain quipped while discussing her original plan for the Ferguson Syllabus. Yet the power of social media grew her idea to a much larger movement as others used the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag to join the conversation.

Through tweeting, she saw “a community of scholars doing the same thing at the same time” — and not just professors in the expected disciplines such as education, sociology, political science and history. There were science teachers wanting to get involved and providing details on the effects that the chemicals in the tear gas would have on the citizens that had been exposed to it. There was a fashion design teacher added to a discussion about the masks that protestors wore to conceal their faces, architecture professors talking about urban planning, and other professors outside her “regular cast of characters” contributing to the conversations.

The Twitter campaign encourages people to talk about these issues, and also provides a platform to bring people together into the conversation outside of the classroom and invite those in to it that may not have otherwise had the opportunity to engage in these discussions.

Links to the past

Dr. Chatelain reflected on the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following the verdict involving Rodney King. At that time, people had to turn on the television — mainly cable news — to see what was going on. Nowadays, with social media like Facebook and Twitter, the drama unfolding in Ferguson was available and accessible in so many instant ways, and a deep psychological trauma was being recorded and broadcast all over the world. She knew that kids were going to hear a lot of different things about the crisis in Ferguson and that they needed to talk about it with their educators.

“What happens when an entire community is traumatized together?” she said — and the hope is that conversations like #FergusonSyllabus are part of addressing those issues as a community. 


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