Activism in Academia: Empathy and Literature

At the CUNY Graduate Center, on April 7th, professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students gathered for a conference on activism in the classroom. Organized by Lehman College English professors Olivia Loksing Moy and Dhipinder Walia, the day-long symposium consisted of four panels. The first panel, “Words for Social Change: Empathy & Literature,” included remarks by Moy, Talia Schaffer (GC and QC, English), and Emanuele Castano (New School, Psychology), and pondered the manner in which literature can invoke a passion for activism. Moy opened the conference with the question: how can educators merge the worlds of the contemplative “scholar in her ivory tower” and the active “soldier in the trenches?”

In order to display how educators might unite these two realms, Moy opened by sharing excerpts from George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” She explained that in sharing this short story with her class, she meant to connect literature with a real-life event: the murder of Michael Brown. Moy opened with this allegory to prove that words are political and under fire, especially in today’s political atmosphere. In a classroom, the study of literature and abstract themes can be used to open discussion for tangible events. As educators, it is important to connect these “disjointed terms that rightfully belong together.”

Following Prof. Moy was Talia Schaffer, an English professor at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Professor Schaffer, a specialist in Victorian literature and women’s studies, shared her research on the “ethics of care,” in an attempt to show that literature can teach empathy. Drawing from these ethics, we might begin to understand classrooms are communities of care, in which empathy must be nurtured in order to function.

Finally, closing this panel was Professor Emanuele Castano of the New School, whose research on literary fiction and its effects on social cognition has garnered world-wide attention. In a series of experiments, Castano and his colleagues tested the effects of reading literary fiction and genre fiction on the mind’s ability to discern emotion. His findings show that literary fiction aids a reader’s ability to exhibit empathy.

Ultimately, this first panel paved the way for a symposium of important discussions and contemplation. It explained that literature is capable of influencing empathetic tendencies, but the question remained for the following panels: how can activism be applied in a scholarly setting beyond the study of literature?

-Zoe Fanzo

Reflections on “Diversifying the Curriculum: A Conservation with English Department Chairs”

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” -Dr. Martin Luther King.

To understand the perils that others face, we must first understand their histories. In the second panel that met for the “Activism in Academia” symposium, a group of CUNY English Department Chairs discussed how diversifying their curricula encourages awareness of these histories. The study of literature provokes critical thinking, scholarly debates, and the intellectual analysis of a given culture’s history. These combined with a diverse curriculum can aid in increasing students’ cognizance of culture, belief, religion, and the political ideas of others. Allison Pease (John Jay) stated that this process of diversifying the curriculum should include employing an assortment of relatable faculty that would represent the core values of these aims. The panel was confident that students who were exposed to these subjects would become well-rounded in their collegiate life.

During the conversation, some of the non-canonical disciplines discussed were Asian American Literature, Postcolonial Literature, and Queer Studies, and the panelists reflected on the urgency of promoting these disciplines. For instance, as Joyce Harte (BMCC) pointed out, given that the CUNY student population includes students who are subject to reprehensible “stop and frisk” police tactics, isn’t it high time that a revised curriculum emerges to reflect its diverse students’ concerns and experiences? How might incorporating texts from LGBTQ, Asian-American, Latinx, or African American authors into curricula both better represent the diversity of students’ experiences and enhance students’ perspectives?

-Cherelle Mathis

Racism, Representation, and Religion in the Classroom: A Conversation with Lehman’s English Honors Program

Led by moderator J. Bret Maney (Lehman), a student panel comprised of Lehman’s English Honors students tackled topics such as representation, racial prejudice, and self-acceptance through a personal yet rich depiction of their experiences in academia.

The panel was divided into two different sections: "Activism, Authority, and Ethics in the Black-Authored Text" and "Religious Representation & Secularism in the Classroom." C. Lionel Spencer and Nadia Floyd spoke about the exclusion of black voices in the literary canon while Alegna Santos, Sheema Alamari, and Ndeye Fatou Coundoul discussed their religious identities in the classroom and, consequently, the struggles that they individually encountered. Each speaker eloquently challenged and prompted members in the audience to consider each subject presented.

Spencer discussed the importance of hip-hop as the “black thought of black writers” and advocated for its inclusion in the world of academia, while Alegna Santos shared her experience reading Paradise Lost as a Jehovah’s witness and the conflict that ensued as she grappled with her religion and, subsequently, her self-acceptance. Nadia Floyd, Sheema Alamari, and Ndeye Fatou Coundoul called for empowerment in the community of women in the face of racial prejudices towards Islam and the marginalization of women’s voices in narratives.

The quality of the panel demonstrated that “Activism in Academia” was a thoughtful and mutual conversation between scholars at all stages in their careers who make up different parts of the CUNY institution. The one-day event was ultimately a provoking and illuminating event which took the first step in leading and encouraging professors and students to work together in order to shape a classroom different from the typically dry academic template.

-Sharon Lee

Activist Histories and Pedagogies

The "Activist Histories and Pedagogies" panel in the Activism in Academia symposium began by establishing an invisible history of race, its connection with (dis)ability studies and its eventual call to activism. Jorge Matos, Assistant Professor and Reference Librarian at Hostos Community College, bridged the gap between race and disability by offering a detailed recount of the Willowbrook State School, a defunct sanitorium, which predominantly housed Puerto Rican and African-American patients. Explaining that “race oozed” from its walls according to Dr. Michael Wilkins, who worked at the facility, Matos identified the topic as a “landmine” due to the silencing of both disability and race in the 1960s. Matos later posed a powerful question: “Who gets to speak for the nation? Who represents it?” His closing remarks cited Bernard Caraballo’s eighteen-year experience at the institution, putting into perspective that activism is indeed crafted by social, racial and gender disparities; he also cited Ramona Colon: “I will not be silenced into oblivion.”

Andrea McArdle (Professor of Law, CUNY Law School) and Maria Brinkman (Graduate Fellow, CUNY Law School) offered a refreshing variation on enacting social justice through fieldwork and pedagogy. In their Land Use and Community Lawyering seminar, they connected the study of law in tandem with a commitment to land equity. Brinkman first spoke of food justice – redressing scarce resources in underrepresented communities – as its own unique kind of activism and social justice. McArdle then posed a question stemming from economic disadvantages in places like Tompkins State Park as well as gaslight/superblock communities: “How do people form bonds when they struggle with land equity and laws of land use?” McArdle lastly encouraged activist theory as a pedagogic focus for students to develop a situated knowledge of a law-politics intersection, strengthening their writing and participation in nonprofits around NYC.

Joseph North (Yale) ended the symposium by first describing a problem with modern activism that requires intervention – the “tossing of intellectual grenades,” politically incorrect yet well-intended statements by academics and intellectuals. North soon after called up the notion that affective activism is owed to the upholding of three basic tenets: empathy, diversity and multiculturalism, each which serve as essential humanist mediators. The “drug of gradualism” causes activism across the landscape to stagnate, as no decisive action is taken. In similar stride, North elaborated that sitting in the classroom discussing activism is simply not activism, which shares similar limitations with solely voting, in taking a position but not taking part. Drawing on sharp literary examples from the likes of Woolf and Kundera, North concluded by framing the point that unlike humanitarianism, which is apolitical, public activism exists to take a side and thus has a political agenda to bring about change. Activism, then, is learned through entire group experiences.

-Nicholas Santiago

Activism in Academia: From Our Classrooms Out to the World

The “Activism in Academia Symposium” on April 7, 2017 was dedicated to emphasizing the need for activism within our educational communities. Three essential messages emerged throughout the day: we need to care for humanity through modes of personal empathy; we need to diversify our schools, both in the hiring process and in evolving the curriculum; and we need to use our voices to incite positive changes in the world. Olivia Loksing Moy, an English professor at Lehman College, provided opening remarks for the symposium and through the example of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” she conveyed that fiction can be used as the basis to ethically explore the parallels of identity and representation. Literary critic Talia Schaffer continued by comparing the ethics of care to scholarly writing, relating writing to a bridge or conduit between people. Psychologist Emanuele Castano concluded the first panel by describing an experiment in which the complex characters in literary fiction allow readers to become empathetic by inferring and representing other people’s mental states.

The necessity for diversity arose during the faculty roundtable in which six female English department chairs from CUNY campuses discussed changes made to their campuses in the last five years, such as expanding the canon, offering classes that reflect a wider range of students’ experiences, and diversifying hiring practices. The ethics of care became even more apparent when the audience discovered that two speakers were former English chairs who still took the time to participate, not out of obligation but out of commitment to the theme of the symposium.

Activism is expression; it is using your voice to generate change while allowing others to empathize with your perspective of the world. Five Lehman College undergraduates demonstrated this during the student panels, which captivated the audience with their stories about racial identity, religious representation and secularism, and feminism within the Islamic religion. Nadia Floyd and C. Lionel Spencer discussed incorporating more black-authored texts in the English curriculum while Sheema Alamari and Ndeye Fatou Coundoul brought concepts of feminism and religion together in their independent work by depicting their experiences as Muslim females. Alegna Santos also explored concepts of feminism and religion in her independent work, which described leaving the Jehovah’s Witness faith to explore other forms of knowledge. The panelists put forth the concepts that our stories should be told by us and that tolerance, acceptance, and respect are needed in the classroom. After the panel, the audience posed questions about elaborating on the distinctions between religion and culture, forms of stereotypes the undergraduates had encountered, and the role of music within African-American culture. Each voice projected into the room brought forth supportive and encouraging comments for the panelists.

Joseph North concluded the symposium by bridging the relationship between activism and academia. He argued that activism is motivated by the reformer’s love of humanity; furthermore, real learning is not performed by individuals but by social formations. As Talia Schaffer metaphorically depicted caregiving as a bridge between two endpoints in the early moments of the symposium, activism can be viewed as that same bridge which connects the classroom with societal changes.

-Arlinda Mulosmanaj


Arlinda Mulosmanaj

Arlinda Mulosmanaj is an English honors student at Lehman College. She is currently working on a thesis involving the translation and analysis of a collection of minor literature poems. She is a blogger, editor, and treasurer of Lehman Coll...

Cherelle Mathis

Cherelle Mathis was born in the south Bronx and raised in Westchester County. She attended Greenburgh North Castle high school in Valhalla New York, where she graduated Salutatorian.  She received her Associates Degree with honors from Westchester Co...

Nicholas Santiago

Nicholas Santiago is an English-literature honors student at Lehman College, minoring in philosophy. His research interests in English include composition, rhetoric, digital humanities, and writing/writing center pedagogy, with his academic&nbsp...

Sharon Lee

Sharon Lee is a second-year Macaulay Honors student studying English in Lehman College. She plans on minoring in Japanese and enjoys spending time in bookstores or the library.  ...

Zoe Fanzo

Zoe Fanzo is a Macaulay Honors student at Lehman College, majoring in history. Since the fall of 2016, she has been the print producer and web designer of the Meridian, the Lehman College newspaper. She is also the co-founder and vice ...