Graziano, Mars & Medak
Learning from #Syllabus
LEARNING FROM #SYLLABUS
VALERIA GRAZIANO, MARCELL MARS, TOMISLAV MEDAK
The syllabus is the manifesto of the 21st century.
—Sean Dockray and Benjamin Forster1
In August 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old boy living in Ferguson, Missouri,
was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson. Soon after, as the civil protests denouncing police brutality and institutional racism began to mount across the United
States, Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor of History and African American
Studies at Georgetown University, launched an online call urging other academics
and teachers ‘to devote the first day of classes to a conversation about Ferguson’ and ‘to recommend texts, collaborate on conversation starters, and inspire
dialogue about some aspect of the Ferguson crisis.’2 Chatelain did so using the
Also in August 2014, using the hashtag #gamergate, groups of users on 4Chan,
8Chan, Twitter, and Reddit instigated a misogynistic harassment campaign against
game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, media critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as
a number of other female and feminist game producers, journalists, and critics. In the
following weeks, The New Inquiry editors and contributors compiled a reading list and
issued a call for suggestions for their ‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’.3
In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United
States. In the weeks that followed, he became the presumptive Republican nominee,
and The Chronicle of Higher Education introduced the syllabus ‘Trump 101’.4 Historians N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain found ‘Trump 101’ inadequate, ‘a mock college syllabus […] suffer[ing] from a number of egregious omissions and inaccuracies’,
failing to include ‘contributions of scholars of color and address the critical subjects
of Trump’s racism, sexism, and xenophobia’. They assembled ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’.5
Soon after, in response to a video in which Trump engaged in ‘an extremely lewd
conversation about women’ with TV host Billy Bush, Laura Ciolkowski put together a
‘Rape Culture Syllabus’.6
Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Marcia Chatelain, ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014,
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain, ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://
Laura Ciolkowski, ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.
In April 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone
Camp and started the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of
which threatened the only water supply at the Standing Rock Reservation. The protest at the site of the pipeline became the largest gathering of native Americans in
the last 100 years and they earned significant international support for their ReZpect
Our Water campaign. As the struggle between protestors and the armed forces unfolded, a group of Indigenous scholars, activists, and supporters of the struggles of
First Nations people and persons of color, gathered under the name the NYC Stands
for Standing Rock Committee, put together #StandingRockSyllabus.7
The list of online syllabi created in response to political struggles has continued to
grow, and at present includes many more examples:
All Monuments Must Fall Syllabus
Puerto Rico Syllabus (#PRSyllabus)
Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves
Syllabus: Women and Gender Non-Conforming People Writing about Tech
What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A
It would be hard to compile a comprehensive list of all the online syllabi that have
been created by social justice movements in the last five years, especially, but not
exclusively, those initiated in North America in the context of feminist and anti-racist
activism. In what is now a widely spread phenomenon, these political struggles use
social networks and resort to the hashtag template ‘#___Syllabus’ to issue calls for
the bottom-up aggregation of resources necessary for political analysis and pedagogy
centering on their concerns. For this reason, we’ll call this phenomenon ‘#Syllabus’.
During the same years that saw the spread of the #Syllabus phenomenon, university
course syllabi have also been transitioning online, often in a top-down process initiated
by academic institutions, which has seen the syllabus become a contested document
in the midst of increasing casualization of teaching labor, expansion of copyright protections, and technology-driven marketization of education.
In what follows, we retrace the development of the online syllabus in both of these
contexts, to investigate the politics enmeshed in this new media object. Our argument
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
is that, on the one hand, #Syllabus names the problem of contemporary political culture as pedagogical in nature, while, on the other hand, it also exposes academicized
critical pedagogy and intellectuality as insufficiently political in their relation to lived
social reality. Situating our own stakes as both activists and academics in the present
debate, we explore some ways in which the radical politics of #Syllabus could be supported to grow and develop as an articulation of solidarity between amateur librarians
and radical educators.
#Syllabus in Historical Context: Social Movements and Self-Education
When Professor Chatelain launched her call for #FergusonSyllabus, she was mainly
addressing a community of fellow educators:
I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across
the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use
Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes.
Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that
speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.8
Her call had a much greater resonance than she had originally anticipated as it reached
beyond the limits of the academic community. #FergusonSyllabus had both a significant impact in shaping the analysis and the response to the shooting of Michael
Brown, and in inspiring the many other #Syllabus calls that soon followed.
The #Syllabus phenomenon comprises different approaches and modes of operating. In some cases, the material is clearly claimed as the creation of a single individual, as in the case of #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus, which is prefaced on the project’s
landing page by a warning to readers that ‘material compiled in this syllabus should
not be duplicated without proper citation and attribution.’9 A very different position on
intellectual property has been embraced by other #Syllabus interventions that have
chosen a more commoning stance. #StandingRockSyllabus, for instance, is introduced as a crowd-sourced process and as a useful ‘tool to access research usually
kept behind paywalls.’10
The different workflows, modes of engagements, and positioning in relation to
intellectual property make #Syllabus readable as symptomatic of the multiplicity
that composes social justice movements. There is something old school—quite
literally—about the idea of calling a list of online resources a ‘syllabus’; a certain
quaintness, evoking thoughts of teachers and homework. This is worthy of investigation especially if contrasted with the attention dedicated to other online cultural
phenomena such as memes or fake news. Could it be that the online syllabus offers
Marcia Chatelain, ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25
August 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-aboutwhats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/.
Frank Leon Roberts, ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
a useful, fresh format precisely for the characteristics that foreground its connections to older pedagogical traditions and techniques, predating digital cultures?
#Syllabus can indeed be analyzed as falling within a long lineage of pedagogical tools
created by social movements to support processes of political subjectivation and the
building of collective consciousness. Activists and militant organizers have time and
again created and used various textual media objects—such as handouts, pamphlets,
cookbooks, readers, or manifestos—to facilitate a shared political analysis and foment
mass political mobilization.
In the context of the US, anti-racist movements have historically placed great emphasis on critical pedagogy and self-education. In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (an alliance of civil rights initiatives) and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), created a network of 41 temporary alternative
schools in Mississippi. Recently, the Freedom Library Project, a campaign born out
of #FergusonSyllabus to finance under-resourced pedagogical initiatives, openly
referenced this as a source of inspiration. The Freedom Summer Project of 1964
brought hundreds of activists, students, and scholars (many of whom were white)
from the north of the country to teach topics and issues that the discriminatory
state schools would not offer to black students. In the words of an SNCC report,
Freedom Schools were established following the belief that ‘education—facts to
use and freedom to use them—is the basis of democracy’,11 a conviction echoed
by the ethos of contemporary #Syllabus initiatives.
Bob Moses, a civil rights movement leader who was the head of the literary skills initiative in Mississippi, recalls the movement’s interest, at the time, in teaching methods
that used the very production of teaching materials as a pedagogical tool:
I had gotten hold of a text and was using it with some adults […] and noticed that
they couldn’t handle it because the pictures weren’t suited to what they knew […]
That got me into thinking about developing something closer to what people were
doing. What I was interested in was the idea of training SNCC workers to develop
material with the people we were working with.12
It is significant that for him the actual use of the materials the group created was much
less important than the process of producing the teaching materials together. This focus
on what could be named as a ‘pedagogy of teaching’, or perhaps more accurately ‘the
pedagogy of preparing teaching materials’, is also a relevant mechanism at play in the
current #Syllabus initiatives, as their crowdsourcing encourages different kinds of people
to contribute what they feel might be relevant resources for the broader movement.
Alongside the crucial import of radical black organizing, another relevant genealogy in
which to place #Syllabus would be the international feminist movement and, in particular, the strategies developed in the 70s campaign Wages for Housework, spearheaded
Daniel Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990): 302.
Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom’: 306.
by Selma James and Silvia Federici. The Wages for Housework campaign drove home
the point that unwaged reproductive labor provides a foundation for capitalist exploitation. They wanted to encourage women to denaturalize and question the accepted
division of labor into remunerated work outside the house and labor of love within
the confines of domesticity, discussing taboo topics such as ‘prostitution as socialized housework’ and ‘forced sterilization’ as issues impacting poor, often racialized,
women. The organizing efforts of Wages for Housework held political pedagogy at their
core. They understood that that pedagogy required:
having literature and other materials available to explain our goals, all written in a
language that women can understand. We also need different types of documents,
some more theoretical, others circulating information about struggles. It is important
that we have documents for women who have never had any political experience.
This is why our priority is to write a popular pamphlet that we can distribute massively and for free—because women have no money.13
The obstacles faced by the Wages for Housework campaign were many, beginning
with the issue of how to reach a dispersed constituency of isolated housewives
and how to keep the revolutionary message at the core of their claims accessible
to different groups. In order to tackle these challenges, the organizers developed
a number of innovative communication tactics and pedagogical tools, including
strategies to gain mainstream media coverage, pamphlets and leaflets translated
into different languages,14 a storefront shop in Brooklyn, and promotional tables at
Freedom Schools and the Wages for Housework campaign are only two amongst
the many examples of the critical pedagogies developed within social movements.
The #Syllabus phenomenon clearly stands in the lineage of this history, yet we should
also highlight its specificity in relation to the contemporary political context in which it
emerged. The #Syllabus acknowledges that since the 70s—and also due to students’
participation in protests and their display of solidarity with other political movements—
subjects such as Marxist critical theory, women studies, gender studies, and African
American studies, together with some of the principles first developed in critical pedagogy, have become integrated into the educational system. The fact that many initiators of #Syllabus initiatives are women and Black academics speaks to this historical
shift as an achievement of that period of struggles. However, the very necessity felt by
these educators to kick-start their #Syllabus campaigns outside the confines of academia simultaneously reveals the difficulties they encounter within the current privatized and exclusionary educational complex.
Silvia Federici and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977:
History, Theory and Documents. New York: Autonomedia, 2017: 37.
Some of the flyers and pamphlets were digitized by MayDay Rooms, ‘a safe haven for historical
material linked to social movements, experimental culture and the radical expression of
marginalised figures and groups’ in London, and can be found in their online archive: ‘Wages
for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs’, MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
#Syllabus as a Media Object
Besides its contextualization within the historical legacy of previous grassroots mobilizations, it is also necessary to discuss #Syllabus as a new media object in its own
right, in order to fully grasp its relevance for the future politics of knowledge production and transmission.
If we were to describe this object, a #Syllabus would be an ordered list of links to
scholarly texts, news reports, and audiovisual media, mostly aggregated through a
participatory and iterative process, and created in response to political events indicative of larger conditions of structural oppression. Still, as we have seen, #Syllabus
as a media object doesn’t follow a strict format. It varies based on the initial vision
of their initiators, political causes, and social composition of the relevant struggle.
Nor does it follow the format of traditional academic syllabi. While a list of learning
resources is at the heart of any syllabus, a boilerplate university syllabus typically
also includes objectives, a timetable, attendance, coursework, examination, and an
outline of the grading system used for the given course. Relieved of these institutional
requirements, the #Syllabus typically includes only a reading list and a hashtag. The
reading list provides resources for understanding what is relevant to the here and
now, while the hashtag provides a way to disseminate across social networks the call
to both collectively edit and teach what is relevant to the here and now. Both the list
and the hashtag are specificities and formal features of the contemporary (internet)
culture and therefore merit further exploration in relation to the social dynamics at
play in #Syllabus initiatives.
The different phases of the internet’s development approached the problem of the
discoverability of relevant information in different ways. In the early days, the Gopher
protocol organized information into a hierarchical file tree. With the rise of World Wide
Web (WWW), Yahoo tried to employ experts to classify and catalog the internet into
a directory of links. That seemed to be a successful approach for a while, but then
Google (founded in 1998) came along and started to use a webgraph of links to rank
the importance of web pages relative to a given search query.
In 2005, Clay Shirky wrote the essay ‘Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links and
Tags’,15 developed from his earlier talk ‘Folksonomies and Tags: The Rise of User-Developed Classification’. Shirky used Yahoo’s attempt to categorize the WWW to argue
against any attempt to classify a vast heterogenous body of information into a single
hierarchical categorical system. In his words: ‘[Yahoo] missed [...] that, if you’ve got
enough links, you don’t need the hierarchy anymore. There is no shelf. There is no file
system. The links alone are enough.’ Those words resonated with many. By following
simple formatting rules, we, the internet users, whom Time magazine named Person of
the Year in 2006, proved that it is possible to collectively write the largest encyclopedia
ever. But, even beyond that, and as per Shirky’s argument, if enough of us organized
our own snippets of the vast body of the internet, we could replace old canons, hierarchies, and ontologies with folksonomies, social bookmarks, and (hash)tags.
Clay Shirky, ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
Very few who lived through those times would have thought that only a few years later
most user-driven services would be acquired by a small number of successful companies and then be shut down. Or, that Google would decide not to include the biggest
hashtag-driven platform, Twitter, into its search index and that the search results on
its first page would only come from a handful of usual suspects: media conglomerates, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Quora. Or, that Twitter would
become the main channel for the racist, misogynist, fascist escapades of the President
of United States.
This internet folk naivety—stoked by an equally enthusiastic, venture-capital-backed
startup culture—was not just naivety. This was also a period of massive experimental
use of these emerging platforms. Therefore, this history would merit to be properly
revisited and researched. In this text, however, we can only hint to this history: to contextualize how the hashtag as a formalization initially emerged, and how with time the
user-driven web lost some of its potential. Nonetheless, hashtags today still succeed in
propagating political mobilizations in the network environment. Some will say that this
propagation is nothing but a reflection of the internet as a propaganda machine, and
there’s no denying that hashtags do serve a propaganda function. However, it equally
matters that hashtags retain the capacity to shape coordination and self-organization,
and they are therefore a reflection of the internet as an organization machine.
As mentioned, #Syllabus as a media object is an ordered list of links to resources.
In the long history of knowledge retrieval systems and attempts to help users find
relevant information from big archives, the list on the internet continues in the tradition of the index card catalog in libraries, of charts in the music industry, or mixtapes
and playlists in popular culture, helping people tell their stories of what is relevant and
what isn’t through an ordered sequence of items. The list (as a format) together with
the hashtag find themselves in the list (pun intended) of the most iconic media objects
of the internet. In the network media environment, being smart in creating new lists
became the way to displace old lists of relevance, the way to dismantle canons, the
way to unlearn. The way to become relevant.
The Academic Syllabus Migrates Online
#Syllabus interventions are a challenge issued by political struggles to educators as
they expose a fundamental contradiction in the operations of academia. While critical pedagogies of yesteryear’s social movements have become integrated into the
education system, the radical lessons that these pedagogies teach students don’t
easily reconcile with their experience: professional practice courses, the rethoric of
employability and compulsory internships, where what they learn is merely instrumental, leaves them wondering how on earth they are to apply their Marxism or feminism
to their everyday lives?
Cognitive dissonance is at the basis of degrees in the liberal arts. And to make things
worse, the marketization of higher education, the growing fees and the privatization
of research has placed universities in a position where they increasingly struggle to
provide institutional space for critical interventions in social reality. As universities become more dependent on the ‘customer satisfaction’ of their students for survival, they
steer away from heated political topics or from supporting faculty members who might
decide to engage with them. Borrowing the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten,
‘policy posits curriculum against study’,16 creating the paradoxical situation wherein
today’s universities are places in which it is possible to do almost everything except
study. What Harney and Moten propose instead is the re-appropriation of the diffuse
capacity of knowledge generation that stems from the collective processes of selforganization and commoning. As Moten puts it: ‘When I think about the way we use the
term ‘study,’ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other
people.’17 And it is this practice of sharing a common repertoire—what Moten and
Harney call ‘rehearsal’18—that is crucially constitutive of a crowdsourced #Syllabus.
This contradiction and the tensions it brings to contemporary neoliberal academia can
be symptomatically observed in the recent evolution of the traditional academic syllabus. As a double consequence of (some) critical pedagogies becoming incorporated
into the teaching process and universities striving to reduce their liability risks, academic syllabi have become increasingly complex and extensive documents. They are
now understood as both a ‘social contract’ between the teachers and their students,
and ‘terms of service’19 between the institution providing educational services and the
students increasingly framed as sovereign consumers making choices in the market of
educational services. The growing official import of the syllabus has had the effect that
educators have started to reflect on how the syllabus translates the power dynamics
into their classroom. For instance, the critical pedagogue Adam Heidebrink-Bruno has
demanded that the syllabus be re-conceived as a manifesto20—a document making
these concerns explicit. And indeed, many academics have started to experiment with
the form and purpose of the syllabus, opening it up to a process of co-conceptualization with their students, or proposing ‘the other syllabus’21 to disrupt asymmetries.
At the same time, universities are unsurprisingly moving their syllabi online. A migration
that can be read as indicative of three larger structural shifts in academia.
First, the push to make syllabi available online, initiated in the US, reinforces the differential effects of reputation economy. It is the Ivy League universities and their professorial star system that can harness the syllabus to advertise the originality of their
scholarship, while the underfunded public universities and junior academics are burdened with teaching the required essentials. This practice is tied up with the replication
in academia of the different valorization between what is considered to be the labor of
production (research) and that of social reproduction (teaching). The low esteem (and
corresponding lower rewards and remuneration) for the kinds of intellectual labors that
can be considered labors of care—editing journals, reviewing papers or marking, for
instance—fits perfectly well with the gendered legacies of the academic institution.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Autonomedia, 2013, p. 81.
17 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
18 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
19 Angela Jenks, ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
20 Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’,
Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-criticalapproach-classroom-culture/.
21 Lucy E. Bailey, ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate
Pedagogy Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Second, with the withdrawal of resources to pay precarious and casualized academics during their ‘prep’ time (that is, the time in which they can develop new
course material, including assembling new lists of references, updating their courses as well as the methodologies through which they might deliver these), syllabi
now assume an ambivalent role between the tendencies for collectivization and
individualization of insecurity. The reading lists contained in syllabi are not covered
by copyrights; they are like playlists or recipes, which historically had the effect of
encouraging educators to exchange lesson plans and make their course outlines
freely available as a valuable knowledge common. Yet, in the current climate where
universities compete against each other, the authorial function is being extended
to these materials too. Recently, US universities have been leading a trend towards
the interpretation of the syllabus as copyrightable material, an interpretation that
opened up, as would be expected, a number of debates over who is a syllabus’
rightful owner, whether the academics themselves or their employers. If the latter interpretation were to prevail, this would enable universities to easily replace
academics while retaining their contributions to the pedagogical offer. The fruits of
a teacher’s labor could thus be turned into instruments of their own deskilling and
casualization: why would universities pay someone to write a course when they can
recycle someone else’s syllabus and get a PhD student or a precarious post doc to
teach the same class at a fraction of the price?
This tendency to introduce a logic of property therefore spurs competitive individualism and erasure of contributions from others. Thus, crowdsourcing the syllabus
in the context of growing precarization of labor risks remaining a partial process,
as it might heighten the anxieties of those educators who do not enjoy the security
of a stable job and who are therefore the most susceptible to the false promises of
copyright enforcement and authorship understood as a competitive, small entrepreneurial activity. However, when inserted in the context of live, broader political
struggles, the opening up of the syllabus could and should be an encouragement
to go in the opposite direction, providing a ground to legitimize the collective nature
of the educational process and to make all academic resources available without
copyright restrictions, while devising ways to secure the proper attribution and the
just remuneration of everyone’s labor.
The introduction of the logic of property is hard to challenge as it is furthered by commercial academic publishers. Oligopolists, such as Elsevier, are not only notorious for
using copyright protections to extract usurious profits from the mostly free labor of
those who write, peer review, and edit academic journals,22 but they are now developing all sorts of metadata, metrics, and workflow systems that are increasingly becoming central for teaching and research. In addition to their publishing business, Elsevier
has expanded its ‘research intelligence’ offering, which now encompasses a whole
range of digital services, including the Scopus citation database; Mendeley reference
manager; the research performance analytics tools SciVal and Research Metrics; the
centralized research management system Pure; the institutional repository and pub-
22 Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic
Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015),https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
lishing platform Bepress; and, last but not least, grant discovery and funding flow tools
Funding Institutional and Elsevier Funding Solutions. Given how central digital services
are becoming in today’s universities, whoever owns these platforms is the university.
Third, the migration online of the academic syllabus falls into larger efforts by universities to ‘disrupt’ the educational system through digital technologies. The introduction
of virtual learning environments has led to lesson plans, slides, notes, and syllabi becoming items to be deposited with the institution. The doors of public higher education are being opened to commercial qualification providers by means of the rise in
metrics-based management, digital platforming of university services, and transformation of students into consumers empowered to make ‘real-time’ decisions on how to
spend their student debt.23 Such neoliberalization masquerading behind digitization
is nowhere more evident than in the hype that was generated around Massive Open
Online Courses (MOOCs), exactly at the height of the last economic crisis.
MOOCs developed gradually from the Massachusetts Institute of Techology’s (MIT) initial experiments with opening up its teaching materials to the public through the OpenCourseWare project in 2001. By 2011, MOOCs were saluted as a full-on democratization of access to ‘Ivy-League-caliber education [for] the world’s poor.’24 And yet, their
promise quickly deflated following extremely low completion rates (as low as 5%).25
Believing that in fifty years there will be no more than 10 institutions globally delivering
higher education,26 by the end of 2013 Sebastian Thrun (Google’s celebrated roboticist
who in 2012 founded the for-profit MOOC platform Udacity), had to admit that Udacity
offered a ‘lousy product’ that proved to be a total failure with ‘students from difficult
neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in
their lives.’27 Critic Aaron Bady has thus rightfully argued that:
[MOOCs] demonstrate what the technology is not good at: accreditation and mass
education. The MOOC rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and
privilege that allow them to pursue learning for its own sake [...] MOOCs are also a
really poor way to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities, which has been the historical mission of public education.28
Indeed, the ‘historical mission of public education’ was always and remains to this
day highly contested terrain—the very idea of a public good being under attack by
dominant managerial techniques that try to redefine it, driving what Randy Martin
23 Ben Williamson, ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7.
24 Max Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
25 ‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.
26 Steven Leckart, ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’,
Wired, 20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
27 Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun’.
28 Aaron Bady, ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013),
aptly called the ‘financialization of daily life.’29 The failure of MOOCs finally points to a
broader question, also impacting the vicissitudes of #Syllabus: Where will actual study
practices find refuge in the social, once the social is made directly productive for capital at all times? Where will study actually ‘take place’, in the literal sense of the phrase,
claiming the resources that it needs for co-creation in terms of time, labor, and love?
Learning from #Syllabus
What have we learned from the #Syllabus phenomenon?
The syllabus is the manifesto of 21st century.
Political struggles against structural discrimination, oppression, and violence in the
present are continuing the legacy of critical pedagogies of earlier social movements
that coupled the process of political subjectivation with that of collective education.
By creating effective pedagogical tools, movements have brought educators and students into the fold of their struggles. In the context of our new network environment,
political struggles have produced a new media object: #Syllabus, a crowdsourced list
of resources—historic and present—relevant to a cause. By doing so, these struggles
adapt, resist, and live in and against the networks dominated by techno-capital, with
all of the difficulties and contradictions that entails.
What have we learned from the academic syllabus migrating online?
In the contemporary university, critical pedagogy is clashing head-on with the digitization of higher education. Education that should empower and research that should
emancipate are increasingly left out in the cold due to the data-driven marketization
of academia, short-cutting the goals of teaching and research to satisfy the fluctuating demands of labor market and financial speculation. Resistance against the capture of data, research workflows, and scholarship by means of digitization is a key
struggle for the future of mass intellectuality beyond exclusions of class, disability,
gender, and race.
What have we learned from #Syllabus as a media object?
As old formats transform into new media objects, the digital network environment defines the conditions in which these new media objects try to adjust, resist, and live. A
right intuition can intervene and change the landscape—not necessarily for the good,
particularly if the imperatives of capital accumulation and social control prevail. We
thus need to re-appropriate the process of production and distribution of #Syllabus
as a media object in its totality. We need to build tools to collectively control the workflows that are becoming the infrastructures on top of which we collaboratively produce
knowledge that is vital for us to adjust, resist, and live. In order to successfully intervene in the world, every aspect of production and distribution of these new media objects becomes relevant. Every single aspect counts. The order of items in a list counts.
The timestamp of every version of the list counts. The name of every contributor to
29 Randy Martin, Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
every version of the list counts. Furthermore, the workflow to keep track of all of these
aspects is another complex media object—a software tool of its own—with its own order and its own versions. It is a recursive process of creating an autonomous ecology.
#Syllabus can be conceived as a recursive process of versioning lists, pointing to textual, audiovisual, or other resources. With all of the linked resources publicly accessible to all; with all versions of the lists editable by all; with all of the edits attributable to
their contributors; with all versions, all linked resources, all attributions preservable by
all, just such an autonomous ecology can be made for #Syllabus. In fact, Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office have already proposed such a methodology in
their Hyperreadings, a forkable readme.md plaintext document on GitHub. They write:
A text that by its nature points to other texts, the syllabus is already a relational
document acknowledging its own position within a living field of knowledge. It is
decidedly not self-contained, however it often circulates as if it were.
If a syllabus circulated as a HyperReadings document, then it could point directly to the texts and other media that it aggregates. But just as easily as it circulates, a HyperReadings syllabus could be forked into new versions: the syllabus
is changed because there is a new essay out, or because of a political disagreement, or because following the syllabus produced new suggestions. These forks
become a family tree where one can follow branches and trace epistemological
It is in line with this vision, which we share with the HyperReadings crew, and in line
with our analysis, that we, as amateur librarians, activists, and educators, make our
promise beyond the limits of this text.
The workflow that we are bootstrapping here will keep in mind every aspect of the media object syllabus (order, timestamp, contributor, version changes), allowing diversity
via forking and branching, and making sure that every reference listed in a syllabus
will find its reference in a catalog which will lead to the actual material, in digital form,
needed for the syllabus.
Against the enclosures of copyright, we will continue building shadow libraries and
archives of struggles, providing access to resources needed for the collective processes of education.
Against the corporate platforming of workflows and metadata, we will work with social
movements, political initiatives, educators, and researchers to aggregate, annotate,
version, and preserve lists of resources.
Against the extractivism of academia, we will take care of the material conditions that
are needed for such collective thinking to take place, both on- and offline.
30 Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Bady, Aaron. ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013), https://
Bailey, Lucy E. ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate Pedagogy
Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Chafkin, Max. ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
Chatelain, Marcia. ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25 August
_____. ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/teaching-ferguson-syllabus/.
Ciolkowski, Laura. ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.publicbooks.
Connolly, N.D.B. and Keisha N. Blain. ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://www.
Dockray, Sean, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office. ‘README.md’, HyperReadings, 15 February 2018,
Federici, Silvia, and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents, New York: Autonomedia, 2017.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’, Hybrid
Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/.
Jenks, Angela. ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
Leckart, Steven. ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’, Wired,
20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
Martin, Randy. Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
Perlstein, Daniel. ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990).
Roberts, Frank Leon. ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://www.
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/.
Shirky, Clay. ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.oxbridgeessays.
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.com/
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
‘Wages for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs,’ MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
Williamson, Ben. ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7/.
Pirate Care: How do we imagine the health care for the future we want?
Pirate Care - How do we imagine the health care for the future we want?
Oct 5, 2018 · 19 min read
by Valeria Graziano
A recent trend to reimagine the systems of care for the future is based on many of the principles of self-organization. From the passive figure of the patient — an aptly named subject, patiently awaiting aid from medical staff and carers — researchers and policymakers are moving towards a model defined as people-powered health — where care is discussed as transforming from a top-down service to a network of coordinated actors.
At the same time, for large numbers of people, to self-organize around their own healthcare needs is not a matter of predilection, but increasingly one of necessity. In Greece, where the measures imposed by the Troika decimated public services, a growing number of grassroots clinics set up by the Solidarity Movement have been providing medical attention to those without a private insurance. In Italy, initiatives such as the Ambulatorio Medico Popolare in Milan offer free consultations to migrants and other vulnerable citizens.
The new characteristic in all of these cases is the fact that they frame what they do in clearly political terms, rejecting or sidestepping the more neutral ways in which the third sector and the NGOs have long presented care practices as apolitical, as ways to help out that should never ask questions bigger than the problems they set out to confront, and as standing beyond left and right (often for the sake of not alienating potential donors and funders).
Rather, the current trends towards self-organization in health care are very vocal and clear in their messages: the care system is in crisis, and we need to learn from what we know already. One thing we know is that the market or the financialization of assets cannot be the solution (do you remember when just a few years ago Occupy was buying back healthcare debts from financial speculators, thus saving thousands Americans from dire economic circumstances? Or that scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko, the documentary where a guy has to choose which finger to have amputated because he does not have enough cash for saving both?).
Another thing we also know is that we cannot simply hold on to past models of managing the public sector, as most national healthcare systems were built for the needs of the last century. Administrations have been struggling to adapt to the changing nature of health conditions (moving from a predominance of epidemic to chronic diseases) and the different needs of today’s populations. And finally, we most definitely know that to go back to even more conservative ideas that frame care as a private issue that should fall on the shoulders of family members (and most often, of female relatives) or hired servants (also gendered and racialised) is not the best we can come up with.
Among the many initiatives that are rethinking how we organize the provision of health and care in ways that are accessible, fair, and efficient, there are a number of actors — mostly small organizations — who are experimenting with the opportunities introduced by digital technologies. While many charities and NGOs remain largely ignorant of the opportunities offered by technology, these new actors are developing DIY devices, wearables, 3D-printed bespoke components, apps and smart objects to intervene in areas otherwise neglected by the bigger players in the care system. These practices are presenting a new mode of operating that I want to call ‘pirate care’.
Piracy and Care are not always immediately relatable notions. The figure of the pirate in popular and media cultures is often associated with cunning intelligence and masculine modes of action, of people running servers which are allowing people to illegally download music or movie files. One of the very first organizations that articulated the stakes of sharing knowledge was actually named Piratbyrån. “When you pirate mp3s, you are downloading communism” was a popular motto at the time. And yet, bringing the idea of a pirate ethics into resonance with contemporary modes of care invites a different consideration for practices that propose a paradigm change and therefore inevitably position themselves in tricky positions vis-à-vis the law and the status quo. I have been noticing for a while now that another kind of contemporary pirate is coming to the fore in our messy society in the midst of many crises. This new kind of pirate could be best captured by another image: this time it is a woman, standing on the dock of a boat sailing through the Caribbean sea towards the Mexican Gulf, about to deliver abortion pills to other women for whom this option is illegal in their country.
Women on Waves, founded in 1999, engages in its abortion-on-boat missions every couple of years. They are mostly symbolic actions, as they are rather expensive operations, and yet they are potent means for stirring public debate and have often been met with hostility — even military fleets. So far, they have visited seven countries so far, including Mexico, Guatemala and, more recently, Ireland and Poland, where feminists movements have been mobilizing in huge numbers to reclaim reproductive rights.
According to official statistics, more than 47,000 women die every year from complications resulting from illegal, unsafe abortion procedures, a service used by over 21 million women who do not have another choice. As Leticia Zenevich, spokesperson of Women on Waves, told HuffPost: “The fact that women need to leave the state sovereignty to retain their own sovereignty ― it makes clear states are deliberately stopping women from accessing their human right to health.” Besides the boat campaigns, the organization also runs Women on Web, an online medical abortion service active since 2005. The service is active in 17 languages, and it is helping more than 100,000 women per year to get information and access abortion pills. More recently, Women on Waves also begun experimenting with the use of drones to deliver the pills in countries impacted by restrictive laws (such as Poland in 2015 and Northern Ireland in 2016).
Women on Waves are the perfect figure to begin to illustrate my idea of ‘pirate care’. By this term I want to bring attention to an emergent phenomenon in the contemporary world, where more and more often initiatives that want to bring support and care to the most vulnerable subjects in the most unstable situations, increasingly have to do so by operating in that grey zone that exists between the gaps left open by various rules, laws and technologies. Some thrive in this shadow area, carefully avoiding calling attention to themselves for fear of attracting ferocious polemics and the trolling that inevitably accompanies them. In other cases, care practices that were previously considered the norm have now been pushed towards illegality.
Consider for instance the situation highlighted by the Docs Not Cops campaign that started in the UK four years ago, when the government had just introduced its ‘hostile environment’ policy with the aim to make everyday life as hard as possible for migrants with an irregular status. Suddenly, medical staff in hospitals and other care facilities were supposed to carry out document checks before being allowed to offer any assistance. Their mobilization denounced the policy as an abuse of mandate on the part of the Home Office and a threat to public health, given that it effectively discouraged patients to seek help for fear of retaliations. Another sadly famous example of this trend of pushing many acts of care towards illegality would the straitjacketing and criminalization of migrant rescuing NGOs in the Mediterranean on the part of various European countries, a policy led by Italian government. Yet another example would be the increasing number of municipal decrees that make it a crime to offer food, money or shelter to the homeless in many cities in North America and Europe.
This scenario reminds us of the tragic story of Antigone and the age-old question of what to do when the relationship between what the law says and one what feels it is just becomes fraught with tensions and contradictions. Here, the second meaning of ‘pirate care’ becomes apparent as it points to the way in which a number of initiatives have been responding to the current crisis by mobilizing tactics and ethics as first developed within the hacker movement.
As described by Steven Levy in Hackers, the general principles of a hacker ethic include sharing, openness, decentralization, free access to knowledge and tools, and an effort of contributing to society’s democratic wellbeing. To which we could add, following Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, that “bureaucracy should not be allowed to get in the way of doing anything useful.” While here Stallman was reflecting on the experience of the M.I.T. AI Lab in 1971, his critique of bureaucracy captures well a specific trait of the techno-political nexus that is also shaping the present moment: as more technologies come to mediate everyday interactions, they are also reshaping the very structure of the institutions and organizations we inhabit, so that our lives are increasingly formatted to meet the requirements of an unprecedented number of standardised procedures, compulsory protocols, and legal obligations.
According to anthropologists David Graeber, we are living in an era of “total bureaucratization”. But while contemporary populism often presents bureaucracy as a problem of the public sector, implicitly suggesting “the market” to be the solution, Graeber’s study highlights how historically all so-called “free markets” have actually been made possible through the strict enforcement of state regulations. Since the birth of the modern corporation in 19th century America, “bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys …) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society — education, science, government — and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life.”
The forceps and the speculum
And thus, in resonance with the tradition of hacker ethics, a number of ‘pirate care’ practices are intervening in reshaping what looking after our collective health will look like in the future. CADUS, for example, is a Berlin based NGO which has recently set up a Crisis Response Makerspace to build open and affordable medical equipment specifically designed to bring assistance in extreme crisis zones where not many other organizations would venture, such as Syria and Northern Iraq. After donating their first mobile hospital to the Kurdish Red Crescent last year, CADUS is now working to develop a second version, in a container this time, able to be deployed in conflict zones deprived of any infrastructure, and a civil airdrop system to deliver food and medical equipment as fast as possible. The fact that CADUS adopted the formula of the makerspace to invent open emergency solutions that no private company would be interested in developing is not a coincidence, but emerges from a precise vision of how healthcare innovations should be produced and disseminated, and not only for extreme situations.
“Open source is the only way for medicine” — says Marcus Baw of Open Health Hub — as “medical software now is medicine”. Baw has been involved in another example of ‘pirate care’ in the UK, founding a number of initiatives to promote the adoption of open standards, open source code, and open governance in Health IT. The NHS spends about £500 million each time it refreshes Windows licenses, and aside from avoiding the high costs, an open source GP clinical system would be the only way to address the pressing ethical issue facing contemporary medicine: as software and technology become more and more part of the practice of medicine itself, they need to be subject to peer-review and scrutiny to assess their clinical safety. Moreover, that if such solutions are found to be effective and safe lives, it is the duty of all healthcare practitioners to share their knowledge with the rest of humanity, as per the Hippocratic Oath. To illustrate what happens when medical innovations are kept secret, Baw shares the story of the Chamberlen family of obstetricians, who kept the invention of the obstetric forceps, a family trade secret for over 150 years, using the tool only to treat their elite clientele of royals and aristocracy. As a result, thousands of mothers and babies likely died in preventable circumstances.
It is perhaps significant that such a sad historical example of the consequences ofclosed medicine must come from the field of gynaecology, one of the most politically charged areas of medical specialization to this day. So much so that last year another collective of ‘pirate carers’ named GynePunk developed a biolab toolkit for emergency gynaecological care, to allow those excluded from the reproductive healthcare — undocumented migrants, trans and queer women, drug users and sex workers — to perform basic checks on their own bodily fluids. Their prototypes include a centrifuge, a microscope and an incubator that can be cheaply realised by repurposing components of everyday items such as DVD players and computer fans, or by digital fabrication. In 2015, GynePunk also developed a 3D-printable speculum and — who knows? — perhaps their next project might include a pair of forceps…
As the ‘pirate care’ approach keeps proliferating more and more, its tools and modes of organizing is keeping alive a horizon in which healthcare is not de facto reduced to a privilege.
PS. This article was written before the announcement of the launch of Mediterranea, which we believe to be another important example of pirate care. #piratecare #abbiamounanave