Interview with Shana Agid, Ph.D. – “Making Possibilities as We Go”

Shana Agid is an artist, teacher, writer, and activist whose work focuses on relationships of power and difference, particularly regarding sexuality, race, and gender in visual and political cultures. In addition to serving as Director of the Parsons First Year program, Agid is an Assistant Professor of Arts, Media, and Communication where he teaches book arts, collaborative design, and service design. He has an MFA in Printmaking and Book Arts and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts, and a PhD in Design from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He is on the Editorial Board of Radical Teacher and a co-founder with Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani of Working With People, a curriculum and web-based resource on the complex contexts of partner-based and collaborative work in educational environments.

Agid was recently the recipient of the Award for Diversity and Social Justice Teaching, The New School’s annual honor recognizing a faculty member who uses pedagogies that promote inclusive learning environments, integrates theory and practice to support social justice learning and leadership skills in the context of teaching students from underrepresented groups, promotes reflection, builds community, facilitates organized action through teaching that goes beyond advocacy and promotes critical thinking and dialogue from diverse points of view.

Congratulations on your Award for Diversity and Social Justice Teaching! This is such an amazing level of inspiration to your students and peers!

Thank you! It’s an incredible honor. Mind-blowing and humbling.

How long have you been teaching at The New School?

I’ve worked at The New School for just over 10 years, and have been teaching 8 of those.

Where did your pedagogy path begin? Were there professors, activists, academic figures that inspired you?

I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by smart, challenging, and caring teachers—and people who were not officially teachers, but from whom I learned so much—all my life. These were people who maybe more than anything believed in learning as much as teaching and were skilled in asking the right questions to push a person or group further, and people who were just generous with their knowledge and open to sharing their experiences.

Right now, my thinking about teaching is still deeply influenced by two of the greatest seminar teachers I’ve had, both of whom spoke sparingly (a skill I’m still working on) and guided complex conversations in class that pushed us as thinkers and as people in the world, where I always walked out having learned something, even if I wasn’t always comfortable in the process. It is also influenced by people with whom I’m working in collaboration: organizers at Critical Resistance, students and teachers at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) and from a previous project with the Fortune Society, students from Parsons and The New School. And, I’m driven by and drawn to constant conversations—some out loud, many in my head—with thinkers, writers, designers, artists, activists whose work constitutes the learning I’m doing every day. These include people like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Avery Gordon, Mabel O. Wilson, Ashley Hunt, Ann Light and Yoko Akama, Lucy Suchman, researchers at the Center for Codesign Research (CODE) at KADK in Denmark, researchers in Participatory Design, María Torre, Michelle Fine, and others at the Public Science Project, Susan Leigh Star, Stuart Hall, Thuy Tu, David Brody, Christine Gaspar and others at the Center for Urban Pedagogy and the Equity Collective, and many others who asking critical questions of art and design practice, of histories and systems of power, and of teaching practices.

Could you intersect the rewards and challenges of facilitating inclusive learning? 

I think that the longer I teach, the more I’m learning about making classrooms or other learning spaces into collective spaces. And this looks and feels different for different courses, types of classes, and groups of students. I’m taking “inclusive learning” to mean something at the intersection of collaborative learning or critical pedagogy and an anti-oppression approach, so something both widely inclusive of a range of sources, ideas, experiences, and critically oriented to the systemic production of exclusion and absence or the prioritization of dominant voices. In that sense, I think the rewards are striking, they are things like working with students and others to create spaces in which—at best—people feel “comfortable being uncomfortable” (an idea I’ve learned from students and teachers at WHEELS), and also feel free, and know that these are not only not mutually exclusive, but deeply linked. The rewards also include watching the making of a space in which students feel like they can make arguments, claims, and demands based on ideas and imagined possibilities informed both by what they know and what we’re learning together (from still other people, doing that, also). I also think that learning to be a stronger facilitator, a good mentor, and a better listener are all rewards of teaching this way. The challenges include facing my own limits, and creating a space with students and others in which we all can do that well. I think that at times it’s difficult to do it all in one semester, to set mutual agreements, build knowledge together, talk about, practice using, and get comfortable with fundamental concepts—whether in design, critical thinking, or histories of knowledge that inform the course context. And it is always hard, even when we work to build these kinds of learning / making / doing spaces together, to address different understandings and experiences of power, especially as it manifests in our day-to-day lives (as racism, sexism, heteronormativity, immigration status, privilege, opportunity, scarcity, fear, risk, etc.).

What is your role on the board of Radical Teacher? How do all of your different roles complete, complement, challenge, and characterize each other?

Well, I took a leave to complete my PhD and haven’t started working on it again yet, though the journal is doing some fantastic work. Before my leave, I worked on the layout, art direction and design, and I co-edited three issue clusters. Two I co-edited with with Erica Rand. In Teaching Beyond Tolerance, we built on work we were both doing around critiquing the frameworks of “hate crime” and “tolerance” as limiting discourse and action around violences of domination. The second was called Beyond the Special Guest: Teaching “Trans” Now.  I also co-edited Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex with Kate Drabinski and Michael Bennett, which focused on strategies for teaching from an abolitionist lens when teaching about the prison industrial complex.

The work I do across teaching, editing, writing, design collaborations, organizing, bookmaking and printing, etc. is—even when it doesn’t seem like it entirely—all deeply connected. Each is a site of learning and experimenting, developing knowledge and ideas, imagining what will actually create meaningful movement toward a world in which people have access to creating self-determined lives. So much of this right now is about thinking with people, hammering out ideas through practice, and taking these steps through building real options. For me, a lot of it is about learning how to do that with a broad range of people, and some of it, necessarily, is also about doing that work alone, through writing and making art in which I ask a lot of similar questions, but in different ways, specifically in ways that allow me not to have to answer them, but to explore them as questions. My roles as a teacher, editor, art director (which I haven’t done for a while now), writer, etc. all came together in my work on Radical Teacher, and I think the journal puts together fantastic resources for teachers who are also invested in working out ideas and learning new approaches to teaching.

Can you tell us about your project Working with People, especially how the keywords format offers attention to the power of language?

Working with People started as a collaboration between Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, Cameron Tonkinwise, and me after we’d all been teaching courses in which students were being asked to engage with outside partners and/or to think critically about their own (mostly) design practices. We were struck by what we felt was a missing set of tools or a curriculum to foster critical conversations about what it means to collaborate, or to work with people. The keywords structure was one way we imagined we could both begin a conversation—using language that was, as we note on the website, either highly used but under-examined or conspicuously absent—and start to make what we thought was a necessary critical intervention by taking as a given that we do not all agree about these terms and that discussing and debating them is a critical component of engaging in the complex contexts of most collaborations (no matter the sector). We developed a curriculum based on these Keywords, and began collecting one-minute (more or less) definitions from first colleagues at The New School, and then a range of partners and collaborators, asking them only to pick one or two words and define them as they thought about them in their work. Gabrielle and I have continued the project (Cameron moved on to Carnegie Mellon and is now at University of New South Wales Art and Design in Sydney, Australia), and typically, we use WWP in a workshop format, though we’ve also had faculty use the curriculum as a structure in classes. You can see a bit more writing about it, in the context of a two-year service design collaboration between students at WHEELS, Fortune, and The New School, here.

Regarding your article “How can we design something to transition people from a system that doesn’t want to let them go?” I was very impressed with the duality of perceptions of a clipboard and how the design and usage of it communicated with your students. Do you still teach this course? Is this related to your COLLABORATIVE: HUMAN SERVICES course? Are there other examples of design behaving this way?

Thanks for your comments on that article (and for reading it!). I do still teach the course; it is that Human Services class, which I’ve taught with the Fortune Society and with WHEELS (and for a couple of years, with a three-way partnership). The class started as the first undergraduate Service Design class at Parsons, started by Lara Penin, who is now Director of the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design. At the time, I didn’t know about Service Design, but joined the class to do a discussion about prisons in the United States, as this was the focus of the course (they were partnering with Fortune then). I was so interested in the work, and the approach, that I stuck around and helped facilitate, and learned alongside the students in the class. The second year, I co-taught it, and then Lara invited me to take it on. When I was teaching that class, my interest in design with social justice organizations, and overlaps and differences between design and social justice organizing approaches, led me to pursue a PhD in Design at RMIT (in Melbourne, AU). Through shaping and reshaping this class, ultimately through designing the course to try to meet learning goals and the needs of at least two groups of students, I learned a lot about what it meant to really begin to shape collaborative courses and learned a lot about why they are hard to run well, even as they can be so important when we put in the work to really make them reciprocal and critical. (I did this first with Fortune, where we were working across the GED / High School Equivalency learning goals of Fortune students and the mostly introductory, sometimes intermediate, service design skills of Parsons and New School students, then with WHEELS, where we worked with students from 10th through 12th grades with a range of learning goals.) So many things are hard in these classes, and so much of the work is turning what is logistically difficult (aligning schedules, working without financial resources, etc.) into both meaningful opportunities to talk about challenges and into things to design with and for. Additionally, I’ve begun with my partners and students in the classes to learn what works well and not as well for building mutual trust, opportunities for mutual learning and knowledge-making, and for setting manageable goals for a project in a semester (I still struggle with this!). I think that so much of that course is also about working with Parsons and TNS students to begin to unseat assumptions about what design does or can do when we really begin to work closely with people, and how our assumptions—either about people’s contexts or experiences or, critically, about design as a tool for creating “solutions”—can stand in the way of actually making connections with people and being able to do meaningful work. I think this class has become a class that is as much about developing the ability to design for collaboration—inclusive of noticing and seeing moments like the one I had with the clipboard and understanding what that can do to a working relationship and taking accountability for it—as it is about making a service design. I do think people in some places in design fields are working on this. The Center for Urban Pedagogy and the Equity Collective are definitely thinking about this, and it’s a key thread in the theory and practice of Participatory Design, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and other sites where design and Science Technology Studies overlap. A number of design researchers have been using feminist epistemologies over the last almost two decades now to explore these relational questions. And that’s picked up recently. The Ghana Think Tank also does this by turning the assumptions about “developed” world designers making “solutions” for “developing” countries on their head, working with think tanks in a range of countries and occupied / locked down spaces to brainstorm ideas about problems collected in more privileged spaces.

How do you strike a balance between social justice theory and practice?

I see them, not surprisingly, as deeply intertwined. I am a believer in praxis, and think that so much of what we learn—especially as designers, artists, writers, and makers—is through practice. This is how we come to know the world, and I believe it is how we come to know how to reflect on it, and make new things from it. I also think that we cannot do that without reading and listening and observing, so I’m not implying that we make all our knowledge from our own actions or understandings, not by a long shot. But I do think that what we read or hear or learn this way is best put into practice through practice, and that it takes on new meaning and new life in those moments, which can then feed back into what we write and make and speak. Cultural Studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg talks about this in an interesting way in his book Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, in which he argues for the deep relevance of doing research into the present moment (or conjuncture) not to prove a thing you already believe, but to follow questions presented by the current conditions so that one might also act to address them. I remember taking notes from it at one point early in my PhD work and making a note to myself that just said, theory -> do -> theory -> do, and this became for me a way of thinking about what designers do (and don’t do) to fully contextualize our work, especially on social and political issues.

What role does reflection play in your teaching practice? 

Reflection figures into my teaching practice in at least two ways, one that’s older and one that’s newer to me. I have always used reflection on my own teaching practice as a means for growing. I draw on student evaluations—both formal and informal—my own writing and reflection on courses, on the feedback and ideas of TAs in my University Lecture course, and the feedback and ideas of my peers, all as ways of reflecting on and, hopefully, making changes to improve and hone that practice. I will never see myself or that work as finished, I don’t think. I maybe will have run into a problem if I do.

More recently, because of the reflection-based focus of my practice-led PhD process, I’ve begun thinking more about how to make reflection a critical learning component of my courses. I’ve always used written and visual reflection and critical engagement as process and general check-in as students work with their ideas, but I’m trying now to begin using reflection as a semester-long process with a culminating assignment and conversation as a means to ask students to look closely at their own practice in development and begin to create language for what they see themselves doing, believing, imagining, etc. I think this is a means for both developing a sense of one’s own practice through critique and curiosity, but is also a way to begin noting your influences, the theories and ideas that shape your approach, how the context of a given moment or project has shaped how you went into it or what excited you or made you nervous about it. I think these forms of reflection are critical for becoming a designer (or artist) who can learn to be what Lucy Suchman, in her article “Located Accountabilities in Technology Production,” has called “[answerable] for what we learn how to build” (2002, 96). This kind of reflection is a tool for locating ourselves, again and again, and I see this as one critical piece of responsible and engaged design (and other) practice. I am, however, still learning how to make time for it in classes and to meaningfully structure it in classes!

Regarding diverse points of view, do you have any advice (e.g., design, teaching, or self-awareness practices) on holding subjectivity in one hand and equality in another? 

Making space for diverse points of view—when they are not oppressive or seeking to perpetuate violence of any kind on another person—is a critical part of teaching and of designing with people (or doing anything collectively). I think there are a number of ideas from community organizing that can be useful in classes, like making community agreements (or norms) and recognizing that these are both provisional (they need to be made and remade, left up and revisited) and deeply grounded in a commitment to respectful collective practice, including how we disagree and argue respectfully. I don’t think agreement is always the goal, and sometimes the work of teaching is about trying (and I think it is hard!) to make spaces where disagreements can happen and one can still facilitate a combination of working with the ideas and experiences people bring to the room and also facilitating a systemic conversation that helps to place those ideas in context. Why might one person experience a word or image as violent when another does not, what histories contribute to that, what privileges, etc.? There is sometimes a tendency to imagine the goal is to work toward a common denominator kind of agreement, or, for some, to say that some things (conversations about racism or sexism or sexuality, for example) don’t belong in a given critique or discussion because those conversations are “loaded” or difficult, but I think the need is to go into those discussions and talk about the contexts, and to educate ourselves when we do not know. As designers working with people, and as a teacher, I think there is a kind of listening that one can do that allows for responding in ways that include everyone, but don’t privilege voices that historically have dominated (white, male, straight, socio-economically privileged, “citizen,” etc.) and make space for experiences of harm caused by racism, sexism, borders, Islamophobia, heteronormativity, etc. I also think this same kind of close listening is precisely what allows designers to hear what isn’t being said, and to begin to use that as material for starting conversations with people and designing in ways that critically engage the fullness of a given context. We have an obligation to create spaces with students (and staff and faculty) that actively resist replicating structures of isolation and harm, and to be consistently engaged in challenging ourselves to do that work.

Many people struggle to pay attention and stay “engaged” in the post-2016 election America. Any inspiring and guiding words for participating in social justice without burning out?

I have three go-to authors on this right now:

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in the text of her Presidential Address to the American Studies Association  called “What is to Be Done?” talks about the critical importance of organizing with other people through making infrastructures (like unions and universities) that can challenge systems of oppression and repression. She writes: “Organize. Infiltrate what already exists and innovate what doesn’t” (263). This, she argues, is one possible answer to “what is to be done?”

Angela Davis notes in Abolition Democracy that demonstrations, meaning protests made up of people in the streets, in order to be meaningful, need to be demonstrating something, not an idea or demand alone, but, again, the power of organization (not necessarily a professionalized non-profit, but the regular, everyday organization work of people). She notes that it is this – the demonstration of the power of people doing this work together, people being organized – that makes demonstrating powerful.

And, finally, Lawrence Grossberg, the Cultural Studies scholar, writes in Critical Studies in the Future Tense that critical theory has the capacity and responsibility to “articulat[e] the negativity of the present to the positivity of the future,” to engage with the idea that “it is only because the present did not have to be the way that it is that the future can be some way other than where it appears to be heading” (94).

Taken together, I think these three ideas remind me that it is in practice—every day, often unremarkable practice—that we make power and reconstitute an idea of the future that is precisely about redirecting the present, about grounding our arguments and actions in a critical understanding of histories, and moving forward, together (even as we also differ). So, I think that means that in order to not burn out, it helps to be grounded in building things, one thing or many things, with others, where you are. This may also mean learning to be a solid ally, to educate yourself and to seek out knowledge, or it may mean finding out who near you is also interested in building, and around what needs or desires. It takes being humble, I think, and patient, while also being persistent and curious. And I think, most of all, it means remembering that people are making things for themselves everywhere, every day, and while it may not always be our thing, or our day, that we can be looking for, supporting, or making organizing—making possibilities—as we go.

Do you have any upcoming shows of your art you’d like to share before we conclude?

I’ve got a piece in a show right now called Not the End at Equity Gallery on the Lower East Side that is co-curated by the Executive Director, Melinda Wang, and a Parsons faculty member, Aaron Krach. From the website: Not the End explores how artists respond to our current age of anxiety. Will they take to the streets in protest? Will they retrench to their studios? Will they come together to collaborate? Will they continue their pre-election trajectory or change course to create works that react to the times? Yes, and everything in between. The show is up through May 6th.

 

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