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Thursday, June 8 • 1:30pm - 1:50pm
Building Student Power & Global Solidarity in the Settler Institution: Teaching Habila’s Oil On Water

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Theme: progressive pedagogy and educational engagements with issues of social justice

“I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions. Sometimes, to keep on course, I have to return to more recognizable landmarks, and then, with this safety net under me, I can leap onto less certain terrain” (Habila 3).

Thus begins Nigerian writer Helon Habila’s 2011 novel Oil On Water. As a colonizing project, the "land-grab" (High Country News, 2020) or settler university is a material marker of the historical present, and maintains resonance with neoliberal projects that continue to displace working people around the globe. The insufficiency of our land acknowledgments conjures a kind of cognitive dissonance, a “fog” that disorients us from real faces, places, and emotions. The fog thickens, disorienting us from the land and one another, when we teach literature as though English is not a colonial language, as though expert-oriented pedagogical practices do not mirror christian missionizing and the colonization of the mind to reinforce hierarchical structures of language, knowledge, and power.

In this paper, I argue that the function of pedagogy is to return “to more recognizable landmarks,” particularly in settler institutions. Analyzing neocolonial iterations of exploitation from an anti-racist pedagogical framework in an upper-division global literature course, Habila’s novel disrupts historic and cultural stratifications that mystify globalization processes and one’s place within them. By framing environmental racism (Robert Bullard, Ken Saro-Wiwa) and student debt within the context neoliberal strategies of domination and control (David Harvey), students are invited to work towards building student power in solidarity with global communities fighting for justice. I begin by discussing the material and educational context of the settler institution at which I teach and study, Washington State University (WSU), which is one of many land-grant universities founded on stolen indigenous lands. Per anti-racist pedagogies’ tenet of connecting course material to students’ lives (Paulo Freire, Kevin Kumashiro, Bettina Love), I expose the university’s investment in fossil fuels and challenge students to explore petracolonization and its effect on communities in Washington State and in Nigeria, per the National Priorities Project and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Genocide in Nigeria, respectively. Students reflect on the misappropriation of funds to militarization over social services including education and write personal narratives describing college during recent years of crisis. By identifying and critiquing the connections among stolen land, rising tuition, university debt, and fossil fuel investment, students organize panel presentations at WSU’s annual Social Justice Conference, sharing their experiences and inviting fellow students to join in solidarity to critique ongoing colonial practices at settler universities. Inviting students to collective action in a public forum disrupts learned passivity in higher education and foregrounds literature as an intervention in settler universities. Our pedagogy must disrupt neoliberal practices locally toward building student power, thereby working to align land-grab universities with social justice movements around the world.

In effect, I argue that when global literary texts in English, like Habila’s, are taught in solidarity with grassroots movements locally, they demystify the connections of neoliberal policies in our current age of global capitalism and climate collapse.

Topics: Anti-Racist Pedagogy, Decolonial Pedagogy, Settler University, Petracolonization
Keywords: Helon Habila, Global Literatures in English


Chelsea Kopp

Washington State University Vancouver, Collective for Social and Environmental Justice

Thursday June 8, 2023 1:30pm - 1:50pm EDT
Main 210