Care and the Contingencies of Critique / A Textual Roundtable

Installation view of the exhibition Wendy Red Star: Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird. Photo: Kaelen Burkett. © Wendy Red Star and MASS MoCA.

Precarious conditions of the present have given rise to emergent forms of collaborative digital scholarship. CARE SYLLABUS, a justice-oriented public education and community resource hosted by Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and MASS MoCA, and  Insurrect!, an online publication devoted to anti-colonial frameworks and critiques of racial capitalism in Early American Studies, are two recently developed projects that explore the emancipatory potential of collaborations unbound by disciplinary traditions. Spurred by the untenable circumstances of our moment, our projects respond to the austerity measures and colonial histories that shape the academy and the museum. Taking up the generative possibilities of “thinking with” one another, this roundtable features an interview-style dialogue with the co-founders of CARE SYLLABUS and Insurrect!.

—Ittai Orr, Victoria Papa, Elizabeth Polcha, Alanna Prince, Levi Prombaum, and Laura Thompson.

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> To start off this discussion, explain the origin story of your project and its context in terms of title, genre, and audience:

 Liz: Insurrect! is an online publication devoted to anti-colonial frameworks and critiques of racial capitalism in Early American Studies, and publishes writing related to the historical and cultural legacies of colonialism in the Americas and Atlantic World. Like CARE SYLLABUS, Insurrect! is a new project that my fellow co-editors and I put together while surviving the various crises of 2020. Insurrect!’s group of core editors are contingent scholars and graduate students in history and literary studies who met at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. We came together out of an eagerness to support the writing and critical inquiry of junior scholars in a crumbling academic landscape that privileges the writing of tenured and senior faculty—but also through our own shared investments in collective organizing (our editorial board includes several former or current union organizers). Insurrect! aims to confront nationalist myths and white supremacy in historical writing about the Americas, as well as the austerity measures and colonial hagiographies of the academy more broadly. To that end, we ran a fundraising campaign this year so that we can pay our authors and editors fair rates (you can find us on Patreon). In five months since launching our online magazine, we have published writing by historians, art historians, librarians, high school teachers, literary scholars, undergraduate students, and public historians. Our audience is multi-disciplinary and extends outside of academia, as we’ve been inspired by other online publications like Lady Science and Contingent Magazine. Currently, we are only accepting submissions from contingent scholars and graduate students as well as scholars unaffiliated with the academy.

Levi: CARE SYLLABUS is a multimodal digital public education initiative— featuring original text, visual media, recordings as well as live virtual live events—which is produced by artists, academics, and activists for like-minded public audiences who share an interest in studying and amplifying justice-oriented strategies of care in the arts and humanities.

CARE SYLLABUS grew out of a collaboration between the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and The Mind’s Eye, a research and praxis initiative at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Its origin is in a 2019 conference, Slow: A Symposium in Theory and Praxis. Dr. Tina Campt was the keynote speaker there, and her reflections on the ethics of care inspired a theme on care for an ensuing conference. These plans for a conference were quickly shelved because of the pandemic, and CARE SYLLABUS was created instead; less as a virtual replacement for a physical conference, and more as an opportunity to harness the digital for a different kind of educational gathering altogether. CARE SYLLABUS was created to respond to the pandemic’s crises, and its transformational social energies, by uniting conversations about different valences of care.

Vicky: I want to add a personal note about the formation of CARE SYLLABUS, too, since I think that’s part of what both of our projects are interested in: tending to the multiplicities of experience inside and outside of institutions. “Care” became especially relevant to me in late 2019 when my partner was unexpectedly diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. In such close proximity to illness, care suddenly became so practical, so vital—it took on a measure of necessity. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but there is something liberating in staking such claim to care. One of our project’s upcoming interlocutors, Johanna Hedva, author of “Sick Woman Theory,” talks about “the luxury of our needs.” “Care can just happen,” Hedva says—and this resonates with me.1 Part of what we are exploring with CARE SYLLABUS are questions that attempt to imagine a centering of care: What would it look like if we placed care at the forefront of our creative pursuits, critical inquiries, and civic dialogues? How would it feel if care were to be taken seriously as a method of relationality and creation? What if, beyond a means, care was a goal—an endpoint inseparable from a beginning?

> Will you elaborate more on the key terms of your project: “Care” and “Insurrect,” and how these terms represent the initiatives of your work on the project?

Liz: “Insurrect!” is a call to action against racist, sexist, and imperialist power in the Americas. It is a directive, encouraging all of us—including the co-organizers of the publication—to translate our writing, teaching, and theorizing into action. By publishing an open access publication that pays its writers, we intend to act on the project’s mission and also recognize that many academic tools and resources are designed for a limited audience. This is one attempt (out of many) to overturn that disciplinary gatekeeping.

Alanna:  I realize that the failed coup at the capitol is being called an “Insurrection,” which has sort of sullied the term for the moment. It was a dark event. That being said, I do find Insurrect! to be a fitting title for what our goals are—we are rising to fight against the sort of things Liz has already pointed out: (neo)colonial thought, white supremacy, and the inequities of the academy. This cannot happen through appealing to the ‘sensibilities’ of these things, but through righteous change.

I also want to connect Insurrect! to care. I think insurrections are often motivated by care for one another and a need to better life for all, and how we can fight together against ruling classes. But to push it further, I see a link between the two in that after an insurrection we can bring about care-centric practices to replace what once was. Post-insurrection care has the possibility to really change us, and stop us from reverting back to the way things were.

Vicky: There’s a synergy between the keywords “insurrect” and “care,”  or more specifically, between acts of rising up against oppressive regimes and tending to forms of radical worldmaking.

There’s a question of how to navigate a term—like “care” or “insurrect”— when it becomes intensely co-opted by the media or newly thrust into complicated contexts. “Self-care” is especially thorny because it is tied up with capitalist models of individualism and wellness that reinforces oppressive ideals of whiteness. Yet, the popular uses of “care” can teach us about dominant perceptions of it—Where is care to be found? Who does society deem worthy of it? We can utilize this information to resist and rebel against empty notions of care.

There is a certain academic buzz around “care” right now, too—and our project is certainly mobilized by that wave of interest. What happens, though, when a term rooted in praxis becomes the subject of theory? I realize that the question of “care” has always been central to the work of racial and disability justice and other freedom movements. If care studies is a discipline, and I think that it is, it is crucial to ground this work in the centering of lived experience, collaborative thinking, and collective justice.

As Alanna mentions, because of the failed coup at the Capitol—an event steeped in the very nationalist myths and colonial histories that your publication seeks to confront—“insurrect/ion” is a term that we’ve been hearing a lot of in the media. Can you say more about what the use of the term in this context is teaching you?

Ittai: The editors of Insurrect! recently made the unanimous decision to stick with our name despite the controversy, a decision I wrote about in a reflection we published in February. The white supremacist lynch mob of January 6th does not get to own this word. Our hope is that rather than scare us into agreeing to sweeping legal limits on demonstrations of any kind, the events of January 6th spur more conversations about what exactly an insurrection is, and what the difference is between morality and legality, between what is just and what is legal, and whether insurrection is ever justified. I fear the pressure to vilify every kind of resistance to government authority. This moment brings to mind the queer critiques of legalism going back to the gay marriage fight and the post-9/11 nationalist turn: the conflation of justice and legality has the potential to significantly limit the scope and definition of justice.

Besides marking an intervention into dominant national narratives, as Alanna and Liz articulated so well, our title also echoes a specter that haunted the United States throughout the horrific centuries all of us study: it was a slave insurrection in Saint Domingue in the last decade of the 18th century that ended slavery there and sent chills down the spine of every slaveholder in America. The threat represented by Vesey’s revolt in Charleston in 1822, Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, 1831, and the fight at Harpers Ferry in 1859, pushed abolition into the realm of possibility. If we conflate moral right with legal right, we run the risk of condemning those enslaved men and women who rose up to overthrow their slaveholders. The response to the staggering brutality of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not a timid appeal to the constitution or to any existing authority. Since the 19th century, we have become much more pragmatic and circumspect about insurrection, and while this is generally a good thing, we should also examine the limits of an uncritical faith in legal procedure and legal authority. Personally, I’m extremely wary at the thought of violence of any kind—for moral and strategic reasons—but the name Insurrect! insists that we confront the historical refusals and confrontations with authority, some of them extremely, tragically violent, that brought about a more just world.

Insurrect!’s logo is an illustration of a headless Columbus statue by Kellen Heniford.

> Fred Moten has cited the liberatory potential of collaboration, what he calls “compos[ing] in real time in common.”2 What role might collaboration play—as a praxis of thought, creation, and labor—in countering the capitalistic logics and colonial histories that undergird untenable conditions, often at the forefront of academic and cultural work?

Vicky: There is an increasing recognition that collaboration is key to surviving collective struggles of all kinds, including those of academia. There’s so much pressure on individual scholars to have expertise in a multitude of subfields, mediums, periods, etc. As much as interdisciplinary training has encouraged innovative scholarship, the increasing need to be this, that, and the other thing—which is alarmingly apparent in the vast majority of today’s academic job postings—has intensified academia’s prevalent atmosphere of contingency and austerity. Working together with CARE SYLLABUS’s co-directors and contributors, I have come to experience care in collaboration. We come from different fields and training, and each of us brings a unique perspective to the work. The collective making of this project feels like part of its aim: where, in essence, care is dynamically made.

Liz: This year we have especially seen that the working conditions of academia, for the majority of people working in higher education, are devastating and unsustainable. It has become brutally obvious that the individualized models of research and teaching are not working for us. I keep thinking about this interview with Naomi Klein from early on in the pandemic in which she talked about how single-family homes are a terrible technology for pandemic life. Collective living and collective care work are desperately needed. Klein also makes the powerful point that “disasters do discriminate: whatever injustices predate the disaster will only be deepened by it.” What this moment is helping us realize is the value of communal living, of shared care work and social reproductive labor—that the models we have for balancing work, care taking responsibilities, domestic labor, have failed.

So, I’ve been asking myself: how can I bring this insight into the way I write, teach, attend conferences, apply for jobs, compile syllabi, etc.? On the surface, academia seemingly runs on individualism and on individual egos. I joked with Ittai recently that the job market can feel like playing a game of Pretty, Pretty Princess: how many pieces of flair and feathers in my cap can I adorn to prove that I am the Prettiest Princess of the academic castle? To get beyond this, we need to de-naturalize the individualistic drive of academia by working collectively. This requires material change like, paying writers for their writing and radically upending the job market as it currently stands, as well as more abstract ways of working together, such as: respecting each other’s deep knowledge and being open to the possibility that maybe you do not have all of the answers as an individual. Academia is set up such that it can be incredibly hard to recognize that the research questions you are posing, and the unsustainable working conditions that you are facing, cannot be solved by one person or even one field of knowledge. And further, our institutions will not change unless we work together to re-shape them. There is an element of care and of thoughtfulness required for this kind of collaboration that forces us to step out of the individualistic bubble of our training. And this is essentially what we have been working towards with a project like Insurrect! but I also see it in the foundations for the CARE SYLLABUS.

Ittai: Just to add another aspect of collaboration that we’ve embraced: one of our board members, Elise Mitchell, suggested that we focus on publishing roundtables and as we enter our seventh month, and it has become clear that she was right. It’s easier for the writers since it doesn’t have to be completely polished, but there’s something very empowering about it too. It creates a sense of community: a vibrant room full of interlocutors whose various avenues of research, teaching and activism intersect. We may be doing our research alone in a room somewhere (especially now), but we’re not doing it in isolation; our questions are shared questions, our goals are shared goals. To build on what Liz said, so much in this line of work is about building a CV and a profile that is all your own—a kind of portfolio of human capital—but the roundtable can temper that individuating tendency. I’ve probably learned more from roundtables than from most other genres of academic publication and in terms of public humanities, I still can’t think of a better form.

Laura: Collaboration or commiseration is the question. Collaboration is what we aim to do at the museum. I would say that nearly 90% of our programs are developed in partnership with some other entity, professional, artist, or community member. Though, in a way, isn’t collaboration a part of “the capitalistic logics” that demands that you produce more and more of whatever it be: content, experiences, pedagogy, and so forth? Lately, however, I have been wondering, if what I am looking for is a partner to commiserate on how difficult the challenges are that we are experiencing due to the pandemic, which has affected how we do our work, for whom, and in what format. There is a sense of urgency to maintain ties to our partners, colleagues, and  friends; collaboration, for sure, is a great vehicle to do this, but at what cost to our ability to take care of ourselves? How do we say no to all the possibilities for collaboration when the world is so in need of community right now? How do we write, speak about, and model the work of care while simultaneously not taking the time for tending to our own well-being?

> Amidst various crises, how do we provide care within the frameworks allotted to us as cultural workers of the museum and the academy? Does authentic care work call for sidestepping institutions (and institutionalized labor) altogether?  

Ittai: I love this question because it asks where the solution to this brutal reality of the scant job market and new austerity measures might be: in or outside of existing institutions? A lot of people in my generation are asking similar questions about a wide range of institutions that are either unable to carry out their functions, or in some cases, are actively working against them, and they’ve taken things into their own hands. I’m in awe of my friends who have pulled together funding for local mutual aid, help for the houseless, journals for contingent faculty, or intrepid theater companies. I see Insurrect! as a small point in that constellation: a space that invites people in the newest generation of academics to bring out the most hard-hitting and relevant aspects of their research—the things they went to grad school to write, or to teach—and to pay them to do it. We should absolutely be celebrating these intrepid efforts and pushing them forward, but we should also work hard to rebuild our institutions from within. What universities may not realize is that their immeasurable value actually lies in new thoughts and ideas being put forward by new generations of scholars: they need new hires as much as newly minted PhDs need jobs. In my experience, administrators from outside the humanities can sometimes fail to see the benefit of the humanities and the application of our research to a general public. But the storming of the capitol and the entire Trump phenomenon has made it impossible to ignore the fact that many in America struggle to differentiate between democratic and despotic regimes and between truth and lies. People need historical knowledge; the knowledge of the experiences of others transmitted by literature. They need to learn how others have inhabited the world they’re struggling in if we can ever expect them to lay down the MAGA flags and think and care.

Alanna: Ittai, YES! I agree with so much of what you’ve said here.

As far as being workers within these systems, the best we can do is be transparent in this moment, and make serious plans for direct action towards justice, equity, and reparations. I used to have this lingering feeling that certain systemic issues were too deep, too fixed, too beneficial to those in power to ever truly change. I thought not so much about change but how I might make things easier for myself and people like me. It wasn’t until I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth that I came to realize that ‘impossibility’ is something that those in power often use to diffuse change before it has even been attempted. Nothing is truly impossible, but being told that it is often stops one from trying. From this line of thinking, and from what COVID-19 has revealed, I have come to realize that we can do care work, and that work can come in many forms. It can be in supporting one another and reassuring one another that they aren’t alone, and that they aren’t going mad (and that is what is happening). I also think about the redistribution of resources and providing access to those that may not have it.

As far as the work that happens within these spaces of the museum and the academy, I am not always sure what the possibilities are. I am hopeful, and I know it is possible, but the path isn’t always clear to me. I return, as always, to Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools.” It’s really hard to have clear investments when you are entwined within it. It’s something I struggle with a lot. Without being too revisionist, I think it would be great not to dismantle the house per say, but, in the spirit of insurrection, instead think of the ways we might claim it for ourselves, or hand it over to the people to which it should belong. As I mentioned earlier, that could certainly be seen as an act of care, or at least a site where care can happen.

Levi: Alanna, I’ve also been thinking about Audre Lorde’s famous essay, from the perspective of existing entwinement with these tools, structures, and traditions in relation to Dr. Kimberly Juanita Brown’s recent CARE SYLLABUS module, “Black Elegies in Sight & Sound.” Brown’s interrogation and reclamation of the elegiac tradition is premised not only upon a decisive shift in our frame of interpretation, but a fundamental re-attunement of the senses to manifestations of grief in American cultural traditions. Part of the caring gesture is this tender tethering of reclamation with recalibration.

And Ittai, I appreciate you underscoring the very real difficulty of writing ‘‘the things we went to grad school to write.’ These questions can be the hardest to articulate amidst the vertical and flattening relationships that are addressed by this question. Incidentally, graduate school as the site for the articulation of our work’s creative and intellectual promise, and the site for the simultaneous disciplining of this promise, is taken up in really interesting ways by Wendy Red Star in the introduction and interviews of her CARE SYLLABUS module, “Reconnecting Objects with Their Homes.” She shares the origin story for her series, “Four Seasons”—a deconstruction of the colonial pretensions of the diorama form—and cites graduate school, a period of constant questioning, as the moment when it was no longer possible to accept the neutral premises of the museum.

To echo and expand upon the earlier exchanges about collaboration, I think that one step towards productive horizontality between sites of the major and the minor involves centering relationships. Even if we’re stuck in allotted places, something different happens when we acknowledge that we are stuck together. When it is relationships—in addition to knowledge—that are held at the center of inquiry, as is the case with care work, the things that are produced are necessarily more responsive: they avow the multiple purposes of scholarship, and multiple ways of generating, valuing and sharing knowledge.

CARE SYLLABUS’s logo, designed by Nina Pelaez.

> As more and more new forms of publication and programming emerge in response to the current contingencies of academic and museum work, how will these institutions adapt their strategic plans to support such innovations? How does the medium of the online forum challenge institutional forms of publication and gatekeeping?

Alanna: Although my own experiences in graduate school have been positive, I do know that many Black women like myself often feel, or have felt, that certain forms of labor that are impressed upon us are critical to how an institution runs, but are not actually recognized as integral—the term ‘divergent’ signals something out of bounds, and subsequently not legitimate. So there is a sort of inherent hurdle in trying to pull these forms of labor into proper assessment. However, in the era of COVID-19, compounded and exacerbated by a frightening political landscape where many feel isolated and un-affirmed in their work, it seems there has been a reckoning with how we treat and recognize others. Within academia, senior scholars and administrators, some for the first time, are beginning to understand all of the invisible labor done by graduate students, contingent faculty, queer scholars, scholars of color, and others that lay at the margins of the institution (or are even boxed out of completely).

Although daunting, part of what is exciting about this is that we have the chance to set new and radical foundations for what institutions should choose to value. I can see this in the response to Insurrect!. Generally, people seem excited by it and have supported it. I hope that the legitimacy of places like Insurrect!, which is well-vetted and peer-reviewed, can be recognized. Certainly, other established journals are already making efforts to validate public facing writing—including ASAP/J with the “Thinking With” series, and other journals that have given platforms to scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences.

Levi: Alanna, I agree wholeheartedly that this is a moment of reckoning for a notable portion of our generation of scholars, in terms of re-valuing which forms of care and service we personally understand as integral in our classrooms and institutions. To take up your earlier invitation to think about what it would mean to reclaim and retool the humanities with such work at the center, I think that we might flip this question about how institutions assess our service back on itself. The question might be and should be: how is our service assessing institutions and the value that they confer on us? Additionally, how are our divergent scholarly practices—because they are for our well-being, and the well-being of one another, as much as for or about our scholarship—essential to the future of our institutions (building the new foundations you speak about), while also insisting that the institution will always be a means, not an end?

Part of what’s at stake in these practices is fostering the ability to divest from the power conferred by forms of institutional recognition. I want our institutions to be thinking about and valuing scholarship and scholarly activity in more capacious ways, definitely. I also think that remaining reflexive about our institutional attachments and investments in the process is key to making that happen. 

> What challenges have you faced in putting your project together?

Laura: Vicky and I brainstormed the idea for CARE SYLLABUS at the exact time when everything was shutting down and everyone was going into quarantine. We had to figure out how to pivot from an in-person symposium to a virtual program. We could have just as easily said let’s drop this program this year, but we knew our idea was so necessary at this critical time in history. I also believed on a personal level, the planning of this project kept me sane; the intellectually stimulating conversations between Vicky and I (and eventually Levi and others) reminded me to not give up hope.

You asked about pitfalls and challenges, and I see a couple. We have big ambitions and little funding. Because we were working with a small budget for a one-day event, it has been hard to make that spread across several modules of deep content. We also put the cart before the horse and have not fully figured out the logistical plan for this new model of how the museum is partnering with the college. We are working on putting together a white paper defining roles and responsibilities. And finally, it has been challenging to keep all the balls up in the air while managing our other work, our own personal anxieties and home lives. We felt this project is so important to get up and running that these issues seemed to go by the wayside.

Nevertheless, we persevered and put together our first module with Wendy Red Star, whose exhibition, Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird, is currently on view at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace. Wendy’s work interweaves critique and care—critique of colonial structures and frameworks is at the heart of her recuperative forms of caring for her ancestors. This is especially clear in the Crow Delegation series, where she makes manifest a set of alternative readings and histories, changing the nature of these colonial documents.

Wendy Red Star,  Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements / Plenty Coups, from the series 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, 2014.

Vicky: As you describe the backstory of CARE SYLLABUS, Laura, I am struck by the double sense of things at once falling into place—the serendipity and synergy of like-minded people coming together at the same time for the same cause—and the uphill climb of bringing this project to fruition when things seems to be falling apart. This dynamic tension, however, seems to be part of both of our projects’ animating energy. I’m thinking of what Ittai said earlier, that “universities [and institutions] may not realize is that their immeasurable value actually lies in new thoughts and ideas being put forward by new generations of scholars.” Things are dire, no doubt, yet the current crisis has cleared some space for risk-taking, for new ways of thinking with one another.

Liz: Like the CARE SYLLABUS project, our biggest challenges have been sustainability, funding, and figuring out the longer term version of Insurrect! We have frequent discussions about our mission, how to raise funds to pay our writers, and how to maintain an active publication schedule. Because Insurrect! is run by contingent scholars and graduate students, it means that our editorial staff is made up of people who are currently on the job market, finishing dissertations, teaching, holding public humanities internships, and trying to figure out the basics of what the next year will look like. It is hard to plan the next year of our project when the majority of us have no idea where we will be living, if we will be employed, or even if we will still work in academia. The precarity of 2020-21 is not new to us, but it affects us each differently. I will echo what Laura says above: it is incredibly hard to keep everything moving forward while also managing our own anxieties and personal lives.

 Insurrect! has also been a space for us to take care of each other, an added support system that we built in a crisis. I’m constantly learning from my collaborators and from the authors who publish with us, as well as from conversations like this one. For example, Tim Fosbury has done incredible work to figure out the nuances of our funding structure, and Kellen Heniford is a genius of promoting each publication on social media. And as Ittai mentioned earlier, Elise Mitchell came up with the genre of the roundtable as a more effective medium for our purposes. Recently we published an interview between Hannah Manshel, a settler professor of American literature in Hawaiʻi, and her Kanaka Maoli student, Keahi Coria, on studying American literature under settler colonialism. Their discussion was personal and refreshing, and it defamiliarized the student/teacher hierarchy that is typical of pedagogical writing. Behind the scenes, I also had the chance to see the careful and thoughtful work our editorial staff (in this case, Kimberly Takahata and Lila Chambers) put into revising the piece. For me, the entire process was a microcosm of the scholarly world I want to work in, and it is sustaining to know that we were able to create this together. Despite all of the challenges we each are facing and the contingencies of critique, we have created a space where junior and contingent scholars are paid for their work, and where we can highlight authors who are challenging the white supremacist and colonial foundations of American history and literature. Insurrect! is our makeshift, scrappy attempt at imagining a fresh model, within what feels like a larger renaissance of the little magazine genre. Ultimately, we are daring other scholars to care and provide for their writing communities in the way that we care and provide for ours.

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  1. Rachel, “Future Present: Talking with Johanna Hedva About the Luxury of Our Needs,” Autostraddle, August 10, 2020. https://www.autostraddle.com/
  2. Adam Fitzgerald, “An Interview with Fred Moten, Part 1,” Literary Hub, August 5, 2015, https://lithub.com/