Penn LPS Online, University of Pennsylvania
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need to fear
Will teach you—
If you will learn (Butler, 2000).
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art (Morrison, 2015).
Some folks work hard to fashion easy remedies for persistent pain. They speak of soothing while ignoring historical wounds, from cotton fields to carceral systems. They act real cool at the precipice—closing their eyes and plugging their ears to chaos—as the ground crumbles beneath their heedless feet. But chaos can challenge us to embrace new logics that honor and nurture Black futures. It can also teach us to listen for truths that are often buried within past and present pain.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this lately as I sit more and more with subversive Black futures that point to pathways for liberatory practices in teaching and learning spaces. It’s certainly true that the pain of educational injustice is a historical reality for many Black folks in these spaces, regardless of whether we have the time, energy, socioeconomic capital, or material conditions to manage the physical and psychic toll of persistent outrage in response to this pain.1 It’s also true that our bleak reality doesn’t erase strides toward educational justice that have saved countless lives and brought joy inside and outside of classroom spaces. Author/activist bell hooks (2010) reminds us that these and other truths underscore critical imagination’s importance as a tool for radical resistance. Critical imagination helps us work toward educational justice by making room for a form of worldbuilding that offers students and educators a chance to shape current and future pedagogical practices. Like hooks, Octavia Butler uses critical imagination as a mode of resistance in her work, and its pedagogical power continues to grow—yielding lessons and spreading seeds of emergent change—in response to the palimpsestic joy and pain of educational praxis.
Moya Bailey and Ayana Jamieson build on M. Jacqui Alexander’s conception of palimpsestic time to describe the overlapping temporal relationship between lived and imagined realities that Octavia Butler creates in her Black speculative writings (Bailey & Jamieson, 2017).2 Bailey and Jamison reference past and present violence against Black bodies as examples of historical palimpsests.3 They extend this concept to collections of memories, using the term “palimpsestic memorialization” to describe “the process of taking these memories and putting them in a new contextual here and now to further explore the significance of that there and then” (Bailey & Jamieson, 2017, p. VII). Palimpsestic memorialization is particularly useful in increasingly (re)segregated educational spaces that suppress class and race-based counter-narratives in pursuit of homogenized, product-oriented, digital visions for students.
In this essay, I add another thread to the pattern by positioning Butler’s work at the intersection of Black speculative futures and learner-centered digital humanities. To my mind, Butler’s use of palimpsests to tell stories is a strategy for communicating truths that continue to speak to the complex realities of life and learning for Black folks. Black speculative digital pedagogy is a part of Octavia Butler’s legacy; it also describes this essay’s efforts to center teaching and learning that affirms, nurtures, and mutualizes the critical imaginary via intentional educational worldbuilding in digital spaces.4
As we adapt to and imagine the future of teaching and learning—in response to the chaos of a global pandemic—it is important to ground educational collectives, and the public knowledge networks they support, in Octavia Butler’s work. Her stories present us with lessons about democratizing time and space as we mind the gap between formal and informal learning. This essay embraces Butler’s legacy and storytelling by engaging with multimodal texts, (her)stories, and mixed-methods research that affirm experiential approaches for Black speculative work. Ultimately, I hope this essay will encourage readers and listeners to consider Black speculative pedagogies that center liberatory forms of pedagogical praxis within digital learning spaces.
This essay has many roots. The thickest are grounded in my own experiences with teaching and learning. I’ve structured this essay in three interconnected sections to reflect some of the ideas and practices that have shaped those experiences. Each section includes an introductory essential question, targeted close readings of a primary text, and critical engagement with academic work across disciplines. All sections include materials I’ve used in project-based online courses. I frame these as examples of Black speculative praxis that can free students to imagine and create otherwise through critical encounters with Octavia Butler’s work.
The first section establishes Butler’s “The Book of Martha” as a metatext that demonstrates truths about liberatory teaching and learning. The short story speaks to evolving discussions about democratic educational environments while offering a vision of how these environments can allow students and educator-scholars to grow their capacity for “living intersubjectivity premised on relationality and solidarity” (Alexander, 2005, p. 8). This section incorporates collaborative community agreement questions and narrative podcast episodes that speak back to Butler’s short story.
The second section thickens the discussion of liberated teaching and learning by probing issues associated with “safe” and “open” spaces for Black students and other students of color. I turn to Butler’s Parable of the Sower for examples of careful space-making from the perspective of a young Black woman who learns to create a chosen family as she embraces an embodied pedagogy that is informed by what Butler calls her “hyper-empathy.” Parable of the Sower challenges careless approaches to space-making that hamper mutualistic pedagogical praxis. This section explores the ways Black speculative work can help us design sacred space into digital classrooms while offering up models for practicing care in those spaces.
This essay’s final section builds on adrienne maree brown’s work to suggest that Black speculative digital pedagogy emerges as “the place where philosophy and practice meet”—a place that is critical of “best-practices” and that draws strength from its liminality.5 I build on brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017) to propose a digital intervention for technologically mediated learning spaces while offering project ideas from my own teaching and learning work. I conclude with a call for Black speculative learning design that shapes digital pedagogical worldbuilding. “The Book of Martha” will help contextualize this work, as the story offers a helpful perspective for framing pedagogical participation and placemaking in extra-physical counterpublic spaces.
Essential Question 1. How do we realize liberatory teaching and learning in a sociopolitical system that incentivizes short-term investments in measurable outcomes when those investments undervalue and exclude Black folks who work to secure long-term returns and securities in that system?
In Butler’s short story, “The Book of Martha,” Black novelist Martha Bes is given a clear mandate from a powerful being to imagine one change that will re-shape humanity for the better (Butler, 2005). Over the course of the narrative, Martha engages in a Socratic dialogue with the shape-shifting deity. Through this dialogue, Martha learns to think critically about her concept of human nature, her vision of an ideal future, and her perception of consequential change. The story takes place in an extra-physical dream-like space that exists outside of time. This space shifts to accommodate Martha’s growth and self-perception as she interacts with the deity, whom she constructs as “God.” I argue that “The Book of Martha” offers readers a snapshot of speculative place-making that allows Butler to write herself, and other complex Black folks, into a vision of the future through participatory, inquiry-based learning. “The Book of Martha” implicates the thick histories of socioeconomic disenfranchisement that inflect Black educational attainment and complicate the freedom of democratic participation in social and political spaces. The short story also establishes pedagogical connections between Martha, God, and the layered realities that shape Black womanhood.
At the start of Martha and God’s conversation, God demands, “[y]ou will help humankind to survive its greedy, murderous, wasteful adolescence. Help it to find less destructive, more peaceful, sustainable ways to live” (Butler, 2005, p. 192). Providing a bit of context for this imperative, God explains that humans are “well on the way to destroying billions of themselves by greatly changing the ability of the earth to sustain them” (Butler, 2005, p. 193). With these words, Martha begins an educational process that helps her shape change for humanity’s survival. “The Book of Martha” also pays clear-minded attention to the realities of human self-interest; as God shares the cost(s) of Martha’s task to shape humanity’s future: “[w]hen you’ve finished your work, you’ll go back and live among them again as one of their lowliest…whatever you decide is to be the bottom level of society, the lowest class or caste or race, that’s what you’ll be” (Butler, 2005, p. 193). Here, God incentivizes mutualistic accountability in Martha’s decision-making. She cannot enrich herself at the expense of others, given God’s stipulation; she must consider the whole of humanity to secure a livable position for herself in her imagined future. Martha embraces a critical lesson early in the narrative: to shape God and secure humanity’s future, she must consider her experiences as a Black woman while learning, adapting, and working toward meaningful change in an extra-physical space of her making.
Reading Martha’s narrative through a Black speculative pedagogical lens helps us place her moral dilemma in dialogue with that of other Black students who must adapt to extra-physical digital classroom spaces. In fact, I interpret Martha’s time with God as a type of immersive virtual experience in which she codes/shapes the contours of her pedagogical environment all while working with a patient, curious, and insistent facilitator. God speaks to Martha as an educator might to a reluctant student:
You’re free to ask me questions…You’re free to argue and think and investigate all of human history for ideas and warnings. You’re free to take all the time you need to do these things. As I said earlier, you’re truly free. You’re even free to be terrified. But I assure you, you will do this work (Butler, 2005, p. 194).
On the surface, this passage presents a paradox; God commands Martha to imagine species-saving change, all while affirming that she is “truly free.” Nonetheless, God’s invitation to question, “argue and think and investigate all of human history for ideas and warnings” illustrates the deity’s belief in Martha’s agency as a learner. To my mind, God “assures” Martha that she will work to save humanity’s future precisely because of her experiences and the potential consequences of leaving the task to another more privileged, and potentially less empathic, individual.
Martha’s work is possible because she faces humanity’s problems and exercises agency by imagining otherwise. I connect Martha’s mutable extra-physical, imaginative learning space with real-world extra-physical, digital spaces in which mutability and agency are not a given for Black students. Both constructions of extra-physical space invite educator-scholars to revise assumptions about temporality, linearity, and the sacred process(es) that shape pedagogical methods. Additionally, educator-scholars must grapple with the material and structural differences that underpin access, participation, and growth in digital learning environments. Martha’s Black speculative space shows us how we might support palimpsestic memorialization, collaborative knowledge-building, and democratic participation for students within historically inequitable digital spaces.
In Race After Technology (2019), Ruha Benjamin explores the realities of technologically encoded racism while providing an excellent framework for thinking through the trappings of “coded inequity” and digital gatekeeping. She encourages us to question technology and think critically about the veiled goals that reify digital whitewashing as an encoded future-shaping practice. Her framing has important implications for the digital learning environments because it underscores the power imbalances that aggravate injustices within such spaces. It also resonates with Martha and God’s effort to shape a future in which humanity is less inclined to “spend their waking hours trying to dominate or destroy one another” via racist erasures that seek to recode palimpsestic memorialization and flatten the Black imaginary. Using Benjamin and Butler’s texts as a foundation, I challenge learners to explore the implications of this resonance in response to serialized digital audio narratives that draw critical connections between coded inequity, our waking hours, and germinal work from historical Black knowledge-builders. Here’s an example of what an episode in the series sounds like when embedded at the mid-term point in a course on digital literacy and cultural change:
Knowledge-building in digital spaces often requires us to transform the ways we think about student engagement as well as the placemaking practices that support and hinder learning. This can start with modeling the work of co-creation in foundational course documents. For example, I often ask students to work together on a community agreement in the first week of every course. Using a collaborative digital authoring tool of their choice, I invite individuals in small groups to engage openly and honestly with critical reflection questions before synthesizing responses as a larger collective. Questions have included:
Such reflexive activities encourage learners to try out democratic frameworks for placemaking that are built on palimpsestic memorialization. Students share histories of struggle and triumph while laying the foundation for deep work with a variety of proprietary and open-source digital tools that support meaningful connection. To be sure, not all students are immediately open to this approach. In response, we begin conversations about generative discomfort, guardrails, and boundaries at the start of each course. These conversations help outline a potential approach to tone-setting in the digital classroom that honors the connected practices of making and memorialization while encouraging sharing, openness, and play.
We see versions of similar practices during Martha’s learning journey—particulalry as she shapes the contours of her pedagogical environment in response to her evolving conversation with God. Martha starts to change the space around her after God explains that she has worldbuilding powers. She creates a “blue sky with a few clouds” and walks alongside her all-powerful guide “through what could have been a vast city park” (Butler, 2005, p. 195). Her initial choice provides metatextual commentary on the imaginative potential of speculative learning spaces. Here, Martha’s vision of a living, green, open place is contrasted with traditional approaches to worldbuilding and placemaking in online and hybrid education. Such approaches often privilege cloistered “learning management systems” that incentivize decontextualized replicability over participatory placemaking in organic settings which affirm adaptivity and interdependence. Much of Butler’s work explores what adaptivity and interdependence looks like in a variety of speculative situations, from symbiotic interspecies relationships in Dawn (1987) to encounters with “hyper-empathy” in Parable of the Sower (1993), the latter of which I unpack in this essay’s second section.
Both Butler and M. Jacqui Alexander wrestle with the ways space, time, and identity intersect and give shape to a disruptive ethos of interdependent teaching and learning in their respective work. Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing helps contextualize Martha’s pedagogical worldbuilding in Butler’s short story by highlighting “the imperative of making the world in which we live intelligible to ourselves and to each other,” which Alexander ultimately describes as “teaching ourselves” (2005, p. 6). To support intelligibility and accessible pedagogies, Alexander argues for the importance of “reciprocal investments” that enable a “metaphysics of interdependence” (2005, p. 6). These investments are often at odds with inherited hierarchies that bequeath and perpetuate privileges for those who pursue individualistic ends. Butler outlines the dangers of distortive hierarchy and individualism in God’s depiction of humanity’s inevitable demise. However, Martha works to interrupt humanity’s distorted vision by learning from the historical imperatives that shape her sociocultural identity as a Black woman.
Critiques of market-driven relationships in education—expressed in Ruha Benjamin’s (2019) assessment of the “New Jim Code,” in Giroux’s (2016) conception of “neoliberal apostles,” and in Alexander’s (2005) depiction of an “ascendant corporate class”—often take issue with “using schools, think tanks, foundations, and media to produce subjectivities, identities, and values that mimic market-driven…social relations” (Giroux, 2016, p. 27). Unlike prevailing utopic visions of “disruptive” educational technology proffered by tech evangelists and their followers, these critiques consider the dystopic realities of technological deification which all too frequently veils vast tyrannies in service of an eviscerating, anti-democratic ethos. We also see palimpsestic echoes of this ethos in the steady assimilation of vulnerable educational and civic structures by business interests and multinational actors.
Butler’s short story offers avenues for resistance which acknowledge and work to address the layered costs of unsustainable hierarchies, irresponsible growth, and systemic violence against Black folks and other oppressed peoples. When God gives Martha the option to pass her challenge to a more willing individual, she takes a moment to think about, “people who would be happy to wipe out whole segments of the population whom they hated and feared, or…those who would treat the work as fun—as nothing more than a good-guys versus bad-guys computer game, and damn the consequences” (Butler, 2005, p. 201). Martha’s thoughts are tragically prescient, as we grapple with the “vast tyrannies” of market-driven determinism, disinformation campaigns, and corporate actions that privilege profit strategies while depressing pedagogical imagination.6 But it does not have to be this way. This is true in Martha’s imagined extra-physical space in which she resists internalized lessons of sociohistorical inequity, and it is also true in “digital counterpublics” which enable us to shape these strategies through “pedagogies of resistance” (Hill, 2018).
Marc Lamont Hill addresses the problem of systemic inequity and the impact of capitalist ethos on social discourse by arguing that “[t]he formation of digital counterpublics is occasioned not only by the contingencies of technological innovation and the efficiencies of global technoscapes, but also the overdetermining impact of neoliberal capitalism” (2018, p. 289). For Hill, Black Twitter is a compelling example of digital counterpublic space that fosters community for historically disenfranchised folks who work to challenge the systems that have invested so little into their sociopolitical, economic, and existential freedom. Hill also acknowledges,
As practices of efficiency, austerity, deregulation, privatization, and “free” trade become the governing logics of both the public and private sector, traditional (i.e., physical) spaces of counter-public (and public) engagement, such as bookstores, restaurants, and coffee houses, are being eliminated or radically reconstituted (2018, p. 289).
Along with the effects these market-driven sociopolitical practices have on the bookstores, restaurants, and coffee houses that give physical shape to the public sphere, these practices also create a need for extra-physical pedagogical spaces that foster digital counterpublic engagement. Such spaces make room for what Hill describes as “pedagogies of resistance” which enable students to explore methods for subversive work that speak to the realities of Black life. While pedagogies of resistance often support strategic antagonisms against anti-Black violence, it’s important that they also make room for speculative potential in other areas. I encourage students to reflect on models of imaginative Black publics in Hill’s work as part of their speculative practice in other serialized audio episodes from the digital literacy and cultural change course mentioned earlier, including:
It can be challenging for Black students to contribute to change in digital counterpublic learning spaces when public participation in digital dissent can have lasting consequences for their educational and professional lives. Technologically mediated resistance may be limited or restricted in many public schools as it can expose students to a host of policing and harassment that highlight the limits of privacy. It may even requiring students to imagine extracurricular paths toward change; but digital tools like social media platforms can also empower students to take hold of a means of control that is often utilized by an increasingly corporatized, carceral state. As Hill notes, “some of the same technologies of surveillance used to criminalize Blackness are being repurposed by Black citizens, particularly Black youth, to resist the criminalizing techniques of State power” (2018, p. 290). We see the realities of this resistance in activist sentiments expressed through social media movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #YouOKSis, #SayHerName, and other allied efforts to affirm agency and digital worldbuilding in a patriarchal society founded on the “old habits” of racism, heteronormativity, and sexism that Martha works to change.7
It is important for us to grapple with the limits of technologically mediated “safe-spaces” in the pedagogical counterpublics they create for learners just as it is crucial for Martha to grapple with the limited extra-physical safe space she shapes. It is also important for students to have agency, clarity, and accountability in determining the rules of engagement as Martha does with God before her idea is “published” and “made public.” Tressie McMillan Cottom suggests regulating public exposure by distinguishing between learning artifacts that are available to the general public and pedagogical interactions that are open only to students and educator-scholars.8 I describe this strategic access as critically translucent counter-public engagement that limits overexposure for students who are attempting to process difficult, often radical ideas and realities in synchronous (or asynchronous) time. In this instance, digital translucence entails opening curated, peer-reviewed artifacts to the public that can be contextualized with accessible teaching and learning materials. This gives students agency over which portions of their creation process and versions of their results are shared. Their subsequent artifacts are also carefully realized, having undergone an iterative process that resonates with Martha’s ongoing exchanges—or workshops—with God.
After workshopping a range of possible changes, including minor tweaks to humanity’s free will and strict biological limits on human reproduction, Martha eventually settles on using “powerful, unavoidable, realistic dreams that come every time people sleep” (Butler, 2005, p. 203). For her, this personalized approach provides humanity with the best chance of living through its dangerous adolescence. She rationalizes, “I think if people go to a…well, a private heaven every night, it might take the edge off their willingness to spend their waking hours trying to dominate or destroy one another ‘ (Butler, 2005, p. 204). Exemplifying a drafting and revision process, Martha continues to craft her solution by including a stipulation that “dreams teach—or at least promote—more thoughtfulness when people are awake, promote more concern for real consequences” (Butler, 2005, p. 211). She eventually suggests an imaginative experiential space in which all dreamers can explore their interests and learn through their mistakes while maintaining a sense of individual agency that leads to collective change. In other words, Martha realizes the transformative potential of Black speculative pedagogy that invites us to practice the sacred work of teaching ourselves. It’s tempting to read this as a disengaged solution, but Martha’s approach is a nod to contextualized engagement with utopic thinking that does not demand homogeneity and that can be both open and decentralized.
“The Book of Martha’s” Black speculative teaching and learning space is born of difference: it offers a decentralized vision of experiential pedagogy that challenges learning environments which rely on meticulously calculated metrics and blank-slate pupils, and it takes an imaginative approach to memorializing the joys and pains of becoming. It also contributes to evolving discussions of sacred placemaking without explicitly referencing digital space. In the next section, I add an additional layer to the short story’s contributions by expanding the discussion to Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel, Parable of the Sower, which explores a Black woman’s pedagogical journey in building a new religion. Thickening the harmonies that connect Martha’s imagined extra-physical space and real-world digital environments, I position Parable of the Sower’s protagonist Lauren Olamina in relation to the sacred, mutualistic communities we can create amidst the instructive chaos of learning.
Essential Question 2: How can we foster mutualistic teaching and learning communities that support interdependence in digital spaces while also embracing the sacred nature of change-oriented pedagogical work?
Butler’s push to imagine the future in the Parables series resonates with her earlier efforts to examine humanity’s relationship to change in her Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989) and in her Patternist novels (1976-1984). Parable of the Sower continues her practice of exploring the contours of this change via an intelligent, adaptable, and strong-willed Black female protagonist. While Martha and Lauren are different in many ways, they are both tasked with sacred work that connects to present pedagogical practices in digital spaces. Before contextualizing specific aspects of this claim, it may be helpful to tease out some of the links I notice between “The Book of Martha” and Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower begins as it ends: with a diverse community of folks who create ways to live amidst the chaos of a post-apocalyptic world wracked with historic levels of socioeconomic inequality, environmental degradation, and governmental turpitude and relentless violence. From the first chapter, we see Lauren as a student who seeks to mitigate some of this violence through/with her Earthseed project. Butler conveys Lauren’s experiences and growing certainty about this fledgling intervention through speculative journal entries from a near future. The narrative starts in 2024 with a reference to a recurring dream that follows a fundamental axiom of Earthseed:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Is Change (Butler, 2000, p. 3)
This passage is quoted often outside of Butler’s text but it is less often connected to Lauren’s dream or to lessons offered in “The Book of Martha.” While both stories revolve around a similar dream of change that situates us in relation to the sacred, Parable of the Sower fleshes out a framework for realizing this change through a reflexive praxis that is rooted in hyper-empathy.
We learn about Lauren’s hyper-empathy early in the text. Her father understands it as a challenge she can “beat” and that she does not have to “give into.” But this is not the truth. Lauren and others in the text frame it as a birth defect that results from her mother’s drug addiction. Hyper-empathy syndrome causes Lauren to experience what she thinks others are feeling—including pain and pleasure. Unfortunately, there is much more of the former in the text. In many ways, the novel layers teachable moments in response to this pain. Lauren’s initial community is housed within a walled neighborhood, not unlike the gated communities that exist across the US. Lauren’s father is the de facto leader who holds her community together with a steadfast devotion to historical relationships to his neighbors and his God. We soon find that Lauren attends to a different God, as she dreams of leaving her father’s (lack of) vision behind. She journals:
God is Power—
And yet, God is pliable—
God exists to be shaped.
God is change. (Butler, 2000, p. 25)
Lauren’s Earthseed verses build a case for her agency and perspective as a student who must learn to harness the power of her project, which she is called to revise and share with others. Three decades after the novel’s original publication, these verses vibrate with pedagogical potential for adaptive placemaking.
Eventually, Lauren is forced to adopt new placemaking practices as attackers destroy the walls that protect her utopian community. She is one of the only survivors and must choose a different family while searching for a counter-public space in which Earthseed can grow. Here, Butler’s narrative choice models the “pedagogical philosophy” that Sarah Outterson (2008) examines throughout Butler’s works. Outterson suggests that “[f]rom Patternmaster to Fledgling… Butler envisions a seeming utopia whose hidden stagnation is suddenly ripped open by the violence of change” (2008, p. 433). Lauren is no stranger to such violence. In fact, hyper-empathy forces her to confront the truths of patriarchal power plays. She dresses as a male-presenting person to secure safety within the novel’s social hierarchy while also building an Earthseed community which invites others to challenge the exploitative social systems that support it. She does not try to recreate the walled space that failed her father. She instead places her faith in curiosity, empathy, and Earthseed, which she describes as “The life that perceives itself Changing” (Butler, 2000, p. 126). Her faith also drives her to build a village of believers with whom she can practice placemaking.
In a talk about the future of education, Shelly Streeby builds on Fredrick Jameson’s construction of the “utopia as enclave” to situate Butler’s work within a discourse of utopian placemaking and learning (2014, p. 4). In the address, Streeby connects Butler’s impulse to deconstruct intentional community-building with Jameson’s depiction of “totalizing” utopia. Streeby (2014) addresses the problematic relationship between utopia and educational place-making, noting that, like Butler, “Jameson also thinks about the spatial and systemic dimensions of utopian form: its manifestations in revolutionary political practice, intentional communities, buildings, and ‘attempts to project new spatial totalities’ such as the city itself.” Digging deeper into the spatial dimensions of utopian longing, Streeby suggests,
Staging this distinction spatially, he understands ‘the properly utopian program or realization to involve a commitment to closure (and thereby to totality).’ And this commitment to closure has ‘momentous consequences,’ Jameson warns us, as he calls our attention to the utopia as enclave, both as problem and as condition of possibility (2014, p. 4).
Streeby’s presentation of closure and totality resonates with the destructive placemaking that opportunistic travelers attempt to impose on Lauren’s group. It also mirrors the text’s future versions of “company towns,” where people work for “safe” places to live within an exploitative system that trades their freedom for the perception of safety. These totalizing practices support utopian enclaves built on hierarchical separation between folks whose work presupposes unfreedom and folks whose work does not. Through Earthseed, Lauren avoids this false dichotomy while also doing freedom work.
Lauren’s labor for freedom hints at disruptive possibilities in the collective teaching and learning spaces bell hooks explores in her discussion of transformative education. As George Yancy notes, “hooks suggests that it is within the field of possibility that we have the occasion to labor for freedom through collective transformational possibilities. Hence, a matrix of possibility functions as the condition for the occasion to labor and work for freedom” (2009, p. 34). While the lessons that Lauren incorporates into Earthseed present a matrix of possibility for others in the text, they also offer language through which educator-scholars and students can imagine freedom in equitable Black speculative pedagogical spaces. This work requires what Yancy describes as critical openness of both “mind and heart” that brings us closer to being “transformed by the other” in challenging and generatively shattering ways (2009, p. 35).
The idea of challenging and shattering portion of the self in relation to a “community of others” can be frightening, but it also makes room for an emergent pedagogical self that necessarily affects how we organize teacher and student labor in service of freedom. Such transformative work challenges educator-scholars to explore the ways Blackness operates in embodied teaching and learning spaces that nurture critical openness and collective knowledge building. This work could involve encouraging students to contribute to embodied practices through speculative toolkits, digital journaling, and other avenues that honor their experinces within a mind and heart affirming community of others. I’ve witnessed versions of these practices across online course environments. Oftentimes, the most helpful examples frame explicit suggestions for practicing reparative self-care and reflection as primary parts of embodied teaching and learning. Such framing encourages us to situate education with a larger ecology of care work. I speak to this in a audio narrative titled “care infrastructures” that’s embedded in a course on designing critical futures:
The episode ties Lauren’s journey in The Book of Martha to arguments about empathy and care found in The Care Manifesto (The Care Collective, 2020).
Lauren’s experiences position “the classroom” as an embodied space that challenges readers to think critically about what it means to embed empathy and self-determination into the utopian project of education. She grapples with the complexities of this challenge when she journals:
The self must create
Its own reason for being.
To shape God,
Shape Self (Butler, 2000, p. 258)
This journal entry highlights an important connection between pedagogical self-actualization and canonical sites of “disappearance” (Morrison, 1992). Embodied educational practices work to combat this erasure of minoritized histories and perspectives for students and educators (Giroux, 2004). Lauren shares this lesson with us as she accepts it for herself. Lauren’s narrative chronicles the physical and intellectual development of a voracious learner who seeks to make herself whole from precious pieces of memory and collectivist instructive experiences. As George Yancy describes, “to strive for wholeness…within the context of the classroom is to transgress deep and perennial philosophical narratives which tend to bifurcate the self and perpetuate the assumption that learning and knowledge are divorced from embodiment” (2009, p. 35). Coupling this conception of wholeness with Yancy’s earlier description of critical openness offers a vision of pedagogical engagement that more fully represents Lauren’s learning process and makes room for a deeper discussion of whole truths that resist the lure of careless “progressive” excision.
Whole truths can be messy, but messiness can also be sacred, as it allows us to speak our truths in service of educational justice that bucks against excision. In her discussion of “Justice and Truth” (2005), Alexander writes, “[e]xcision functions in much the same way as dominant knowledge frameworks that privilege themselves over others, ultimately silencing, disabling, and erasing. Such frameworks reside at the nexus of speech, power, and social authority, yet they are not simply about one’s ability to speak” (2005, p. 124). Among many things, these dominant frameworks are also about policing speculative possibilities. Utopian potential manifests in spaces that include sacred pedagogical design practices which challenge totalizing, outcomes-driven excision. These practices undermine progress narratives that bury speculative possibility.
Speculative works are important for critical pedagogical praxis that encourages educator-scholars to adapt and change. Speculative works also offer lessons for nurturing instructive play within generative conflicts and for discussing the palimpsestic (im)possibilities of imaginative differences that exist within the confines of constructive contradictions. The speculative expands the boundaries of the possible to make room for and “bring about a world that does not exist”—a world that scaffolds and reconditions historically flimsy futures with the goal of realizing sacred pedagogies for students. Lauren embraces the implications of this potentiality through her body, her placemaking with “chosen family,” and her dedication to the sacred work of spreading Earthseed (Hanmack, 2018).
By the end of the novel, we arrive at a holding space where Lauren recognizes that Earthseed’s speculative pedagogy rests on work. The novel’s final verses note:
Pray to focus your thoughts,
still your fears,
strengthen your purpose.
Pray working. (Butler, 2000, p. 294)
These verses offer a glimpse of the imaginative possibility of transformative work. This has important implications for digital learning that affirms life-giving efforts while fostering inclusive communities that honor the work of opening sacred pedagogical spaces. Pushing this vision of sacred pedagogical spaces, a bit further, I suggest that Black speculative pedagogy fosters critical digital consciousness that weds transformative work with an expanded vision of imaginative technological praxis that is in line with “historical and contemporary examples of resistance” (Zumdio et. al, 2010, p. 94). This vision empowers Black students and other students of color to pursue social activism by realizing education as a labor of freedom and transformative work that embraces what Stacey Waite (2018) describes as “embodied knowledge” and what the Earthseed verses describe as a form of prayer. This begs the question: if the labor of teaching and learning is also prayer work, how do we define/design the sacred spaces in which this work happens?
Essential Question 3
How can educators engage in knowledge-building with students while creating and sharing pedagogical approaches that center Black speculative learning design praxis within digital environments?
Thus far in this essay, I’ve explored Butler’s creative knowledge work for examples of imaginative spaces where teaching and learning adhere to intentional worldbuilding and complex character development. I’ve also examined the ways Black female-identifying protagonists embrace the realities of their difference to better navigate singular pedagogical experiences in Butler’s texts. In many instances, their experiences push them to engage with, work through, and reflect on fundamental assumptions about their agency and identity in relationship to a larger teaching and learning process. In this final portion of the essay, I shift from a close reading of Butler’s textual work to engaging with adrienne maree brown’s (2017) discussion of “emergent strategies for change.” I place brown’s discussion in conversation with other connected texts to offer a framework for social justice teaching and learning that informs Black speculative learning design, scaffolds imaginative pedagogical praxis, and extends Butler’s legacy.
Emergent Strategy (2017) is a hypertextual book that connects a variety of “elements”—expressed through prose, poetry, drawings, bulleted lists, tables and other mediums—to communicate her vision of Butler’s work and the possibilities of change. As brown notes,
In [Butler’s] twelve novels and her short stories, [Butler] created case studies that teach how to lead inside of change, shaping change. I’ve been calling what I learn from her work emergent strategy. Based in the science of emergence, it’s relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, transformative (2017, p. 56).
brown uses this strategy to facilitate gatherings and create transformative spaces for organizational, communal, and collective development. I argue that “emergent strategy” also offers educator-scholars a way to create transformative pedagogical spaces for digital and hybrid learning that help shape change in society at large. Emergent Strategy memorializes brown’s educational process through a curated collection of palimpsestic artifacts that communicate a passion for change. We see this in the way she represents the “relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, [and] transformative” elements that constitute her vision. While brown does not include imagination as a discrete element, it exists as an essential component of Emergent Strategy—especially for the world(s) that educator-scholars and students create in digital learning space(s).
Synthesizing the elements that brown offers in Emergent Strategy with the concepts I have explored earlier in this essay, I argue that transformative learning requires imagination, openness, and adaptive engagement with generative change. Of these requirements, imagination is perhaps the most important; it offers a way to revise what brown describes as a “framework of failure” (2017, p. 105)—or the systemic aversion to non-linear, iterative, palimpsestic meaning-making—into a model of emergent change. Supporting the role imagination plays in creating engaged classroom spaces, hooks references imagination’s relationship to critical consciousness by shifting our focus to “the ‘colonization of the mind and imagination” (2013, p. 60). Here we see a relationship between brown’s framework of failure and hooks’s critique of colonization—particularly when we think about how colonized peoples can work to imagine decolonized definitions of failure, success, and critical engagement in the classroom.
Frameworks of failure, whether expressed in rigid depersonalized assessment models or between the lines of bulleted curricular goals, can work to discourage and devalue the imagination, even while they proffer progress.9 These models and goals can also work to flatten difference and change, even as they purport to increase precision and practicality. But, as Sean Michael Morris (2018) notes, “[t]he imagination is not an impractical facility at all, not a dreamer’s tool only, but a precision instrument that delivers a certainty that things can be otherwise; and in the face of circumstances that are unfair, the imagination gives us insight into what is just.” As I suggest in this essay’s introduction, imagination also gives us a vision of who we can become, which I read as a powerful “instrument” against erasure for Black folks and other people of color.
Morris’s vision of imagination offers an important perspective for addressing brown’s question of how we “shift into a culture in which conflict and difference are generative” (brown, 2017, p. 132) especially when, as hooks notes, “[t]eachers rarely talk about the role imagination plays in helping to create and sustain the engaged classroom” (2013, p. 59). As such, Black speculative digital pedagogy engages and fosters generative conflict within and around imaginative encounters with persistent problems, especially when those problems are historically constructed and scripted to pathologize Blackness and the Black imaginary (Dubois, 1989). Embracing Saidiya Hartman’s push for “revolutionary imagination that wants to discover, institute, initiate a new way of telling” through archival interventions, Black speculative pedagogy invites us to work toward a teaching and learning archive of the future that looks squarely at our “old habits” while listening for digital manifestations of this “new way” (Saunders, 2008).
The Black speculative digital classroom can foster supportive realities for Black folks and other people of color through socially connected, publicly engaged, and intentionally inclusive communities that embrace interdependence and decentralization. Black speculative pedagogy frames hybrid and online classrooms as useful interstitial spaces in which the transformative potential of digital learning meets the realities of distracting, increasingly divisive digital materials. To be sure, critical engagement with digital content demands a fundamental literacy that is often erroneously assumed outside of classroom spaces. It is important to embrace the fractal nature of critical digital literacy; it shapes social and political engagement by offering citizen-students an entry point into larger societal knowledge creation and sharing via the classroom.
Many digital spaces continue to perpetuate discriminatory practices against, and systemic erasures of, marginalized voices and bodies. These erasures are also embedded in projects that shape digital humanities. In response, I suggest that Black speculative digital humanities offers a framework for theorizing digital tools and spaces that are informed by social justice, imaginative knowledge-work, and emergent strategies for technologically mediated change. Here, I bend the arc of brown’s (2017) “intentional adaptation” toward imaginative digital interventions that support pedagogical freedom for Black folks and other people of color.
This work reminds us to examine the relationship between Black students, educator-scholars, and digital technologies to fully embrace the range of necessary interventions for imaginative teaching and learning. These interventive practices account for the alienating aspects of digital learning by scaffolding the transition from marginalization to empowerment for students of color via imaginative knowledge building communities in digital learning. In this pedagogical space, Black speculative digital humanities encourage co-learners to study critical worldbuilding practices that create open spaces for sharing and discussion, to grapple with the complexities of time, memory, and (a)synchronous connection across digital landscapes, and to invite instructive play that encourages individual and collaborative knowledge work within imaginatively seeded makerspaces. brown embraces the reality of heterogeneity in these makerspaces when she reminds us to make room for “futures in which everyone doesn’t have to be the same person” (brown, 2017, p. 57).
As brown notes, such room-making work often “requires more trust building on the front end” (2017, p. 70). While this “front-end” labor is important for learning design practices in general, it is particularly important for transformative praxis, especially when it comes to seeding the imagination for educator-scholars and students of color. In digital space, the front-end imaginative labor paves the way for archival (re)framing that communicates students’ positionalities and connective knowledge building work beyond the delimited timeframe and space of a given course. For online courses, part of the front-end labor could begin with introductory activities that invite students to share:
The vulnerability in sharing can be both rewarding and generative in the online classroom; but sharing also involves risk. To mitigate some of the potential risks, it helps to ask students to contribute only what is comfortable for them. This front-end acknowledgement of possible discomfort and agency-giving option to choose what is shared establishes a precedence of careful presence and trust; it also makes room for pedagogical worldbuilding that embraces wholeness and imaginative change.
In his autobiographical work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that “[i]n America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body—it is heritage” (2015, p. 103). Palimpsestic echoes of this refrain resonate in my analysis of Butler’s pedagogical work in this essay’s first sections as well as in scholarship on technologically mediated Black embodiment (Henderson, 2010; Noble, 2018). We also hear echoes of this refrain in brown’s Emergent Strategy (2017). I’ve identified strategic places where these works overlap to build a thick representation of Black speculative learning design praxis that supports palimpsestic memorialization of the Black body and its heritage. Black speculative pedagogy invites us to expand this strategy by making room for interventive digital placemaking and intentional worldbuilding that combat algorithmic racism in digital spaces.
Recognizing their inherited challenges, these digital spaces offer opportunities to negotiate and reinvent the terms of place, time, and embodiment with each interaction. Ashleigh Wade describes this in terms of “a theory of world making” that “views humans as affective/affected virtual-physical assemblages” to ground her discussion of “the transformative potential of virality” and “viral Blackness” in social media’s digital counter-public spaces (2017, p. 33). These fluid conceptualizations of identities—and the adaptive digital spaces that reflect them—invite educator-scholars to consider how we conceptualize participation and presence in asynchronous digital environments. Connecting the transformative potential of digital presence with adaptive world-building in teaching and learning, Black speculative learning design invites educator-scholars to think critically about community-building and other teaching and learning projects that validate the worlds students create and grapple with in digital counter-public classroom space; this approach contrasts with the heritage of erasure and destruction in the U.S.
In addition to asking for decontextualized bites of general experiences in traditional icebreaking activities, an initial worldbuilding exercise might riff on Lauren’s self-learning process in Parable of the Sower. This might invite educator-scholars and students to create, remediate, and share a digital artifact that encourages palimpsestic memorialization and re-memory via a narrative about their truth. As an exercise in modeling openness, educators-scholars could begin this sharing process with their own introduction as a potential illustration. Along with written text, this reflective artifact might invite students to create an audio reading that is augmented with contextually representative images. Students could share this multimodal creation as an example of digital embodiment and offer a response to another’s fabulation that ends with a question.
Another example of Black speculative critical digital pedagogy involves challenging students to participate in Martha’s pedagogical thought experiment in conjunction with course-specific teaching and learning that takes place in a digital classroom space. Understanding that Martha’s solution for humanity’s survival eventually involves vivid utopic dreams, educator-scholars might ask students to imagine and share their own visions for the future. This project need not be divorced from the materials that shape the course. On the contrary, this vision can build on concepts and ongoing discussion within the course while encouraging students to engage in counter-public discourse outside of the course’s digital space. Mixing established research with imaginative inquiry and experiential worldbuilding, students might work to answer the following questions:
These framing questions invite creative approaches to address an interdisciplinary problem that requires students to work in dialogue with—and to also create—diverse knowledge-building resources. The questions’ openness leaves room for serendipity and free, queer expression. These questions also make space for an ecosystem of supporting activities and thought experiments that problematize totalizing utopias while normalizing iteration and feedback in Black speculative futures.
A sample thought experiment might begin with a collaborative ideation exercise that uses a digital mind mapping tool. This process could lead to a series of individual and group web-annotation activities that ask students to mark-up and discuss a range of digital objects that speak to elements of their imagined change, from widely available data sets to digitally gated archival materials. After exploring avenues for representing their vision through low-stakes, ideation, research, and synthesis activities, students might participate in a drafting workshop that encourages decentralized peer feedback and non-linear, iterative play.
The proposed project benefits from a design process that encourages educator-scholars to support students’ creativity and pedagogical world-building while working toward justice. As a result, students might come up with a host of possible artifacts, including a speculative mock-up of an augmented reality empathy implant that deconstructs and remixes experiential and distributional data across a spatially and temporally flexible neural network. Students might create a podcast about aspects of this speculative artifact that allows them to unpack a disciplinarily-situated problem and chronicle conversations about their worldbuilding process.
A student who is interested in climate gentrification and future projections of urban population growth in the US might create a digital prototype of a tool that promotes individually contextualized connections to sentient and non-sentient life in an imagined city. Another student’s project might involve “thick” storytelling that outlines the ways their vision of change could help families reckon with persistent and pervasive expressions of systemic injustices in real-world communities (Cottom, 2019). Stories might include visual maps that depict expanded tree canopies and vertical green spaces in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. Stories might also imagine ways to address inequality by adjusting how humans conceptualize failure, development, and growth, both in large scale societal reflection habits and in small scale classroom assessment strategies.
The framework of failure, mentioned earlier in this essay, can lead students to internalize and become numb to inequality, particularly when it manifests in the spaces they navigate most often. Decontextualized grades contribute to this framework of failure and act as artificial instruments of systemic injustice that flatten authentic assessment and force all effort, engagement, and potentiality into prescribed boxes (Blum, 2016). This is counterproductive in classroom spaces where co-learners are asked to think critically, thoughtfully, and creatively about the pedagogical world and body of work they have built. Although a collection of grades is often used to measure engagement and performance, many of us read the assemblage as an indicator for learning. To be sure, accountability to self and to others matters. As such, Black speculative learning design proposes mutual accountability structures that are built around adaptive, decentralized, and collaborative feedback. It also proposes that students and educator-scholars be held accountable to the criteria they have agreed upon. This will likely present more challenges than the flattened alternative, but participatory action is a practice of freedom for those marginalized co-learners who are not afforded pedagogical power or agency in social change.
Tressie McMillan Cottom speaks to the importance of creativity and agency in social change during a recorded conversation with Roxanne Gay. Responding to a question about critical creative thought in public discourse, Cottom reminds us that, “[a]s a creative person and a thinking person, you have to have enough self-doubt to be reflexive and enough arrogance to think that you matter enough to be heard” (Cottom & Gay, 2019). In many ways, this essay is my take on writing what matters. As a queer Black nerd who has lived and learned through the truths of public miseducation, and private self-doubt—from Philadelphia’s K-12 public schools, through undergraduate and postgraduate programs at public universities—Cottom’s words strike me as personal and political (Woodson, 2013). Black speculative pedagogy lives within a web of sensitivity, critical mutualism, and adaptability. It also requires dynamic levels of reflexivity, creativity, and arrogance. On the surface, arrogance may seem unlike, and potentially antithetical to, teaching and learning. But for Black folks and other people of color, strategic arrogance can mean the difference between being erased through cis-hetero, imperialist, patriarchal, white-supremacist, socio-pedagogical practices and being embraced through imaginative justice-driven strategies for resistance. Arrogance is subversive when used to challenge systemic injustices that help operationalize pathological homogeneity. In fundamentally hierarchical, teacher-centered learning environments, arrogance is critical for marginalized students who work to be heard. We see this construction of reflexive critical arrogance in “The Book of Martha” (Butler, 2005) and Parable of the Sower (Butler, 2005) through their strong-willed Black protagonists who fight to change social systems that devalue their perspectives and erase their stories. We also see it in sustained calls for design justice (Costanza-Chock, 2020), accessibility, and critical embodiment (Pickens, 2019; Shalk, 2018). But, as Cottom and Gay (2019) suggest, arrogance should not exist in an individualized vacuum, no matter how thickly constructed; on the contrary, arrogance is most effective for marginalized folks when it empowers us to think about and create avenues for access and presence that lead to generative change.
I began this essay by underscoring systemic injustices perpetrated in knowledge building practices, particularly for Black folks. Understanding the thickness of the problem, I quickly narrowed this essay’s scope to focus on palimpsestic memorialization and the embedded connections between counter-public engagement, digital space-making, and critical pedagogy in Octavia Butler’s work. My primary intention was to position Butler’s work, and Black speculative futures more broadly, in relationship to adaptive knowledge building and digital classroom praxis. My secondary intention was to model an imaginative, inquisitive, and inclusive process of becoming that creates discursive space for future discussions of Black speculative pedagogy and learning design. At this critical moment in palimpsestic time, I have the requisite reflexivity and arrogance to know that these efforts matter enough to be heard.
1 Critical engagement and outrage refer specifically to educational injustice in this instance, though they also implicate historically antagonistic sociopolitical and economic systems in the U.S. See Sarah Knopp and Jeff Bale’s Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (2012) Stefano Harney & Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), and Eli Meyerhoff’s Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (2019).
2 See Moya Bailey and Ayana Jamieson’s “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Palimpsests in the Life and Work of Octavia E. Butler” (2017). Also see Jamieson’s contribution to TED education series “Why should you read sci-fi superstar Octavia E. Butler?” (2019)
3 See Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2005)
4 See the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network organized by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey.
5 See Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel’s collaborative essay “Hybridity pt. 3: What does Hybrid Pedagogy Do?” in which they challenge the practice of making hard and fast distinctions between digital and physical learning spaces—arguing that “all learning is necessarily hybrid.”
6 See Alexis Madrigal’s article “What Facebook Did to American Democracy; And Why it Was so Hard to see it Coming” (2017). Also see Yochai Benkler, Naomi Oreskes, Paul Starr and Jane Mayers’s discussion of our asymmetric media ecosystem in “A Modern History of the Disinformation Age: Communication, Technology, and Democracy in Transition” (2019).
7 For further research on digital activism that centers work at the intersection of race and gender, see Sarah J. Jackson’s, Moya Bailey’s, and Brooke Foucault Welles’ #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (2020). For further research on the #BlackLiveMatter hashtag, it’s “impact on political and civic engagement,” see The Pew Research Center’s study “Activism in the Social Media Age” (2018).
8 See Tressie Macmillan Cottom’s talk on “Digital Sociologies” at Virginia Commonwealth University (2017). Also see Andrea Wenzel’s “Curious Communities: Online Engagement meets Old-School, Face-to-Face Outreach” (2017). For an example of what a “curious communities” project might look like, see Germantown Infohub, which was originally hosted on Medium. Medium provides a socially connected digital content management platform that is also a popular space for US public policy conversations. Described as a “free resource to share information and stories of and for residents of the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.” Germantown Infohub is a collaboration between a community advisory group, students and faculty at Temple and Jefferson Universities”—including Wenzel and Hill.
9 This aligns with Waite’s description of “courting failure” in Teaching Queer. She argues that “we know failure in our contradictions—writing as both a product and a process, literacy as both constraining and liberating” (57). Waite’s disciplinary position within composition studies intersects with digital making and representation in a host of technologically mediated pedagogical environments.
10 The ALA’s Digital Literacy Taskforce defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”
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