Q&A With an NYU Prof: Why Occupy Wall Street Presents a Teachable Moment

| January 17, 2012 4:00 AM

The Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired a generation of young people. NYU professor Lisa Duggan says that the movement has helped youth understand how economic policy directly affects them. AP/Stephanie Keith

New York University professor Lisa Duggan says that the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired an entire generation to want to learn about what might otherwise seem like a dry subject: financial history.

That’s why she’s teaching the course “Cultures and Economies: Why Occupy Wall Street? The History and Politics of Debt and Finance” in the NYU Department of Cultural and Social Analysis this spring. And indeed, although NYU does not begin its semester until Jan. 23, the 80-student course is already 3/4 full and Duggan expects it to be totally booked by the time classes begin.

NYU was not the only New York City university planning to bring Occupy Wall Street to the classroom. The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University listed the course “Occupy the Field: Global Finance, Inequality, Social Movement” in its literature, only to announce — following some bad press — that the course hadn’t yet been fully vetted by the administration and might not happen.

“The proposal for a new anthropology course involving fieldwork on this topic had yet to be considered for approval by the faculty Committee on Instruction,” Brian Connolly, associate vice president for public affairs at Columbia, said in an email. “A course does not appear in the official directory of classes and cannot be offered in advance of required approvals. News reports and some departmental postings regarding the spring semester were premature.”

The NYU students in Duggan’s course will read current texts about Occupy Wall Street as well as essays by anarchist/activist David Graeber and the sociologist and political economist Giovanni Arrighi. They will also screen documentaries including “Too Big to Fail” and Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis,’ “The Take,” as well as hear guest lectures from both the OWS movement and from academia. Confirmed speakers include NYU professors Andrew Ross and Angelique Nixon and Richard Kim of The Nation. Duggan also plans to invite Klein and the activist and writer Rinku Sen to talk with students.

MetroFocus recently chatted with Duggan about the teachable moment the Occupy Wall Street movement presents.

Q: Why does OWS warrant a college course?

A: I’ve been teaching “Cultures and Economies” for a couple of years and with a twist each year. This year it seemed obvious that it needed to be about OWS. It’s the kind of issue that I can use to teach economic history within a cultural context. OWS gives us a perfect opportunity to teach the long background of financialization [the growing influence of the financial sector] and the long history of popular protest about economic arrangements. The class goes back to the 15th century and teaches about different empires that have fallen at the time that their economies became heavily financialized. We’ll show that the point when finanicalization is accelerating is the time the empire starts falling, which has implications for us right now. We will also look at the history of debt and the way debt has shaped financial economies.

Q: The history of financialization is not the sexiest topic…Is this a way to inspire students to learn about a dry topic?

A: Yes, absolutely. Occupy Wall Street has done an incredible job in changing the national conversation about the economy and I’m using it as a way to bring students in and engage them in a deep historical, as well as contemporary, framing of what the issues at stake are. It can be very difficult to understand what the federal reserve does or why the deficit is or is not a problem. It’s about economic literacy in a way.

In the newspaper and on TV the economic issues are extracted as if they were purely technical. OWS has done a pretty good job of connecting the larger issues of economic policy to things like the experience of unemployment and foreclosure and to the experience of graduating from NYU with $100,000 in student debt. Like, why is that? How has that happened? That’s a direct connection for undergraduates.

It makes it clear that these issues matter and that they’re not just abstract matters.

NYU professor Lisa Duggan's background is in history and social and cultural movements. This semester, she is teaching a class at NYU on Occupy Wall Street. Photo courtesy of Lisa Duggan.

Q: Do you expect the class to be contentious?

A: In a way, I hope it is. It’s more useful for students to frame their ideas without everyone agreeing with them. We’ll try to frame issues so that we’re not ordaining an answer. Of course, there’s contentious good and contentious bad. Good is debate that’s serious, and bad is the name calling, accusations and labeling people. We will do our best to prevent that.

Q: Who do you think will take the course?

A: Of course, I’ll get the campus activists and I’m sure we will have a lot of students who aren’t activists per se, but they’re very interested in these broad interdisciplinary questions of culture and the political economy. And then I’ll probably get some students who are conservative and that’s very useful in a classroom.

Q: Useful how?

A: They raise questions for everyone to think about and I think that’s a good thing as long as it’s not a campus group whose goal is disruption. We don’t have a lot of that at NYU. They have it at Columbia, but not NYU.

Q: Speaking of Columbia, did you hear that after some bad press about their proposed OWS class, the university announced that the course hadn’t been officially approved by the administration?

A: I haven’t heard about that.

Q: Do you think it sounds like Columbia is backpedaling?

A: I haven’t gotten any bad press…I got some snideness in the Wall Street Journal but no attacks. Maybe she wasn’t a full-time faculty and didn’t know what kind of approval she needed. I’d be interested to find out what happened. Columbia does have Campus Watch students and students that are involved with right-wing groups and try to make trouble. We don’t really have that here.

The content for this course was approved by my department chair and the director of undergraduate studies.

Q. How does OWS compare to social movements of the past?

A. People have made comparisons to the populist movement, which started as a protest against the banks. It spread widely and made a huge impact in both the vocabulary and the substance of politics in the U.S. And it was really a transition point, making way for progressive reform. Over time it became a mass movement, but it started in small meetings. It also reminds me of the early days of a lot of social movements that I had connections to when I was much, much younger. OWS has so much energy and the determination to depart from ordinary life — to get out of your bubble. The willingness to learn and engage and get off the treadmill of an individual career, that reminds me very much of the ’60s and ’70s.

But the OWS movement is up against a grim future, so that’s different.

Q. Does that grim future give the movement more power or strength?

A. When your future looks like it’s not going to give you anything but a dead-end job with no benefits, and while social security and Medicaid are being cut, what do you do? You have to do something. So that’s a pretty intense motivator.

Q. Why is this personally important to you?

A. I will confess to some nostalgia for the experience of being part of a social movement.  I was involved in anti-war politics in the late ’60s and ’70s, and in LGBT, queer and AIDS politics in the ’80s and ’90s.

MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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