When Andrew Hassell was 29, he was working for a cable provider in Bridgeport, CT and had never gotten past the fifth grade in school due to financial circumstances. But his thirst for knowledge never left him. To quench it, he turned to Twitter.
That’s where he met Rhonda Ragsdale, affectionately known as @profragsdale to her followers on the social media platform. Unlike him, she had completed two master’s degrees, was working on her PhD, and taught history at Lone Star College in the Houston area. She felt privileged by her education and used Twitter to share her expertise with people like Hassell who couldn’t otherwise access it.
Saturday mornings were Ragsdale’s favorite time to log on and tweet about social justice from a historian’s perspective. During a time typically designated for reading the paper, academics began gathering around Ragsdale’s weekly discussions. When she saw someone tweet #SaturdaySchool one morning, she decided to adopt the hashtag and make the occasion official.
How to participate in #SaturdaySchool -> visit the hashtag, find the topic, visit corresponding topic hashtag, learn from info there, share
— Rhonda Ragsdale (@profragsdale) January 16, 2016
“It’s modeled after the teach-ins of the Civil Rights movement,” she said. “It’s a great nonviolent message of not only sitting out on something — boycotting mass media — but also using that time to teach and learn.”
For four years, scholars and laypeople alike have been convening at the hashtag each week to discuss topics ranging from how the government works to why art matters. It was a discussion on advice for new college students, however, that made Hassell rethink his future. He had assumed he lacked the finances to go to college, but after seeing Ragsdale tweet about financial aid, he wondered if there were options he hadn’t considered. The two started direct-messaging.
“#SaturdaySchool reminded me how much I loved learning,” he said. “When she broke it down and explained it, that’s what lifted the weight off my shoulders and made me realize it was possible to get an education formally.” He’s now attending Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport while continuing to work. Though he hasn’t declared a major yet, he’s leaning toward history or sociology.
Even though Hassell’s now in school, #SaturdaySchool still gives him the opportunity to delve into questions his college professors sometimes gloss over. He recalls one giving a dismissive response when he asked how slavery’s legacy affects us today, a topic multiple #SaturdaySchools have addressed.
“The big thing that drew me to #SaturdaySchool is the fact that no question I ever asked was treated as if it was invalid,” he said. “There were many times when I felt like I was one of the only ones to think a certain way. Especially not being formally educated, it’s hard for me to say, ‘That’s the right way to feel.’ But when you have academics and professionals and you’re getting all these resources that are validating your thoughts, that’s a very good feeling, to feel like you’re not crazy.”
Ragsdale said #SaturdaySchool’s potential to validate participants’ experiences keeps her going every week. One of her favorite teach-ins was about slut-shaming, which elicited an influx of messages from people who hadn’t realized they’d been slut-shamed or that it was even wrong.
Writer and professor Charles Bivona, who has co-hosted several #SaturdaySchools with Ragsdale, said the teach-in lets people know “they’re not just some nut who sees something wrong with the world. They’re part of a tradition of nuts. Being part of a tradition validates you when you feel like you’re not going to make it.”
— Rhonda Ragsdale (@profragsdale) January 16, 2016
#SaturdaySchool has let Bivona and other academics discuss problems plaguing our society more freely — including economic injustice within the university system itself.
“You’re not going to get a university to change the system. It’s part of the system,” he explained. “I’ve seen a lot of adversary between academia and activism.” Some of the activism we used to see on campuses, he theorizes, has moved to social media.
In addition to freeing information from universities’ ideological traps, Twitter can provide an escape from biases sometimes found in mainstream media, or at least put them into perspective. Kaye Wise Whitehead, Associate Professor of Communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University, has her students each write two papers summarizing a news story — one based on news shared on Twitter and one based on a print publication — to compare the two sources.
Twitter, she explained, exposes people to a wide range of sources and forces them to do their own research. The assignment helps students “see Twitter as more than just a space for mindless sharing of frivolous information and instead see it as a place to get news, to be engaged, to follow movements, to think about ways to be active and not just reactive,” she said.
One source of hope that #SaturdaySchool participants brought up again and again was Twitter’s ability to illuminate racial injustice. The growing community known as Black Twitter has come to shape national conversations, like those surrounding the Ferguson shooting, in ways that traditional media haven’t allowed. Last year, Whitehead’s students used #SaturdaySchool to learn about the Baltimore protests in the wake of resident Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. One white woman who hadn’t given the issue much thought was participating in protests by the end of the semester, Whitehead said.
Whitehead is spearheading the new Baltimore-themed teach-in #SaturdaySchoolBMore, and the new hashtags #SaturdaySchoolATL and #SaturdaySchoolHTX have also cropped up to connect each week’s theme to their respective locations. Twitter users can even now search for #AcademiaSabatina to read #SaturdaySchool tweets in Spanish.
— José R. Cepeda (@JRCpda) January 17, 2016
José R. Cepeda, a human rights activist and criminal justice professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, started translating #SaturdaySchool tweets so his students and other Spanish speakers could participate. “Education about our civil liberties is becoming more and more important,” he said. “I believe that education in general should go beyond the classroom, and nowadays, with social networks and the Internet, that’s a goal that is more accessible.” Cepeda added that #AcademiaSabatina benefits his own work by connecting him with scholarship from other cultures and disciplines.
For Kim Wilson, whose research focuses on prisons, the benefit of #SaturdaySchool has been personal. When she co-hosted a teach-in on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, two of her sons were in prison. “I wasn’t at the point where I could actually publicly talk about that experience, so participating in the #SaturdaySchool gave me that outlet,” she said. “I found it deeply healing and therapeutic that I could have a space to address these issues without having to go into the personal side.”
That discussion and every week’s teach-in is documented in Funk and Beans, a blog on academia, activism, and the arts co-run by Ragsdale and Jaime Rafael Puente, a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin who co-hosted a #SaturdaySchool about Chicano history.
“Archiving these conversations provides an easily accessible resource to people who may not have that information at their fingertips,” he said.
Given the number of unemployed or underemployed academics, “#SaturdaySchool might help some of these people put their skills to good use,” Bivona said. “I’m interested in seeing where this will go and how it will evolve because I think the university system is failing and something has to take its place.”
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