Alana Ackerman, Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2019

When I learned about the School for Criticism and Theory (SCT) held at Cornell University, I was excited about the possibility of joining a community of critical scholars. The seminar that most interested me, “Decolonizing Epistemology,” seemed especially relevant for me as a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology, a discipline founded upon colonial ideologies and practices. As a white scholar from the United States who conducts research primarily with Indigenous and Afro-Colombians in Ecuador, I hoped SCT would provide an intellectual space for questioning exclusionary ways of knowing, for envisioning alternative epistemologies, and for creating community with like-minded scholars. SCT has the potential to allow scholars to practice this version of critical theory. As it currently exists, however, I don’t believe it fulfills this potential due to its problematic leadership, its adoption of a narrow understanding of “critical theory,” and its privileging of whiteness.

The most successful part of SCT in my experience was the opportunity to engage with other participants outside the classroom. SCT brings together close to 90 participants from a wide variety of countries and academic disciplines. Over the course of six weeks, many of us were able to connect and practice our critical thinking together in non-academic settings—whether discussing an article from our seminar, a public lecture we had attended, or global events that were unfolding during our time in Ithaca, including the protests in Hong Kong, Mauna Kea, and at the US-Mexico border. By bringing together scholars from around the world with a shared interest in critical thinking and theory, SCT provides the space for creating intellectual community.

Other aspects of SCT were less successful. The seminar in which I enrolled, "Decolonizing Epistemology," ironically reproduced the coloniality it supposedly addressed. I recall that the syllabus included a single article by an Indigenous Scholar. The professor did not seriously engage with settler colonialism or white supremacy and treated decolonization as a metaphor. The pedagogy involved long lectures follwed by "question and answer" time, rather than real discussion among students. Moreover, the professor refused critique. In what ways did coloniality and settler colonialism shape our syllabus and classroom? What would a decolonial pedagogy look like? How could our seminar actually contribute to “decolonizing epistemology”? These questions linger.

The problems that marred the classroom implicate the broader structure and leadership of SCT. The program’s public lectures, colloquia, and mini-seminars privileged German philosophy. Hegel or Kant seemed to haunt almost every talk. Critical race, Latinx/Chicanx, queer, feminist, and postcolonial theory were almost entirely absent from the program. The active erasure of any alternative forms of critical theory within SCT reproduces the hegemony of European (white) theory. Also upsetting was director Hent de Vries's accomodation of a group of white students who refused to engage their positionality in the field of Black studies and decided to abandon their seminar on "Black Life." These students transferred into other seminars, including the one in which I was enrolled, which subsequently became toxic spaces that supported this "white flight." A racist environment thus reigned in which many Black participants were made to feel unwanted and out of place. This is one example of how the current leadership and sctructure of SCT fail. 

In my opinion, SCT requires a change in leadership, a broadening of its understanding of what counts as “critical theory,” and a reconsideration of the exclusions and omissions it reproduces. While it provides the opportunity for scholars to come together and think critically outside the classroom, this is only a first step.