Deaf rappers who lay down rhymes in sign languages are changing what it means for music to be heard

by Katelyn Best, West Virginia University

This story was originally published on The Conversation.

Rapper Beautiful The Artist performs in the music video for the dip hop song ‘DEAFinitely Lit.’

In April 2023, DJ Supalee hosted Supafest Reunion 2023 to celebrate entertainers and promoters within the U.S. Deaf community.

The event included performances by R&B artist and rapper Sho’Roc, female rapper Beautiful The Artist, the group Sunshine 2.0, DJs Key-Yo and Hear No Evil, as well as ASL performer and former rapper Polar Bear, who now goes by Red Menace.

Many of these artists, activists and entrepreneurs have contributed to an ever-growing hip-hop scene within the Deaf community, which includes a subgenre of rap known as dip hop.

As hip-hop reaches its 50th anniversary, five decades of its cultural impact reverberates in mainstream and underground settings. What originated in the Bronx can now be found all over the world, taking on new forms as it has evolved in a diversity of spaces and places, from trap music and horrorcore to spaza, a subgenre that emerged in Cape Town, South Africa.

Dip hop is one of many styles of rap that have developed over the years. But it stands apart from other subgenres of hip-hop because rappers lay down rhymes in sign languages and craft music informed by their cultural experiences within the Deaf community.

The birth of a musical movement

As an ethnomusicologist, I’ve followed the development of dip hop since 2011, documenting how rappers have pioneered this art form while introducing outsiders, like myself, to Deaf culture.

In 2005, the rapper Warren “Wawa” Snipe came up with the term “DIP HOP” in ASL and English to classify a developing style of rap music within the Deaf community.

While artists of this style identify their music in different ways – some use labels like “deaf rap,” “deaf hip-hop” and “sign rap” – the designation “dip hop” goes beyond adding a qualifier to the broader musical genre of rap. Instead, it signals an independent style grounded in both hip-hop and Deaf culture. Like bounce, trap and drill, the label “dip hop” makes a greater distinction from being a variation of rap to a style that is heavily situated within Deaf culture and determined by Deaf aesthetics.

‘Feel The Beat’ by Signkid (ft. Mr. Off Key). 

In many ways, dip hop has followed a trajectory not unlike hip-hop.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Deaf DJs and entertainment entrepreneurs organized DIY parties, nightlife events and social gatherings. These venues provided opportunities for rappers, DJs, dancers and other artists to begin to develop and explore their own style of hip-hop and connect with other rappers and DJs.

Cities with Deaf schools served as cultural hubs for musical networking. Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York, have acted as significant sites of production within the U.S. by connecting deaf and hard of hearing students from all over the world.

Additionally, greater access to recording technology, video streaming sites and social media have given Deaf artists tools to create music and connect with other artists and fans.

The many forms of dip hop

While the incorporation of sign language is a fundamental element of dip hop – and remains at the forefront of defining this style – dip hop extends far beyond crafting original rap songs in sign language.

It involves musical expression that’s shaped through a Deaf cultural lens – songs that reorient mainstream notions of what can be considered music. At the same time, every artist has their own rapping style, with dip hop performances taking on a range of different forms and structures.

For example, some dip hop artists work with both oral and manual languages to make their music accessible to hearing people. There are those who perform in both languages simultaneously, and others who prerecord their vocal track, which plays in the background as they rap in sign language.

Some artists collaborate with interpreters. In “Vergiss mich nicht,” artist Deaf Kat Night raps in German sign language, while the lyrics are interpreted orally in German.

Then there are those who collaborate with hearing or deaf DJs. “Breaking Barrels,” featuring DefStar, is just one of the many collaborations between Wawa and DJ Nicar.

Performances can also involve musical instruments. Sean Forbes, for example, performs with a live band while also rapping in ASL and English, an approach seen in his music video “Calm Like a Bomb.”

Alternatively, there are rappers who create music for Deaf audiences and solely rap in sign languages. These songs, however, may still have auditory components, which often consist of artists composing their own beats or raising the volume of previously recorded songs to rap over.

Dip hop, like many styles of music, comes to life through live performance. Artists move across the stage with their hands flying through the air as audiences pulse to the rhythm of the blasting bass beat.

A performance by dip hop artists Wawa and Polar Bear at Gallaudet University’s 2015 DSP Bash. 

Some artists further immerse their audiences in the musical experience by using specialized instruments and equipment such as subwoofers, objects that can conduct vibrations like balloons, or new forms of haptic technology, which refers to wearables, such as vests, that channel sound vibrations.

Some artists also incorporate visuals into their performances through the use of video screens and sound-activated lights.

Breaking into the mainstream

Dip hop artists have struggled to be acknowledged as musicians in their own right – to have their artistry be the focus of attention, rather than the fact that they’re deaf or hard of hearing.

That’s starting to change.

In 2009, Finnish rapper Marko “Signmark” Vuoriheimo signed a record deal with Warner Music Finland and released “Smells Like Victory” and “Speakerbox” that same year.

This marked the first time in history a Deaf artist was signed to a major record label. The following year, Detroit-based rapper and National Technical Institute for the Deaf alumnus Sean Forbes signed a contract with WEB Entertainment and released the single “I’m Deaf,” attracting mainstream attention to this style of rap.

Man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads 'deaf and loud' holds his hands up to his ears.
Sean Forbes poses during the 2014 National Association for the Deaf Breakthrough Awards Gala. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

And through the support of the Deaf community, hearing allies and fans, Forbes’ EP “Little Victories” reached No. 1 in the hip-hop category on iTunes and made it to the top 200 Billboard chart in 2020.

The following year, Wawa’s single “LOUD” was a top 20 dance track on iTunes. In 2022, Forbes and Wawa made history again as the first ASL performers at a Super Bowl halftime show.

In “Sign of the Times,” Wawa raps:

  Sup beautiful people
  I’m the Godpop of dip hop
  Deaf eyes through hip hop
  With signs for your eyes 
  Blow your mind and it won’t stop. 

As dip hop evolves, it continues to push the boundaries of convention. In the spirit of hip-hop, dip hop rebels both musically and socially against cultural norms, breaking the mold and expanding possibilities for musical artistry.

Through their performances, dip hop artists not only subvert preconceived notions of music but also of Deaf culture and deafness, changing what it means for music to be heard.The Conversation

Katelyn Best, Teaching Assistant Professor of Musicology, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

“Art hurts. Art urges voyagesand it is easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.” – Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Chicago’s Picasso,’ 1967

This issue of OTH Bookshelf comprises some 200 academic open access titles in the areas of art and art history, focusing on books that would be of most interest and value to HSS scholars and students. 

The OTH list includes the book’s author or editor names, title and title remainder, year of publication, publisher, and open access format (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, etc.) Subject headings in the list are taken from WorldCat records or Library of Congress records, if available: if not, original cataloging of subject headings is provided in WorldCat format, for consistency. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) of the book is given if it is available on the publisher’s website; if not, the URL is provided. The ISBNs listed are for the online version of the book if available, and if more than one online ISBN is available the ISBN for the PDF version has been preferred; if there is not an online or e-book ISBN, the ISBN featured on the publisher’s website is included. The book’s license type (Creative Commons, etc.), terms of use or copyright restrictions are included if these have been provided by the publisher.

This edition of OTH Bookshelf: Art and Art History comprises titles from nearly 60 publishers, museums and cultural bodies: if our readers are aware of any title or publishers that are not included, please feel free to submit them for consideration. To be included in OTH Bookshelf, a book must be available to read online and/or download for free and must have been assigned an ISBN. 

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by Nigel Fletcher-Jones, PhD

Canterbury, in the eastern corner of England, was a city of saints. Eighteen archbishops were canonised before the Reformation and the remains of many other holy men and women were collected from elsewhere and deposited in its monasteries and churches.

Yet of its most famous saint, Thomas Becket (archbishop 1162-1170), no trace remains—unless one believes the claims of the nearby parish church at Chilham to secretly contain his relics.

Nonetheless, many tens of thousands of people still visit Canterbury cathedral each year, as they have since shortly after Becket’s murder by four of Henry II’s knights in December 1170, perhaps to contemplate the site where he was martyred or to marvel at the medieval stained glass representations of the miracles that were ascribed to him in the months and years following his death. The Martyrdom—the crime scene itself—had been substantially rebuilt between 1472 and 1487 in perpendicular style as part of a continuing struggle to accommodate pilgrims but separate them from the daily round of the monks. Nothing that can be identified certainly remains of the great shrine behind the high altar to which Becket’s remains were translated from the crypt in 1220. That was destroyed on the order of Henry VIII in 1538.

Yet we are not solely reliant on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in order to feel the presence of the pilgrims who started to arrive after the canonization of Becket in 1173 because of an extraordinary surviving building in the city’s high street – ‘Eastbridge Hospital’ or ‘the Hospital of Saint Thomas the Martyr’.

Henry VIII’s commissioners and an earlier archbishop were convinced that the hospital—meaning here ‘a place of hospitality’ rather than ‘a place of treatment’—had been built by Thomas Becket, and given the saintly history of Canterbury that remains a possibility, but the first record we have concerning the building suggests that it was founded around 1180 by Edward fitz Odbold, a wealthy merchant of nearby St. Peter’s parish, for the benefit of poor pilgrims—a social stratum well below that of Chaucer’s travellers.

It is a remarkable experience to step through the twelfth century archway from the main shopping street and down into the undercroft of the hospital where pilgrims would have slept, two to a bay, on straw or rushes strewn over the stone floor—these, hopefully, would be swept up occasionally. The River Stour flows on the west side of the undercroft so, no doubt, the floor would also have been damp or even flooded from time to time. In short, the accommodation would not have been comfortable, but it would have been better and safer than sleeping outside.


In times of plague the dangers of sleeping here would have been significantly higher as those that were in the initial stages of illness may have congregated in the hope of a miracle cure. The alarming number of ‘masters’ of the hospital in the fourteenth century seems to indicate that the senior administrators were not immune. This administrative complication was further exacerbated by the established right by the mid-14th century of those who died in Eastbridge Hospital to be buried in the south precinct of Christ Church (the current cathedral) in close proximity to Becket’s shrine.

Meals were provided for the pilgrims in the refectory above the undercroft and would have consisted of potage—oatmeal or wheat porridge–that might contain vegetables and, occasionally, fish or meat, together with bread and beer.

The 13th century mandorla in the refectory of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists.

The refectory was completed a few years before 1200 and was originally two bays longer than at present, the remaining space having been used to construct alms-houses for female residents, or ‘in-sisters’, in the Tudor period. It is fortunate that the north end of hall survived as it is dominated by a 13th century mandorla of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the four evangelists that was discovered during renovation work in 1879. The extensive composition on this wall also included images of the murder of Becket, the public penance of Henry II (in July 1174), and the Last Supper, but all traces of these had disappeared by around 1900.

The pilgrim’s chapel.

Before leaving for Christ Church and the shrine of St. Thomas, the pilgrims would have mounted a further set of steps leading up to the chapel. Though pierced by mid-14th century windows, the chapel was originally consecrated in the 1190s.

The king’s strut roof above the chapel dating to around 1280.

The rafters are a rare survival of a king’s strut construction—the beams hang of struts hanging straight down from the apex of the roof—dating to about 1280. The second bay of the timber construction is very complex and carried an octagonal belfry through the roof until this was cut down in the early 18th century.

The chapel (reconsecrated in 1927) was used as a schoolroom from 1569 to 1880 for the education of twenty schoolboys aged between seven and sixteen, and, remarkably, from its foundation the hospital has held two annual scholarships to Corpus Christi, Cambridge that are still awarded today. It is rumoured that a young Kit Marlowe may have been a student here before going on to the King’s School within the cathedral precincts.

Several further additions were made to the current building after its foundation, including another rare survival—a chantry chapel dedicated to Our Lady built around 1363 and consecrated by Simon Sudbury (archbishop 1375-1381) in 1375. Chantry chapels were usually established for the remembrance of family members and this example was added specifically for that purpose by Bartholomew of Bourne who moved the chapel that had previously been established at Bekesbourne by his ancestor James. The chantry priest was supported by the income from twenty-four acres of farmland at Bekesbourne and was also expected to support the spiritual needs of pilgrims.

The chantry chapel, consecrated in 1375.

A 1547 Act of Edward VI abolished all chantry chapels and seized their assets for the crown. Somewhat ironically, that this particular chapel has survived mostly intact may be because it was poorly built of chalk and flint nodules that were not worth the effort of reusing for other construction. In the 1920s the chapel was still in use as a wine store before being reconsecrated in 1969.

Soon after the translation of St. Thomas to the new shrine behind the high altar, the hospital began to accept a small number of lifelong dwellers, known as ‘corrodians’, who had given money or land in support of its charitable mission. Eventually this required further construction in and around the main body of the building, including, around 1405, a substantial timber extension across the River Stour that was subsequently modified several times to include rooms for recipients of alms (known as ‘in-dwellers’) and, on the third floor, to house the school master.

If mention of these modifications suggest that the financial foundations of Eastbridge Hospital changed greatly over time, the impression is correct. After only a few years of operation it became clear that the original endowment of Edward fitz Odbold was insufficient for the hospital’s needs. Archbishop Hubert Walter (in office 1193-1205) made a further endowment in 1203, during the reign of King John, giving the tithes associated with several mills in and around Canterbury. At the same time, the nearby Cokyn’s Hospital was combined with Eastbridge and the former was closed creating for a brief period a single Hospital of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, and Saint Thomas the Martyr.

Several major benefactors associated with the village of Blean to the northwest of Canterbury came to its aid in the early 13th century. The Norman lord, Hamo de Crevequer, gave land and the church of Blean to the hospital by a number of undated charters and several of his tenants did likewise with regard to land. In the succeeding centuries other landholders in Blean followed suit.

The timber-built, brick-faced extension over the River Stour begun around 1405.

Yet by 1342 the hospital was in a parlous state and Archbishop John de Stratford (1333-1348) essentially refounded the institution and laid down rules for its future management: healthy pilgrims might stay one night; sick pilgrims (excluding lepers) might stay until recovered; the right to burial in the south precinct of Christ Church was established for those who died at Eastbridge; pilgrims would be under the care of a woman over forty who would receive four pence a day to cover expenses; there would be twelve beds available (eight for men and four for women); and poor women in childbirth could be taken in.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the golden age of pilgrimage had passed and such journeys to Canterbury ceased altogether with the destruction of Becket’s shrine in 1538 leaving Eastbridge Hospital with no obvious purpose. Fortunately, Archbishop Mathew Parker (in office 1559-1575) converted into a hospital for poor travellers and soldiers and added the school.

The rear of Eastbridge Hospital showing the building across the River Stour and, to the right, the Tudor cottages used as almshouses.

For reasons not quite understood, Elizabeth I gave over the hospital to a private individual, John Farneham in 1576, but Archbishop John Whitgift (1583-1604) purchased and refounded it in 1584 as an almshouse—adding two cottages to the rear of the building—in which status it has continued to the present with, currently, eight apartments for in-sisters and in-brothers.

Today, as one climbs up to exit the hospital through its gothic entrance arch and steps back into the glare of the High Street with its plastic, glass, and concrete shop fronts, it is heart-warming to look back and remember that at Eastbridge Hospital we still also have a frontage that has survived that, more or less, would have been familiar to Chaucer himself on his way long ago from London.

In this edition of Industry News, an interview with the president of the Mellon Foundation, a Nobel Laureate’s novel becomes a puppet play, a surprising philanthropic fundraiser, improving your museum’s presence on YouTube, a new open access monograph collaboration is up and running, the inaugural Art Mumbai will have a unique locale, and a stunning exhibition of African photography at the Tate Modern.


Artistic Exchange is a Living Experience

Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Mellon Foundation, discusses creativity as an agent for change, artistic collaboration, and holding more than one story at a time:

Source: Fast Company 


The Life and Times of Michael K

South African puppeteer Adrian Kohler has adapted the novel The Life and Times of Michael K by Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee into a puppet play. In the book, set in apartheid-era South Africa, the title character is born into poverty and sent to an institution. “’Michael K is very much an outsider, and that’s why having him as a puppet works so well,’ Kohler [told] the BBC.” The Life and Times of Michael K runs until August 27 at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Source: BBC News 


Pennies From Heaven

The late Tony Bennett, who founded an arts school in his Queens, NY, neighborhood, had a long record of philanthropic campaigns—including a surprising annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that went on for almost 30 years: 

Source: Observer 


Museums and YouTube

YouTube’s popularity and utility as a search engine means that content you post there won’t be lost in an ever-scrolling algorithm-driven newsfeed, unlike some other social channels. Three tips to improve your museum’s YouTube channel:

Source: American Alliance of Museums Blog 


Big Ten Open Books

The Big Ten Open Books project, a collaboration between the university presses and libraries of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, has launched. The first 100-title collection centered on gender and sexuality studies is available #OA in digital form on the University of Michigan Press’s Fulcrum platform.

Source: Nebraska Today 


Art Fair Off to a Flying Start

The inaugural Art Mumbai (16-19 November) will take place on the Mahalaxmi Racecourse, a horse racing track in the city’s center.

Source: The Art Newspaper 


Africa in Pictures

The exhibition “A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography” runs at the Tate Modern in London until January 14 2024. Curator Osei Bonsu “selected works from artists exploring systems of power in Africa outside Western colonialism.” 

Source: Art Daily–in-regalia-and-complexity


Solo exhibitions that are also career retrospectives really call for a space sufficient to show {off) the artist’s complete body of work. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language sprawls magnificently over seven rooms and two corridors at IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art). The largest presentation of her work in Europe to date, it had its origins in Howardena Pindell: A New Language, organized by the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh in 2021. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language includes some new work in which one sees echoes of the artist’s concerns from the 1970s and 1980s.

American artist Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. With a BFA degree from Boston University and an MFA from Yale, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1967 to 1979. (Beginning as an educator, she was MoMa’s first Black curator). By the 1970s, Pindell was experimenting with pointillism and mixed media. Room 1 in the IMMA show features her early abstract paintings that used the office supplies of her MoMA environment: stencils, hole punches, manilla folders and archive boxes. 

The moving screen was another source of inspiration. According to Bomb Magazine, the “deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawings series’, begun in 1973, starting as acetate drawings over a television screen. Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) was the first video acquired for iits collections by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. On display in Room 3 at IMMA, the video features Pindell talking about her own experiences of racism from her childhood onwards. She also creates a counterpoint character in whiteface, who tells the narrator that she must be paranoid and “we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them.” At the time when she made Free, White and 21 (perhaps her most famous work), Pindell was suffering from temporary amnesia after a car accident, and what she describes as “yet another run-in with racism in the art world and the white feminists. . . . I remember hearing that the feminists wished I had been “cooperative.” The white voice was the dominant voice. What the white male’s voice was to the white female’s voice, the white female’s voice was to the woman of color’s voice.”

Both Room 3 and Room 6, in which the video Rope/Fire/Water plays, are prefaced by warnings for content. Rope/Fire/Water (2020) was commissioned by The Shed in NYC. The Black Lives Matter movement spurred the artist to work that was contemplated but not completed as early as the 1970s. Pindell’s voiceover of personal anecdotes and historical data on lynchings and racist attacks in the United States is accompanied by statistics on screen and archival photos of lynchings. The paintings in Room 5, which precede this searing video, examine the connections between capitalism and its relationship to slavery, past and present. As the IMMA catalogue points out, Pindell’s “use of data sets harks back to surveys she conducted in the 1980s tracking racism in the art world, and as she says, ‘the numbers say everything’.” 

Paper works displayed in the light-filled West Corridor lead into the “cut and sewn” canvases in Room 7, where individual panels are cut and sewn together in an explosion of color. A beguiling conclusion to a career retrospective for an artist who has, according to The New York Times, “used her work to confront pain and embrace pleasure, spent decades committed to both figuration and abstraction, worked in institutions and criticized them.”

“Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language” was conceived by Annie Fletcher, curated by Seán Kissane and organized by Sara Muthi. It runs at IMMA until October 30, 2023.

In this round-up of stories you may have missed: there’s no place like home for a priceless piece of movie memorabilia stuck in legal limbo; an Ivy League student using stop-animation to tell the story of what happened after hours in the library one night; UCLA’s Pioneers of Queer Cinema series is going on tour; what insiders think about African cinema at Cannes and other festivals; a new documentary about an organization that changed Toronto queer history; very rare movies to be featured in a Library of Congress inaugural festival this June; how curator amassed a huge pan-African film archive, and some exciting hip-hop news!


Sterling Library inspires student’s animated film—a love story

Colorful Library, a five-minute film by Filip Birkne, uses stop-motion animation to tells the story of what happens in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library after hours one night.

Source: Yale Library 


‘A cinema of resistance’: how June Givanni amassed a 10,000-piece pan-African film archive

How curator June Givanni amassed a 10,000-piece pan-African film archive.

Source: The Guardian 



Library of Congress Festival of Film And Sound Announces Full Lineup of Rare Cinema and Special Guests

The inaugural Library of Congress Festival of Film and Sound announces its roster of rare cinema, with films like James Cagney’s Ceiling Zero (1936) and special guests. 

Source: Broadway World 



FBI charges man with stealing Dorothy’s The Wizard of Oz slippers

A man has been charged with the theft of a pair of the red slippers worn by Judy Garland’s character Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. One of four pairs in existence, they were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 2005 and recovered by the FBI in 2018. The stolen slippers, with an estimated worth of $3.5 million, cannot be returned to the museum until all legal proceedings have been concluded.

Source: BBC 



Pioneers of Queer Cinema Tour

UCLA’s Pioneers of Queer Cinema series is going on tour. The organizers and supporters of this series hope to introduce and reacquaint audiences with landmark queer works and their makers, while inspiring new conversations and renewed action surrounding the complex obstacles LGBTQ+ communities continue to face.

Source: UCLA Cinema 



Africa (Finally) Has Its Cannes Moment

African cinema was well represented at Cannes this year, but insiders say top festivals need to do more to reflect the continent’s true filmmaking diversity.

Source: Hollywood Reporter 



This organization changed Toronto queer history — and a new film shows us how we can learn from them

A new documentary, Supporting Our Selves, directed by Lulu Wei, links the history of Toronto’s pivotal Community One Foundation to modern queer advocacy.

Source: CBC 



And finally, Regan Sommer McCoy, the Chief Curator of The Mixtape Museum and the ‘23 Visiting Hip Hop Scholar at Virginia Union University, has been voted onto the board of ARSC, The Association for Recorded Sound Collections and will join the School of Visual Arts as a Hip Hop Curator.   


Ron DeSantis’s Florida House Bill 999, if passed, would enact a legislative takeover of governance and curriculum at Florida’s public colleges and universities. While headlines have focused on clickbait like “ban gender studies majors,” the bill is deeply problematic for many other reasons as well. We won’t focus on those here, but instead present some data about the hypocrisy of governors like DeSantis who advocate for “prohibiting general education core courses from teaching certain topics or presenting information in specified ways” (HB 999, 3) even as they themselves have taken advantage of the liberal arts traditions of open-ended inquiry and exploration. 

DeSantis majored in history at Yale, although that particular piece of information seems to have been removed from his official biography (which states only that he “worked his way through Yale University”). This history major’s incongruous distrust of unrestricted academic inquiry, manifested throughout Florida HB 999, led us to wonder about the undergraduate major choices for the rest of the current cohort of United States governors. Among sitting United States governors, DeSantis is not unique as a History major: Indiana’s Eric Holcomb, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, Alaska’s Mike Dunleavy, and Wyoming’s Mark Gordon also majored in History in their undergraduate programs. 

Political science is the most common major for our current set of governors, unsurprisingly: eleven political science majors now occupy the corner office. Education and Engineering tied for second, with six each, followed by History with five. Crucially, more governors majored in traditional liberal arts and sciences (29) than in more professionally-oriented majors (24); totals do not add up to 50 due to double majors and to Missouri governor Mike Parson, who does not have a college degree. 

The governors’ undergraduate majors data, then, echoes the 2020 findings for senators published by Oh, The Humanities – the majority of those in positions of great power are educated in traditional liberal arts, even as they advocate to eliminate or restrict access to those disciplines in contemporary postsecondary education. 

The current Yale History department notes that “Students of history learn to think about politics and government, sexuality, the economy, cultural and intellectual life, war and society, and other themes in broadly humanistic—rather than narrowly technocratic—ways.” If Florida HB 999 passes, history students in Florida will not benefit from the “broadly humanistic” explorations that the bill’s architect did.

DeSantis and his ilk, in their contempt for Florida’s students, don’t realize that these dictates regulating educational content will ultimately backfire. United States undergraduates aren’t stupid. They will recognize this propagandistic “education” as a bully’s attempt to present historical interpretation as unassailable historical truth, an attempt to present a “canon” as a fixed set of universally-agreed-upon items, an attempt to limit scrutiny of a worldview that perpetuates rather than interrogates existing hierarchies and inequities. 

DeSantis rightly fears Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, and other “theories that [argue that] systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States” (HB 999, p.6). Florida is among the most ethnically diverse states in the country, but its Governor seems determined that its higher education humanities curriculum will not reflect the lived experiences and narratives of the state’s multicultural demographic.

DeSantis may have been in class for discussion of the Party slogan in Orwell’s 1984:  “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (book one, chapter three). He seems to have read it, however, as an instruction rather than a warning.

AL Kay IveyRB.A.Secondary EducationAuburn
AKMike DunleavyRB.A.HistoryMisericordia University
AZKatie HobbesDBSWSocial WorkNorthern AZ
ARSarah H. SandersRB.A.Political ScienceOuachita Baptist Uni
CA Gavin NewsomDB.A.Political ScienceSanta Clara Uni
COJared PolisDB.A.PoliticsPrinceton
CTNed LamontDB.A.SociologyHarvard
DEJohn CarneyDB.A.Public AdministrationDartmouth
FLRon DeSantisR B.A.HistoryYale
GABrian KempRB.S.AgricultureUni of Georgia
HIJosh GreenDB.A.AnthropologySwarthmore College
IDBrad LittleRB.S.Agricultural BuisnessUni of Idaho
ILJB. PritzkerDB.A.Poli Sci/Govt.Duke
INEric HolcombRB.A.US HistoryHanover College
IAKim ReynoldsRB.A.Liberal StudiesIowa State
KSLaura KellyDB.S.PsychologyBradley Uni
KYAndy BeshearDB.A.Poli Sci/AnthropologyVanderbilt Uni
LAJohn B. EdwardsDB.S.EngineeringU.S. Military Academy at West Point
MEJanet MillsDB.A.FrenchUMass Boston
MDWes MooreDB.A.International StudiesJohns Hopkins
MAMaura HealeyDB.A.GovernmentHarvard
MIGretchen WhitmerDB.A.CommunicationsMichigan State
MNTim WalzDB.S.Social Science EduChadron State
MSTate ReevesRB.S.EconomicsMillsaps College
MOMike ParsonRN/A
MTGreg GianforteRB.E.Electric Engineering/ Computer ScienceStevens Ins. Of Tech.
NEJim PillenRB.S.Animal SciencesUni of NE
NVJoe LombardoRB.S.Civil EngineeringUni of NV
NHChris SununuRB.S.Civil/Environmental EngineeringMIT
NJPhil MurphyDB.A.EconomicsHarvard
NMMichelle L. GrishamDB.A.University StudiesUni of NM
NYKathy HochulDB.A.Political ScienceSyracuse
NCRoy CooperDB.A.LawUni of NC at Chapel Hill
NDDoug BurgumRB.U.S.University StudiesND State
OHMike DeWineRB.S.EducationMiami Uni
OKKevin StittRBSBAAccountingOK State
ORTina KotekDB.S.Religious StudiesUni of OR
PAJosh ShapiroDB.A.Political ScienceUni of Rochester
RIDan McKeeD B.A.Education/ Political ScienceAssumption College
SCHenry McMasterRB.A.HistoryUni of SC
SDKristi NoemRB.A.Political ScienceSD State
TNBill LeeRBSMEMechanical EngineeringAuburn
TXGreg AbbottRBBABusiness AdministrationUni of TX at Austin
UTSpencer CoxRB.A.Political ScienceSnow College
VTPhil ScottRB.S.Industrial EducationUni of VT
VAGlenn YoungkinRB.A./B.S.Management Studies/ Mechanical EngineeringRice Uni
WAJay InsleeDB.A.EconomicsUni of WA
WVJim JusticeRBBusiness AdministrationMarshall Uni
WITony EversDB.S.Education AdministrationUni of WI
WYMark GordonRB.A.HistoryMiddlebury College

Google Spreadsheet


Political science/ politics/ government 11

Engineering (all types) 6

Education (all) 6

History/US history 5

Liberal studies / university studies 3

Economics 3

Business/management/ administration  3

Anthropology 2

Agriculture/ agribusiness 2

Social work 1

Sociology 1

Public administration 1

Psychology 1

French 1

International studies 1

Communications 1

Computer science 1

Animal science 1

Law 1

Accounting 1

Religious studies 1

Liberal arts: 29Professionally focused: 24


Dr. Mary Dockray-Miller is a Professor at Lesley University where she teaches classes in the English major core, Medieval Studies, and the History of the English Language. Her most recent book is Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage in the American Women’s College (Palgrave, 2017). 

Catherine Callanan is a Class of 2023 English major at Lesley University.

John T. Caldwell (email) is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media ,UCLA, Author, “Specworld: Folds, Faults, and Fractures in Embedded Creator Industries” (UC Press, 2023)  


The future is sometimes best understood from the rearview mirror. Current speculation about the coming AI-bot takeover of all things notwithstanding, we misread AI’s novelty and overlook our own role in AI’s prehistory. The bot threat to end paying careers for artists, designers, and writers underscore the high stakes. We rightly target one culprit, the wholesale pre-data-scraping of all online images, ideas, music, video that fed the bots in the first place. Platform data-miners unfairly vacuumed up this ocean of free IP as preemptive cultural plagiarism. Without consent, right?

Not entirely. For two decades we’ve rehearsed endless ways to give our best ideas and images away for free on social media. Voluntarily. The tacit deal: we share content at scale to enhance the long odds that someone will discover and monetize us later. This deferred-payoff behavior required great trust. It now feels far less enabling. Many artists and writers seeking careers feel jilted by their platform’s cloaked duplicity.  Faith in uploading morphs into IP regret. Or litigation. AI-bots grind-down the win-win deal many creators once imagined.

The new AI culture-bots may also blindside us because they herald graduation from our utopian training in AI-boot camp. There we learned to create and work for free, while social media let us master how to justify creating for free. We need to unpack this pre-history of IP-gifting.  Especially the volunteerism and personal consent implied by content-gifting, which undercut our self-righteous protests against replacement AI-creators.

Culture made long-odds creator payoff a habit long before AI’s creator-mining. Investor economies leveraged the artworld’s resilient suffer-until-discovered pose, given its lottery promise, and disregard for creative labor as collective. Art’s lone-wolf posturing shape-shifted into a corporate culture skill-set for visionary market innovators.  Financial speculators loved that self-financing and debt fueled many “disruptors.”  In effect, an MBA gambit–corporate entrepreneurialism–hijacked the personal expression ethos that once defined vanguard art schools. CEOs engineered personal vision into brands.  VC-wooing startups postured as culture-gifting’s avant-garde.

Management also stokes the endlessly deferred payoff pose. Firms often employ a paying-your-dues rationale to justify prolonged career precarity for personal assistants and company underlings.  Other rising players master fake-it-until-you-make-it posturing to leverage self-reflection as personal branding. Finally, social media’s likes and ranking economies make wooing attention rather than producing durable content to distribute the only goal. All these frameworks provide symbolic “pay” to compensate for free creator gifting. We now accept that creative work and pay operate in two different time zones.  We create effusively now. Yet wait endlessly for a lottery payoff down the road.

Culture-gifting’s Ur-prototype, “spec-work,” churned long before AI-bootcamp. It included unpaid creative works by aspirants and rising professionals alike to get actual production work and pay. Once “on spec” meant writing the “spec-script” as a calling card to land writing jobs. Yet writers now hear that even screenplays are not enough; that they need to shoot sample scenes just to get meetings. Veterans tell young designers to publish “look books” and pre-project style swag to snag jobs. Mentors teach rising filmmakers to print 4-color “leave behinds” if they hope to get a call back from producers after pitches. Hopefuls stage public “table-reads” on their own dime. Career-aspiring writers, producers, and composers self-finance their IP on parallel platforms (novels, plays, musical theater) to attract agents and eventual funding.  The end prize: re-versioning spec-IP for big-screen career payoff.  Hollywood’s sea of shadow spec-production is vast, time-consuming, and costly. 

Below this world of underutilized creative professionals, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram place acute pressures on creators to give content away freely. There, aspirants must first buildout personal fanbases before they can be discovered and monetized. Costly workshops teach creators analytics to boot-strap their channels, to master speed production, to avoid costly production values (like lighting and sound), to upload content daily, in quantity. And when all that fails, to trick the YouTube algorithm, with automated content hacks and counter-algorithm triggers. Huge amounts of soft family and social capital have long pre-subsidized this content flood gifted by aspirants. Yet their giant partners never admit that these cloaked aspirant pre-subsidies feed the platform’s stock valuation. Creator doublespeak rules AI-boot-camp. 

Boot-camp training–in both old media and new–has softened us, normalized and greenlit AI-bots to generate culture for us.  Why not halt this culture-extraction scheme? Platform beneficiaries have long over-paid creators in symbolic cultural distinctions (soft capital, competitions, ranking schemes) precisely because they vastly underpay aspirant and rising creators in actual money (hard capital) for screen content. Platform pedagogy in AI-boot-camp was also bidirectional. For two decades, while we learned free culture-gifting in the data-mine, the data-mine learned to ape human creators as we’ve disclosed oceans of free (or at least hijackable) content. We greased the skids of our preemption, complicit with a partner that now generates culture without us. 

The long-odds human predicament faced by anyone wanting careers creating screen media have long troubled me as an educator. I began researching production to discern why companies gave their overworked 25-to-35-year-old VFX workers mid­career “sabbaticals” in the 1990s to physically survive their workstation “masters” and 24/7 “digital sweatshops.” Years later, I wrote Specworld after viewing scores of online down-in-flames quitting­my-channel videos by angry teen and post-adolescent makers who raged that their perverse giant platform hosts had cruelly demonetized them, making their ascent toward actual production careers impossible.

Asking how career-threatening pressures trapped 20-and-30-something creative pros in the 1990s was one thing.  Discerning how and why aspiring 21st-century adolescent social media creators would rail against similar career-ending stresses proved more alarming. 

How should those of us in the arts and humanities respond? Litigation against cloaked AI culture-mining offers one recourse. Wholesale IP culture-vacuuming on platforms was indeed the original sin.  However, unpacking the masquerade of quasi-consent in our culture-gifting deal-with-the-devil, may suggest more lasting regulations for the online creator swamp. Including revisions of IP, surveillance, media regulation and ownership laws. Requiring “watermarks” for AI content and IDs for any entities scraping or monetizing online content would at least make unintended culture-gifting more transparent. Yet the most needed (but uninvited) form of oversight in the world of teen creators are child labor laws. Way too much money is being made there by the culture-miners. Recent news outed the lies that social media creator world entails neither labor or predation. Under the hood of digital platforms the writers glimpse a celebrity fighting pit of young wannabes fueled by child abuse and shadowy monetizing corporations. 

For decades, we’ve normalized free-culture gifting for creators on social media, shoring up our reluctance to regulate. If we are honest, our deal with the devil doesn’t just entail undisclosed artist culture-mining by giant platforms. Our own habitual culture-gifting as social media creators helps fuel and sustain a shroud cloaking our shared AI-boot-camp. After graduating, we can only snark at the unwanted creator-avatars we have unwittingly trained. Semper Fi AI. 

About the Author

John T. Caldwell is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, UCLA. This article has been adapted from his recently published book Specworld: Folds, Faults, and Fractures in Embedded Creator Industries (University of California Press, 2023). That work, and this essay, come from 40 years of experience in film and media, and as an arts and humanities professor.

by Kevin Eamon Muehleman


South Africa was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which was included in both the 1993 Interim Constitution and the 1996 Constitution. Section 9 of the Constitution, known as the Equality Clause, explicitly provides South African citizens with constitutional protection from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, stating that:

“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”[1]

This was a progressive feat for the country, marking its claim as the most gay-friendly destination throughout the African continent. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and is still the only sub-Saharan African country today that provides legal status and protections to same-sex relationships.[2]

The progressive legal environment in South Africa is in stark contrast to other African nations that have colonial-era laws that criminalize homosexual behavior and where some offenders can face the death penalty.[3] In fact, of the 69 countries that criminalize same-sex relations throughout the world, 33 are in Africa.[4] However, the legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and asexual ( LGBTIQA+) in South Africa have not always aligned with conservative communities within the country. Even with strong, progressive legal protections, many members of the  LGBTIQA+ community in South Africa continue to battle violence and discrimination in their everyday lives.

LGBTIQA+ Asylum Seekers

 LGBTIQA+ individuals who experience bigotry in their own country look to South Africa as a safe haven because of its progressive policies and legal protections. This has led to a high number of LGBTIQA+ asylum seekers fleeing their homes and seeking out a better life where they can express themselves authentically. However, many LGBTIQA+ asylum seekers have found that South Africa has not been the most welcoming as they thought. A 2021 report from Legal Resources Center found that asylum officers unlawfully discriminated against  LGBTIQA+ asylum seekers, denying their applications to enter the country although they met the criteria to seek “protection under international and domestic law.”[5] The report found that 67 applicants who applied for asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity were wrongly denied between 2010 and 2020. The officers were also found to display hostility and bigotry toward LGBTIQA+ applicants through the use of derogatory language and use of stereotypes about sexual and gender minorities. The report found that some officers were “unaware that sexual and gender minorities constitute a protected social group under the Refugees Act.”[6]

Gender-Based Violence

South Africa also faces systemic gender-based violence (GBV) throughout the country. GBV is disproportionately directed against women and girls and is also experienced by those who do not conform to their assigned gender roles. A 2016 report by Love Not Hate found that 11% of  LGBTIQA+ youth (ages 16 to 24) reported experiencing rape or sexual abuse at school, and 31% of lesbian and bisexual women experienced sexual violence.[7] The South African government has developed a National Strategic Plan to address GBV and continues to revise its policy and approach to combating violence in the country.[8] The current president, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has recently vowed to strengthen the country’s laws on this issue. He has promised to address legislative gaps and fast-track new laws, among other recommendations.[9] However, critics have also expressed concern over the lack of funding for shelters and other services for victims and that more should be done to protect marginalized groups, including sex workers, the LGBTIQA+ community, and undocumented people.[10]


Policymakers and activists have used education as a tool to bring further awareness to issues affecting the LGBTIQA+ community. According to the same Love Not Hate report, 56% of  LGBTIQA+ South Africans aged 24 years old or younger expressed they had experienced discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity in a school setting.[11]

South African grade schools are moving toward including LGBTIQA+ policies and education in their classrooms, programs, and curricula. The Department of Basic Education (DoE) developed a guidebook in 2017 for schools to teach gender identity and sexual orientation to grade-school children throughout South Africa. The goal is to ensure schools are more inclusive and supportive of their LGBTIQA+ students by upholding the values set in the Constitution.[12] In 2019, the DoE developed plans to overhaul school textbooks in order to make them more inclusive of same-sex families and sexual and gender minorities. The department found that  LGBTIQA+ people were referenced twice in the 38 textbooks in nine subjects.[13] In 2020, the Western Cape DoE drafted South Africa’s first gender identity and sexual orientation guidelines in hopes to develop more inclusive and supportive environments for LGBTIQA+ students.[14] [15] These initiatives aim to lay the groundwork needed to develop inclusive policies, like gender-neutral bathrooms, dress codes, participation in school sports, and combat bullying.

However, all of the policies have faced backlash from conservative and religious groups and politicians who believe that children should not be taught about LGBTIQA+ inclusion in the classroom. Freedom of Religion South Africa encouraged parents to withdraw their children from schools “in the event that it conflicts with their own value systems.”[16] One politician, Rev Kenneth Meshoe, president of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), said that he intends to fight the government’s “wicked” plan to treat “masturbation, gender nonconformity, and single parent families as a mainstream.”[17] Additionally, far-right Christian groups from the United States have poured over USD 56 million to fight against LGBTIQA+ rights and access to safe abortion, among other issues, throughout Africa.[18] This outside influence has contributed to further polarization over gender and sexuality issues in South Africa.

Research and Methodology

Throughout my four-week stay in South Africa, I chose to further examine the country’s policies and laws that aim to protect this population. Through formal and informal interviews and conversations with policymakers, educators, and members of the LGBTIQA+ community, it become apparent that the country’s laws were not always enforced equitably and fairly. All too often, LGBTIQA+ people experienced discrimination and tremendous obstacles to the rights that they were supposedly granted by the Constitution. There seems to be a great disparity between the policies and how they are implemented throughout society. I conducted interviews and conversations with individuals without explicit content to publish their interviews. Therefore, I have chosen to keep their identities anonymous. Most of the interviews lasted one hour in length and were held in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Mbombela, Mamelodi, and Cape Town.

Department of Basic Education

I corresponded with a representative in the Social Mobilisation & Support Services at the Department of Basic Education to discuss their office’s work in ensuring LGBTIQA+ students received the resources and support they needed. The representative has shared their office’s work on developing manuals and guidelines that were discussed earlier in this paper, including the Constitutional Values and School Governance and Dealing with Homophobic Bullying.[19] [20] They acknowledged the difficulties in incorporating the materials into all schools throughout the country.
University of Pretoria (UP)

UP is unique that it allocates multiple resources toward LGBTIQA+ inclusion and education. From academic to student-led initiatives, the campus has programs and support groups for students to embrace their identity and learn more about the community.

I met with a representative at the Centre for the Study of AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) at UP. They shared how the center was founded in 1999 to guide the university’s response to HIV prevention tactics. Today, CSA&G collaborates with nine faculties across the UP and has expanded its work in social justice, GBV, leadership and advocacy, and community engagement.[21] They highlighted concern that traditional STEM fields, like medicine and engineering, were less likely to interact with CSA&G, as compared to the humanities and social sciences. For example, they shared the story of a recent Zoologist student who was undergoing their transition from female to male. The student was able to have support from faculty members, staff, and the administration to ensure they were able to use the name and pronouns of their choosing. However, they have not been asked to facilitate such a scenario at the engineering school, although they are sure students in the field would benefit greatly from resources provided by the center. They are working to build stronger relationships with that department. They are also in the process of updating UP policies to ensure further support for transgender and intersex students.  

I also corresponded with a representative at the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) Unit at the Centre for Human Rights at UP. This unit is housed with the School of Law and aims to “advocate for and work towards equality inclusion non-discrimination, non-violence, and non-heterosexism” for LGBTIQA+ persons. [22] The unit’s work focuses on influencing policies and laws to ensure the rights of sexual and gender minorities throughout Africa. Students are able to take workshops, participate in mock trials, and conduct legal research on issues affecting LGBTIQA+ individuals.

I also met with two undergraduate students who identify in the LGBTIQ+ community. They shared more information about the two LGBTIQA+ student-led organizations on campus: 1) Up and Out, and 2) Queer Space Collective. Up and Out is a social organization that builds community and programming for the LGBTIQA+ community.[23] The Queer Space Collective is a social group that uses creative writing as a tool to make UP “safer and more inclusive of queer identity and expression.” [24] Both groups organize social and professional events for students, including sexual education workshops and PRIDE events.

I also had an informal conversation with two UP students who did not identify in the LGBTIQA+ community. The two young, Black men were born and raised in a township nearby and are 20 years old. When asked if they supported gay rights, the men expressed that they had their own “problems”, which they described as wanting to start a family and starting a successful career after graduation. They both added that they have “nothing against” LGBTIQA+ people, but that they didn’t feel the need to advocate for their rights and protection when they are dealing with their own concerns about their future in South Africa.

I consulted the use of the concept “problem” with my professor who shared that the concept is used in a South Africanism context and is a translation from local languages to mean different things. For instance, “I have no problem” could mean “I accept”, and “I have my own problems” could mean many things as well.

University of Mpumalanga (UM)

UM was established in 2014 and represents a very, rural community in Mbombela. During my day-long visit, I met with a professor whose research focuses on gender disparities and LGBTIQA+ experiences. They shared their work in making UM a more inclusive and accepting campus. Specifically, they explained the difficulty they’ve experienced in incorporating gender-neutral bathrooms throughout new campus buildings. UM recently constructed new buildings but decided to exclude gender-neutral spaces. They have been working with the administration to understand how this decision was made and what can be done to ensure spaces are incorporated in future projects. They also highlighted the high demands placed on themselves as the only dedicated faculty that focuses on gender and sexual identity at the university. Additionally, that professor serves as the faculty advisor for the student-led organization, The Conscious Youth Foundation (CYF), which aims to combat gender-based violence and promote inclusive policies for sexual minorities. They connected me with three students, all identify as Black or Coloured, who are founding members of the organization. We met over lunch to discuss their work with CYF and their personal experiences within the LGBTIQA+ community.

CYF started in 2021 as a way for students to get involved in voicing their concerns about the growing problem of GBV in the country and to support the LGBTIQA+ community on campus. The students explained how many transgender people, especially those who were assigned male at birth, experience backlash and often violence. Within the last year, CYF has promoted programming and events specifically tailored toward visibility for the LGBTIQA+ community. Students organized social events during PRIDE celebrations, including a fashion show and parade. Students commented that most members of the community supported the events, or at least they were not vocal against the events happening. Students did not receive protestors or other opponents who aimed to shut down the events. The students also expressed their satisfaction with UM administration who supported the group’s effort to host the events.

One of the students identifies as a lesbian and considers themself a “tomboy” who dresses in traditionally masculine clothing. They shared the backlash they received from family members and childhood friends who believe they need to “try dating men” and dress “more appropriately.” Another student shared their experience of coming to terms with identifying as gay. They have recently come out to close friends but have not shared the news with family, who they fear will not accept them due to strong religious beliefs. All three students expressed their desire to move to Johannesburg after they graduate from UM. They all view Johannesburg as a more welcoming place for LGBTIQA+ people, both socially and professionally. They do not expect to live in Mbombela again, although their families have settled down in the region.

Beaulieu College (BC)

I conducted an informal interview with a teacher at Beaulieu College, a co-educational private boarding school in Midrand, Johannesburg, with English instruction. The total annual fee for a 12th grader is R 147,363, which equals USD 8,980.[25] Notably, this is near the “average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita” in South Africa, which is USD 9,338 a year according to OECD.[26] The teacher supports the Diversity and Inclusion Program at BC. They shared how the school has implemented progressive policies, including gender-neutral bathrooms and gender inclusion in sports. They also shared how three transgender students were supported during their transitions by teachers, staff, and the administration. The students were able to use the pronouns and names of their choosing and were allowed to dress in the uniform of their gender identity.


I visited the Ikamvayouth Center in Mamelodi, which provides after-school sessions and programs to grade school students, including academic tutoring and psycho-social support.[27] I had many informal conversations with students from grades 9 – 12 as I helped tutor them in algebra and life sciences. During this discussion, two Black male students shared their views on  LGBTIQA+  people. They mentioned that a few of their classmates identified as gay or lesbian and that they personally had “no problem” with it. They acknowledged that some of their peers were verbally bullied for identifying within the LGBTIQA+ community, but that a majority of their classmates had “no problem” with gay people. Again, the students shared a similar sentiment that being gay was “not my problem”, which could very well mean they accept this community. The students also shared that they were more focused on getting an education and having a successful career. 

Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action Trust (GALA)

I met with a representative of GALA, a nonprofit organization that works for the “production, preservation and dissemination of information about the history, culture and contemporary experiences of LGBTIQA+ people in South Africa.” [28] GALA operates a community library, facilitates educational workshops, and organizes queer art exhibitions. They shared their belief that greater awareness about the experiences of individuals would bring more acceptance in society.


South Africa has made great strides in developing policies and laws that aim to protect the most vulnerable, marginalized populations. However, implementation is a different story. The country has received fair criticism from domestic and international advocates and researchers for the inequities in policy implementation and enforcement. There is a great discrepancy between the policy’s intention and how it is actually implemented and carried out in society. The most privileged members of society– those who have access to private schools, urban settings, family support, and progressive healthcare facilities– tend to fare well in terms of gender and sexual identity, expression, safety, and economic prosperity. Urban settings seem to have more resources and acceptance toward gender and sexual minorities, while rural environments face more challenges in accepting LGBTIQA+ individuals.

Policymakers have made lofty promises over the years to increase support for the LGBTIQA+ community, but have a long way to come to ensure they uphold the ideals set forth in the Constitution. Still, South Africa has the benefit of having a tangible document, the Constitution, that clearly lays out the ideals of the nation. It is a physical reminder that sexual orientation is a protected class in society. Many countries throughout the world lack the same legal acceptance of LGBTIQA+, which sets South Africa apart as one of the most accepting countries around the world.

Education has become a strong tool used by advocates in the country to ensure acceptance and support for LGBTIQA+ individuals. Education can be used to dispel harmful stereotypes and viewpoints toward the LGBTIQA+ community. From my interactions, it seems that young people are willing to share their stories in hopes to live their most authentic lives, even when it counters the beliefs they grew up in. Visibility is crucial in order to change perceptions and create a more inclusive and equitable society in the future.

Work Cited






[6] Ibid 5.





[11] Ibid 7.






[17] Ibid 16.














Alison Hope Aikon, Professor of Sociology, University of the Pacific
Jeffrey Hole, Associate Professor of English, University of the Pacific
Joshua Salyers, Instructor of Game Development and Immersive Design, University of the Pacific

The power of narrative shapes our reality, providing form and meaning to our experiences and perceptions. This is true for individuals, for places, and for our collective sense of shared institutions. The once dominant narrative about higher education as a transformative and liberatory experience, for instance, has of late given way to stories that call into question the value of the college degree. The future of the institution, particularly for those in the humanities and liberal arts, seems one of contingency, uncertainty, and even precarity. 

What motivates our intervention here, however, is that these uncertainties may actually open up opportunities and possibilities—entirely new paradigms—for redesigning the educational experience for students. As we reimagine the liberal arts and humanities at our institution, both anticipating and actively preparing for an uncertain future, we have been motivated by a set of simple but fundamental questions: What must the practices and forms of teaching and learning look like in order to prepare our students for that future? How can we equip our students with adequate knowledge and skills, mindsets and dispositions in order for them to gain greater social mobility while also transforming their take on who they imagine themselves to be and what work they can do in the world once they graduate. What are the ways we will enable our students to recognize their capacities to continue learning and, therefore, fully participate in, engage with, and meaningfully contribute to the world? We drew upon these questions and challenges facing the liberal arts to design a new kind of class called The Think Tank. 

Recalling the best elements of the liberal arts, we knew that The Think Tank would have to be an immersive space for students to reflect upon their own learning and new conditions of possibility for learning, a space to take intellectual risks and recognize the value of processes as much as outcomes, a space that emphasizes context over content, and a space that transcends disciplinary boundaries. We wanted them to study history, theory, and critical thinking; strengthen their skills in project management, digital tools, and storytelling; and collaborate with outside audiences and community partners.  

So how did this work in practice? The course was co-taught by three instructors: Jeffrey Hole is a professor of English and leads our campus initiative to reimagine the liberal arts. Joshua Salyers is a digital historian with expertise in new media and project-based design, and Alison Hope Alkon is a professor of sociology who has long engaged in community-based research and has deep ties with the larger Stockton community. What we share, fundamentally, is a core belief in the relevance and power of an immersive liberal arts education and a willingness to experiment with course design in the hopes of crafting a transformative experience for our students, and perhaps our university as a whole. When we came together to think about where we could overlap topically, we realized we shared an interest in the ways that racialized neoliberalization affects urban spaces and how narratives about places can shape the lived experiences of those who inhabit them. We settled on the theme of Stockton as a Global City, using Saskia Sassen’s classic approach to ask how our diverse local community embodies, is left behind by, and challenges notions of the global city. We divided our 36 students into 6 groups, and each was assigned a community partner. We asked our students to work with these partners to produce a digital narrative that embodied the class themes and told the stories of their partners’ perspectives and plans.

This was a lot to fit in a single semester. On one day, we might be exploring a sociology text about how racial capitalism shapes gentrification, or a set of poems that convey the ordinary experiences of life in a rapidly industrializing global city. On another, we might be diving into the particular social issues relevant to our community partners, such as education, homelessness or environmental justice. Or we might be experimenting with project management software, or having a workshop on how to conduct an interview or analyze a visual image. Many days were termed “project days,” offering students class time to work in their groups on upcoming, scaffolded deadlines. Students learned to edit film, or layer sound, often for the first time. A few added stop-motion graphics or 3-D modeling to their group’s projects. Sometimes the students felt a bit dizzy from the pace. “This should be more than a 4-unit class,” was a common refrain. Students certainly struggled with the course material, with one another, with the availability and expectations of their community partners, and with the overall charge to adapt and address unscripted problems. And the stress mixed and mingled with mental health challenges more broadly.

But the students’ reflection papers evidence strong collective engagement with the various elements of our class from questions of what makes a compelling and effective story to how neoliberalization shapes local conditions, to project management and group dynamics. Students offered sophisticated takes on the connections between their storytelling work, the theoretical elements of the class, and the goals of their community partners. For example, one student articulated that “by creating a narrative that speaks to the needs of our community partner, we are, by nature, speaking to the forces of racial capitalism.” Similarly, another stressed how “it becomes easier to depict the stories of people when you have a better understanding of the global contexts that cause those stories to occur.”  The students also thought critically about how to engage with local community organizations to hold up their work, rather than perpetuate pity through an outsider’s gaze. For example, a third student shared that “this class is showing me how hard it is to tell someone else’s story but… I understand the unique position of power my group and I are in to help the youth of Stockton elevate their voices and be heard in order to stimulate real change in the city. These stories will help not only the residents of Stockton hear what the youth experience here is, but will help my group members and I leave the bubble of [our campus] and understand the real struggles and triumphs others have.” And finally, a new media major and aspiring filmmaker brought many of these themes together, writing that, “so much of my investment in Pacific lies in my trust that by working on projects not explicitly related to art creation, I will become a more well-rounded artist. To be an artist is a state of mind, and this class, with all of its social implications and high expectations, affirmed that notion.” These excerpts were a part of another essential element of the course–a constant practice of oral and written reflection, not only for instructor feedback, but because such metacognition can push students toward a deeper examination of their own evolving ways of seeing and being that we hope will allow the course to leave a lasting impact.

The course has transformed our own pedagogical approaches as well. Alison feels inspired by the focus on project-based learning and excited to navigate the tensions between open-endedness and clear expectations in her other courses. Josh is using the lessons learned from this course to explore ways to encourage students to take ownership of their learning through participatory course design. Moved by the students’ sense of creative and intellectual audacity, Jeffrey hopes this class will serve as a space for us to reflect on our own institutional practices and habits, allowing us to see how we can usher in new paradigms and incentivize innovation. And it has reaffirmed all of our dedication to the liberal arts, to transdisciplinarity, to collaboration, and to a freewheeling spirit of experimentation that we can draw on to address other challenges in our professional and personal lives, and collectively, in our society writ large.

We are hopeful that such a course can contribute to a reimagining of liberal arts learning at our institution. We envision a future where this was the first of many think tank classes at Pacific, where our colleagues can come together across disciplines to co-create other courses that combine critical thinking, skill articulation, community engagement and metacognition in innovative ways. These courses might eventually become a signature of our university, helping our students, their families, our institution and the community at large to forge a new understanding of what a liberal arts education is and is for.

Like any good course, this was a first iteration, and revisions are in the works for the upcoming school year. We are responding to students’ collective overwhelm by providing a narrower scope and clearer expectations. Renamed “The Stories of Stockton,” we’ll be replacing our focus on global social theory with an emphasis on using transdisciplinary approaches to study the layered histories of Stockton, as well as a more profound examination of the approaches, ethics, and techniques involved in storytelling itself. Students will participate in workshops led by award-winning filmmakers and Pacific alums to craft shorter films with more emphasis on narrative coherence and developing professional-level techniques. We have also recruited six “students as partners,” as Alison Cook-Sather calls them. These are students who really thrived in the first iteration of the course, and who will receive independent study credit to collaborate with us on these revisions and support the Fall 2023 cohort of students in embracing the discomfort inherent in addressing unscripted problems. They will also help us think more deeply about how this approach can contribute to ongoing conversations about the future of the liberal arts. We know that there is a deep and transformative value in a liberal arts education. We hope that this course can help us convince those, in our own institution and beyond, who have been led to believe otherwise.  

Think Tank 2022 presents videos produced by Pacific students and community partners for Think Tank: Stockton as a Global City, Fall 2022