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University of Pennsylvania Students Replace Shakes...

University of Pennsylvania Students Replace Shakespeare Portrait After Department Inaction

A group of University of Pennsylvania students replaced a portrait of William Shakespeare in the school’s Fisher-Bennet Hall with a picture of Audre Lorde. They acted independently, but this wasn’t as simple as a protest: English faculty had voted to switch out Shakespeare’s portrait years ago, but, until this month, no change had come.

Shakespeare (Morgan Rees)

Portrait of William Shakespeare [Formerly] in University of Pennsylvania’s English Department (photo by. Morgan Rees)

The Lorde photo is a bit DIY, but it sends the clear message that students want the department to be more inclusive, and that they’re not willing to wait indefinitely. And until the department comes to a decision about what to do with the wall space, Lorde’s picture will stay put.

Student and faculty pushes for change are admirable and necessary, but, as this situation illustrates, schools can agree to progress without actually making any. This complicates the role of campus protest, involving it in bureaucracy, but that involvement is needed when victories can be deferred. This isn’t to say the department was intentionally hamstringing the portrait replacement efforts, but even disinterest can be an obstruction. Direct student action, then, becomes a viable way to make change a reality.

Other campus protests will have to contend with these sorts of questions, even as they succeed. For instance,  a movement at Georgetown to get the school to break its partnership with Nike over labor issues has won concessions from the university, but it will remain a symbolic victory until specific action is taken.

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In a perfect world, I’d be a professor who teaches poetry using episodes of mediocre sci-fi procedurals, but for now, I’m just a tutor who watches a lot of TV. I got my BA from Kalamazoo College in English with a focus on creative writing, and someday soon I’d like to go back to academia.

Most of my formal teaching training was as a creative writing TA, but I’ve used those skills professionally more to tutor math and write data entry training materials. And though I’d like to focus my work on what I’m really passionate about (which is Netflix binges and outdated video games, mostly), it’s the craft of teaching and writing that keeps me coming back. That’s why I’m excited to be a part of High Faluter: I’m finding that academia doesn’t just stay in academia. And if I can bring crappy midbrow entertainment into academia too, well, all the better. You can find me on Twitter: @StewartFinnegan


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