For the fall 2023 semester, I was hired as an adjunct lecturer to teach Dance 540, the history/theory seminar for graduate students in the dance department at Smith College. On Wednesday November 1, 2023, I was summoned to meet with the Associate Provost and the Director of HR Consulting. They promptly fired me in a meeting that lasted five minutes. They let me know that I am now banned from the Smith campus and am not permitted to be in communication with Smith students. A letter sent to me after this meeting stated that my employment at Smith College has ended effective immediately “for not meeting an acceptable level of performance.” The Associate Provost did not use the word Palestine but described my teaching as “veering off course related topics in class and focusing on your personal life and political issues.” That evening, they suspended access to my Smith email account.
I want to contextualize this firing within a pedagogical sequence that unfolded over the course of the past month. In the wake of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, I shared with my class three texts that I found helpful and clarifying:
- An open letter from the Birzeit University Union of Professors and Employees titled “‘We are all Palestinians’ in the face of colonial fascism” (October 11, 2023).
- “Zionism, Antisemitism, and the People of Palestine” by Noel Ignatiev, which appears in his collection Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity.
- A poem by June Jordan titled “Intifada Incantation: Poem 38 for b.b.L.” (2002).
Within the syllabus that I had prepared over the summer, the theme for our class session on Monday, October 30th was “Space, Land, and Dispossession.” I had assigned Chapter 2 from Arabella Stanger’s fierce and incisive book Dancing on Violent Ground: Utopia as Dispossession in Euro-American Theater Dance (2021). In her chapter “Frontier to Skyscraper: Graham, Balanchine, and Land as Acquisition,” Stanger writes about the relationship of concert dance to settler colonial violence and displacement. In the morning on October 30, I received an email informing me that I was not permitted to teach my class later that day or communicate with my students. My class was not able to gather for a conversation about Stanger’s text. While I was fired for “veering off course related topics in class,” discussing settler colonialism and the violence of dispossession could not be more relevant to the material on the syllabus for the week.
Smith, like most colleges and universities, has policies in place to protect academic freedom. My firing is clearly in violation of these policies. I am less concerned with filing formal complaints than I am with sharing about this repression and inviting us all to reflect on our relationship to the situation in Palestine.
I am a student of Randy Martin (1957-2015), a NYU Professor who was and continues to be a teacher and formative influence for me. In addition to his work on dance, Randy was a sociologist who wrote about American imperialism and militarism. During his office hours (which were generously long and expansive), I remember him holding a simple ball-point pen that he picked up from his desk. I remember him saying to me—in this pen, you can see the whole world. I have slowly come to understand what he meant. Any particular object or text has relationships to the larger social world, and it is our job to map these connections.
My partner of the last eight years, J.J. Mull (a Smith-trained social worker), went on a delegation of mental health clinicians to Palestine in the spring. During his trip, he called me most evenings from Palestine. He told me stories of the people who he had met; what he had witnessed and taken in that day. He told me about meeting a Palestinian poet in the Aida refugee camp whose foremost ambition in life is to see the ocean, which is about thirty minutes away. Due to Israel’s checkpoints and spatial restrictions on Palestinians, this poet has never seen the sea. J.J. recounted to me visiting the Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital, one of the only inpatient facilities in the West Bank. He told me that this facility had the most beautiful gardens; that it is without many of the carceral elements that characterize in-patient facilities in the US. What does “mental health” mean in the context of settler colonial violence and apartheid? What does “trauma” mean when an entire people are traumatized with ongoing, brutal relentlessness? J.J. brought back paprika and za’atar from a spice market. He brought back coasters from Palestine, one of which rests on my desk in front of me.
I attended the massive mobilization for justice and liberation in Palestine on November 4th in Washington DC. Attending this and other demonstrations over the last several weeks has taught me much about the force and meaning of movement. While I have studied dance since I was a child, as I watched Muslims do their embodied prayers together at the demonstration, I finally started to understand the form. Dance is the thing that we do to keep each other alive. Dance is the shared practice of defending and renewing life.
As a white person who pays taxes to the U.S. government, I see how I am directly implicated in the genocidal violence being unleashed in Palestine. It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. May we all love and support one another.