Fred Moten’s Anassignment Letters

Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer for Harvard Magazine (Jan-Feb 2018)

When New York University Professor Fred Moten, a renowned literary theorist and poet, came to speak at Kansas State last month as part of the 27th Annual Cultural Studies Symposium, he stressed that he wasn’t going to give a typical lecture. Instead, he called his talk “The Anassignment Letters,” which stems from his ongoing dialogue with his students.

Moten’s actual anassignment letters were written as a response to students asking how they could pass his class. From this experience, Moten realized that his students were not engaging in critical thought but instead were concerned with receiving an A or passing. As a result, the letters addressed the multifaceted yet complicated relationship between academia, teacher, student, and the quest for intellectual empowerment that is inextricably bound to freedom. In these letters, which he sent to his students in the form of an email, Moten’s zest for knowledge and commitment to the idea of intellectual independence were apparent. Moten suggests that freedom is a fugitive act. Often, he said, freedom is articulated as a disappointment because it is not seen as an ongoing process. Because of the complexities of the institution that is education, freedom is never free and comes with the struggle of “creating space for the responsibility of freedom.” His anassignment letters engage students in such ideas.

For recent college graduates and new graduate teaching assistants, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day task of grading essays and turning in your own work. Moten’s visit reminded us of how radical teaching and learning can be and encouraged us to continue to push boundaries and challenge hegemonic forms of  intellectual practice in and outside of the classroom.

— Chelsea Osadame (MA ’19) and Karla Larranga (MA ’19)

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