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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Selby Schwartz

[Note: The phrase "Hope in the Dark" in the photo deliberately echoes the title of Rebecca Solnit's book]

By Emily Polk

Selby Schwartz returns to a new year in PWR with a slew of exciting projects that speak to her fierce and long-time commitment to groundbreaking scholarship, advocacy work, and to creating space to center marginalized voices at Stanford and beyond.

Last year Selby helped to start a chapter of Prison Renaissance, which is supported by a PWR Research Award and by the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking at Stanford. Since the chapter’s inception, an interdisciplinary group has brought together more than 30 Stanford undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty who collaborate with people who are incarcerated. Last year, under the direction of undergraduates Michelle Change and Netta Wang, they published a widely-read zine that was made collaboratively by incarcerated artists and free artists at Stanford.

This summer brought amazing news for the group. After 20 years of incarceration, Emile DeWeaver—who cofounded the California-based organization as a way to use arts, media, and technology to connect incarcerated people to the communities that need them, and who co-directs Prison Renaissance at Stanford with Selby—was approved by the Board of Parole for release.

“The idea that Emile is going to be in the free world is tremendous—not just for me personally, but because it’s vital to have the people who have experienced incarceration speak for themselves,” Selby says. “And it’s vital for those of us who haven’t to listen to them. We’re all in this struggle for justice together; we all need each other in order to understand where we are, and then to move forward in solidarity.”

Celebrating the news of Emile’s release does not erase the particular challenges that people immersed in justice work face at Stanford.

“One of the challenges is witnessing how entrenched institutional bias is here, and how toxic it is for so many of the students and colleagues I most want to support,” Selby says. “In the few years I’ve been here, I’ve seen the persistence of rape culture, overt and covert racism, Islamophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogyny, classism, labor injustice, xenophobia—and although it’s beautiful to see people in our community rise up against those forces, it’s disheartening when the institution as a whole continues to harbor them.”

Selby has co-written with her colleagues letters of support for the undocumented community and “against the institution’s open invitation to white supremacists to use Stanford as a podium,” she says. She stands in solidarity with young women like Sinéad Talley who just this month spoke out against the way Stanford continues to support the perpetrators of sexual violence rather than the survivors. 

Part of Selby’s work has been to interrupt injustice by encouraging awareness of the many forms it can take.

“I would try to be aware of how often uncompensated or unrecognized labor is distributed unevenly in the university,” she says. “Who talks in meetings, and who is heard? Who gets credit for their ideas? Who is asked to give invisible (or invisibilized) time and effort? Who is favored by decision-making structures, and who is deprived of a voice in decisions that profoundly affect them?”

Her own scholarship, which is centered at the intersections of fields like dance studies, queer studies, gender studies, and performance studies, has long been informed by the politics of embodiment, including “how bodies theorize themselves, how bodies are read when we move around in the world, what are the possibilities and risks for different kinds of bodies,” according to Selby.

“Is it possible not to be interested in what we can do—expressively and politically—with the bodies we have?” she asks.

Such a question undergirds her groundbreaking new book, The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and their Afterlives from University of Michigan Press, which will be published in the spring in a series called “Triangulations” that focuses on queer performance. This work is largely inspired by the people whose thinking shaped hers including Judith Butler, Anne Carson, José Muñoz, Reina Gossett, the late Diane Torr, André Lepecki, and most notably our colleague Maxe Crandall in FEMGEN, with whom Selby collaborates often on writing projects and teaching ideas.

Selby notes that her scholarship informs her teaching in many ways, particularly in the way she practices the idea of ethos in her classroom. According to Selby, this kind of ethos has less to do with authority and more to do with where you speak from and why we listen to you. “In other words, it’s not because someone has a PhD or is the president of something that grants them ethos: everyone has a place to speak from, and people who speak from life experience or from creative places are in no way less credible,” she says. Practicing this kind of ethos facilitates a deeper engagement with course themes that are focused on what is happening now.

“I think we need spaces to think through these tumultuous times together,” she says. “In my class on public art, for example, we talk about monuments and public memory, about graffiti and self-expression, about whether the internet can be a museum. Hopefully Emile DeWeaver and some of the Prison Renaissance zine artists will come speak to the classes about collaborating across the divisions of what ‘public’ space is, who is allowed to be an artist, and the challenges of artivism.”

As Selby looks to the new year, she is excited about several upcoming projects. The choreographer Hope Mohr is making a new piece inspired by Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, and Maxe Crandall is collaborating on it; the piece will premiere in early October at ODC in San Francisco.

She is also serving as a faculty mentor for Michelle Chang’s project on Mobile Death Cafés, supported by a Beagle II grant. Chang just facilitated the first-ever Death Café, a place where people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death, in the state of North Dakota.

“She’s traveling through the US this summer connecting with local communities to de-medicalize and re-humanize the ways we talk about mortality together,” Selby says.

These projects help to reinvigorate and reimagine a more humane world, a world that reflects the motto of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, from which Selby draws much inspiration: “Liberation is a collective process.”

“I try to imagine what it would be like if we were ‘an anti-racist feminist collective,’” Selby says. “And then if I can do one thing in that spirit, even one tiny imperfect thing, I think it helps.”

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