Image credit: Gran Fury Collective, 1988, Courtesy New York Public Library
Everyone involved in education has found the past year to be a special challenge for teaching, learning, and simply making it from one day to another. But how do you teach students about a pandemic during a pandemic?
In December 2020, queer historian Dan Royles interviewed Theodore (Ted) Kerr and his students—Mairéad Reo, Kalie Nattinger, Sarah Kendric and David Moore—to find out how they tackled this problem. An artist, activist, instructor at, and graduate of, The New School, in Fall 2020, Kerr taught an online course on the history and memory of HIV/AIDS in the United States that ended in students creating a collaborative exhibition. Over the course of the semester, students read, watched, and responded to a wide range of texts that document the course of the AIDS pandemic, from media scholar Cindy Patton’s early writing about AIDS journalism, to the ACT UP documentary United in Anger, to activist oral histories from the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Students also had the chance to learn from Kerr’s wealth of experience in thinking, writing, and speaking about how to memorialize the AIDS pandemic. The former programs manager at Visual AIDS, Kerr was also a founding member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do? Collective, which recently curated METANOIA: Transformations through AIDS Archives and Activism for the ONE Archives and NYC LGBT Center. Toward the end of the semester, the class co-created their own virtual memorial. Titled “I Want A,” is a collaborative poem project that reinterprets Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem “I want a president.”
Including the students in this conversation not only gives us insight into their perspective on their work, it also captures the non-hierarchical spirit of Kerr’s teaching, which mirrors the practices developed in AIDS activist organizations like ACT UP. In this interview, Kerr and his students talk about what they learned, the challenges of teaching and learning during Covid-19, and how they showed up for one another week after week, and worked together on “I Want A.”
In the midst of a chaotic and unprecedented semester, Kerr and his students created more than an exhibit: they imagined a community of care that could transcend the limits of remote teaching and the pandemic itself.
Dan Royles: What was the course about and what it was like?
Kalie Nattinger: We covered so much, and learned how to use [primary sources] ourselves, not just reading the newspaper, but looking through ’zines, and looking at more personal accounts from people.
David Moore: I really enjoyed watching the documentary End Game. Looking at the early effects of the [AIDS pandemic] made me truly realize how disenfranchised people of color were at the onset of the pandemic. It was refreshing to compare the progress made in terms of outreach and treatment within the Black community, but disheartening to realize that some of the same issues that Black men faced with AIDS-related homophobia still linger in the community today.
Mairéad Reo: For me, the biggest part was reading different people’s stories and just learning about HIV and AIDS in general. I had very little understanding or knowledge about [the AIDS pandemic] and how it’s still affecting so many people today. I think the most impactful thing was class discussion around what we read, the ’zines that we read, the stories, the things people described, the pictures that we looked at—we looked at a lot of memorials and memorialization. It was awesome.
Dan Royles: Did you have any particular expectations coming into this class?
David Moore: I wanted to learn more about communities’ responses to [pandemics], and the dynamic between community support, and government action and accountability. What surprised me the most was learning how much the government focused on delegitimizing people living with HIV/AIDS, and [stigmatizing] the disease itself. Groups that were already marginalized in society received an even harsher punishment from ignorant and bigoted institutions. I also had not understood how much [responses to] the virus were privatized as opposed to being based in community outreach and community-based solutions.
Kalie Nattinger: I don’t think I necessarily had expectations, because I think Ted teaches in a really unique way. I was like, I don’t know what this is going to be. I felt like he’s going to come at this from a million different angles, and that’s kind of what happened. I was excited to not know what was coming. I did know that [the course] was not going to be a medicalized version of HIV/AIDS.
Ted Kerr: This semester, more than anything, for a class to be a place that didn’t cause more pain is [a success]. My expectations this semester were: I hope people show up. And they more than showed up. The main thesis of the class was, if we’re looking at the question of how you memorialize something while it’s ongoing, then knowing about activism is the best memorial.
Mairéad Reo: There’s not just one way to memorialize something. A memorial can be created and do what it does in different ways and different formats and mediums—not just necessarily a statue or whatever.
Dan Royles: What was the thing that surprised you the most about the course?
Mairéad Reo: The criminalization of HIV was something that I had never really learned about. The world is so awful that it doesn’t seem like a very surprising thing, but sex workers who were arrested, if they were HIV positive, got a higher sentence. That’s the thing that surprised me the most—but also disgusted me the most.
Kalie Nattinger: I was surprised to find out that our government programs are still insisting on not meeting people where they are. I’m thinking about the needle exchange programs and how those are not government programs, they’re private citizens who say: “These are the facts, this is what works, this is what keeps people safe.” And then not providing condoms in prisons—things that we know factually make sense and medically make sense, but we’re still refusing to meet people where they are. We talked about this recently [when we talked about] sex education. In so many states you don’t even have to give medically accurate information to students. It is still shocking to hear this over and over again: and it’s affecting all of us.
Ted Kerr: This is the third year that I’ve taught [this class], and in the first two years there was a desire by the students that it be an LGBTQ history class. I had to un-teach some of that overdetermination around HIV and LGBTQ issues without denying the huge impact that HIV has had on LGBTQ communities and the huge impact that LGBTQ communities have had on HIV.
This semester was interesting. I feel like everyone brought an intersectional lens [to the material], along with their personal relationship to sexuality, gender, race, class, as well as their own experiences related to freedom and poverty.
Mairéad Reo: This class became a very safe and loving environment. I think a lot of that had to do with Ted being very accommodating and understanding, and meeting people where they are. I think that contributed to people doing a lot of great work and showing up the way that they did. I can see a difference in my work, my energy levels and my interest in the class.
Kalie Nattinger: This is something that I like about The New School. I find that there are fewer “right” answers, at least in the classes that I’m taking. This class was less structured around “Read something and find an answer,” and more around: “Read something and say what you get from this.” I remember several times [when] someone would say something, and I was like, “That’s not what I got from this piece at all!” And then the conversation that ensues blows your mind. I think that giving people that space, says: Bring as much as you can to class, gives people the space to bring themselves to class.
Dan Royles: I have some questions about the “I Want A…” project, which was based on the poem “I want a president” by Zoe Leonard. What was on your mind when you were doing that assignment? How were you thinking about the original [poem] in today’s context, and what did you learn from doing the work?
David Moore: I think the poem really speaks truth to power. So many things that Leonard described in the poem reflect what we’re dealing with today.
Kalie Nattinger: While the [poem] is so important, I think the process is just as important, if not more important. Learning how to work in this way, and to trust that you’ll be heard and you can also hear others, is special; also, that you can make a project with fifteen other people and that it’ll be something that you agree with and believe in. Sometimes with group collaborations you’re like: “Oh my god, I’m doing six jobs that I do not know how to do.” [But in this class] everyone brought something to the table that they felt they were good at, and interested in.
Mairéad Reo: It’s funny thinking about how [the process] started. At first, we read [Leonard’s poem] and went into breakout rooms and were asked to think about what we want. One of the people in my group was like, I don’t really want a president. So we just kind of built on that, and then bringing it all together was even better. Hearing what each group came up with—the lines about wanting your butch lesbian neighbor to teach you how to make ravioli or whatever—I love that. To me it also didn’t seem like we were trying too hard; it came very naturally. I kind of tagged on to the design team with Sarah, and we went back and forth and played around with different formats and color schemes.
Dan Royles: Could you talk about some of the design choices that you made? I thought the design was really interesting. The piece looks like it’s printed on folded paper. It has a materiality to it, even though this semester we were doing things digitally that would normally happen in person.
Sarah Kendric: We selected an accessible font and worked with the rest of the class to create a high-contrast color palette that was soothing, and decidedly un-patriotic, to reflect the atmosphere of our class community. We designed the poster version to print at a standard size, making it easy for the reader to integrate the poem into their surroundings. For the social media version, we decided to add a crumpled paper texture to reference the design of Leonard’s original work.
Ted Kerr: I was amazed at how people were able to work together with new friends online. [The poem] was like a sacred object because it wasn’t just theirs. Everybody had made it. So I felt this sense of communal responsibility, like we’re carrying this thing that we all made.
At the beginning of every semester, I remind people that the teacher is not the smartest person in the room, just the person who’s steering the ship, and this was one of the times that felt 100 percent true. I wanted to talk about “I want a president” because it’s had such an impact on me in its multiple iterations. And I have to say that when you all came back from the breakout rooms and shared what you’d created, I think we were all kind of gob smacked. People came up with such heartwarming, ingenious things. And I think it’s what Mairéad said—nobody was trying too hard.
The other thing that motivated a lot of our thinking was the distribution team, who were thinking about: How are we going to share this with the world? And I think the conversation started in real life, and not in a digital environment. I think Mickey thought about stores where they wanted to see the ’zine represented.
Dan Royles: I appreciate everything we’ve talked about in terms of what made the class feel welcoming and warm and intimate. Given that Ted has worked on the project What would an HIV doula do? and that you all read some of those ’zines, I want to ask: What would a higher education doula do?
Kalie Nattinger: Sometimes group projects are such a nightmare. I think that this was so smooth because, while Ted wasn’t telling us what to do, he was helping us to figure out who was in charge of what was going on. When you’re working on a project, someone does have to be in charge, and it usually ends up being the one student who is like, “I’m going to get it all done.”
That doesn’t feel like a collaborative process, and it usually isn’t very good because it’s one person [doing all the work] and being pissed about it. To me that feels like you [Ted] were being a higher education doula in that way, being like, “I’m going to assist you without making all of the decisions for you.” You can’t birth the thing itself, you have to hold everyone’s hand while we’re birthing these ideas.
Mairéad Reo: With group projects, [too often] you each go home and you work on your slide, but you’re not really talking to one another. I think a really great aspect of this was Ted’s willingness to step back, and then also chime in when [it was] needed and appropriate. Yes, he’s the captain of the ship, but we’re all still on the ship.
Kalie Nattinger: There was this very difficult moment when three of us were working on the document, and we kept putting things like, “I don’t know about this line, what do you two think?” We were all being so careful, and we got to this point where I was like: “We’re never going to get this done because we’re all afraid to delete something.” Eventually I reached out to Ted and he said “Be less careful. It’s okay to start making a few decisions, knowing that later down the road, someone else will make a few decisions for you too.” That was really helpful.
Ted Kerr: And that was only possible because you all had deputized each other in that group care. I’ve been in classrooms where people are vying attention or for rightness, and that wasn’t happening this semester.
Mairéad Reo: It was one of the best classes that I’ve taken so far. I got very emotional after our last class—I went outside and smoked a cigarette and cried. And I was like, “Why am I crying?” I saw these people twice a week for a few months, albeit on Zoom, and now it’s over. But I think I was very emotional because of how supportive and loving this environment was.
Kalie Nattinger: Half of this last project was very social media based, and I don’t have social media. So in a way it was sort of a bummer because I was just thinking, “Why can’t we get together and go put posters up?” We’re allowed to be outside, we’re allowed to go on a walk. Socializing doesn’t just have to be on social media right now, or just on Zoom. In New York I love looking at corners and seeing a poster and being like, “What is that? I wonder who put that up, I wonder what the story is.” And maybe that can be a more in-person experience.
We don’t know when daily life will return to something that looks like “normal.” In “I Want A,” Ted Kerr’s students suggest that maybe memorials shouldn’t long for the ways things were: instead we could make the world anew. “I don’t want a president,” Kerr’s students concluded. “I want a community.”
What happens next of course remains to be seen, but in the meantime Kerr and his students point us to the ways that we can create communities that care for another, even when the world is falling down around us.
Daniel Royles is assistant professor of history at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, Florida International University.