Bring the sass: how I know if someone is ‘intelligent’

Last week Jane Elliott and Myka Tucker-Abramson organised a Trump teach-in at King’s College London. It was heartening to see students and staff fill a lecture theatre in solidarity and collective grief. It was terrifying to see the slides that Elliott had pulled together (attached below). And it was totally distressing to find out that King’s had barred certain words from the marketing for the event; words like anti-fascist and anti-racist…

My favourite moment was when a student from the Anti-Racist Society interrupted me to say that changing the face of the university to anti-Trump, anti-racist, anti-fascist (as I was trying to incite as a tangible action), won’t stage any form of meaningful affront on the deeply embedded structural forms of hatred he embodies. I really admire this student. She was so cool to step up and temper my words. It was sassy, and I respect that sass.

The sassy academic:

Maybe it was this student but at some point in the pub afterwards I used the phrase ‘sassy academic’. Me and my mates use this to describe an academic who is doing cool things with their position of privilege. Sassy academics are here doing this, and over there doing that. They are on one thing and onto the next. They are stopping in the corridor to speak with a student. They are late because that conversation is simply more important. Sassy academics are secure about being completely limited in what they know. Sassy academics step into the light and simultaneously step to one side, saying: ‘I don’t know that, why don’t we investigate it together?’

The sassy learner:

When I see a modest mode of understanding in a student, I think: ‘yeah, sassy learner here’. When someone calls me out, I delight, and think: ‘the sass!’ When I hear a modest response to a challenge, I think: ‘yes, this one, she’s got real sass’. And of course, sass doesn’t only happen in a classroom. I just look for a mode of being in the world alert to the conditions that afforded the very opportunity to practice that way of being. It’s sassy to be modest about where we are and how we got here, about what we are talking about and what we are overlooking. It’s sassy to sit and listen and wait your turn to speak. It takes sass to concentrate on a task, but know that there is so much beyond it, outside it, so much else that is worthy of our time.


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