How can we dismantle hierarchies between students and professors in higher education? What does critically engaged public scholarship look like? Why is fashion such a provocative and generative site for thinking about complex sociocultural issues?

In episode 58 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with cultural studies scholar and writer Sara Bernstein about why she started a digital magazine focused on fashion and politics, why public engagement and community projects are the future of education, and how becoming a public scholar is allowing Sara to imagine otherwise.

Guest: Sara Bernstein

Sara is the editor and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change. She started Dismantle with fellow wayward academics Elise M. Chatelain and Meredith Wallis to explore different ways of doing cultural studies—ways that would reach beyond the university to wider, intersectional communities, and that would help dismantle the barriers many learners face when navigating classrooms and new ideas. As that project continues to grow, she’s also become executive director of its nonprofit offshoot Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance, LLC.

Sara is a writer and educator who specializes in critical fashion studies, representation, and cultural studies. Her work has appeared in Racked, Full Stop, Inside Higher Ed, Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, and Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, as well as several edited collections of scholarly essays. With Dismantle co-founder, Elise Chatelain, she’s also published articles on feminist pedagogy and paranormal teens in TV and film. She teaches at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and got her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis.

We chatted about

  • Dismantle magazine (02:06)
  • Rethinking public education (05:16)
  • Being a public intellectual (08:12)
  • Critical fashion studies (11:56)
  • Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance (13:40)
  • Imagining otherwise (16:04)

Bokeh background with text that reads "Doing a PhD does a real number on your self-esteem. So doing public intellectual work means not necessarily getting over all your insecurities but living with them and doing the work anyway. We need to realize that the work we do is valuable and a lot of people care about it. Go out there, do it, and value it. Sara Bernstein on the IMagine Otherwise podcast, episode 58"

Takeaways

Dismantle Magazine

Dismantle Magazine covers fashion, popular culture, and social change…We just had our one year anniversary just a couple weeks ago. It is weird to create something from absolutely nothing, and we have no time and very little money. We wanted a way to do cultural studies outside the institution of the university.

Making public education accessible

Our name Dismantle is about wanting to dismantle barriers and dismantle hierarchies, and one of those barriers is understanding how education works. So things like online office hours and developing relationships outside the classroom with students help dismantle hierarchies and barriers to the university experience as well as to what the job of a professor is and how professors relate to students. With online office hours, one of the things Elise and I both thought about is that office hours are incredibly important to your education as a college student. Both of us come from kind of modest backgrounds without the cultural capital you really need to navigate that system. Neither of us ever went to office hours, we understand totally why none of our students come to office hours except for the ones who already kind of know how to work it. We thought with online office hours, we could do is meet students where they already are—which is online…We haven’t gotten rid of hierarchies altogether, but I think we can change what they mean and offer more mentoring and collaborative opportunities than the classroom allows.

Becoming a public intellectual

The biggest thing that I’ve learned as I’ve been trying to move into a different role with my scholarship is that doing a PhD does a real number on your self-esteem. Part of the process is making you feel small. So doing public intellectual work means not necessarily getting over the insecurities that came up during your PhD program (people telling you that your work wasn’t good enough, that you’re too weird and you’d never get a job, you’re too interdisciplinary or whatever). But it does mean living with those insecurities and doing the work anyway. We need to realize that the work we do is valuable and a lot of people care about it. Just go out there, do it, and value it.

Critical fashion studies

Fashion is a site that brings together everything that I care about. It’s history and aesthetics, it’s the body and identity, and all kinds of intersectional issues. It’s how we decide we want to move through the world and how we want to fit in the world. It’s also how the world shapes us. It’s labor, it’s the environment, it’s everything that shapes the way that we are right now. That’s what’s exciting about it.

Imagining otherwise

I want to dismantle hierarchies and dismantle the boundaries that artificially separate us. I think if we were all a lot more collaborative and better listeners that we could be doing some pretty incredible stuff. That’s what I’m working towards.

More from Sara

Projects, concepts, and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 58, and my guest today is Sara Bernstein. Sara is the editor and cofounder of Dismantle magazine, which focuses on fashion, popular culture, and social change. She started Dismantle with fellow wayward academics Elise Chatelain and Meredith Wallace to explore different ways of doing cultural studies—ways that would reach beyond the university to wider intersectional communities and that would help dismantle the barriers that many learners face when navigating classrooms and new ideas. As that project continues to grow, she’s also become the executive director of its nonprofit offshoot Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance.

Sara is a writer and educator who specializes in critical fashion studies, representation, and cultural studies. Her work has appeared in Racked, FullStop, Inside Higher Ed, the Fashion, Style, and Popular Culture Journal and Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, as well as several edited collections of scholarly essays with Dismantled co-founder Elise Chatelain.

She’s also published articles on feminist pedagogy and paranormal teens in TV and film. She teaches at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and just like me, got her PhD in cultural studies at the University of California, Davis.

In our interview, Sara shares why she started a digital magazine focused on fashion and politics, why public engagement and community projects are the future of education, and how becoming a public scholar is allowing Sara to imagine otherwise.

[To Sara] Well, thank you so much for being with us today.

Sara Bernstein [01:55]: I’m delighted to be here.

Cathy [01:57]: So along with your two partners in crime, in scholarship, in critical inquiry. Elise Chatelain and Meredith Wallace, you founded Dismantle magazine. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about what that magazine covers

Sara [02:13]: Dismantle magazine—our subtitle is “fashion, popular culture, and social change” and what we’re trying to do is think about issues around fashion and popular culture as ways to understand things like power issues in the world.

Cathy [02:33]: I want to come back to this question of education in a minute, but first I want to stick with what an amazing accomplishment it is to start a magazine from scratch because this isn’t super old and I’m curious how you came about that process and maybe what your favorite part of it has been.

Sara [02:49]: Yeah, so right. We just had our one-year anniversary just like a couple of weeks ago. It is weird to create something from absolutely nothing and we have no time and very little money and we just really wanted to think of a way that we could continue doing cultural studies outside of the institution of the university. So we spent a lot of time thinking about what matters to us. We knew that the institution of the university was less and less feeding us—literally and intellectually. So we were trying to think of think about what mattered to us about cultural studies and we loved working with students. We loved that mentoring, guiding process of helping students find their critical voice and perspective. And we loved writing and the collaboration part. That’s kind of how we developed the idea of the magazine. The collaboration really has my been my favorite part of setting it up—finding a project that really couldn’t happen just with one person.

Cathy [04:01]: Is there anything about it that’s been particularly surprising or that shocked you that weren’t prepared for?

Sara [04:06]: It’s hard. I don’t know if I was shocked by that actually, it was probably to be expected. It’s a constant series of little surprises I think as we go along and try and keep it running. The biggest surprise for me has been how much enthusiasm people have had for it. It seemed like a kind of a weird little gamble, but there’s been a lot of interest and a lot of people want to collaborate with us, which is really exciting. Yeah, I think that’s the most surprising thing. We’re oddballs in the academy, so finding a place where people want to be oddballs with us is pretty exciting.

Cathy [04:47]: So I want to go back to a point you made earlier about education because at its core, Dismantle has a kind of core value of education and a big focus on education from working with students, as you mentioned, as authors mentoring them, but also your online office hours video series. And I’m curious why the focus on education. Was that just because you were all coming from various places in the academy or is there something unique about the digital magazine format that you felt lent itself to this kind of creative or more expansive understanding of education?

Sara [05:19]: It’s sort of at the heart of what we wanted to do all along—to use the tools that we had available to us to create a more accessible format, which I think it is. Education is a big part of it, but it’s also thinking in terms of collaboration with students and with other scholars is really important.

So we’re called Dismantle magazine but I actually think of it more in terms of trying to dismantle barriers and dismantle hierarchies and one those barriers is understanding how education works. So that’s things like online office hours and developing relationships outside the classroom with students is to me partly about dismantling hierarchies and barriers to the university experience, including what the job of a professor is and how they relate to students.

[6:30] Like with online office hours—one of the things that Elise and I both thought about a lot is that office hours are incredibly important to your education as a college student. Both of us come from pretty modest backgrounds with not a ton of that kind of cultural capital. You need to navigate that system and neither of us ever went to office hours. We understand totally why none of our students come to office hours except for the ones who already kind of know how to work it. So we thought with online office hours, one of the things we could do is kind of meet students where they are, which is online. Not only kind of be there in a place where they already exist a lot of the time, but also use that to kind of reveal what it is that we do, like what actually happens in office hours if it’s something that’s mysterious to you. I think it’s really interesting that a lot of the questions we’ve gotten have been not necessarily about what it’s like to be a student, but what it means to be a professor, which I think is really fascinating. Students have no idea. We haven’t gotten rid of hierarchies, but we can kind of change what that relationship means. I think it offers more mentoring and collaboration opportunities then I think the classroom allows

Cathy [07:32]: You three are really good examples of public intellectuals—people who’ve put their scholarly training, and your case in cultural studies, to work beyond the academy, outside of the classroom, having relationships with universities but not being circumscribed by universities. And I mean I think your publications are really fantastic example of how you can build brand new audiences and you can get people to have conversations and debates that just aren’t possible in a more exclusive kind of space. I’d be curious to know what advice you might have for other scholars who want to up their public engagement game, but kind of don’t know where to start.

Sara [08:11]: Yeah, advice. I feel like I’m making it all up as I go along! So let’s see what I can think of. That’s not totally true. I’ve learned a lot, especially in the last year or two, but I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned as I’ve been trying to move into a different role with my scholarship is that doing a PhD, as perhaps you know, as does everybody that I’ve talked to that has a phd knows, does a real number on your self esteem. It seems like part of the process is making you feel small, but there’s a lot of arrogance involved. But I think people have a misconception about how people come out of PhD programs.

[09:11] It’s not necessarily about getting over the insecurities that came up during your PhD program—people telling you that your work wasn’t good enough or that you’re too weird and you’ll never get a job and you’re too interdisciplinary or whatever—but it’s about just like live with those insecurities and do the work anyway. And realize that the work we do is valuable and that actually a lot of people care about it and to just go out there and do it and value it.

One of the things that higher education also does is tell you that you shouldn’t get paid for your work and that’s not true. A lot of people really are willing to pay you for your work if you just go out there and pitch it. One of the hurdles I really had to overcome was feeling like my writing was not good enough or inaccessible and also just feeling a real physical repulsion at the idea of self-promotion and getting over that and just being like whatever and accepting that maybe no one will ever listen.

[10:03] Learning how to pitch stories and learning how to actually write for a public audience has been, for me. the most satisfying part of the last year. I’ve written several articles for Racked and unlike a scholarly publication, where it’s kind of exciting and it goes on your CV but then you never hear about it again, the articles that I’ve written for Racked and Inside Higher Ed and I have another one coming out in FullStop pretty soon—tomorrow actually—these become conversations, which is really exciting. And I know everyone says don’t read the comments, but so far I’ve just had wonderful conversations about it. And they pay you, which is a whole different feeling that your work actually has value—both monetary value and social value.

So I think knowing that you’re going to do it, it’s scary, but if anything, higher education has gotten you very used to rejection. So you’re used to it. You’ve read student evaluations. Nothing can be worse than that. So learn how to pitch and start doing it. Put your writing out in the world. People want it.

Cathy [11:11]: So several of the previous guests that we’ve had on the podcast have also been interested in fashion as a kind of key site for social change, for critique, for pleasure, often all mixed up together. I’m thinking, for example, of Minh-Ha T. Pham and Mimi Nguyen, who have both been on the show and they created their really fantastic feminist style blog Threadbared that I think a lot of us cut our teeth on in teaching. I know that was the first blog that I taught to students. We’ve had Francisco Galarte on, who’s the fashion studies editor for GLQ. We’ve had Katie Manthey, who made Dress Profesh. And I’m curious for you in particular, what draws you to fashion? Why is this such an interesting site for you?

Sara [11:52]: Yeah, I love all of those people that you just named. They do such incredible work and if you think about the different ways that they all approach the topic, that that’s part of what’s so exciting about fashion. For me, it’s a site that brings together in one thing, everything that I care about. So it’s history and aesthetics. It’s the body, it’s identity and all kinds of intersectional issues with that. It’s how we decide how we’re going to move through the world and how we want to fit into the world. It’s also how the world shapes us. It’s labor, it’s the environment, it’s everything that shapes the way that we are right now. It’s kind of embodied in that one subject of fashion. And that’s to me what’s so exciting about it.

The other thing I’d say is that, like you talked about teaching Threadbared, it’s something that is so great for teaching if you’re interested in trying to explain complicated critical theory or social theory or why history matters right now or how we’re regulated by discourses beyond our control, but also have agency within that.

[13:13] All of these things that are really theoretical and can be hard to grasp for students—if you put them in the context of fashion, it’s so much easier to understand and it becomes more of a really lively conversation. So that’s part of what I love about it.

Cathy [13:20]: As for Dismantle, what do you have coming up? What are you guys working on?

Sara: Oh, gosh. Big stuff. It’s very slow going because we’re three contingent academic workers with very little money and even less time, but we’re still kind of pushing on. For Dismantle, we have actually become an LLC. Dismantle magazine is part of Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance, which is a fiscally-sponsored project through Fractured Atlas now, which means that we basically can operate similar to a 501(c)3: we can apply for grants, we can do fundraising for tax deductible donations, things like that.

[14:17] And so what we are trying to do is figure out our strategy for moving from this kind of haphazard little magazine, online magazine, and you know, a couple of other little projects to an actual viable, sustainable organization. At the moment we kind of have three silos that we’re working in. We have the magazine and some ways that we definitely want to develop that. We also have this kind of area that we’re calling public professors projects that are like online office hours that are kind of about doing the work that is often associated with this little institution called college, but doing it in a much more kind of public, open, accessible way. And then we also want to do some youth outreach kind of programming and we’re working with a professor at PSU [Portland State University] named Stephanie Skourtes, who has a PhD in youth studies, and she’s kind of heading up that area. So we’re branching out in different ways. We’re planning an exhibition for the fall that will probably be related to youth culture and space and gentrification. We’re cosponsoring a speaking panel in April and that’s on a similar theme, so we have some things coming up like that.

Cathy [15:33]:So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which gets at the heart of the kind of work that you’re doing, which is that version of a better world that you’re working towards when you do online office hours, when you put out a new article on the magazine, when you work with students to get them involved in these kinds of public education projects. What is that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Sara [15:57]: It really goes back to this idea of dismantling hierarchies and dismantling the boundaries that artificially separate us. I think that if we were all a lot more collaborative and better listeners that we could be doing some pretty incredible stuff. That’s what I’m working towards.

Cathy [16:18]: Well, thank you so much for being with us, sharing about Dismantle and how you imagine otherwise.

Sara [16:23]: Thank you for doing this amazing podcast!

Cathy [16:30] [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts,and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]