In the corner of an office sits English professor Shane Underwood, the Critical Theory Club (CTC) adviser, hunched over his desk, trying to figure out how to connect his printer to his computer. While he was away on his sabbatical last year, a couple of things got rearranged – apparently his printer was one of them.

Underwood, however, doesn’t seem too bothered by it. Though returning to his office with a new printer may seem inconvenient, the rearrangement of the CTC board this semester is not. As a mentor to his students, Underwood makes sure that each new board gives an opportunity for members to engage in discourse and dialogue, a sacred facet of the CTC.

“The CTC is a place to break out of mechanical thinking ideas of success. There are no grades attached to it,” said Professor Underwood. “This is not a club made for people to put on transcripts. It’s a place to share ideas.”

If it seems like the CTC is laid back, that’s because it is. Created by a group of students 8 years ago, the idea was for students and professors to get together like a book club and discuss theory. Thus, providing a space for students to engage in discourse with others as well as asking questions and being challenged on their arguments. However, as simple as the idea was, in the first year, the club had some complications.

“We didn’t really have a structure,” said Professor Underwood. “The club sort of fell apart.”

This prompted Underwood and the CTC board to implement a structure where different forms of dialogical interactions could be made. These included inviting guest speakers to present their research, paper shreddings where students figuratively shred other students’ papers with constructive criticism, and the core of it all, reading critical theories.

In fact, it was during a guest speaker event where the current president of the CTC, Erika Nieblas realized this club was a place of belonging.

“I have never found a space like CTC in my life,” said Nieblas. “The experience in itself of just being here is different. It’s something worth taking a look at.”

Mandie Montes/ Courier
Critical Theory Club President, Erika Nieblas sits in the Creveling Lounge on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at Pasadena City College.

The CTC board maintains that students come first, and while some students may refrain from attending for fear of not being able to contribute to the discussions, it is encouraged to come into the club with a sense of wonder. There is no criteria for how much one should know or understand when attending the club, which is part of the thrill.

“Some weeks students can be masters other weeks they are novices in certain theories,” said Professor Underwood.

Discourse doesn’t solely belong in classroom settings, nor does it imply that certain levels of knowledge must be attained. It is simply an invitation to think beyond the institutionalized mechanisms of learning.

One of the tenants of CTC is that although discussions are guided by readings, it isn’t a prerequisite to attend a meeting. The CTC operates on an organic nature of interaction that is not regulated or framed by a syllabus or rules. This dichotomous distinction allows others to recognize each other as humans rather than cogs in the machine, which can foster a more intimate understanding of ideas and beliefs.

“The atmosphere is comforting,” said Amr Eissa, a first year student. “We all face each other and have a community discussion which feels more personal.”

Through CTC, communities of individuals elicit engaging discussions by putting in the work to enlighten one another and open a space for different perspectives to emerge. This is what keeps Eissa attending. With each meeting Eissa attends, he feels like he gains a better understanding of certain theories, picking up little nuggets of wisdom here and there while also broadening his horizon of thinking.

Perhaps the CTC may not follow the institutionalized structure of academic jargon, but it does follow a structure of engaging club members in events or discussions, which isn’t a bad thing. What sets the CTC apart is their willing to acknowledge that, although they’re a club in an institution, they aren’t tethered to any division on campus but belonging to the students. This independence allows the students involved to implement new structures that will continue to foster community engagement and critical thinking.

“The CTC doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to the English division. This really belongs to the board members and the members of the club,” said Professor Underwood. “I never tire of these discussions. I learn so much from these students as well. They’re amazing.”

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