"Let me just talk frankly. I hate the millennial stereotype. Uh, I hate when adults talk about kids these days, as if, you know, they don't care about things, as if they're not up for a challenge. Listen. Kids these days are doing wonderful things, and they are doing them in an atmosphere that is, frankly, far harder than it was for my generation and the generation before me."
Dr. Scott Henkel is the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, an associate professor in the departments of English and African-American Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming. Scott joined the faculty of the University of Wyoming in 2015. His research and teaching interests also include the literatures of the Americas in the long 19th century; transnational American studies; the literature of labor and slavery; critical theory; democratic political movements; free speech and censorship; and complex systems. With an impressive scholarly resume as well, he has received degrees from three universities, and has received the 2018 C. L. R. James Award for his published work, Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas. Welcome, Scott!
To learn more about Scott’s publications, education, or UWyo, click here or here!
Scott Henkel: Let me just talk frankly. I hate the millennial stereotype. Uh, I hate when adults talk about kids these days, as if, you know, they don't care about things, as if they're not up for a challenge. Listen. Kids these days are doing wonderful things, and they are doing them in an atmosphere that is, frankly, far harder than it was for my generation and the generation before me.
Emy diGrappa: Hello. My name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question "Why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?
Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Dr. Scott Henkel. He is the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, an associate professor in the departments of English and African-American Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming. Welcome, Scott.
Scott Henkel: Thank you for having me, Emy.
Emy diGrappa: The first question, because I read your... I read your bio, and I thought it was interesting that I didn't know that you had won a book award just recently in 2018 for your book on Direct Democracy: Collective Power, The Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas. What does all that mean?
Scott Henkel: Oh, my goodness. Yes! So that is a book I published in 2018. Most people, most people use the word "direct democracy:" to refer to, like, a type of political organization. Uh, like in a worker cooperative or a union, uh, or some community organization or something like that. But I think about it a little differently. For me, the phrase "direct democracy" talks about the power that people have.
Scott Henkel: Here, here's a fancy sentence or two, and then I'll go back to talking like, you know, a, a normal human being should talk. Uh, but the, the English word that we have, democracy, comes from the Greek, and it comes from the two root words demos, meaning people, and kratos, which means power, rule, or authority. So when we talk about democracy being the power of the people, we get that from the Greek word. And the book is a long attempt to say something actually quite simple. And this idea... I mean, this idea is, like, one of, one of my core beliefs. It's sort of like a north star for not only my research, but my work, my community work. And it's simply this: People have power. You have power. And you can multiply that power by cooperating with other people.
Scott Henkel: It's a profoundly ethical question, because how we, how we use our power has an effect on the world around us, whether the world becomes more free and more just because we're in it, or whether it becomes less so because of our actions. But, uh, as I said a moment ago, for me, that's sort of a, a north star that guides my life, my work, my research, my teaching, the work that I do in the community. It's very important to me.
Emy diGrappa: And then I thought the other word in your title that was interesting: the swarm. Define the swarm.
Scott Henkel: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yes. I'm one of these people, e- even though my area is humanities, is literature, I am very interested in, uh, getting ideas from other disciplines like sciences and biology and etymology. And, uh, it's pretty fascinating. One of the things that the book does is, it looks back throughout texts written in the 19th century to see how writers use the swarm metaphor. Uh, many writers use the swarm metaphor to describe crowds or mobs or political movements. And sometimes, uh, they call those groups of people a swarm in order to compliment them, sometimes to insult them, sometimes just to describe the thing that they're seeing.
Scott Henkel: But one of the things that my book traces is that every time a writer uses that swarm metaphor, what they're referring to, I argue, is that collective power of the people that I talked about just a moment ago. It's super fascinating. And, you know, uh, it also required me to spend, uh, a lot of my time on my belly looking at actual bees and ants and observing their behavior and looking at scientific books about the collective dynamics of bees and ants and other animals, uh, that swarm or flock. But this is, is just an idea that's fascinating to me: How do people work together? How do people cooperate?
Emy diGrappa: Well, w-
Scott Henkel: What does it look like when it goes well? What does it look like when it goes poorly?
Emy diGrappa: Right. I think we're looking at how it's going poorly right now. (laughs)
Scott Henkel: (laughs) Well, in some-
Emy diGrappa: What do you think?
Scott Henkel: ... ways we are! In some ways we are, but in other ways, um, we're looking at it how it's going very well. I mean, right now, in the news, you see people who are frustrated about having to stay home, and they're active collectively, they're acting collectively in, frankly, poor ways, ways that put other people's lives in danger. So collective power isn't always... And once again, it's an ethical question. It's not always good, it's not always bad. But in other ways, we're seeing a very impressive display of collective power in people just staying home. I think there was a Pew survey or some... I forget. I forget the source. In the last couple of days. But something like 85 to 90 percent of the American public approves of the stay-at-home orders and is taking them seriously. To me, that is a wondrous example of human collective power to confront a really incredible challenge.
Emy diGrappa: Scott, where did you grow up?
Scott Henkel: I was born in Tecumseh, Michigan. Michigan, of course, looks like a mitten, and if you hold up, uh, your left hand, and you look at the back of your left hand, point in the lower right-hand corner. Uh, there you find Tecumseh, Michigan.
Emy diGrappa: (laughs) That's a funny way to describe it.
Scott Henkel: Every Michigander does that.
Emy diGrappa: Oh, really? Okay. And what wa... What was your journey to Wyoming?
Scott Henkel: Oh, my goodness. I have been in Wyoming for, what? Almost the end of [inaudible] my fifth year teaching at the University of Wyoming. I have bounced around quite a bit. I've lived, uh, throughout the Midwest and a little bit to the Northeast before landing here. And I have to say I love it here. Wyoming has been excellent to me, and I have found a welcoming home here. I've been able to flourish in my work and meet lovely, wonderful people.
Scott Henkel: But maybe the better answer to that question... I'm a working-class kid. And neither of my parents had a college degree. My mom was a school bus driver. Uh, my dad was a worker in a factory that closed and has never reopened. People have heard of Tecumseh Engines. I mentioned Tecumseh a minute ago, and that's why, that's why I'm raising this. Tecumseh Engines... Small engines, like in refrigerators, lawn mowers... The snow blower that I have in my garage right now has a Tecumseh engine. And, yeah. I was a working-class kid, and my mother especially helped to put me on my life's trajectory. She emphasized how important education was, and I followed that until... Here we are today.
Emy diGrappa: And, and so were you the first to graduate from college?
Scott Henkel: I'm the youngest of five, and all my siblings graduated from college. My parents, neither... My mom went to college for a little while, uh, but she left in order to get married to my dad. So while I wasn't the first, I'm, I'm a first-generation college attendee and a first-generation college graduate. My mother was tremendously proud that all of my siblings and I, uh, went to school and got our degrees.
Emy diGrappa: Well, I think that's excellent. And, and what an inspiration. And she must have been, first of all, an inspiration that everybody went to college and, and found a way to make that work.
Scott Henkel: Yeah. Oh, gosh, yes. You know, my story, my story is absolutely, positively not a bootstrap-style story of me lifting myself out of whatever. I mean, that just does not, that does not describe my situation. It's personal, but in the summer before I started high school, I went with my mom to meet with the person who was going to be my high school guidance counselor. And I had positively no idea what was going on. I had no idea what that meeting was about. I had no idea that such weighty issues about the future of my life were being decided. And my mom... Again, school bus driver. Much lower on the hierarchy than a high school guidance counselor, frankly. And the high school guidance counselor, without knowing me at all, had a plan for my life that looked very different than what my mom's plan for my life was. When he laid it out for us, she simply said, "No, that's not what he's going to do. My son is going to go to college."
Scott Henkel: And I sat there with no, I sat there with no understanding of the weighty decisions that were being made right there in front of me, for me. And I am forever grateful to her that she had the guts to say, "No, my son's life is going to be different than what you imagine for him." And I have had help... I've had help in so many ways along the line, from teachers, from mentors, from friends and colleagues, for which I will just be eternally grateful.
Emy diGrappa: Do you think that happens to a lot of students who don't have a legacy of education in front of them? Higher education, for example? They don't-
Scott Henkel: Oh, yes.
Emy diGrappa: ... really know how to enter into that system.
Scott Henkel: Oh, yes. That, that's absolutely... It's absolute, positively the case. An example from my... When I eventually did go to college, I had no idea the difference between a subsidized and an unsubsidized student loan. That lack of knowledge on my part continues to do me some financial damage, frankly. I wish I had known things like that. And there, there are all sorts of advantages that people from middle- and upper-class families have that people from working-class families don't have. That being an example that is, like I say, continues to be a factor in my life to this day.
Emy diGrappa: How do you work with students that, that have that trajectory, and maybe they come to you at, and maybe you counsel them on how to navigate through the college system?
Scott Henkel: That is absolutely one of the things that I love about teaching and working at the University of Wyoming. Uh, about a third of our students here are first-gen, are working-class in some, in some way. And even, even the students who aren't, I have found that many students here at UDub have, like, a good, working-class ethos. Like, maybe not with the most life experience. Maybe they haven't seen, uh, a lot of the world like a lot of students in other colleges and universities that I've taught at. But what students here largely have is a "roll up my sleeves," "I'm gonna figure out how to do this new hard task" kind of mindset. And so the best way I know to answer the question is that when I sense that in a student, it's nearly immediately something that I try to build some common ground around.
Scott Henkel: And representation is important. It's important for students. It's important for all of us to see who they are in other people in the world: in their mentors, in their professors, in the people they see on TV or read about in books. And if I can, if I can help them to see what their path could be, if I could help them to reach whatever their potential is, to help them to flourish in whatever ways that they know that they could be... I mean, that's the, that's the magic part of teaching right there.
Emy diGrappa: And when you discovered that, that you could be that influence in their life, that must be very satisfying and, and give you, you know, a common ground so they can relate to you as a professor.
Scott Henkel: It is very satisfying. It's also, it's also a tremendous responsibility, which I try to take very, very seriously.
Emy diGrappa: And in your journey, entering into school and choosing a university to go to, what became your passion for the humanities? Because you're the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities. But you also, um, teach other classes, which are the, the studies of the African-American and diaspora studies, I think, is really interesting. Why, why did that become a passion?
Scott Henkel: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. That's a great question. Again, I had many teachers along the way. I remember a French teacher from high school--her name is Jan Wilson--who showed me the model of an excellent teacher and who showed me the model of someone who could, like, ignite ideas in the brains of her students. Uh, and many teachers like that stand out. And I have to say, my path was never a straight one. Like, I still... I mean, some things now I have figured out, but the vast majority of things I'm still, like, trying to work my way through, frankly.
Scott Henkel: I knew I wanted to be an educator of some kind. I started out wanting to be an elementary school educator. But then I switched around a little bit. I've always been... Like, there's nothing I like better than an interesting idea. There's nothing I like better than hearing someone talk about something that they find curious or troublesome or that ignites their passion or pisses them off or whatever, right? This is the thing that I find most exciting. So as I went through my degrees, as a working-class kid, I was very interested in the nature of work and the nature of labor and its relationship to democracy, especially. And the more I went through it...
Scott Henkel: Uh, so I identify, I identify as white, and I identify, uh, as a straight white guy. And the more I read, the more I looked into these things, it became impossible for me to think about work and labor in the United States without also thinking about slavery and the history of slavery, and the fantastic amount of wealth that enslaved labor generated for the United States. So that was sort of my path into black studies. So what... I mean, what's a white guy who does black studies work, worth? And where does he belong? I, I still don't know really good answers to those questions, but I know that the questions fascinate me. And knowing that a fascinating question can also fascinate others... That is, that has been my path into, into that field of work.
Emy diGrappa: Do you think the fact that your dad was a factory worker and just kind of sparked that interest in you to understand the, the labor force and, and you probably worked or, or... Not worked, but lived around a lot of people who were also in the world of the working class. You probably lived in a neighborhood where everybody was probably part of that class?
Scott Henkel: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. I lived in, uh, the mix between, like, a rural, uh, and industrial town, uh, not very big. But yeah, absolutely. I am absolutely a product of the community I came out of, 100 percent. Definitely my dad and the factory work. But I have to say that to a greater degree, it was my mom, you know? Also, working-class, uh, school bus driver. She was the one in the family who cared about community. She was the one who voted, right?
Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Henkel: She was the one who, when I, like, did an after-school project of, like, cleaning up the park or whatever, she was the one who praised me and said, "Yes. Yes. You should, you should do things like that. You should contribute. You should be a part of the community in which you live." I mean, that's just incredibly formative for me.
Emy diGrappa: That's really interesting, and, and it brings me back to the book you wrote about Direct Democracy: Collective Power, The Swarm, and what you were talking about earlier. And the right to vote. That's what came up in my mind, is-
Scott Henkel: Yeah.
Emy diGrappa: The collective power. The right to vote.
Scott Henkel: Yeah.
Emy diGrappa: How are we doing in influencing young people to vote?
Scott Henkel: Well, we could be doing better along those lines. The percentage of people who vote in the United States is, unfortunately, low compared to other places. And I think that's incredibly important. I think it's incredibly important for people to take part in the political process in whatever ways they can. Unfortunately, our political processes are not always very hospitable to participation. Think of... And a super huge part of this is a structural question, not about an individual's choices, although individual's choices are always important. But think of how much easier it would be for people to vote if Election Day was a federal holiday. If there was automatic voter registration. If we could mail in our ballots, rather than have to show up to cast the ballots. In some states where the voting is very hard, in terms of getting access, there are long lines, or there's short hours for voting. Makes it very difficult for working-class folks, people of color, to actually go and cast their ballot. And that is on purpose, and those are structures that have been built. And because structures are built, they can be unbuilt and rebuilt in different ways.
Emy diGrappa: That is super interesting, and, and so when, when you're on the school campus, are you seeing more young people getting involved in politics, or caring about politics? Or are they so-
Scott Henkel: Yes.
Emy diGrappa: ... frustrated that they just don't care?
Scott Henkel: Well, there is, of course, a level of frustration, but that's not limited to, it's not limited to young people at all. Uh, let me just talk frankly. I hate the millennial stereotype. Uh, I hate when adults talk about kids these days, as if, you know, they don't care about things, as if they're not up for a challenge. Listen. Kids these days are doing wonderful things, and they are doing them in an atmosphere that is, frankly, far harder than it was for my generation and the generation before me. The nature of work and our economy has shifted dramatically in just the last couple of decades. The earth looks in much greater peril than it does, than it did a few decades ago. You know, so this is not, this is not some sort of trite cliché, "I believe children are the future," whatever, right? This is... I see what my students do, and I have great hope in them.
Emy diGrappa: Wow. That's, that's really inspiring to hear you say that, Scott. Tell me what you think is most intriguing about living in Wyoming.
Scott Henkel: Ah! That is an excellent question. Let's see. I never, you know, just li... I should have said this, also, uh, back a moment when I talked about identifying as a white guy who does black studies. I never pretend to be anything I'm not, and that should have been the first thing that I said, uh, before then, and it'll be the first thing that I say now. I'm not gonna pretend people, people take great [inaudible] some of the other people who you've interviewed for this podcast are very proud about being a fifth-generation Wyoming [inaudible] whatever, and I totally... I'm super, super happy for them.
Scott Henkel: But, uh, you know, many people around here will hear that I'm from Michigan and automatically dismiss whatever I have to say. But nevertheless, I love it here. It is beautiful. The people have been kind and generous to me. Uh, I have been able to go throughout the state in various programs like Leadership Wyoming. Uh, and also, engagement and outreach mission is very important for those of us who work here at UDub as a land-grant university. Uh, so in my short five years here, I've been able to see a good portion of it. Not all of it, but a good portion of it. How anyone could be here and not find it beautiful, like, stunning to the eye, I don't know, because I think is, I think it is just... I think it's just lovely.
Emy diGrappa: That's great to hear. Every part of it is so different and so beautiful in its own way.
Scott Henkel: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.
Emy diGrappa: So, Scott, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
Scott Henkel: Thank you. Thank you, Emy. I really enjoyed it.
Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.