Reality checks and necessary laughter

Reality check: it is the eighth week of a ten-week Carleton term, which means that it’s time to hang up the blog for a bit so that we can come back renewed and ready to write a whole bunch in mid-June.

But we wanted to leave you all with a lil’ something before this hiatus, an elliptical preview of some of our coming posts. We record some of our conversations, particularly when it feels like we’re getting somewhere good in our thinking. The cut below comes from a meandering convo about the concept of the marketplace of ideas, which quickly turned into a lot of laughter and tangents. If you want to hear us invent, play, and laugh–and we all need laughter–here you go. (It’s about 4:30 long.)

Shout out (and congrats!) to the Yale Ethnic, Race, and Migration studies faculty

Image source. Stanford students striking in 1989 to call for Ethnic Studies programs. Ask Adriana about her role in it if you know her IRL!

In April this year, 13 faculty with appointments in Yale University’s Ethnic, Race & Migration studies program withdrew their labor from the program. These faculty, who represented 13 out of 19 faculty associated with the program, made clear that their decision came after years of trying to get the Yale administration to support the program more robustly. All 13 faculty hold positions in other departments and were doing the work of the program without any pay or recognition. They argued that while such programs face challenges in most institutions for reasons that include racism, the difference at Yale was the vast amount of resources that Yale has at its disposal, with its $29.4 billion endowment.  We wanted to highlight this move by Yale faculty as we appreciate deeply this collective action of the Yale faculty to push their administration to make true commitment to a program that has enormous intellectual, social, and political value at Yale and to many students and faculty elsewhere, especially those of color.

Earlier this month, the faculty announced that they were recommitting to the program, following Yale administration’s move to provide concrete support to the program’s status and permanence on campus by allocating five faculty positions to the program.

Congratulations to the Yale faculty and students on their accomplishment!

Shout Out to the Black Latinas Know Collective

Screenshot 2019-05-08 19.23.16
On April 30, the Black Latinas Know Collective emerged publically into the world through a tweet:

Proclaiming that Latinx Studies is nothing without Black Latina experiences, their website offers an inspiring and challenging manifesto, a collective of impressive scholars in a range of fields, and a blog. When they burst into the world on twitter, they invited people to retweet their favorite lines from the manifesto, and wow, did people respond!

We’re both delighted to be able to signal boost the BLKC and the amazing work they’re doing.

And a couple more places to learn more about AfroLatinidad:

Lessons from serving on the Community Board on Sexual Misconduct

Image source. The Green Dot Bystander program is a national skill-building program used across college campuses in the U.S., including at Carleton, that allows students and others on campus to learn how to intervene safely when they witness instances of power-based violence.

Note: We are excited to present our first guest blog post! This post is adapted from remarks made by our friend and colleague, Dr. Mija Van Der Wege, during a presentation for Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center. This presentation featured faculty, staff, and students who have served on Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct, which is the board that adjudicates cases of student-to-student sexual misconduct. The four presenters spoke about the impact of their service on the board on their teaching and learning, their relationships with students/peers, and the skills they have learned from that experience they find useful in other contexts. Take it away, Mija!

When I first came to Carleton, I used to try to build and maintain strong personal boundaries between me and my students. These boundaries helped me maintain authority, which could be challenging as a young, female, Asian faculty member.  It also allowed me not to worry about what was going on in my students’ lives outside of my classes, which made my job seem a lot easier. Students could be vessels into which I could impart my knowledge, and I just needed to figure out the best way to impart that knowledge. However, since then, I have learned that I can be a better teacher by knowing more about student lives. And being a member of Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct (CBSM)  has really enhanced that knowledge. So I’m going to talk (briefly) about what I’ve learned from being on this committee and doing this work.

First, I am a role model for my students. Being on this committee is modeling good citizenship for my students.I feel like I am doing vitally important work. And I constantly remind myself: if not me, who; and if not now, when.

Second, trigger warnings help some students embrace and learn material that is personally challenging. Like many women, I have my own history of sexual assault. Going through training to be on CBSM and reading the investigative reports was quite hard. I needed to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the homework and for the meetings. The work took an emotional toll, even when I was not actively engaged in reading or thinking about the cases.

My experiences on the Board have made me more reflective and thoughtful about how I include and approach sensitive materials in my classes. I remember that a few years ago, I assigned a chapter on eyewitness memory in one of my classes. It contained a first-person narrative account of a sexual assault. After the class discussion on the topic, one student talked to me about how she had PTSD following a recent sexual assault and was caught off guard by this section of the reading. I felt terrible and realized that a simple content warning would have helped her manage how and when she approached that section. And I felt terrible thinking about  the other students who may have had similar reactions but didn’t talk to me about it.

Sometimes, I hear talking heads, or op-ed writers, or even other faculty argue against trigger and other content warnings, the so-called “coddling” of the student mind. And I want to tell them that these warnings are not coddling; they are not an opportunity for students to skip vital opportunities for growth. They are granting these students an opportunity to embrace the material in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. Certainly, going through the training on sexual assault was challenging for me, and being able to set the time and place where I engaged with it was invaluable and helped me engage with, rather than ignore or dismiss, the materials.

Finally, being on the Board has helped me practice compassion, empathy, and listening. As members of the CBSM, we spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand why people might behave the way that they do.I like to think that I am becoming better at understanding  why people behave the way that they do in the kinds of situations that the panel hears. It’s never been as simple as just perpetrator and victim in any case I’ve heard. It’s mostly just people fumbling around, usually drunk, trying to figure out what the rules of the game are.   I feel that many of our students are doing that, not just socially, but also in class and in other arenas on campus. They are just fumbling around trying to figure out what the rules of the game are, increasingly so as our student body becomes more diverse and as many traditional social norms are being challenged and changed.

Having been on this committee, I pay more attention to this fumbling, trying to identify it, and talk to the students that are fumbling in one way or another in my classes and in my role as advisor.  Rather than just a pep talk, I try to ask about what’s going on. I let them sit in my office and cry. I tell them that they don’t have to be perfect all the time, or even some of the time. Many of our students are struggling, and they can also succeed, sometimes with a little positive encouragement, a friendly ear, or a little extra leeway. Our students look up to faculty and staff on campus.  If we present ourselves as monoliths of expertise and authority, that’s what they think that they need to be. I’m learning that letting students see the nuances and cracks and glorious imperfections that we all share is, in many ways, as valuable as imparting knowledge.

 

Racially charged words in the classroom

Image source

In this blog post, we want to signal boost a podcast episode where Professor Koritha Mitchell (Ohio State University) talks about her approach to racial and other identity-based slurs that appear in the materials she teaches in her courses. She discusses her policy of developing a class “covenant” that expressly forbids students from using the N-word or other slurs. She talks about how having a clear policy allows her and her students to read parts of texts where slurs are used without avoiding those passages and most importantly, she argues that not saying the slurs do not prevent the students from being able to analyze the texts deeply and critically. In fact, she posits (and her students featured in the podcast affirm) that such a policy allows for deeper engagement because students are not worried about how to approach these texts. Her approach allows us (as teachers) to consider more carefully our learning goals and how the diversity of student identities, experiences, and backgrounds in our classrooms changes how we reach those goals.

She repeats a phrase often in her explanation of why White teachers, in particular, are not more thoughtful about how they approach this issue, especially as it might impact Black students and other students of color: “White people are not being special or unique when they hold themselves to incredibly low standards in their interactions with people who are not White.” She repeats this idea of “low expectations” a few times, including how such low expectations apply to people of all kinds of majority identities (including race, gender, and sexuality). She also explains how the everyday violence of our institutions become normalized in moments where racial slurs are read or used in classrooms and workplaces: “When institutions are literally built on the denigrating and diminishing people of color, White people do not have to seem aggressive in order to do great violence. Denigrating and diminishing people of color might be said to grease the wheels that make our institutions and our country function.”

In the episode, Professor Mitchell starts by describing her experiences both with her students and with colleagues around the use of the N-word in classrooms and at her workplace, which, as she importantly points out, includes the classroom. As she notes, she has the right to expect a different standard of conduct in her workplace and for her students to have a different standard of conduct in their learning environment than at a hip hop concert or out on the streets. She then discusses specific passages from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native son,” which include the N-word and another racial slur, and how her policy allows students to read these passages without re-creating the violence of such words by speaking them and to dig deep into the meaning of those words.

The latter part of the episode features a thoughtful discussion among three of her students who talk about their experiences with the policy and the impact it had on their learning experiences in the classroom.

We recommend a listen whether or not you’re teaching texts with the N-word or other racial slurs. We found Professor Mitchell’s approach and her explanations useful, especially her reminders about how everyday experiences in White institutions can feel violent to students and faculty of color.

Finally, a shout out to our awesome colleague and friend, Marty Baylor, for telling us about the podcast!

Musings on socially just decisions

As many of you who read our blog probably know, Carleton College decided this past January to NOT close during the polar vortex. There were impassioned debates about the decision on Facebook, in editorials in The Carletonian, and at formal and informal faculty gatherings. We’ve already discussed on this blog what our stance is about weather-related closings, so in this post, we wanted to expand on our ideas about how differences in experiences and power might be taken into account as institutions try to make decisions.

When we got the email from the administration about the decision not to close the college, it was mentioned that the administration had heard from many members of the community. It was not clear to us from the email how many community members had expressed their views and, among those who had, how many had been in favor of remaining open and how many had been in favor of closing. The first suggestion we’d have to make decision-making processes more just is to make them more transparent.

Getting information about a simple breakdown of how many were in favor of one option over the other is a start towards having more just and transparent processes. For example, considering only faculty perspectives for now, say 100 faculty wrote to the president to express their views on the issue. Let’s imagine that 50 faculty wrote in favor of remaining open, and 50 voted for closing.  The first question we would ask is be how representative were those 100 faculty of the faculty in terms of rank (e.g. tenured, untenured, tenure-track, visiting). Was there a preponderance of tenured faculty expressing their views, for example? If fewer untenured or visiting faculty expressed their views, we would think about how we can ensure that all faculty felt comfortable enough writing to express their views. As tenured faculty, the two of us do not worry much about writing an email to the Dean or the President to make clear our positions on any issue at the college, but we’re not sure that all faculty feel this way. Having channels for honest feedback from those who are vulnerable in terms of job security is an important issue in any hierarchical institution.

Next, if there is relative representation of all ranks of faculty among the 100 faculty who expressed their views, we would consider if there are patterns among those who argued in favor of one option over the other. For example, did more faculty who live close to campus favor staying open over those who would have had to travel longer distances? How about faculty with young children? Since the decision to remain open or close likely had differential impact on faculty depending on their life circumstances, it seems important to consider such impacts.

Third, paying attention to and acknowledging differential impact of such decisions is important if we are to make decisions that do not assume that the status quo is a just one. Martha Minow, a legal scholar, notes that we often encounter “the dilemma of difference” when trying to make decisions based on differences in status, category, or identity because both ignoring differences or taking into account differences can (re)create the stigma of difference. She notes that this dilemma partly is created because of how we think of differences. As she describes it:

We can treat differences as the private, internal problem of each different person, a treatment that obviously depends on communal agreements and public enforcement. We can treat differences as a function of relationships and compare the distributions made by different people to the costs and burdens of difference. Or we can treat differences as a pervasive feature of communal life and consider ways to structure social institutions to distribute the burdens attached to difference.

Taking that last approach can help us move towards a more equitable institution and one important aspect of that approach, Minow argues, is that we need to tilt the balance towards previously marginalized voices and perspectives and towards those people who are negatively impacted disproportionately by the status quo. Minow’s exhortation mirrors what we can learn from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work in Silencing the Past: “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production,” or, as Adriana paraphrases for her students, we need to think about which voices and perspectives have no chance to be heard. Have we set the table (our decision-making process) in ways that everyone who is impacted by the decision is invited and able to attend? And of course, there’s still the question to ask about who gets to set the table in the first place and “invite” others. While ensuring that diverse, marginalized, and minoritized voices are represented at the table is important, there is still power in being the ones to invite those voices.

Bringing it back then to the example of how to make a decision about whether to close the college during inclement weather, we’d argue that paying attention to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students who would be negatively impacted by the decision to stay open or to close should be given extra consideration. We might want to consider (dis)ability, access to proper wear/gear, family and child care responsibilities, travel distances…and, of course, which members of the college community even have the chance to express themselves. We would want to make sure that our assumptions about people’s statuses and abilities don’t get in the way of listening to their professed needs. We’re thinking, for example, of possible assumptions  that all 18-22 year olds are non-disabled and can, say, walk really fast to avoid frostbite.

Hopefully, our previous paragraphs make clear the complexity of decision-making processes at a college and the effort it takes to do it well, i.e. making sure that diverse, marginalized, minoritized voices are able to participate. We’ve focused on the role of faculty, because ours, like many institutions, maintains the desire to drive decision-making through shared governance, where faculty expect and are expected to have a say in important institutional decisions. While we support a strong faculty voice and a robust shared governance model (something we’ll write more about in a future post), we also want to point out that as faculty, even with our different ranks, our voices and perspectives are generally given more weight and consideration than staff members. This privileging of faculty voices, no matter the history or rationale for them, means that when faced with a decision such as what to do when a polar vortex comes to town, insidious inequities (of voice, of autonomy) between staff, faculty, and students can get masked.

In other words, when the institution opts to stay open, but invites individuals to make the “best choices” for their individual safety, the impact falls differently. Faculty are empowered to cancel classes if they want (or not); students’ freedom to make a choice probably depends on class attendance policies; and finally, staff members may not always feel like they can make decisions that might go against supervisors’ explicit or implicit expectations about whether they should come in to work on a -40 degree day. These variations in how “empowered” we may feel to make our own best choices need to be accounted for in how institutions make such decisions.

Speaking up against the Border Patrol

arizona3.jpgImage source: Sandy Soto, colleague at University of Arizona

We’re back! And we wanted to kick off our series of posts for the spring term by signal boosting the story of University of Arizona students who are facing criminal charges for boldly and bravely challenging the presence of two armed Border Patrol agents on campus to give a presentation to a student club. As seen in videos linked in this Washington Post article about what happened, the student is heard repeatedly calling the agents the “Murder Patrol” and “KKK.” As the student notes, Border Patrol agents have been condemned by humanitarian aid groups for routinely destroying water left for migrants in the desert.

For a longer story of the racist origins of the Border Patrol, check out this interview with Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Grandin, for example, notes, “The Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe.”

It is impossible to separate out the criticism of the Border Patrol and the issue of free speech as they collide in this incident. In the same breath that the UA president proclaims his defense of free speech, he argues that the #Arizona3 were disrupting education. But what do we mean when we say that someone or something disrupts education? What measures are we using, what definitions are we employing, when we (or the UA administration) point to the students as disruption, but don’t acknowledge that the presence of the Border Patrol is also disruptive? It becomes important to ask: disruptive to whose education? on whose terms? When we consider what speech should be defended as free speech (the Border Patrol’s presence or the #Arizona3’s), shouldn’t we also recognize the conditions of power and the institutional power that hyperdetermine what speech we’re likelier to see as more worthy? And then shouldn’t we, if we truly believe in the value of free speech, make sure that minoritized, marginalized voices get heard?

The issue at UA is exacerbated, in our eyes, by the fact that it only recently earned the designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution*, positioning it to be able to apply for more federal awards and aid intended to foster and support the education of Latinx students.

At this point, you are hopefully wondering what is being done. And what you can do. Students there are protesting. Students, faculty, and staff are hand-delivering letters to President Robbins. Faculty in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona issued a statement earlier this week in support of the protesting students and against the charges they are facing.

You can send letters to President Robbins here. You can also start conversations in your departments and with your coalitions to develop a solidarity statement like that put forth by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota.  Finally, we should all be asking hard questions about what it really means to provide an inclusive education–which isn’t just about admitting students to our hallowed halls, but must also be about recognizing (and then interrupting) the ways in which State policing mechanisms can intrude and disrupt these spaces and these students’ lives.

*Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designates accredited institutions with 25% or more full-time enrolled Latinx students.