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.

 

How now down brown (aka Adriana and Anita become advice columnists), Take 1: Surviving grad school

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Dear readers, Happy New Year! As we wrote in this post last year, we asked our readers to submit questions they may have about navigating race on college campuses and this post is our first attempt at being advice columnists! We would like to encourage those of you who have advice to share to post your thoughts here on the blog so that the person asking the question can benefit from your ideas as well as our own. Also, if you want to submit a question (with your name or anonymously!), please do so here. Finally, we’d like to thank our friend, Rini, for helping us brainstorm the name of our advice column!

The following question came from a Carleton alum who decided to pursue an advanced degree in a field focused on Western cultural traditions (we paraphrased and changed some details to maintain the person’s anonymity):

“My original plan was to apply for a PhD, but things have changed…none of the texts I read speak to my positionality as a non-Christian, non-American, non-white woman! While it is true that my positionality allows me to raise important questions about inclusion and diversity that challenge these thinkers, it has left me quite frustrated. Lurking on the periphery of my area of study has become both academically and personally exhausting. Because of how my chosen field is exclusionary in content, in method, and in voice, I’ve found that my only choice is to act as “challenger.” I started to look for new academic arenas of inquiry. In other words, I feel like I no longer have a strong, academic foothold and instead find myself swimming in a large ocean of possibility. My biggest issue however, is that I am spoiled for choice. Since I no longer feel anchored to my identity as a scholar of [field of study], I am not quite sure where to go from here, and how I would even begin that process. I am experimenting with other departments this semester, and while it has been a gratifying experience, a part of me feels like I have been pulled back to square one. There is so much information around me, and to be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and quite directionless.

I go back and forth between feeling free and feeling trapped, but mostly I just feel nauseous! How do I make this uncertainty productive?

Signed, Mostly I Just Feel Nauseous”

Dear MIJFN,

Your questions and concerns are meaty, indeed. First, we wanted to recognize that you’ve already stepped into some certainty by deciding to leave a field where your situated knowledge production was marginalized and you felt unmoored and tired. While this is a step into uncertainty, it’s also a step out of perpetual exhaustion and intellectual alienation. As you know, you are not alone in moving into an academic field with love and engagement only to find that these fields don’t love us back. Like other scholars, women of color are drawn to academic fields for all sorts of reasons: because we want to learn these tools and voices and histories–but often, as WOC, we open our minds and hearts to these ways of knowing only to find that these disciplines expect us to assimilate to their values and ways without ever being open to how our diverse bodies might bring diverse ways of knowing. Some of us make peace with that, staying in fields and making sure we find other places where we can be loved and seen. Others of us, like you, decide that participation in a field from a constant sideline, where the contributions you make may be superficially welcomed even as they reify you as an outsider… well, that that’s not worth it. You’ve basically recognized that a field that you love might, in some very real, vital ways, kill you, take away your joy of learning, minimize your ways of making sense of the world. [see footnote]

So now that you’ve chosen you, how do you “make uncertainty productive”? As you can imagine, we’re not big supporters of the term “productive” – so let’s think about how that word is working for you and how it might be getting in your way. After all, what kinds of expectations are we pinning to the concept of “productive”? We’re guessing that you’ll feel you have been productive once you have chosen your next academic step; we’re also willing to bet that any kind of daydreaming, researching, mind-resting, sleeping, etc. that you do until then will make you feel not at all productive. And yet how are you supposed to make a choice about your next step unless you allow yourself to wander a bit, both metaphorically and literally?

We also want to say that the path to being in academia is only one of many paths one can take in life and our paths in academia are only two possible paths. We can only offer you what we have learned from our journeys, but we want to make sure that we don’t make it seem like academia is the only path to being able to do what you want to do. So we encourage you, and we’re sure you are doing so, to talk to people who are not professors, who are not graduate students, who didn’t graduate from college about their paths as well. Our view, like everyone else’s, is limited by the contours of our lives.

But back to what we do know some things about: we recommend you take long walks and allow yourself digressions. Wandering through the stacks of a library, looking at journals’ table of contents can be a great way of seeing what different fields are up to, what they’re prioritizing, what they’re arguing about. Wandering around a neighborhood can let your mind ask questions and notice things. Like they usually tell us in our yoga classes (we don’t really manage to follow directions, but we try): notice what you’re thinking and feeling, but don’t hold on to it or worry about it. Just notice. Pay attention to this mind and heart that you’ve developed; you’ve got skills. You are a scholar. Take note. See you. Know that there are others like you out there, even if they are not in your particular program or institution—try to connect with them through online or IRL networks.

Another way to think about this stage of uncertainty is that it is entirely normal. Most people go through it as college ends and they need to figure out which jobs to apply for. So your “big transition”–the one that requires you to go through some degree of personal crisis [who am I? what do I value? who do I want to be in 10 years] was just delayed a little bit. Now that you’re going through this transition, be kind to yourself, just like you were kind to all your classmates as they flailed about, emitting anxiety fumes, at the end of their senior years. What did you tell them then? What, then, can you tell yourself now? How we each “keep it all together” in times of chaos and uncertainty varies from person to person. Adriana writes stuff down and sings out loud. She makes sure she gets at least a hug a day from someone she loves. Anita believes strongly that one cultivates resilience and strength through community. She attends plays put on by community groups, supports friends who are performing their poetry or their music, and makes it a priority to build a network of support full of amazing people of color wherever she is. It’s these people and support networks that got her through predominantly White undergrad and grad schools experiences, and continue to support her as she navigates her way through academia as a woman of color faculty. You need people who will hear your anguish, your rage, and your joy without needing you to tone anything down even if you’re in a graduate program where you can find more of yourself in.

One last thought: to be able to sit in uncertainty–in not knowing–is an important skill. Adriana has long been a fan of Richard Feyman’s words on this issue: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” (link below)

If you can be comfortable in uncertainty, you can ask bigger, more impossible questions. Asking bigger questions allows you to wander more, to dream more, while also being incredibly humble about your place in it all. Your uncertainty is also your openness to the world, to new ideas, to new directions, to paths that you could not see before. Best of luck as you chart your way!

Footnote: We do wish that academia would think more about this, because the question is a vital one. After all, how do we diversify our ranks, our perspectives, without in some way letting those perspectives and challenges shift the discipline? Maybe that’s why I (Adriana) love being a part of American Studies. In a recent interview, Kandice Chuh, the ASA president, says, “For me, ‘America’ is not the object of American Studies. It’s actually a space through which we think, to ask other kinds of questions, questions having to do with humanization, with materiality, with power, with possibility, with nation, with colonialism” (link below). That’s a really different answer than would have been given twenty years ago; American Studies has shifted from and “exceptionalist” logic (what makes America so great?) to one willing to see the contradictions between the idealized, imagined America and the lived one with all of its institutionalized cruelty.  

Links:

Richard Feyman’s quote.

Kandace Chuh’s quote.

P.S. We saw that Roxana Gay has started an occasional advice column, which we are very excited about!

“I get so emotional, baby, every time I…”

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Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.

(Thanks, Whitney Houston, for the title! I miss you.)

I’ve been thinking recently about emotions in professional spaces. What does it mean to display emotion, to speak with emotion, at a professional meeting? Does the emotion mean that the message isn’t heard? Is it seen as unprofessional? As not belonging in a setting where we’re expected to be calm and rational, follow the rules of engagement, Robert’s rules?

Generally, I’m not one to show a lot of emotion in public spaces. When Adriana and I get ready to go see an emotionally-challenging movie or play, the tissues we take along are all for her. However, I do sometimes speak from a personal place during a meeting, usually from a place of anger, worry or disappointment, and it seems like the emotions and the vulnerability rarely get acknowledged. Since working with emotions is so important in our work as teachers and researchers, I want to know how we can support each other better in being able to hear and acknowledge each other’s emotions as well as our intellects.

Two recent examples.

At a faculty meeting, I brought up a racist incident that occurred on campus the weekend before the meeting. I stated explicitly that I was particularly upset because all the students involved–the person causing the harm and the people being harmed–are students I know, students who’ve taken my classes where we have discussed multiple times racism and the negative effects it has on individuals, schools, and societies. The next person to speak gave more context for the incident but didn’t say anything about how I was feeling and then we moved on to discussing other topics. I was left feeling a bit foolish for the way I shared this information and feeling a bit alone in my feeling of disappointment and frustration.

Of course, this dynamic is not something particular to Carleton. I was at a conference a few weeks ago–the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association--the biggest education-related research organization in the country. There was a town hall meeting to consider what, if anything, the organization should do in this particular political context including discussion about the utility and futility of putting out statements–for example, about the travel ban; the necessity of using our research findings to advocate for equitable public school; and criteria for choosing conference venues. Someone brought up the fact that we were in Texas where a “bathroom bill” was on its way to being passed. One person said that we should not be in the business of political advocacy–we just needed to ensure that we were upholding standards of rigorous research because from what they had seen at the conference presentations, that was not happening uniformly. I was listening intently, not planning on saying anything because many of the concerns I had were being raised by others. Finally, someone said that we needed to be careful about taking political positions because the organization was huge (25,000 + members) and that not all of us were on the same page politically. There might be some of us who voted for President Trump. I decided that I did need to respond to that comment, so I stood and said that it is possible for an organization or at least for the leaders of an organization to take a stance while also affirming the value of dissent and freedom of speech. I pointed out  how the president of Macalester College did just that in his statement about the first travel ban. Then I said that I was worried that we are saying that people’s human and civil rights need to be justified on the basis of “rigorous research.” I mentioned that the bathroom issue was a very personal one to me–though I am a cisgender woman, there have been times when I’ve looked gender non-conforming enough that I’ve been made to feel unwelcome in a women’s bathroom. I added that we could use research to support bathroom accessibility–there is no evidence that trans folx have “attacked” anyone in the “wrong” bathroom while there’s plenty of evidence that trans folx and gender non-conforming folx are in danger of being harassed or harmed when trying to access bathrooms. But I didn’t like the idea of having to justify a basic human and civil right. I sat down and there was just silence. And then the discussion moved on.

At the conference, as we were leaving the room, someone came up to me and thanked me for what I said–and I really appreciated that gesture. This simple gesture and the way it made me feel acknowledged and heard made me wonder about how most professional spaces are set up in ways that make difficult for people to speak with emotions or feel heard when they do so.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this post isn’t meant to signify somehow that I am greatly skilled at working with emotions. Growing up, I was not given the language or skills to be able to recognize and name my emotions either within my family or in my schools. It’s only thanks to friends and therapists that I’ve started to get better at being able to recognize and name emotions, and to not be afraid when emotions come up for students in a class discussion or during office hours. It’s a skill I’m still developing but I’ve learned that it is important that I try to acknowledge the emotion of a comment before moving on to a discussion of the content of a comment. I have noticed that this simple gesture usually helps all students deepen their  intellectual engagement with the materials we’re discussed as well as with each other’s comments.

Nor do I want to leave you with the impression that I don’t appreciate the need for certain rules of engagement–after having taken part in a chaotic and therefore ultimately undemocratic precinct caucus meeting recently, I have a new appreciation for such rules and norms! However, it should not be so difficult to hear and acknowledge the emotions that are part and parcel of the essence of our jobs–teaching and working with young people. Adriana’s previous post addressed the pedagogical imperative to engage with emotions in the classroom and I believe that it’s just as possible and necessary to do so in the spaces where we get together as a faculty or research community to talk about our work together. As we have said many times in our blog posts, divorcing emotions from the intellectual work that we do as teachers, scholars, and researchers (and especially for those of us engaging in research in the educational field) misses the fact that the work we do is deeply entangled with emotions. If we are to support our students in being able to work through their emotions in order to engage more deeply with scholarship particularly about social identities and differences, we need to learn how to do so with and from each other.

P.S. As always, we’d love to hear from you about your experiences related to our posts! So please comment on the blog site or elsewhere. Also, if you identify as a woman/gender non-conforming/trans person of color and want to write a guest post sometime, hit us on the buzz!

 

Unstickiness and Emotions in the Classroom

 

Classical and Quantum Optics, Fall 2014
Photo Credit

(We will occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Adriana.)

In 2003, I, a white-appearing Latina/Mexicana/Chicana, arrived at Carleton after leaving the University of New Mexico, a HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). If I were to say that sentence at the Latinx Studies conference in July, I would not need to follow it up with anything. There would be nods of understanding and sighs. But following it up is important, because while my story is like many others’, it’s also mine, and full of rich detail that could easily be forgotten but that shouldn’t be. (Sometimes I think my poor memory is a survival mechanism, but that’s another story.)

I was and continue to be very glad to have landed at Carleton. I have grown a great deal as a teacher and a scholar, and I am blessed with wonderful colleagues across all disciplines. But even though the institution was generally welcoming, it was and still continues to be an HWCU, historically white college/university (or PWI- predominantly white institution). In those early years, I couldn’t have put my finger on what that meant for me, exactly. There were moments of minor “oh hey there” moments that mostly had to do with being reminded that I was not in New Mexico anymore. And then there was the day–about four years in–that, having become accustomed to teaching Latinx studies to mostly white students, I entered a classroom and found it to be 40% students of color… and my whole body relaxed.

Fast forward to last year (my thirteenth year of teaching here). After many years spent being jealous of my American Studies colleagues at Macalester, who do an amazing job of bringing students of color into their program year after year, I entered the American Studies Methods and Theory classroom and, out of eight students, seven were of color. And my whole body relaxed. What does this relaxation mean?

When I first read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included several years ago, it rocked my world. Describing the common experiences of faculty of color at PWIs in England and Australia, Ahmed uses the concept of stickiness to describe the way it feels, for example, to walk into a meeting and be one of the few people of color: “When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus reconfirm the whiteness of the space.” Ahmed’s language and descriptions helped to name my experience, giving me language for what I had inhabited. Let me note that this stickiness is not simply a Carleton experience for me, but a Minnesota one. Whenever I make my way home to the Bay Area (California) or to somewhere like New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago, I feel myself rocked into health by the voices around me speaking so many different languages and the bodies around me that are all so very different. In contrast, in one Carleton meeting room, paintings of past presidents all look so much alike that, as we sit there discussing campus issues, I can’t help but feel unalike and sticky in the face of this “reproduction of likeness” that Ahmed argues tends to be assumed as an “institutional given” (38). Teaching in classroom after classroom of white faces, I try to use this stickiness of my racialized body to ground conversations about our raced identities and our raced practices. I don’t know how to say this gently: being brown in this way is exhausting.

Given this usual feeling of stickiness and exhaustion, walking into a room filled with students of color felt freeing. My racial identity was no longer something hypervisible or invisible, it simply was. When talking about discourses and histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality–key topics in American Studies–I didn’t have to explain, justify, or manage my racialized relationship to my field of study. Unpacking the relationship between whiteness and citizenship could be done without steeling myself for defensiveness.

And, after years of moving towards a pedagogy that attempts to guide students in learning that is affective, I finally felt comfortable enough to take some risks. I remember seeing 12 Years a Slave in the theater with a white friend. Afterwards, we tried to have a conversation where I asked him (spoiler alert) what he thought of the scene where we, the viewers, are not allowed to not see Solomon Northup, left hanging from a tree, in media res of the lynching. The camera cannot not look. The looking lasts. We wait an impossibly long time for the master to return and cut him down. How did it make you feel, I asked him. My friend got upset, in essence asking me how I could even talk about the film at an abstracted level. But, the thing was, I asked him how it made him feel. But this was all too much.

12 Years a Slave in the classroom is also all too much. But with my group of students of color, after we watched it, how we felt became a route into cognition instead of feelings getting cordoned off at the door. What I mean is that, historically, the U.S. classroom privileges rationality over emotion and, as we bring students into our courses, we implicitly and sometimes explicitly ask them to learn how to “gain distance” in order to learn. But this move –one I’d taken for granted for years– means that students who feel particularly affected by a topic like the physical and epistemic violence against people of color in the U.S. must do much more work to manage their emotions while other students skate easily into “rationality.” Or as Dian Million puts it, speaking of indigenous feminist scholarship, “academia repetitively produces gatekeepers to our entry into important social discourses because we feel our histories as well as think them” (her emphasis). Million makes the vital case that, to decolonize our knowledge production, we cannot divorce understanding from feeling.

To think about these emotional reactions as part of our learning meant that we recognized that there is, as Lauren Berlant puts it, a “pedagogy of emotions” that has been unequally engaged and reproduced depending on our social identities. She says, “by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives.” In working through 12 Years a Slave, thinking and feeling about Northup and his absolute powerlessness opened the door for us to consider the empirical and emotional weight of current judicial and law enforcement systems. It allowed us to make historical connections without collapsing the differences in structure, raced lives, and workings of power in these eras.  And while eight out of nine bodies in that classroom were not white, we were not all the same “not white.” This made for various moments of cross-racial recognition but also times of productive dissonance, where someone or another’s voice would emerge to remind us of multiple silences. We held each other accountable to all of our frames of knowing and feeling.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, we claimed our entry into knowledge and history, through feeling. But it also mattered that, in these moments of strong feeling, we could all feel deeply without the worries that have accompanied me in other moments of racially-charged emotional revelation: will I be seen as irrational? can you handle seeing all of me?

Note: Some of the ideas in this post are being developed into a longer essay for the forthcoming collection Difficult Subjects: Radical Teaching in the Neoliberal University, edited by Badia Ahad and OiYan Poon.

Sources/Inspirations:

My students, who are also my teachers.

Ahmed, Sara. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Berlant, Lauren. (2013)  https://societyandspace.com/material/interviews/interview-with-lauren-berlant/. March 22.

Million, Dian. (2009) “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2: 53-76.

Yancy, George and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, ed. (2014) Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms: Scholars of Color Reflect. New York: Routledge.

And always and forever, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, who opened doors for me into what it means to feel my way into knowing.