No snow day for you!

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This past week, Northfield, MN (where Carleton College is located) and the surrounding areas got a lot of snow. Starting Monday morning and going through Monday evening, there were blizzard conditions–gusty winds, blowing snow, little visibility…and the discussion that many of our colleagues were having on social media was about how Carleton chose NOT to declare a snow day. This blog post by our colleague, Amy Csizmar Dalal, highlights how institutional assumptions that faculty and staff can and should make their own decisions about whether to come to work on such a day forces individual workers into unreasonable choices between personal safety and fulfilling their job duties. We agree wholeheartedly with Amy’s conclusion: “Today’s decision by my institution to remain open during a significant storm was foolish and dangerous. It reflects a view of college personnel’s life circumstances (local, child care at the ready, a degree of financial security) that is outdated and out of touch. And providing choices that for many are false choices, is not really a choice at all. I would love to see us rethink such decisions in the future, and be a bit wiser about faculty, staff, and student safety.”

We would like to add that the fact that Carleton’s a residential college complicates how a snow day would work. Because our students live and eat on campus, it’s not feasible for all staff to stay home and not come to work since our students still need access to meals and to essential medical services as well as safe passage to those services (side note: big thanks to all the folks who worked to clear snow from walkways!). However, we do think it’s necessary to create an emergency staffing plan for inclement weather that is publicly available and is disseminated widely to the college campus. This plan might include a list of positions that need to be staffed; a list of employees who are willing and able to volunteer to fill those positions; and a delineation of how employees who do come in will be compensated (including reimbursement for child care and other expenses and arrangements for them to stay on campus overnight if necessary).

Enjoy the snow if that’s your thing and stay safe out there, everyone! And let’s work towards creating institutional policies and practices that err on the side of safety without assuming that everyone has the same level of power to make decisions about whether to go into work during a blizzard.  

How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse

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We received this anonymous question and since we are not sure if the person is a student or faculty/staff person on a college campus, we decided to answer the question assuming it’s a student, though what we have to say can apply more broadly:

“I have become quite concerned with the state of social/political discourse on campus. There does not seem to be any room for any viewpoints which are not decidedly progressive. Even a mostly liberal viewpoint with a caveat is condemned. In many spaces on campus, the only acceptable viewpoint is the 100% fully liberal one with no caveats or references to complexity of the issue at hand. An example of this attitude: any difference between a privileged group and a marginalized group is 100% due to oppression/discrimination and if you suggest any other potential factor, you are complicit/unenlightened/inconsiderate. Only a portion of people perpetuate this culture, but they are the most vocal and end up dominating discussion spaces. What can we as a campus do to improve the state of our social/political discourse?”

Dear Quite Concerned,

Thank you for your question; we appreciate your concerns about the state of social and political discourse on your campus. As we began discussing your question, it became clear that it was open to different interpretations and expectations. We decided to  intersperse our answer with the moments of conversations we had as we discussed it.

First we want to try and unpack your question. The one thing we see in how you start and end is that you’re framing your concern as an institutional one–you’re concerned about the state of campus discourse. The middle, however, is chock-full of frustration about not being heard. In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between how you try to help us see the issue and the way you are experiencing the issue. The phrase “state of social and political discourse” is so broad. Are we talking about classroom culture or lunchroom conversations? Where is this discourse taking place? We emphasize this because, of course, there isn’t one “state of discourse” on any campus; rather, there are multiple spaces of discourse with multiple goals and norms. For example, if I’m in the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus and my goal is to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, that is not a time when I want to have a conversation about whether someone thinks trans identity is “real or not.” Maybe at that point, someone trying to have that particular conversation would get shut down. In other words, we think it’s important to consider different discursive spaces and their expectations. In what contexts are diversity of viewpoints welcome and necessary and for what purpose? We’d go so far as to suggest that a diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily equal a “good” or “healthy” state of political and social discourse; it all depends on the particular discursive space and its –oftentimes unwritten– expectations.

Both of us have gone through trainings to help us lead dialogues, so one of our first moves in discussions about identity and politics, if someone brings up the possibility that we are complicit, unenlightened and inconsiderate, is that we try to take a step back and consider whether we are complicit and inconsiderate. We try to see these moments as learning moments and not necessarily about proving our progressive credentials. We’re wondering if you’ve done that; have you been able to really listen to the stories that matter to people as they reject your point of view?

We ask this because the example that you give, “differences between privileged and marginalized groups,” is vague. We wondered what exactly you meant by that phrase. What differences are we talking about? We can imagine a conversation about, say,  racialized differences in educational outcomes where someone suggests that we should think about “cultural factors” or “IQ” without attending first to societal and structural factors. We would see this suggestion as being complicit in continuation of oppression because there is a long history of people ignoring historical and structural disadvantages. Because of our disciplinary training, we both see larger structural factors as having better explanatory power for the social, economic, and cultural differences we see among groups. We also think that we’re all always complicit in oppression–as individuals, we are embedded in structures and thus help to maintain and reproduce those structures of oppression, regardless of our positionality.

As we thought through your question and considered the ways in which conversations about oppression and privilege require us to consider our own individual complicity in these structures, we surmised that perhaps there are times when you feel a bit browbeaten by these interactions because you are recognizing that complicity.

You can see perhaps that we think it is important for individuals to consider their own resistances and tensions to conversations about power, structure, and racial/class/sexual/gender formations. But all that said, there are times when discussions can feel unproductive and unhelpful on campus; from our viewpoints as faculty,  some student-focused discussion spaces for students, in particular, seem to have become very fraught and divisive. From conversations with colleagues at other colleges, this seems to be a common refrain, reflective of the state of discourse at the national level.

Here’s how we proceed in these kinds of spaces: we recognize that we cannot change what is happening to us; we can only change our reaction. After all, we cannot necessarily change how another person engages in a discussion, but we can become better at listening.

We both believe that all of us can work on listening more closely and with less personal investment in any conversation that is about social justice, about structure. Listening helps us move away from shaming towards naming structures. In other words, shaming others or ourselves does no good when we are trying to understand. At the same time, we need to get better at recognizing when we have positions of power in institutions and societies, this naming of structure can feel personal. Especially for those of us with identity-based positions of privilege, we need to develop that ability to not react right away when you feel like something is challenging you.

One emotion that tends to paralyze a lot of people is anger. While we are worried that people aren’t able to talk to each other because of anger, we deeply believe that we all need to get better at listening to anger and why a person might be angry. People have stories and experiences of discrimination that they need to share, oftentimes without wanting or needing analysis or counterpoint. In one of the groups that we are both a part of, we use meta-language to mark the kind of conversation we need–“this is NOT a problem-solving conversation”–as a way to let our friends know that we want their empathy, not their fixes.

Perhaps we move towards having more productive conversations through such signaling of intent and, in general, if we got better at not just needing to make our point in a conversation– “No, but it’s not about oppression!”–and  just ask questions about stories and experiences.

Adriana: Yes! It’s about dialogue! Ask questions.

Anita; Yeah, but what if somebody says when you are doing all the right things, “Fuck you! You’re complicit!” what do you do at that moment?

{long thoughtful pause}

Adriana: I think a response to pain has to be empathetic. It has to be as open as possible. I’m struck by that moment in the documentary from Stir Fry when the White man says to the woman of color, “I just don’t understand your pain. I really feel terrible, I just don’t understand.” And she says, “Just sit with me. Just sit in my pain with me.” I think the difficult thing about what you were asking me right now is that I can imagine scenarios where someone is super angry with me and I’m just not getting it, I’m unenlightened. I don’t see it yet so I can’t apologize because it wouldn’t be authentic. It would be fake for me to say “I’m sorry” because I need to understand first, but that person can’t teach me because they’re not in that space. So I need to acknowledge that in some way what is happening, where I say, “I hear your anger and I’ll sit with you.”

Anita: Maybe the move you make  when you feel attacked is to listen more, rather than needing to respond more. The thing that we do sometimes…I do it all the time [we all do it!], I think about all the arguments I’ve had where I should have been better at stepping back, taking a breath, and sometimes, yes, I did, but also there are many times when I didn’t.  It’s hard to tell from this question where this person is coming from. I would want to ask them: Have you always been at places before coming to this campus where your viewpoints have always been validated? Imagine going through 12 years of schooling where you’ve had very few people validate your experiences and your perspective. Maybe this campus is the space, for whatever reason, that finally does feel like a space where you can take up more space than you have been able to before. Imagine that when people shut you down, sometimes it’s terrible and they should do better, but other times, where is that coming from? Can you have this moment of empathy, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced being shut down before coming to this campus?

We don’t know, from your question, what campus you’re on, but we’re going to imagine you here at Carleton. We’ll imagine that you think of yourself as liberal. You’re going to all these events and you’re realizing you’re not as liberal as you thought. And you see that there are critiques of the liberal logic of the world which make it seem like this campus has no space for you. In the between-the-lines of your question, we hear that you want to feel like your voice matters too. And a lot of what we’re saying is that sometimes your voice doesn’t matter and that hurts.

But what we’re saying is perhaps your voice doesn’t always need to matter. For example, if people are talking about differences between privileged and marginalized groups, why do you feel the need to bring up other factors? Are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to think about other ways to change things?  As we mentioned earlier, we’re both structuralists. To us, saying that we need to change cultures or people, without changing oppressive structures, seems to us to be replicating a colonialist model that blames people for their own circumstances.

Because your example is vague, we thought through a hypothetical example that would apply to our positions as faculty.

Let’s say there was a review of tenure cases in the past 25 years, and we see a trend of faculty of color getting tenure at lower rates than White faculty. When the two of us would talk about it, we’d start by talking about the structures on campus that might be making it harder for faculty of color to get tenure. If another faculty member at that meeting said, “Well, maybe we should think about how faculty of color aren’t as good teachers. Maybe faculty of color have inferior publication records,” we would feel that this person was missing the point. We’d argue that they’re justifying discrimination against faculty of color and reinscribing minority status because we’re starting with the assumption that faculty of color are as qualified as White faculty. We probably would react with emotion, perhaps anger, and while that might make that faculty member feel like we’re attacking them, we’re actually just pointing to the fact that we need to get to the structural factors before jumping to the “faculty of color are deficient” narratives. We’re also well-versed on a large body of research on the long history of tropes of people of color not being as qualified as explanations for why there are so few people of color in institutions. We’re always trying to work against that kind of narrative.

Finally, the other thing we hear you saying is that making the case for structural factors/discrimination is a “simple” one. We would say that to talk about structural factors as we would in this faculty tenure example is to discuss a complex set of a factors that coordinate to reproduce the position of these faculty of color.

We want to end by commending you for caring so much about having these conversations, and trying to figure out what that can and might look like. In a future post, we plan to discuss our thoughts about call out culture in the age of social media and the possibilities of coalition politics. For right now, though, we’d just remind you and our other readers that face-to-face conversations matter. They’re hard. When you have them, you’ll see the look on people’s faces when you call them names or get really angry, you’ll see them shut down, and you’re hopefully going to think about whether that’s your end goal. If you just want to shut people down, go right ahead. But if the goal is –as we hope– to generate new communities and new systems of justice and a better future, we need to recognize that we live in a fucked up system, but we’re not going to make it any better by using the same fucked up ways of engaging with each other.

P.S. A quick note about how we would address this question a bit differently if it comes from a faculty member: We would say that we have institutional power, so if a student is saying to us, “you’re a terrible person” we don’t have to take it so personally. We have to have more sympathy and empathy and even when we might feel attacked, our job is to listen. Also, in our classrooms, we can set up discussion norms to make sure no one is dominating for whatever reason. We can use our power wisely!

P.P.S. If you want to submit a question, you can do so here.

 

Reading the Room –> Responding to Crisis

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As teachers who rely on discussion and dialogue as pedagogical tools, we are often put in the position where we have to “read” the classroom–figuring out, for example, when it might be time to move on to a new topic or when there are questions or confusions about the theories or vocabulary we’re encountering in the readings. At these moments, we try to read the mood of the individual students in the class as well as of the class as a whole, sometimes deciding to surface questions and concerns that the students themselves seem hesitant to voice. Beyond helping us develop more effective discussions and learning spaces, this work of “reading” the room also helps us decide whether and how to respond to events–local or not–that potentially impact our community. For example, after an accident that killed three Carleton students, Anita decided to open her class sessions by giving time for students to share anything they wanted to. In one class, that discussion took up the entire class session and in another, the class felt ready to move on to the activity she had planned before the accident happened. And on the day after U.S. election day 2016, Adriana made space in her class for a discussion of students’ reactions to the results. She noticed that many of the students seemed depleted and others seemed numb, so she let them know that if they wanted to remain quiet, they could. While the discussion began slowly, eventually all the students were engaged in an emotional and honest conversation about their hopes and fears. She made sure to check in later with one student who was particularly upset; that person was grateful for the space to talk, saying it had been strange to walk through campus as if their lives were the same as yesterday.

While we believe it is the shared responsibility of the teacher and the students in any classroom context to create the classroom culture, we do feel that we are in a position of power and responsibility as “leaders” of the classroom. Just as we work hard to read the mood of and needs within our classroom, we think that larger institutions should be trying to do similar work at a macro level. Over the years we have heard several of our students voice their desire for the college administration to speak more often and more powerfully and clearly about particular kinds of issues; they perceive that deans and presidents are the “leaders” of campuses and therefore have a unique responsibility to speak up and speak out. Most recently, the members of the editorial team of Carleton’s student newspaper noted that students “look to our administration for direction and support.” They called on the administration “to have strong, clear responses when events, both local and national, threaten students.” Carleton’s administration doesn’t even have to read the room here; they just have to read the newspaper.*

One of the administrative responses mentioned in the editorial was the one to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this summer. Given that Carleton was not in session at the time, we thought it would be interesting to read the responses of President Sullivan and the University of Virginia (UVA), since her administration needed to put out several statements in real time as events unfolded. In this way, these communiques give us a chance to see a college administration “reading the room” and adjusting their language and tone to–we presume–the needs of the community.

The first statement, put out a week before the expected Charlottesville rally, emphasizes First Amendment rights to free speech and rights of assembly while noting that the groups marching represent groups that contradict UVA values. However, we noticed that President Sullivan didn’t use the terms “race,” “racism,” or “white supremacy.” 

The set of responses that immediately followed the Friday night march described the “hateful behavior” of “torch-bearing protestors” and understandably emphasized the safety and security of the college community. In one of these statements, Pres. Sullivan labeled the protestors “alt-right,” which at that time still occupied liminal status as a “good enough” word to name white supremacy. She continued to emphasize First Amendment rights, though she did note that acts of violence are not protected.

On August 13, that Sunday, she releases two statements after the death of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia state police. In one, addressed to the university community, she expresses sympathy and condolences but doesn’t name the specific racial violence. In the statement to alumni and “friends of the university,” she notes that there were “racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and misogynistic chants.” The difference between these two statements is intriguing to us. We lean towards thinking of it generously; keeping the university calm must have been a priority at the time. Yet on the same day, the university rector sent out a statement where he uses terms like “evil” and “white supremacist”; his particular religious standing gives him, we think, a way to denounce the gathering that might not be open to President Sullivan at that moment.

A week later, a community message is sent by President Sullivan, emphasizing that she has heard her community’s concerns about safety. She delineates a number of steps to achieve it, like hiring additional people for the “Ambassadors Program” and reviewing and adjusting policies about public gatherings. Finally, though, and importantly to us, she assures that the university is reaching out to those students and employees “injured by white supremacists.” This is the first time she uses this specific term, indicating with this usage as well as with other language about listening, that she is “reading the room” and figuring out what her community needs from her.

At the end, reading the room is only the beginning of the process. As teachers and leaders, we strive to read our classrooms and campuses in order to provide guidance and we try to be as transparent as possible about what those next steps are. Reading the room is nothing without clear follow through. Calling something “white supremacy” isn’t going to end white supremacy but it’s a start. Developing a common language and set of values makes possible the imagining of common futures. 

Notes

[*]After we wrote this post but before we published it, we received a campus-wide email from college administration, letting us know that a swastika had been found in a classroom. The email named the symbol as an expression of hate and justly pointed out that this kind of speech does not further anyone’s goals of intellectual exchange. It also detailed the steps the college is going to take to investigate the incident and to create a culture where we all are more respectful and inclusive. (Indeed, for those of you on Carleton campus, please consider attending this panel discussion “Responding to Charlottesville” Wednesday, October 18th.)

Just last night an update was sent, letting campus know that the swastika had been drawn in the course of a class discussion. While we’re both glad to know that there had been no actual hateful graffiti, we were also glad to see that the administration still plans to continue with the steps outlined in the previous email, promoting dialogue, reflection, and proactive deliberation about how we might/should/could deal with hate in our community.

Reckoning with Institutional Histories of Racism

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The last couple of years have seen a number of colleges and universities reckon with their institutional histories of racism. Inspired in part by a comprehensive history of St. Olaf institutional racism researched and written by St. Olaf students, we wanted to compile here a links round up that recognizes the complicated and challenging work of institutional reckoning. One central theme we see is that are students definitely driving these conversations with their demands that their institutions live up to their current mission statements and educational ideals. We also note that figuring out what to do in the wake of seeing the depth and persistence of institutional racism is no easy task.

Georgetown University, notably, has made commitments to offer preferential admission to descendants of the slaves sold to benefit Georgetown, as well as “offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution…In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.”

At Rutgers University, distinguished from other schools that have done this kind of work in that it is a public university, student organizing around improving the racial campus climate eventually led to a commision of a committee to examine and publish a report on the history of both the slave-owning founders of the university and the displacement of Indigenous committees on the land that was given to the university.

Christopher P. Lehman, a professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, presented his findings on Governor William Aiken Jr.’s contribution to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1800s, which show that Aiken’s money came from the slave trade. At the time of his presentation in the fall of 2016, the Social Concerns Committee of the U. of MN questioned the findings; a follow-up letter from Professor Lehman argues that U. of MN should take these issues seriously. He suggests that the committee reconsider their decision not to pursue the question and, in particular, asks, “what will the University do to let its students, faculty and staff know this—students especially? As a professor, I teach my students to pursue the truth and present it with thoughtful and careful analysis, even if that truth is unpleasant and painful to read and is contrary to traditional narratives. The fact that the University is not discussing this matter further only highlights how much the University community at large needs to know what the University refuses to discuss.”

One of the considerations that makes it complicated to figure out what to do with the historical unearthing of violence that led to the creation of universities is the form of reparation that should be made. We appreciated the point made by R.L. Stephens on this issue: Harvard has a $37 billion endowment…[and yet] dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves. The university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.”

An interview with MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which examines the relationship between the slave economy and history of higher education in the United States serves as a sign of the increased attention to and need for historical reckonings, which makes us wonder:

How are your institutions dealing with their histories of racism, collusion with the slave trade, and/or displacement of Indigenous communities?

“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!

 

Shoutout to St. Olaf students

Students sitting in at Tomson Hall, St. Olaf College. Image source

Last Friday, videos of a student protest and rally at St. Olaf College started popping up on our Facebook feeds. As we watched the livestream and checked in with faculty friends who teach there, we were quickly impressed and inspired by the students’ organization and determination. Led by students of color at the school, the protests were sparked both by recent events (notes left on students’ cars that used racial slurs and threatened violence) and by longstanding experiences of marginalization on a predominantly White campus. With today’s brief post, we want to spotlight the students’ statement of their experiences, their demands, and their terms of engagement with the administration.

Here are some links to the mainstream local and national coverage of what was happening on the campus.

Minnesota Public Radio

New York Times

Washington Post

Feminist formations, Part III: Our Friendship Meets the Bechdel Test ALL THE TIME

(What’s the Bechdel Test? Glad you asked.)

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We started the blog because as women, as women of color, we felt like we were constantly being told what to do — this was our way of carving out online space where we could write about what we want, the way we want. In today’s blog post, we write about a couple of examples of how the kinds of constraints we discussed in our posts about our feminist beginnings show up in our workplace now; about times we’ve been asked to accommodate to the existing structures and practices–and have been actively discouraged from being and doing “different.” For both of us, our gendered experiences at Carleton are very much intertwined with our racialized experiences. We were hired at least in part because we are women of color–we bring our “diverse” bodies to the institution so that the institution can be “diverse.” But actually wanting to do things differently based on our experiences, identities, and ideas isn’t always welcome. As Sara Ahmed puts it, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal commitments” (90).

One place where this kind of reluctance about imagining that things can be done differently is when it comes to “traditions” on campus. When Anita first started working at Carleton, one of her favorite traditions on campus were the weekly convocation talks. Because part of what appealed to her was the idea of all community members sitting and being together, she did not particularly care for the tradition of “opening convocation” where faculty and staff had to wear their robes, line up by status, and sit separately from the rest of the audience. So she did at opening convocation what she did at other weekly convocations–she took a seat in the audience. Everything seemed fine until one year when she ended up sitting in the very front because she wanted to sit with a new faculty member. After that convocation, a senior colleague talked to her about how they, as well as a few other faculty members, saw Anita’s action as “an affront to faculty” and told her that she either needed to show up in robes and sit with the faculty or not show up at all. At the time, as an untenured faculty member, Anita ended up going to the opening convo in robes and sitting with the faculty. She decided to “pass institutionally”–“the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference” (Ahmed,131). But now that Anita has tenure…

Adriana arrived at Carleton with a lot of ghosts haunting her in the background. This would happen at any institution, and part of what tenure-track faculty struggle to figure out is which ghosts matter and therefore should be listened to carefully. One of Adriana’s specters was a very material, historical queue of those who had taught Latinx studies or been Latinx at Carleton before she got there; stepping into this queue, Adriana understood she had to figure out what the institution had appreciated or what had “worried” it about what each of these very different scholars had brought. What we mean is that people around her told her stories, and she knew she had to listen to these stories to understand what paths ahead were available. One set of circulating stories concerned a Latina faculty member who worked at Carleton in the 70s and 80s. In these stories, she was narrated as always asking the institution to think about race and gender which made her a burr in the side of the college. Adjectives stuck to her in these stories: difficult, angry, demanding, troublesome. While she made it through the tenure process and stayed at Carleton quite a while, this is not the way Adriana heard the stories, which instead always emphasized her leave-taking, in a flurry of disappointment and anger. Adriana was also regaled with tales of a beloved visiting professor; this set of stories emphasized how this professor had students over to their house all the time, creating a welcoming and warm environment for Latinx students. The subtext Adriana heard was that, in being hired to teach Latinx studies, it was also her job to make Carleton a home for Latinxs students. Adriana bristled at the implication that she should be always available to students in a way that felt particularly targeted and, because her son was four years old at the time, she knew that she couldn’t perform the particular kind of labor that these stories seemed to ask of her. With both these stories, Adriana came up against the fact that “an institution willing to appoint someone (to transform the institution) is not the same thing as an institution being willing to be transformed (by someone who is appointed)” (Ahmed, 94). The stories informed her of her place and, while she refused some of these expectations, they weighed on her and worried her until she earned tenure.

It’s exhausting to come up against these kinds of expectations and resistance to change or critique. A university administrator quoted in Ahmed’s book describes doing diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” One thing that has been so important to our survival and persistence in academia and at Carleton has been our friendship. We are feminist killjoys together.

Our feminist friendship is based on:

  • Laughing, often loudly and hysterically
  • Critiquing institutions when they uphold racist, sexist, classist dynamics
  • Holding each other up and believing each other when we tell stories about racism, sexism, classism, etc.
  • Our adoration of Shonda Rhimes
  • Butter and brussel sprouts cooked in butter
  • Our complicated brown families
  • Wordsmithing
  • Enthusiastic interruptions and then bashful recognition of the interruptions
  • Love of social theories that help explain structural inequalities
  • Rigorous debates about the role of love in justice
  • Board games
  • Adriana’s son’s love of Anita and her return of that love
  • Going to live performances (concerts, plays, etc.)
  • Negotiating our complicated relationship to Americanness
  • Music that makes us dance in many languages
  • Discussions about pedagogy, student-centered learning, reflective practices
  • The joys and frustrations of working in a HWCU and PWI
  • Gesturing wildly as we speak
  • Holding up a larger mirror for our students of color so that they can see that they are not alone, in which they can see us and them; being “possibility” models as Laverne Cox puts it.
  • Modeling vulnerability for each other and students
  • Being braver together
  • Checking each other
  • Passion for chocolate
  • Our love for Heben & Tracy
  • Being there for each other
  • Making room for our differences
  • Honest conversations about sex and sexuality
  • Non-heteronormative family formations
  • Movie marathons as alternative holiday celebrations
  • Talking about money
  • Idris Elba

Some of these may seem silly or like something superficial, but it is precisely the mix, the combination of the shared “pop” and the shared “serious” that create the strong glue that holds us together in the face of a world and institutions that pull us apart as individuals in order to ensure our institutional conformity.

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[Source: ETSY!]

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017).