Mission: A (More) Socially Just Approach To Education

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Finally!  After 10 years of higher education (including six of graduate training), my hard work has paid off.  The interchangeable titles of “Dr. Grollman,” “Professor Grollman,” and “Eric Anthony Grollman, Ph.D.” are official and still very pleasant to my ears and embattled ego (re: the beating that is graduate school).  With summer’s end quickly approaching, the time has come to get settled into my office at the University of Richmond, and finalize my course preps for the fall semester.  So, while far from “settled,” here it is:

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Or, what I should say is, that is how it looked earlier this week.  I posted this picture on Facebook to share my excitement.  This is the first time in my life — nearly 30 years — that I have an office to call my own.  Friends expressed congratulations and excitement.  But, some asked how I would actually decorate the office.  Sure, the bookshelves are filled and the technology is set up.  But, the walls are bare.

So, I started to wonder how I might decorate the office in a way that reflects me, my needs, my interests and aspirations, while also welcoming others.  As someone who is very open about being an activist at heart, this necessarily warrants the question of demonstrating my passion for social justice and advocacy, while navigating the real concerns of department and institutional politics (which are, at this early point, largely unknown to me).

Accessibility, Appreciation, & Affirmation

Since my Facebook connections had sparked these questions, and already offered some preliminary suggestions, I posed the following request for more specific suggestions:

Taking suggestions for decorating my office! Please?

Key details to know:

  • I want to push the envelope (no surprise) and refuse to be something I’m not;
  • I want to get tenure without any trouble;
  • I will be meeting with students from various backgrounds;
  • I want to signal to my queer, trans*, anti-racist, womanist, feminist, disabled, first-generation, poor, immigrant, and fat students that they have an ally in the department;
  • the office has green carpet, green walls, wood desk, bookcases, and door, and decent amount of natural sunlight.

And, the suggestions came pouring in:

  1. Hire an interior decorator who could navigate these conflicting needs.
  2. Become a member of the university’s Safe Zone program to signal that I am an ally to (and, in my case, a member of) LGBT communities.  This would come with a sticker featuring a rainbow-colored upside-down triangle and the words “Safe Zone” to affix to my door.
  3. Remember that the books stored in my office say a lot about me, as well.
  4. Purchase artwork or posters inspired by literature, culture, activism, etc.
  5. Purchase a corkboard to feature students’ work, cards and other gestures of appreciation from students, flyers for on-campus events, etc.  These would place more focus on the advocacy on campus today, rather than relying on imagery from past (e.g., portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King).
  6. Hang family photos.
  7. Place a candy jar on my desk.
  8. Purchase a lava lamp.

There was a light, almost humorous tone to the exchange overall.  But, these were genuine suggestions for ways to signal that I appreciate students from all backgrounds, and wish to welcome them into my office.  I have taken a position at a liberal arts college after all, so teaching and mentoring are central to my job.

The above list of suggestions was topped off by a well thought out, very detailed recommendation from a friend (Carrie Tilton-Jones) who is a strong, kind, bright advocate.  She noted that “the built and decorated environment speaks volumes and impacts behavior so much.”  She went on to give specific suggestions:

  • At least one chair without arms to accommodate fat individuals.
  • An aisle wide enough for folks who use mobility aids to get through – that’s 32″.
  • A cork board with flyers for student groups and events and/or pro-diversity stuff from the university itself would go a long way. Being willing to promote cool things students do not only shows an openness to whatever cause that group champions, but also gestures toward putting students first, which most universities conspicuously fail to do.
  • Also – big +1 on making it homey and personal. Hours under fluorescent lights listening to people with tons of privilege can flat suck the life out of you. A cozy office is a subtle way to flip the finger at the impersonality of institutions. Think about a lamp with an incandescent bulb, a rug, personal photos, a plant or two, a loveseat with a throw blanket over the back if you have room for it.
  • Plants will help with air quality; but if it’s an old building with iffy ventilation, you might think about an air purifier, too.

I was floored by my friend’s suggestions in a number of ways.  First, I had not realized that there were so many ways in which offices typically are not accessible and welcoming.  And, that there were so many things that I should consider if I am to take seriously my mission to make my office welcoming to all students.  Second, she nudged me a bit to recognize ways in which I am privileged, and thus do not have to consider certain additional concerns.  By default, the office has “enough” space; but, I had not taken extra steps to ensure that it is accessible all around.  Third — the thing that kept me up a bit last night — was how the office may feel very uninviting, impersonal, and even oppressive.  (That was hard for me to write — that I may oppress some of my students, even if that only means unintentionally contributing to the overall climate of the institution.)

Toward A Socially Just Education

So, what started as a lighthearted request for decoration tips has led me to think seriously about how I can commit to a social justice-informed approach to teaching and mentoring.  I have read (and loved) Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and keep telling myself to purchase bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress.  I have given some thought to what I have appreciated from my own education (and what I did not).  But, now sitting in the professor’s seat, I was beginning to slip away from a serious commitment to a socially just approach to education.

The first order of business was to think critically about the setup of my office.  Sure, putting up pictures, posters, and flyers is a good start.  But, I realized that the actual arrangement of the major furniture may not convey the climate of access, appreciation, and affirmation that I hope for.  Somehow, I had forgotten about the awesome meeting I had with the dean when I interviewed for the position at UR.  The Dean – now that is intimidating for a prospective assistant professor who is really just a nervous, awkward graduate student in the midst of dissertating.  But, the dean’s warm, inviting presence put me at ease somewhat.  She invited me to have a seat so that we could talk.  As I entered her spacious office, I was surprised to see that a table with four chairs was at the center of the room.  Her desk was off to the side of the room.  We sat at the table, face to face, uninterrupted by a huge wooden desk that enshrined her while leaving me open and vulnerable.  I felt so at ease because, structurally and interpersonally, she made every possible effort to remove the power difference between us.

So, here is where I am heading with the new, more inviting setup:

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I have cleared the floorspace in the center of the office.  And, my workspace is no longer facing the door, taking away the intimidating visual of facing forward to anyone who enters.  And, soon, I will purchase a small table to create the corner meeting area (see the two chairs on the left).  As best as possible, I hope to recreate what the dean has in her office (and what I have seen other professors and administrators have).  From my experience, I suspect that this will be less intimidating to my students.  I would also like to purchase a rug to break up the brown (furniture) on green (carpet) on green (walls) color scheme.  If space allows, I could move the meeting table to the center of the office, putting in its current position a small couch.

But, the office is just a start.  As I continue to prepare my courses, I need to be more explicitly drawing on principles of social justice.  While educating my students about the particular topic, I have in mind as my secondary goals empowering and affirming my students, and encouraging them to connect their lives and communities to course materials and vice versa.

Some Lingering Reservations

As I have already mentioned, I do feel slight ambivalence about these decisions and changes.  While I do not want a boring office that merely serves as a work space, I also do not want to jeopardize my relationships with my colleagues and students.  Getting tenure and having a positive rapport with my fellow members of this academic community are more important to me than shocking or upsetting others in the name of social justice.  But, as many know, there may be a fine line, and too often the threshold comes close to demanding silence and assimilation.

Beyond those concerns, I also worry about stripping away the hierarchy between my students and me so much that some may either take me less seriously or even attempt to take advantage of me.  This concern is heightened first because I am a brown queer pre-tenure professor, and second because many students are simply accustomed to these rigid power dynamics.  While aiming to empower my students, I am not comfortable being on a first-name basis with them; I would consider calling my students Mx./Miss/Mrs./Mr. [last name] before letting them refer to me by my first.  I am not looking to become friends with my students.  So, I will have to figure out how to limit the things that disempower or belittle my students, while maintaining professional boundaries wherein they respect me as a teacher and mentor (rather than as a peer or friend).

So, as this will likely be a journey of sorts, I have decided to give into chronicling my life as an assistant professor at a liberal arts university.  As outspoken as I am, I tend to forgo public discussions of in-house matters for fear of any professional consequences.  (Call it what it is — getting tenure!)  But, I feel that I can argue that figuring these kinds of things out contributes to education and academe.  I certainly would like to hear others’ thoughts, and would like to think I may inspire other professors and teachers to think seriously about pursuing a socially just approach to education.

Additional Resources

First, what came to mind as I read my friend’s awesome suggestions was Dr. Tristan Bridge’s blog, Inequality by (Interior) Design.  His blog post on “Teaching Privilege without Perpetuating Privilege” taps into many of the issues I have brought up, including classroom dynamics.

I also appreciate the perspective of “John” (a pseudonym) at Memoirs of a SLACer.  (That “John” does not give a real identity makes me wonder whether I should be more cautious in my own blogging, even at a liberal arts college.  But, in my case, I was already blogging, and pretty open about it, when I was interviewed and offered the position at UR.)  “John” has some interesting posts on getting tenure, lectures, class discussion, etc. at liberal arts institutions.

I welcome other suggested resources, as well!