Moving Toward A Pedagogy Of Sadness, Anger, And Love

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jenny Heineman holds a Ph.D. in sociology and currently teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Heineman’s work centers on issues related to the body and intellectualism, particularly the intersection of sex work, feminist theory and critical pedagogy.

Where Universes Expand

Recently, a team of Finnish scientists asked people to map out where they felt different emotions on their bodies. The mapping patterns were similar, even across cultures. For example, participants mapped sadness onto the heart, and happiness tended to include the arms, legs and belly. Interestingly, people mapped pride and shame onto the head and described the rest of the body as “deactivated” in prideful or shameful situations.

These findings are significant for marginalized academics, because they demonstrate the embodied experience of emotion. Feeling is of the body. That means that we are marginalized at an intersection of identity, body and emotion. Those recent findings also tell us something significant about the relationship between bodies, emotions and perceptions of intellectual rigor. Emotions of the head are valued more in academe than are emotions of the heart. Pride is associated with intellectualism, while sadness, anger and love are ostensibly anti-intellectual.

I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger last semester, and not just because of the emboldened vitriol of racists and misogynists following the 2016 presidential election. After nearly 20 years of chronic pain, I was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis. The disease, given free rein for two decades, flourished inside several organs outside my uterus. I underwent an emergency hysterectomy, which in turn sent me into menopause at the age of 32.

I didn’t feel sadness and anger, however, because of what these changes meant for me in terms of gender. As a queer parent, I did not feel the pangs of “losing [my] womanhood,” as the aftercare pamphlet (and infinite online blogs) suggested I might. I’ve never been keen on status-quo notions of womanhood.

Instead, I felt the loss of an entire universe, an absence deep inside my body where I once nurtured and grew a glorious child. I felt the imbalance of my body, struggling to survive its new environment, the dearth of estrogen and the surge of testosterone engendering a particular emotionality. If I were to map my pain onto my body, my head would be entirely deactivated.

Given my experience, I was not surprised to read course evaluations from that semester wherein students described my teaching style as “too emotional.” While I am unabashedly open in the classroom, menopause added another layer of emotionality. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to hide a hot flash. Moreover, while mourning the loss of my singularity, my universe, I also grappled with bouts of sobbing and the cruelty of apathy. “I don’t want to talk about your vagina,” a close family member said after my surgery, as if apathy were the only appropriate boundary between good, healthy heady bodies and bad, mourning hyperaware bodies.

Likewise, my emotionality in the classroom obligated students to acknowledge the parts of me below my head. Acknowledging my sadness and my body forced students out of their apathetic bubbles. On the heels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s transphobic comments that “trans women are trans women,” for example, I asked my Intro to Sociology class if I am a “real” woman even though I no longer had a uterus. The topic of the week was gender and the question was understandably uncomfortable. My students squirmed in their seats, unwilling to make eye contact with me or their classmates. I then asked the class to interrogate their sheepishness. “We talk about other people’s bodies in class all the time,” I said.

After a long pause, one student proclaimed, “Because it’s just … embarrassing!” The proclamation sent warm quivers over my flesh as I delighted in her brilliant and unguarded observation. And she was right! Acknowledging the complexity and vulnerability of our own bodies is embarrassing. It is emotional. It requires us to be open to the bodily sensations we actively ignore in intellectual spaces. It requires us to take up residency in our own skin.

But here’s the thing: marginalized academics lack the privilege of invisibility in academe. We don’t have the choice to ignore all those pins and needles below our heads because it is precisely those sensations — and the knowledges they engender — that are constantly up for scrutiny in academe. It is not incidental, for example, that fat bodies, ill bodies, brown bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, sex-working bodies, neurodivergent bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, et cetera, are positioned as biased, subjective, irrational, emotional and divisive in academe. Even cold, hard data show that student course evaluations are biased against folks with marginalized bodies and identities and the emotions they presumably create. Students are skeptical of professors who are more than walking heads. That skepticism translates to criticism on course evaluations, which in turn sours one’s promotional opportunities or perception of intellectual rigor more generally.

For a queer former sex worker like me, sitting at the intersection of queerness, femininity, stigmatized labor, chronic illness and now menopause means that my body and my self are hypervisible. In course evaluations, my hypervisible body translates to a biased emotionality, because my knowledge does not come from just the head. Instead, it comes from a whole lot of anger, a ton of sadness and a great deal of love. Bringing in knowledge that comes from the entire body, not just the head, means stripping down to one’s most elemental human parts. It means standing stark naked in the midst of embarrassment and vulnerability. It means remaining naked even when your exposure threatens your entire livelihood. And most of the time, it means doing all of this without your enthusiastic consent.

Afro-pessimists like Jared Sexton argue for an epistemology that comes from marginalized bodies, emotions and experiences. Sexton argues that marginalized bodies — namely, black bodies — are pushed to the margins of society where they face social and literal death. A truly revolutionary epistemology, then, should not fear or propagate death, but rather begin with it.

I would add that a bodycentric critical pedagogy must also begin with the margins. A bodycentric critical pedagogy informed by Afro-pessimism and queerness must bring the body into the classroom by acknowledging sadness, anger and love as equally valid ways of knowing the world. Rather than demanding regurgitation in the classroom — what Paulo Freire called the “banking” concept of education — we have to center the experiences and emotions that come from the margins. For example, rather than asking our students, “How was your weekend?” instead ask, “Did any of you experience police brutality this weekend?” This is a simple way to center bodies at the heart of necropolitics and the anger, mourning and sadness brimming in those bodies. It is also a love song to those bodies and experiences.

But it’s not just about students’ bodies and emotions. It is about ours, as educators, too. If your body aches with chronic illness, if it carries the everlasting scars of state-sanctioned injustice, if your heart bleeds with the pain of living under a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy, bring that bodily emotionality into the classroom. Let yourself cry when you show the famed Stanley Milgram experiments because you know what unfettered authority feels like. Let yourself delight in talking about Miss Major because you know exactly where resistance and love live in your own body. Let yourself rejoice when students write, “She’s too emotional” on course evaluations rather than settling into that familiar, heady space of shame.

Most important, let us all commit to memory (and heart) the profound and sacred knowledge of the margins. It is only at the margins, after all, where universes expand.

A Call For LGBTQ-Inclusive Research On Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Sarah A. Stephens is completing her bachelor of arts in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently finishing an honors thesis about survey methodology in IPV and LGBTQ research. She may be reached at her website, Please Stand Up.

Sexual Violence Research Must Be LGBTQ Inclusive

For as long as I can remember, I have heard other people say, “Rape isn’t about sex — it’s about power.” The word “power” itself is not gendered, but in the context of sexual violence dialogue, that sentence is gendered. In the early days of sexual violence and intimate partner violence research, “power” became synonymous with “patriarchy.” Nowadays we hear about “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture,” but the conversation is still highly gendered and heteronormative.

Before I address sexual violence in academe, I want to provide some background and context for my interest in the subject. When I first came out in 1994, I identified as a lesbian; today, I identify as queer. For much of my young adulthood, I was behaviorally bisexual. This means that even though I identified as a lesbian, I was not exclusively involved with feminine people.

When I was 20, I was involved with a heterosexual cisgender man. Although he would have probably exercised coercive control in any relationship, my sexual orientation intensified the situation. He used my sexuality against me, saying, “Since you’ve been with women and you’re with me now, I cannot trust you with men or women.” From his perspective, because I was (behaviorally) bisexual, I was incapable of monogamy (a tired biphobic stereotype), and therefore he was justified in cutting off the friends that I had, preventing me from making new ones and monitoring my time and actions. He timed me when I rode my bike to 7-Eleven, stating, “If you’re not back in 15 minutes, I’m coming to look for you.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control report “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation,” more than 60 percent of bisexual women experience some form of intimate partner violence or sexual violence. As a survivor of IPV, I felt simultaneously validated and depressed upon discovering this information. I knew that I was not alone, but I was saddened that the rate was so high.

Heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTQ people alike experience various types of abuse: sexual violence, coercive control, physical violence, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, reproductive control, stalking and so on. However, for LGBTQ victims, there are additional layers of victimization that are not present in cisgender, heterosexual relationships.

For example, coercive control may include the threat of being outed, which may result in the loss of employment, housing or child custody. Same-gender IPV is often seen as a “fair fight” from the perspective of law enforcement, counselors and other social workers. And the heteronormative framing of sexual violence and IPV prevents many LGBTQ victims from even realizing that what they are experiencing is abuse. As I sought more information, a hard truth revealed itself.

Two Forms Of Deafening Silence

I am originally from Oklahoma, but I was living in Texas when I came out. Those were not the best places to be queer, especially in the mid-1990s. Additionally, I grew up and came out in a time when LGBTQ people were virtually invisible. Lack of representation is incredibly invalidating and psychologically destructive. It is even worse than being the subject of debate. At least if politicians, the media, researchers and the like are talking about LGBTQ folks, we exist. For me, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the silence was deafening.

Today, I am an undergraduate sociology major with an interest in LGBTQ studies and queer theory. I am also 41 years old. I mention my age to highlight the fact that I am not where I am by accident. I am deeply invested — emotionally, psychologically and intellectually — in this field. Despite the awareness I gained last semester about the challenges of being queer in academe, my goals are still to complete my doctorate in sociology and conduct research in gender and sexuality. Specifically, I am interested in how the gendered framing of sexual violence and IPV negatively affects LGBTQ communities and the subject over all.

The 2016-17 academic year was my hardest one yet, and it is because I again encountered that deafening silence — this time, in the context of sociological research. Don’t get me wrong: I knew academe has its issues, just like the rest of society. But I was surprised to find such a complete lack of research published in mainstream sociological journals about LGBTQ individuals and communities. After all, LGBTQ issues are being represented at ever increasing rates. That is where my naivety revealed itself. I thought that if The Huffington Post, National Geographic and Vice News were reporting on LGBTQ issues, I should not have any problems finding articles in mainstream sociology journals. I was wrong.

What I found regarding IPV research in LGBTQ communities came from LGBTQ-specific journals, such as Journal of Bisexuality, Journal of Homosexuality and Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling. Those journals are publishing extraordinary work, and I am grateful they exist. But with every article I read, I thought, “Nobody cares about us but us.” And, as I worked on a research project for a class that required the use of articles from mainstream sociological journals, this thought repeatedly went through my head: “We really are invisible.”

Deafening. Silence. The message that silence sends is that LGBTQ people are not a significant enough population to study and that we have nothing to contribute. I argue that the opposite is true. Understanding of sexual violence and IPV will be stalled until we dig deeper into their underlying sociological phenomena.

Breaking The Silence

I recognize that LGBTQ individuals are a numerical minority. I understand that most people are cisgender and heterosexual. I recognize there are challenges with sampling procedures and operationalization when studying sexual and gender minorities. I can see how people involved in research — from the researchers themselves to the funding sources to the universities in which research takes place — take the stance that resources should go to the largest majority of victims (cisgender, heterosexual women).

But the fact that IPV and sexual violence are found in lesbian and gay relationships proves that there is more to the phenomenon than cisgender, heterosexual men victimizing cisgender, heterosexual women. Which leads back the sentiment I echoed at the beginning: sexual violence is not about sexual activity or desire — it is about power.

I also recognize that masculinity is held in higher esteem in our society than femininity, which lends itself to more abuse of power. I am not saying that sexual violence has nothing to do with toxic masculinity; I am saying that toxic masculinity is not exclusive to cisgender, heterosexual men. For example, cisgender lesbians and trans men can also be misogynistic and/or abusive. Additionally, we are all socialized in rape culture, regardless of our identities. Including LGBTQ individuals in IPV and sexual violence research has the potential to shift the focus from seeing sex as a variable that is used to explain prevalence (he did it because he is a man) to one variable among many. These variables could include economic status, drug and alcohol abuse, history of abuse in childhood, or internalized biphobia, homophobia or transphobia.

Sociology is well suited to this inquiry. While criminology and feminist studies argue about gender symmetry in IPV (such as whether women abuse men as much as men abuse women), sociology could be, and should be, asking different questions. For example, how do power and dominance relate to ideas of gender, and how do those ideas manifest in all types of relationships? How do power and dominance intersect with race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, disability, and sexual orientation? How can queer theory be incorporated into sociological research, particularly to understand sexual violence?

It is time that we start finding answers to those questions. It is time to recognize that even though LGBTQ people are a numerical minority, we have distinct insights and contributions to offer. The lives of all victims of sexual violence and intimate partner violence depend on it.

#TransingHigherEdSyllabus: Building Community Through A Syllabus

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Z Nicolazzo is an assistant professor in the adult and higher education program and faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. You can follow Z on Twitter at @trans_killjoy as well as on hir website (www.znicolazzo.weebly.com).

Building Community Through A Syllabus

I am currently one of the few openly trans* tenure-track professors in my field of higher education and student affairs, and I recently published a book, Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. My visibility and expertise on trans* issues in higher education has brought about frequent questions from other people that often feel like a never-ending loop:

“How can I show love to the trans* community?”

“What should I read to learn about trans* people?”

“Can you give me resources about trans* people so I can learn more?”

At best, these questions are extremely naïve. Clearly, trans* people have been present throughout postsecondary education for decades. For example, trans* archivist and activist Reina Gossett found photos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson — two trans* women of color — involved in a 1970 protest on behalf of gay students’ rights at New York University. And if trans* people have been in and around postsecondary education, one can bet we have been telling our stories for just as long, too.

At worst, however, the above questions serve as manifestations of the ongoing trans* oppression present throughout American society. What I mean is that the continued ignorance of trans* people, communities and knowledges underscores the ways in which cisgender (i.e., nontrans*) people do not (have to) think about gender due to their gender-based privilege.

Exposing Epistemological Trans* Oppression in Higher Education

Several educational scholars have discussed how epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is itself steeped in systemic racism. Specifically, work by Lori D. Patton and James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young points out how this occurs, referring to the phenomenon as “epistemological racism.”

Building on their work, I have termed the continuing erasure of trans* knowledges in higher education epistemological trans* oppression. The very asking of what one should read to learn about trans* people underscores the ongoing presence of a world in which the questioner does not feel the need to previously have known about trans* people. Such awareness is a nice add-on, but otherwise not considered central or primary in academe.

In addition, when cisgender people ask these questions, it puts trans* people in a difficult position. We must be willing to have our labor and time continually exploited by (presumably well-meaning) cisgender people or risk being positioned as the “angry trans* person” when we say we will not do work that cisgender people should rightly do.

For many of us, this choice is far from an easy one, as we are in precarious positions of education and/or employment. Indeed, the pull to be seen as “nice” and “helpful,” particularly through the rhetoric of being “collegial” or “professional,” is felt by many of us, including: trans* students who need recommendations for jobs and/or advanced studies, early-career trans* academics seeking tenure-stream positions, and trans* staff who have to worry about performance evaluations as a part of the increasing audit culture in higher education.

It is against this backdrop that I recently decided to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus. I felt inspired by the recent practice of marginalized people creating publicly accessible social justice-oriented syllabi, such as the #CharlestonSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus and #PulseOrlandoSyllabus, among others. So I decided to construct a similar syllabus geared toward promoting the continuing work that is being done regarding trans* populations in higher education.

One goal of the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was to show how trans* people have always been a part of higher education and how, as a result, we have always been pushing for more gender-expansive environments and futures. Another goal was to provide an educational tool for cisgender people about trans* people. Thus, the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus acts as a public response to the questions that I mentioned at the outset of this essay. In so doing, I was hoping my/our collective labor — detailed through the syllabus — would save me/us from having to confront these questions time and again. The syllabus continues to grow (email me at znicolazzo@niu.edu to add new materials), and is an important resource for faculty members, students and staff members to use in their work.

However, to say the syllabus was purely a response to the oppressive illogics that frame the daily world in which trans* and gender-nonconforming people like myself exist is to miss the fuller picture. Yes, I made the decision to invest time, energy and labor into a project that would require continual upkeep as a way to spare my trans* kin and myself significant time and labor in the future. However, I also made the decision to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus as a way to be with and among my trans* kin and our accomplices. (You can follow the Twitter thread here.) For me, it was a return to my roots as a trans* person — and a way that I have continually reminded myself of the sheer brilliance that has provided me the space, time and thinking to be who I am today as a trans* femme in the academy.

Finding Community Through Trans* Scholars(hip)

As I have written about in both a book chapter about my doctoral studies and my book, Trans* in College, I first came to enter my trans* community through reading trans* scholars(hip). I was living in Arizona at a time when being a member of any marginalized community felt increasingly dangerous, and I was working in a job — advising fraternity and sorority students — in which I felt trapped. Each day that I got dressed for work, I felt extreme dysphoria and would count down the hours and minutes until I could get back to my studio apartment and explore my gender further. Much of this exploration occurred through devouring trans* literature, especially Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, various essays by Dean Spade, Dylan Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.

Drafting the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was, for me, a return to my own beginnings of entering a trans* community. The more time I spent piecing together the recent explosion of trans* scholarship in higher education and student affairs, the more I felt alive and whole. The more I stitched together a set of readings, artists, activists, organizations, films and video clips that are largely — though not exclusively — created by queer and trans* people, the more I was reminded of the absolutely stunning community to which I have the privilege to belong. My mind traveled back to my small patio outside of my studio apartment in Tucson, where I would spend my evenings smoking, reading and coming into my own trans* awakening as the desert sun set behind the mountains.

I have been completely astounded at how far the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has already traveled. I am indebted to the trans* women of color who fought — and continue to fight — for my existence as a trans* femme to be possible. I am also deeply grateful for a small group of queer, trans* and accomplice kin who conspired with me in the making of the syllabus, notably Jana Clark, T. J. Jourian, D-L Stewart and Katherine Wheatle.

And really, more than counteracting ongoing daily trans* oppression, my curating the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has — and will continue to be — about inviting trans,* queer and accomplice scholars into a vibrant, vital and deeply moving community, one that, many years ago, helped me get on the path to finding myself. Perhaps the syllabus can even do the same for other people, be they in or beyond the academy.

Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

How To Cultivate Greater Linguistic Diversity In The Classroom

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York and at the New School.

In an earlier essay, I argued for the need for greater linguistic diversity in the university. In this second piece, I offer some methods for fostering that diversity — methods that developed from my teaching and personal experiences as a speaker of an off-kilter English dialect.

At Hunter College, I teach working-class youths from across the globe. My students represent a planet’s worth of distinct backgrounds. And most of my students insist upon their own uniqueness, so an American love of individualism refracts their vast cultural diversity into a kaleidoscope of personalities. Class discussions showcase a melting pot of English dialects: from Sofia, who flagrantly cusses with an outerborough braggadocio; to Jazmine, who drops forms of “to be” from her sentences; to the prim Jennifer, a graduate of an Upper East Side prep school.

My students often seek mobility through education, but many of them also belong — however uneasily — to strict families, ancient traditions and ethnocentric communities. This creates some linguistic tensions: my students want to master academic English, but many of them live with parents and among neighbors who speak dozens of languages (and as many different varieties of English). During my office hours, students sometimes confide:

  • “My grandmother makes fun of me for not speaking Chinese, so I’m studying abroad [in China] next year.”
  • “I had to rearrange my schedule because my father is forcing me to study Arabic.”
  • “I’m learning Italian since I’m the only Greek in my [predominantly Italian] neighborhood.”

By providing English instruction, I may unintentionally exacerbate some of these fault lines.

You say that I’m projecting? It’s true: my own folks speak a twangy, Appalachian English of “y’ins” and “daresn’t.” My early teachers taught me to shun my parents’ speech and to use “correct” grammar instead. During my adolescence, my parents could not understand my vocabulary, and I viewed their speech as stupid. We did not speak the same kind of English.

Teaching with firsthand knowledge of linguistic alienation, I understand that education can enflame parent-child rivalries, pique a sense of assimilation guilt or provoke psychic dissonance. So I try to ease these tensions through several methods, which I discuss below.

Adopt And Mimic

In the classroom, I adopt my students’ vernaculars, because embracing linguistic diversity creates a friendly rapport that advances learning. For example, my student Albert recently announced to our class, “Beowulf is kind of a dick!”

Another student, Alesandro, debated the point: “Beowulf is just a man of his time!”

Frankly, the cliché is as intellectually offensive to me as the slang. And as an instructor, I must lead my students toward articulating their insights with more precision. At some point during the conversation, I asked my students to clarify: “Can you find a more sophisticated term for ‘dick’?”

But first, I adopt my students’ own language. I said, “Albert and Alesandro have proposed diverging arguments, from which we might craft a thesis question: ‘Is Beowulf a dick, or is he simply a man of his time?’” I wrote this phrase on the board and announced to the class, “This is an intriguing title for an essay: ‘Beowulf: A Dick, or Man of His Time?’”

By redeploying students’ vernaculars, I generated linguistic solidarity and cultivate an environment wherein students may speak freely, from the top of their heads. But this approach has more to offer than simply appeasing foulmouthed bad boys.

As the conversation unfolded, the class developed a deeper sense of what makes someone a “dick” in historical context. By permitting some code-switching between vernacular and academic Englishes, students can approach the material, both in their day-to-day speech and also in the more scientific style of university discourse — in order to integrate disparate parts of themselves in relation to their studies. By adopting students’ speech patterns, I clarify that students do not need to jettison their own language in order to learn. Otherwise, I would run the risk of shutting students down by being pedantic.

Ask Students To Write In Their Own Vernacular

Recently, one of my students, Anne, began laughing in class. Anne said, “I’m wondering how I’m going to explain this to my boyfriend.” The class had been reading a particularly raucous portion of Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” in which the Reeve luridly describes a miller who farts in his sleep.

I took her concern seriously. “Yes, Anne, how would you explain this to your boyfriend? That’s a great question. For homework, I’d like everyone to write a letter to a loved one and tell them about this passage. Write in the voice that you would ordinarily use when addressing this person.”

Instructors familiar with “Writing Across the Curriculum” pedagogy likely already use this sort of exercise. Students often write best when they write to a particular audience. And students internalize new concepts more easily when they use their own voices. (Actually, Anne’s letter to her boyfriend about the farting miller was an amazing piece of criticism.)

Professors can also encourage their students to read outside their specific disciplines. Political scientists, for example, could ask students to read Zen koans in conjunction with excerpts from the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual — a mesmerizing collection of mystical aphorisms. By training students to approach our subjects through multiple voices, we enable students to develop deeper relationships with the material.

Model Enthusiasm

To negotiate between my own education and my wood-hick background, I have learned to revere all words as objects of beauty. In the classroom, I perform my love affair with words. Recently, for example, when a student called a literary character a THOT (“that ho over there”), I dramatized my interest. “This is a new word for me,” I explained to the class, “and I need to write it in my notes and learn the definition.”

By expressing my evident pleasure in offbeat words, I model for my students how they might greet unfamiliar lingo with excitement. The educational process needs to work in both directions. I teach my students jargon like “asyndetic parataxis.” They teach me about THOTs. My experience has been that students respond to this approach by becoming as genuinely excited about esoteric linguistic concepts as they are to gossip about THOTs: my pleasure in their slang helps to build a relationship that enhances their pleasure in my jargon.

Admit That Language Is A Problem

A while ago, I told some colleagues about a study that investigated meth addiction. This study proposed that women’s and men’s brains process meth differently. My colleagues — who misheard me, and who believed that I was discussing math — immediately expressed their concern.

English professors don’t necessarily test empirical questions — like scanning meth-addled brains — but our work delves into how subtle linguistic differences may bear upon our reality. A sensitivity to language allows us to see how, in some cases, language poses obstacles to communication. I therefore talk with my students about how prejudices about language influence our relationships.

Sometimes, such discussions take an empirical form. (For example, I share with my students a study that shows how listeners often misperceive speakers as having accents based on race.) Other times, those conversations might take a more anecdotal form. (For example, I share with my students my anxieties about speaking across sociolinguistic divides.)

Foregrounding such issues helps students grasp how their preconceptions influence their relationships with language, because language, in fact, is a problem for professors as much as for students. Owning up to this can help to break down some of the barriers that inhibit real dialogue. Ya heard?

A Xicana Scholar Pays Tribute To Her Academic Mama

Note: this blog post was originally published on Xicana, PhD and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, a mama, an educator and a writer based in Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education.

A Letter to My “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after I finished my Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times, for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title but a lived reality. And I thought about how, when I met you, you helped me set down my worries and my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academe — a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person. Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing in faster Puerto Rican Spanish. I soon caught on, just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn.

With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most, however, is how, after five minutes sitting with you, things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears, and I would leave feeling as though I, a Xicana from a community college who became a single mother in graduate school and who survived so much, could finish a Ph.D. under what felt like impossible circumstances. I felt not only that I could finish but also that this feeling would last until the next time, because there was always a next time when I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel as though I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask, “How are you?” every time I saw you, since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class — a course that saved me and many others. You would ask this question of all of us. You asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it is a question that no one seems to care about asking or is concerned with in academe, where they teach you that the personal has no place. But for us, the personal is political. It is everything, and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be here to begin with. “Como estas?” I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know, this became the first line of my dissertation and led to my own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place where I never imagined I would be. I know you remember, because that last year, before I finished my Ph.D., you made sure that — no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform — I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “women’s studies” or “testimonios,” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you fought for me and explained that, as a student of education, I was also a woman of color and a student in feminist studies, and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all of the time in my writing, that I refused to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower. And I still live by that belief, though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me, and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, conducting my research affirmed that I am here. I made it to this place after everyone else told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents’ home at 18 knowing that I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple of states away to pursue this far-fetched dream, I got a Ph.D. — even when the statistics and people told me every day that I couldn’t.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days when I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety, to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother, who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult, two weeks before she passed, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was farther. Your home is an island that cannot be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me but also for many people who walked through the doors of your office and sat in your classroom. Because as women of color in academe, we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected us. You gave strength. You built us up to believe in our own voices and words when so many other people diminish and silence us every single day.

And as we sat in my favorite cafe one week — after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple of days before I left town to move back to California with my toddler son as a single mama — you said no goodbye. But you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said, “We built this ship strong and not to sink, and Irene, you will not sink.” Then, you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and how turbulent these waters have been post-Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent), I make sure I remember I can’t sink, because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here.

You are here. We are here. And there are other women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.