My S. F. D.: Claiming Power Over My “Face Down in the Arena” Moment

“Rather than running from our SFDs, we dig into them knowing they can unlock the fears and doubts that get in the way of our wholeheartedness. We know that rumbling is going to be tough, but we head straight into it because we know running is harder. We wade into the brackish delta with open hearts and minds because we’ve come to learn that the wisdom in the stories of our falls makes us braver” (255).

-- Brené Brown, Rising Strong


In her books Rising Strong (2015) and Daring Greatly (2012), Brené Brown argues that shining light on the rumbling gremlins that feast on our feelings of shame and unworthiness forces them out of hiding and into the light. As she argues, much like the 1984 film Gremlins, shame can only survive if it remains in hiding. By narrating our stories and making ourselves vulnerable, we have the power to release shame and the belief that our “face down in the arena” moments define us. On the back cover of Rising Strong and at the beginning of Chapter 3, “Owning Our Stories,” Brown writes, “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness-- even our wholeheartedness-- actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls” (43). One of the ways in which Brown suggests we do this is through Anne Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft.”


This is my S.F.D. of my “face down in the arena” moment. This is my story of how my trauma came to be and how I am reclaiming power and cultivating shame resilience from my S.F.D.


The week after my dissertation defense, I had another conference to attend at Yale, the African Literature Association Conference. This is a conference that I had attended in the past (April 2016), but I was not at all excited about presenting my paper despite my enthusiasm for the initial idea. Typically, I develop a powerpoint presentation to go along with the paper, but crunched for time, I decided to forego this. I had been playing with the paper for a while and the theoretical framework was loosely developed. It was rushed and didn’t feel organic in a variety of ways, as so many conference presentations seem to go. Despite these issues, I still felt confident in the delivery of the paper. I was the first to present with only two presenters. I had all the time in the world to present the essay, and the panel chair (ironically) mentioned before my presentation to “speak slowly” and take as much time as necessary.

As is typical of most presentations, I began the paper with a general overview of the idea and how the idea was connected to various texts. Then, I began reading it aloud. Three lines in and my heart started to race. I lost my breathe, physically lost my breath. I eventually paused, and said to the small audience, “I can’t breathe,” with my hands behind my head. I stopped. In a room full of strangers. A newly minted PhD just lost his breath while presenting a paper at a major conference in his field. The “shame storm” (as Brown calls it) could not have been more intense and unpredictable. What’s more, I continued reading the paper and had to stop three more times before I could get to the end of the essay, each time losing my breath, my heart racing. Each time I lost my breath during the 20-minute presentation, I could notice that the other presenter would look over at me as if to say, “What is wrong with you?” At the beginning of my paper, my brain registered “danger,” which triggered my anxiety attack and activated my fight or flight response.

What events might have triggered this anxiety attack, both before it and after it? I think it’s necessary to start with a timeline, or a “map” of possibly related events.

  • Grandfather’s death (January 2015)

  • Father-in-law re-diagonosed with cancer (July 2015)

  • Continued work on dissertation and fieldwork (August 2015-December 2015)

  • Pulse Nightclub shooting

  • Began summer teaching (June 2016)

  • Father-in-law’s death (June 2016)

  • Uncle’s diagnosis with cancer (July 2016)

  • Moved back home (August 2016)

  • Began new job adjuncting (August 2016)

  • Turned 30 (September 2016)

  • Began submitting applications for full-time positions (October 2016)

  • Accepted several conferences during Fall 2016 (detailed below)

  • Finished dissertation manuscript (November 2016)

  • Submitted second application for full-time position (December 2016)

  • Got married (December 2016)

  • Moved again (December 2016)

  • Conferences, conferences, conferences

    • Feb. 2017

    • March 2017 (3 of them)

    • April 2017

    • June 2017

  • Uncle’s death (February 2017)

  • Landed first job interview (March 2017)

  • Submitted more applications (March 2017)

  • Notified of not being hired (April 2017)

  • Husband’s grandmother’s death (April 2017)

  • Landed second job interview (April 2017)

  • Finalized dissertation manuscript (April 2017)

  • Secured defense date (May 2017)

  • Notified of being hired for new job (May 2017)

  • Defended dissertation (June 2017)

  • Graduated with PhD (June 2017)

  • Attended conference (June 2017) *face down moment*

  • 1-year anniversary of father-in-law’s death (June 2017)

  • Started summer teaching (July 2017)

  • Began new full-time position (August 2017)

  • Turned 31 (September 2017)

  • Attended two conferences (November 2017)

  • Went back on the market (November 2017)

  • Notified of publication (November 2017)

  • Attended third conference (January 2018)

  • Attended fourth conference (March 2018)

  • Notified of publication acceptance (March 2018)

  • Submitted more applications (January-May 2018)

  • Ended first year full-time teaching (May 2018)

  • Offered new position (June 2018)

  • Accepted new position (July 2018)

  • Began new position/second year with full-time teaching (August 2018)

  • Turned 32 (September 2018)


This timeline documents what I think to be some of the relevant events that led to the trauma and the events that manifested after the trauma. The timeline therefore functions as a map, one that allows me to connect events that seemed to be previously disconnected. Mapping the events is helpful for integrating and telling my story. As Reif Larsen puts it in Brown’s work, “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning, it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected” (39, emphases added). Brown echoes Larsen’s sentiments: “I love maps not because they dictate the route or tell me when or how to travel, but simply because they mark the way points I will eventually visit. Knowing that these places exist and that they are well traveled even if they are unexplored by me, is powerful” (39). Later, she shares that mapping the “rising strong process” is incredibly important because “[this] process teaches us how to own our stories of falling down, screwing up, and facing hurt so we can integrate those stories into our lives and write daring new endings.” For those unfamiliar with Brown’s work, the rising strong process can be adequately summed up as a three-prong process:

  1. The Reckoning: recognition and curiosity about the situation

  2. The Rumble: revisit, challenge, and reality-check the narratives that define the feelings of shame and inadequacy

  3. The Revolution: transform our thoughts and beliefs about the narratives that we allow to define us.

Most important in this process is indeed owning our stories: “Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do...We own our stories so we don’t spend our lives being defined by them or denying them. And while the journey is long and difficult at times, it is the path to living a more wholehearted life” (41). Owning our stories and writing our own endings facilitates the integration of our stories: “Integrating is the engine that moves us through the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution, and the goal of each of these processes is to make ourselves whole” (Rising Strong 41). Owning our stories also sheds light on shame and “cuts it off at the knees,” as Brown puts it in The Power of Vulnerability. Owning our stories and sharing it with others is an important step in shedding light on shame because it functions as a key part in integrating our experiences.

Although the timeline above is helpful for understanding the relevant events, a more specific example would be a month prior to this traumatic moment when I received my teaching schedule at my new full-time teaching position. The schedule would include six (6) hours of non-stop teaching. In fact, I requested the schedule because I would be commuting 3-hours round-trip. Driving to campus more than two days a week was not a feasible option. Essentially, I had to cram a week’s worth of work into two (very full) days with office hours and teaching. For the first time in my life, I questioned my mental and physical endurance and whether or not I would be able to endure a six-hour block of teaching. Although I have been an avid runner for many years, marched summer drum corps, and taught group fitness classes for almost seven years, I had significant doubts about my physical and mental endurance. This seed of negativity and self-doubt was planted, and the gremlins have been having a field day ever since, using my shame and feelings of inadequacy and failure as nourishment.

The moments leading up to the event and the moments after the event have been riddled with substantial feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and inadequacy. But the gremlins did not stop at the conference presentation. The gremlins have manifested several times in the classroom. While teaching, I have physically lost my breath during the middle of a lesson or while reading aloud an assignment sheet. These moments typically come when feelings of self-doubt,  inadequacy, and attachment to outcomes were the strongest. Moreover, because it was my first full-time teaching position, these feelings were surging through my body each and every day. To recover my breath, I pose open-ended questions to students or call on a student to continue reading aloud the assignment sheet. The posed question allows me to (literally) catch my breath. Once I feel confident and comfortable in my reading of the assignment sheet, only then will I take over the reading of the assignment prompt.

Beginning the process of recovery from my trauma has not come easy. At first, I thought it was a one-time incident. But when I entered the classroom in July 2017 and was experiencing the same symptoms, I knew it was not a one-time event. Rather than share my story, I hid it. My “face down in the arena” moment resulted in severe “stage fright” and anxiety, which led to a racing mind, feelings of inadequacy, and shame. I felt like I had failed, and failure (along with laziness, money, body image, and gender expression) is a “shame trigger” for me. Writing my story is a way of breaking my silence about the shame and feelings of inadequacy I developed from these moments, but perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned above, shedding light on my trauma “cuts [feelings of shame, failure, and laziness] off at the knees.” For the first time, I felt like an imposter, something I never really struggled with as a graduate student. Sure, I had feelings of self-doubt, but they were temporary. These new feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt were strong and maintained power over my sense of self-worth.  

So, what exactly changed? And how did those changes facilitate these emotions of distress? For one, the environmental factors of academic culture changed my response to these issues. The further along we go in our academic training, the more that we perceive to be at stake for our professional lives. Although I have been teaching several years, I somehow allowed my “face down in the arena” moment to define my personal and professional life. I suffer from extreme perfectionism, and as Brown reminds us, perfectionism is a manifestation of shame: “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval” (Daring Greatly). Sharing my story is a process of recovery from the trauma and shedding light on the event diminishes the gremlins that wish to dismantle my confidence. These feelings are not unique; I would venture to guess that most people have had similar experiences. But, what is important to consider are the ways in which environmental factors such as academic culture have played a role in shaping this anxiety. What is more, the feelings I experienced were symptoms of trauma as Brown argues in The Power of Vulnerability. The months leading up to my dissertation defense and the failure of not being hired for a position were significant contributions because I had attached so much value and high expectations to these events.

Why were these events so significant? For starters, I am not used to major disappoint. Growing up, I was a ‘do gooder,’ which led to numerous scholastic achievements and extracurricular accolades. Much of this ‘do gooder’ attitude has a lot to do with growing up quite differently than the average white male in the rural South; unconsciously, I knew being queer meant I had to be ‘better than’ in order to do something with my life. Although I am quite used to receiving rejection emails for an article, conference presentation, or job application, I am not used to a rejection phone call from a potential employer. In Rising Strong, Brown writes, “Often stories of falling are threaded with sadness, frustration, or anger, describing something that, for some reason, just didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. We need to examine our story for phrases like, ‘I had my heart set on it,’ or ‘I counted on this happening,’ or ‘I just thought…’ If expressions like these show up, we might be struggling with disappointment. Here is what you need to know about disappointment: Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment” (139, author’s emphases). Not being hired somehow gave me the impression that “my best” was not good enough. I had to continue to “hustle for worthiness” as Brown puts it by submitting more job applications and to continue going to conferences while also pursuing publications and finishing my dissertation manuscript.

The feeling that “my best” was not good enough also signaled to me that I had failed and that I would not be good enough to secure a full-time position. Disappointment is not my strong suit and the numbness I experienced that day and the weeks following cannot be adequately summed up here. I should also confess that I was incredibly resentful and filled with anger at the thought of not landing my first job offer. I thought, “How could they not hire me with my teaching record?!” In Rising Strong, Brown shares, “As Anne Lamott said, ‘Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.’ We have the tendency to visualize an entire scenario or conversation or outcome, and when things don’t go the way we’d imagined, disappointment can become resentment. This often happens when our expectations are based on outcomes we can’t control, like what other people think, what they feel, or how they’re going to react” (140). My attachment to my high expectations were clearly being met with bouts of anger and resentment. In this market though, the pool of applicants is filled to the brim with exceptional candidates who have stellar teaching and scholarship records. My novice experience with the job market even on a regional level led me to believe I had this job in the bag. Even though I thought I was prepared for disappointment, my confidence was completely shattered. In Rising Strong, Brown argues that we do not prepare for disappointment, and I strongly agree with this given my own personal experience with disappointment.

Rather than evaluate the situation and the events that lead to my trauma, I continued to hustle for my worthiness. This included saying “yes” to every professional opportunity that manifested in my inbox. This also entailed pleasing my superiors, attending four conferences without institutional support, publishing two articles, breaking syllabi policies to accommodate students over and over again, serving on departmental committees, and mentoring two graduate students. In my personal life, the opposite was true. I often said “no” to social outings and felt guilty for not wanting to participate. To be honest, my anxiety was so high my first year of teaching full-time that I only wanted to stay home and nurse my emotions by disengagement from social events. Indeed, I was over-performing at work to combat my anxiety, which, as Brown argues, is one of the responses to anxiety (the other being under-performing).

These feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame were locked deep inside and it wasn’t until the end of that academic year that I started to voice my fears and anxieties on a regular basis. After listening to Ru Paul’s What’s the Tee podcast, specifically episode 145 with Christina Applegate, I had a strong realization that my attachment to the outcomes of situations was incredibly unhealthy and the major source of my anxiety. Voicing these fears and anxieties have moved the process of recovery along, and there is a substantial body of research by James Pennebaker that validates the importance of sharing our stories as a process of recovery. I also started to establish goals for myself, ones that I felt would be empowering and realistic. Since January 2018, I started journaling as a way of processing my emotions and trauma. At this time, I had learned to make peace with my discontent in my professional life. Making peace with a situation that cannot be controlled (as if to think we have control over such situations to begin with) was the moment of reckoning with the trauma.

It wasn’t until several months later though that I would rumble with my story. The literature on mindfulness and Buddhism (Thich Nhat Hanh in particular) facilitated this early process. While reading Buddhist philosophy on mindfulness, I also joined the Faculty Fellows program at my current institution for the 2018-2019 academic year and have been participating in the teaching mentoring program. My faculty mentor has been quite impactful in helping me along the way to envisioning the long-view of my career, which I had completely lost in the months leading to my dissertation defense and my first year teaching full-time. Sharing my fears and anxieties with her have allowed me to see that my experience is quite common and that most (if not all) of us are experiencing similar symptoms.  

Additionally, part of this program was to join the Faculty Book Group. The Faculty Book Group would be a profound step in this recovery process. This year’s selection was The Slow Professor, a book that has affirmed my feelings of disempowerment. This book, in conjunction with conversations with my faculty mentor, has also allowed me to take the long-view of my career. Many of the topics discussed in The Slow Professor are very much applicable to my own life, as I have felt incredibly rushed since obtaining my PhD. Although the ticking clock has silenced, it occasionally makes a guest appearance (with the gremlins of course), which I understand to be a check-in to test my resolve. This usually occurs at the beginning of the semester, the middle of the semester, and the end of the semester (and, as I’m writing this, the end of semester gremlins are quite rambunctious). It was The Slow Professor that drew me to Brown’s work (the authors reference The Gifts of Imperfection in the conclusion of The Slow Professor). Since then, I have devoured four of Brown’s books (via Audible), and I’m currently on my fifth, Dare to Lead.  

All together, conversations with my faculty mentor, The Slow Professor, and Brown’s entire oeuvre have taught me that feelings of shame, inadequacy, unworthiness, and anxiety are normal experiences that manifest from dominant cultural discourses. Brown, in particular, makes the argument in several of her texts that anxiety is a product of groups, not individuals. In other words, anxiety in individuals largely manifests because of our inability to conform to social and cultural discourses that glorify unrealistic norms and expectations. In order to overcome these feelings of inadequacy, we have to own our “face down in the arena” moments. To own these moments, we have to find what our “shame triggers” are in order to overcome them. For me, my shame triggers are weakness, laziness, body image, and gender expression. In order to reclaim power over these moments, I have learned that we have to make ourselves vulnerable. In Daring Greatly, Brown argues that vulnerability is often portrayed as weakness. But vulnerability is an act of courage and bravery: “For most of us, being an ‘easy mark’ has come to mean ‘being a chump or a sucker or a pushover-- shaming identities that are associated with weakness and a lack of street smarts.” These identities though are signs of “courage and compassion.” Making ourselves vulnerable to the people we love and trust is effective “because shame can’t survive being spoken. It thrives on secrecy, silence, and judgment. If we can share our experience of shame with someone who responds with empathy, shame can’t survive” (195). Adding, “we share our stories-- even our SFDs-- to get clear on what we’re feeling and what triggered those feelings, allowing us to build a deeper more meaningful connection with both ourselves and our trusted friends” (195-196, emphases added).


Rising Strong, Cultivating Shame Resilience, and Establishing Boundaries


“Wholeheartedness requires being conscious of the litany of expectations that hum along below the surface so we can reality-check our thinking. This process can lead to stronger and deeper relationships and connections” (Rising Strong 142).

Since that day in June 2017, my anxiety has gotten much better due to my strong desire and curiosity to “get clear.” Indeed, rather than run away from these feelings, I began to get curious about the problems and symptoms I was experiencing. This curiosity though was not a straightforward path. In fact, recovery (of any sort) is never linear. My first thought was “maybe it will go away.” But, a year and a half later, it has not gone away. Instead, I came to the realization that avoiding this issue will not work. By nature, I have to communicate my feelings whether it be with friends, my parents, or my husband. Because of this, I became curious: what led to the moment? What had changed? And how have I changed? These questions became the guiding questions for my process of discovery and understanding. My anxiety has gotten much better also due to my re-prioritization of both personal and professional arenas. At home, I no longer am sometimes successful with not stressing over an unemptied dishwasher; I actually try to go as many days as possible without unloading it (and as I’m typing this, the top drawer of the dishwasher is clean and quite full…)! At work, I no longer sometimes try not to stress out over duties that fall beyond the scope of my classroom and my students. While those things are important for my professional livelihood, they do not define my self-worth and I refuse to allow anyone power to shame me into doing more. For these reasons, I have begun to build a much stronger shame-resilience.

So, what have I learned from this experience? First, I have learned greater compassion and empathy for my students and those who combat mental and emotional issues everyday. In the bigger scheme of things, my trauma is not the result of state violence, war, sexual assault, or another incident. But, as Brown makes clear in her work, shame (by itself) can produce trauma and the symptoms associated with trauma. Another thing I have learned is that my trauma manifested as a result of “hustling for worthiness.” I am gradually learning that the lines on my CV do not measure my self-worth regardless of the messages academic culture likes to disseminate about worthiness and value. I am enough despite my temporary position. Third, I have learned to let go of so many things that are beyond my control, especially expectations and my attachment to outcomes. This practice though is much harder on some days than others (like at the end of the semester when I’m anticipating student evaluations). But this is a practice, one that requires a great amount of time, energy, and attention if I want it to work.

In addition to letting go of expectations and outcomes, I am well on my way to learning how to pace myself. Pacing is incredibly important given the nature of academic labor, an unpredictable teaching schedule, and my constant need for perfectionism and control. This includes breathing through transitions and maintaining sacred ground. Fifth, I have learned how important it is to practice self-compassion. When the gremlins come out to play (which they do on a frequent basis), I replace negative thoughts with thoughts of self-affirmation. As Ru Paul puts it, “If they’re not paying my bills, pay them no mind.” The gremlins are not, in fact, paying my bills, so this advice functions as a sound practice.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned to say “no” to things that do not bring fulfillment to my life and work. This includes maintaining boundaries in my professional life and not overperforming. While dominant cultural discourses glorify “yes” and busyness, I am seeking “no” as a form of empowerment and self-preservation. “No” is not a sign of rudeness or ungratefulness; “no” is also not a sign of weakness or laziness. Instead, “no” is a sign of assertiveness and resistance to dominant cultural norms, which requires self-compassion while maintaining firm boundaries between ourselves and what others expect of us. “No” is therefore empowering and should be harnessed as a mode of resistance for sustaining livelihoods that go against the grain of expectations and outcomes, especially those outcomes and expectations that hold high productivity as a status symbol. “No” also allows us to not play into the emotional labor of rescuing students in times of distress, such as a bad grade on an assignment or a missed assignment. In a later blog post, I will discuss the goals I established for myself last year and perform a self-inventory, including the extent to which I have learned to let go of expectations and outcomes.   

Slow Down to Speed Up: Creating a Counterculture of Resistance to Speed in the Neoliberal University

“[I]t may be a mistake, a representative and revealing mistake, to concentrate on the ‘outcome.’” (foreword, ix)—Stefan Collini

 “When we experience timelessness, we are creative, and creativity is experienced as timelessness.” (27) — Berg and Seeber  

“No one likes to be rushed.” — anonymous colleague

 

In The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), authors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber examine how academia’s emphasis on speed and “busyness” conditions university faculty to operate within the corporate model of out-put and productivity. Although their analysis does not discuss the historical particularities of neoliberalism (see, for instance, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism as an insightful understanding of neoliberalism from both a domestic and international viewpoint), it is important to keep in mind that the corporate model has been gradually implemented in the university since at least the 1960s when political conservatives expressed anger and outrage at the presumably leisure-class of academics. In fact, Ronald Reagan was the first to usher in the era of financial austerity and the dismantling of the public university (“The Day the Purpose of College Changed”). These political sentiments are driven by the desire from conservatives to monetize higher education while, at the same time, dismantling it.

Given this framework on neoliberal ethics and values, the authors’ emphasis on the current neoliberal climate in the university and how it engenders speed and time stress as affective orientations marks Berg and Seeber’s analysis as a remarkable text in comparison to other texts within critical university studies (Christopher Newfield, Jodi Melamed, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, among others). To date, Berg and Seeber’s text is the first book to critique the university corporate model from the standpoint of feminist affect studies, neoliberalism, and the “slow” movement. They explain,

We see our book as uncovering the secret life of the academic, revealing not only her pains but also her pleasures. Writing this book provoked the anxiety of speaking what is habitually left unspoken, and we continually needed to remind ourselves that the oscillation between private shame and the political landscape would prove fruitful. We came to recognize that anxiety is the inevitable consequence of breaking taboos that are not just current but have a long-standing history: the ideals of mastery, self-sufficient individualism, and rationalism prop up the ‘old’ as well as the ‘new’ university. In fact, patriarchal values opened the door to corporatization. (12)

This astute analysis of the perniciousness of speed and patriarchal values and how such values have impacted the neoliberal university are the primary reasons why I enjoyed this text. Because of my own research interests in these areas, I was intrigued by the authors’ focus on speed as an affective orientation. Below, I consider several important points that Berg and Seeber make, including why these moments deserve consideration in light of our places at the university.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Berg and Seeber emphasize how the ethics of slowness may help to counter the culture of speed and “busyness” found within the neoliberal university. Specifically, Berg and Seeber argue that the ethics of slowness allow us to dismantle the dominant cultural discourses that glorify “busyness.” These dominant cultural discourses condition us to believe and accept that speed is a positive characteristic when, in fact, speed is detrimental to intellectual life. As Berg and Seeber put it, “Academic culture celebrates overwork, but it is imperative that we question the value of busyness. We need to interrogate what we are modelling for each other and for our students” (21).

Berg and Seeber’s primary contention (that slowness principles help to counter the culture of speed in academia) is refreshing to hear. This celebration and glorification of busyness has a negative impact on the personal, physical, and psychical well-being of ourselves, our students, and our families. Speaking from personal experience, I have been struggling to keep pace with the “busyness” of academic labor (attending conferences, publishing, and establishing works in progress, all while balancing a 5/5 teaching load as a ‘temporary’ faculty member on a limited-term contract). This “busyness”-complex is exacerbated by the fact that I am a newly minted PhD (the thought, ‘I need to make something of this dissertation!’ has yet to be silenced). Despite the fact that my contract stipulates that my responsibilities begin and end with the classroom, I still feel the need to be producing in other areas (such as service and scholarship) in order to be viewed as a valuable and contributing member of my department.

In The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), Brené Brown argues that these feelings of unworthiness and imperfection burden us with a need to (as she puts it) “hustle for worthiness.” One might argue that this pressure is self-imposed, but Berg and Seeber (along with Brown) contend otherwise-- that this sentiment of “busyness,” over-work and accumulating lines on our curriculum vitaes (Berg and Seeber 59) are due to academic work culture, a culture that I am continuously striving to distance myself from even though I wish to obtain a tenure-track position in the future. Berg and Seeber suggest that it is possible to resist academic work culture while also being a fully functioning human being. Author David Posen points out in The Slow Professor (as paraphrased by Berg and Seeber), “doing less actually achieves more. We all have a maximum capacity for productive work and sustained thinking, and once the peak is passed we are simply putting in time, which is pointless (since the work will not be of high quality)” (30, emphases added). To combat this culture of “busyness,” Berg and Seeber explain that we need “timeless time” (25). These are essentially immersive experiences with regard to both teaching and our scholarly interests. Changing and re-conditioning our relationship to time and existing in a state of timelessness are imperative for creating positive work environments: “When we experience timelessness, we are creative and creativity is experienced as timelessness” (27).

Secondly, while the book’s emphasis on the problems of “busyness” and its connections to affect and emotion were impactful for me as a reader, I find Stefan Collini’s argument against outcomes to be rather enlightening. In the foreword, Collini writes, “It has taken me a long time to write this foreword. But then, writing usually does take a long time, I find— certainly long when compared to the brevity and unsatisfactoriness of the outcome. However, it may be a mistake, a representative and revealing mistake, to concentrate on the ‘outcome’” (ix). Here lately, I have focused a lot on outcomes and expectations, both professional and personal ones. In my field (composition studies), the emphasis on learning outcomes echoes throughout the scholarly literature. In an earlier reflection on the mindfulness workshop with Dr. Cameron Gordon, I discussed the ways in which this attachment to outcomes and expectations actually does a great disservice to ourselves. As Dr. Gordon made clear in his presentation, by focusing on the outcome and expectations of situations, we become less curious to the possibilities that might arise from a particular event. In fact, by attaching ourselves to the outcome of a situation, we miss the importance of the journey. 

Simply put, this attachment to outcomes and expectations does not allow us to be intrinsically curious and exacerbates the anxieties and insecurities that many of us face by virtue of being non-tenure eligible faculty. The university administration though has a tight grip on outcome assessment. In fact, the first University-wide faculty meeting and the first faculty meeting for the College of Liberal Arts both emphasized outcomes and assessment. But, as Berg and Seeber make clear, “The current emphasis on ‘evidence-based practices’ and ‘processes to measure impact’ in teaching and learning entirely overlooks pleasure...yet it may be the case that pleasure— experienced by the instructor and the students— is the most important predictor of ‘learning outcomes’” (34). Later, they write, “Pleasure is, as the Slow Food movement has made clear, inimical to the corporate world” (34). Given this framework as an argument for de-privileging the emphasis of outcomes and assessment, we can see that the university’s attachment to and emphasis on outcomes is an unhealthy relationship. Thus, in order to fully prosper as a university and as engaged faculty members, we have to detach ourselves from outcomes and expectations. The neoliberal university and its emphasis on business and corporate ethics do not allow for us to actually do this, although we must for the sake of intellectual inquiry and slow scholarship.

There are other smaller, but equally important, points that the book makes that I find helpful for visualizing and implementing a long-view of my career. For instance, Berg and Seeber emphasize the importance of emotionally distancing ourselves from our work and our work environment. Emotional distance is synonymous with understanding how we expend emotional labor in our professions, especially over-extending ourselves and our commitments. This includes finding the courage to say “no” to last-minute requests, but, also, saying “no” to being over-worked while being underpaid for our labor (Berg and Seeber 1). Another crucial argument that the authors make is that we need to (re)establish connections to the pleasures of pedagogy and our work. They argue, 

Although thinking is inevitably embodied and contextual, academia tends to neglect the emotional and affective dimension to teaching and learning, along with the advantages of thinking in groups. It is well known that positive emotions facilitate learning, so it seems reasonable to suggest that they will also enhance teaching. It is neither frivolous nor incidental to ensure that we enjoy ourselves in the classroom: it may be crucial to creating an environment in which students can learn. (14)

And, later in Chapter 3, they write, “Students...make no distinction between how they felt in a course and how they thought; their emotions-- whether positive or negative-- were integral to how they learned” (36). Adding, “If learning were purely or even predominantly cognitive, then computers would be adequate and there would be no point in gathering people together in a room” (38). As the authors make clear, so much of learning is affective, and it is the procuring of positive emotions that have a greater impact on learning rather than the focus on outcomes and assessment.

This brings me to my final point about The Slow Professor and that is the importance of community-building, especially sharing our frustrations with our colleagues. Berg and Seeber write,

While certainly not every classroom is an ‘ocean of distress emotions,’ many are most definitely full of mixed emotions: joy, excitement, fear, boredom, anger, anxiety. And sometimes we do encounter distress in our offices: the student who is going through a break-up; the student whose mother is dying; the student who is furious with her ‘B,’ which will keep her from getting into medical school. And then there is our disappointment when we open the email that rejects the manuscript we have been working on for years. But who do we turn to at those crucial times? (73).

One strategy offered is that we should re-frame how we see “venting.” “Venting” is not complaining; as they explain, “If we don’t vent, we will begin to whine” (84): “The experience of stress lessens when we feel supported. We have found that talking to each other helps us avert the downward spiral into loneliness, suspicion, and burnout” (84). The importance of sharing testimonials and stresses are vital to the livelihood of a department. At a time when faculty isolation is at its highest, sharing and “venting” our frustrations to one another may help to combat a neoliberal ethos that wishes to maintain our separations. I would also extend this sharing of our stresses with our students. For instance, simply asking students as a warm-up exercise how they are feeling might allow us to cultivate a community of support in the classroom, as overwhelmed students learn to share their emotions alongside their equally overwhelmed instructors.

Overall, what I enjoyed most about this book are the connections I made with it on a personal and professional level. As a contingent faculty member who is not eligible for tenure, I find Berg and Seeber’s arguments to be empowering, as the authors affirm my feelings of being rushed and time stressed:

Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock. The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless. Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model. (xviii, original emphasis)

This book makes clear that the institutional structures have made the academy an unbearable environment to work and think. Additionally, the mask we wear as university professors is beginning to erode. I think that this is a good and sustainable practice because it allows us to become our authentic selves, including expressing our frustrations and anxieties with one another about our workplaces. Although we have been conditioned to not be our authentic selves (i.e., marginalize our emotions to the realm of the private sphere and wear our PhDs as a cloak of amour), this book is a first step in reclaiming who we are as imperfect individuals. As Berg and Seeber share, “What began as helping each other became a sustained examination of academia” (12). Indeed, these stories of personal and professional struggle are not anecdotal; rather, they are symptomatic of a university culture that continues to move the goal posts on faculty, especially contingent and non-tenure track faculty. As such, The Slow Professor functions as a manifesto for reclaiming power over our intellectual and professional livelihoods, including the time (or timelessness) needed for producing quality scholarship and teaching. 

“I Knew You Would Do This”: Performing Damage Control and the Shame/Blame Conundrum

Recently, I have been reading listening to Brené Brown’s Rising Strong (2015). In this book, Brown discusses the importance of bravery when faced with insurmountable challenges. Most significantly, she addresses how we can ‘rise strong’ when we fall on our face, including how we might challenge the feelings of shame that result when we fail at a task.

This text is coming at an important time in the semester when my students are knee-deep in assignments and are receiving feedback on a regular basis. So, for me, my attraction to Brown’s Rising Strong is how she discusses the feelings we attach to asking for help, especially how these feelings often emerge from the social stigma that views seeking help as weakness rather than strength. This book could not have come at a better time because this week, my sophomore literature students received feedback on their first major writing assignment. Although quite a number of students did well on the assignment (and a few scored exceptionally well on the assignment), a significant number of students did not simply by virtue of not fulfilling the requirements of the assignment.

For context, students were given the assignment three weeks before the due date. We discussed the assignment sheet, normed sample assignments as a class, and I facilitated a peer-review and self-assessment workshop for their first drafts of the assignment. I also held additional office hours for students to (hopefully) bring in drafts of their assignments in progress. Out of forty-two registered students, only one student appeared with a full-draft of the assignment. And three other students came to discuss their ideas about the assignment (but could not produce a full draft of it for me to review). After disseminating their feedback this week in class via a grading rubric, one student responded, “I knew you would do this.” This student received a grade s/he did not expect. My immediate response to the student was that the submitted assignment did not fulfill requirements (I did not even give this student a failing grade, which seems really generous to me). My philosophy is that when an assignment does not fulfill requirements, it should not receive a passing grade. I am sure most, if not all, teachers have a similar policy (polling my immediate colleagues tells me that this is true for most). Now, sticking to this boundary is rather difficult for me. I genuinely want to be well-liked by my students, and I am always attuned to the fact that I am a contingent faculty member whose evaluations at the end of the semester weigh heavily in my renewal opportunities. However, I am slowly coming to terms with the idea that boundary-setting and compassion can, in fact, co-exist (a point Brown makes in Rising Strong).

Needless to say, I always feel the urge to perform damage control whenever students do not do well on an assignment. This feeling of personal failure is largely self-imposed, but I also think it stems from a society that often shifts the failure of students from individual students to individual teachers. Although I am well aware of the research that exists on individual student disposition and how it plays a significant role in the student’s learning process (Dana Driscoll’s work, among others have shed light upon this), I feel the need to compensate for my lack of hetero-masculinity, as if my queerness disqualifies me from holding a position of authority. But, what I find most interesting about my student’s “I knew you would do this” comment is the sentiment that some type of trust or pact had been broken when it had not: “I turn in my assignments, so you should give me an excellent grade.”

In Brown’s book, she makes the claim that we do not prepare students for disappointment, as so many of our students believe that they are entitled to a high grade by virtue of showing up to class and turning in assignments (regardless of the proficiency those assignments exhibit). Brown frames this within a larger context of the ways in which entitled children are raised with the “every participant gets a trophy” attitude. For a long time, I thought this emerged from an unexamined ego. Instead, Brown’s insightful analysis has shifted my understanding that this sentiment comes from what she calls “stealth expectations” (139), which are unexamined attachments to expectations that we may unconsciously hold. What is more, while these “stealth expectations” manifest in the form of blame, students’ propensity for not seeking help on assignments largely evolves from a society that devalues and stigmatizes help-seeking behavior. Ironically enough, we do really well with valuing help-offering behavior (I do not need to count the number of commercials and advertisements seeking monetary aid to emphasize this point). Asking for help is deemed by society to be a sign of weakness or incompetence. Brown argues instead that “[o]ffering help is courageous and compassionate, but so is asking for help” (180).

When my student responds “I knew you would do this,” s/he is reaching to assign blame, which comes from a place of feeling shame: “…we think about blame as a form of anger used to discharge discomfort or pain. The shame-blame combo is so common because we’re desperate to get out from underneath the pain of shame and we see blame as a quick fix” (196). Perhaps rather than perform damage control, we might adopt a more holistic understanding of the ways in which blame functions in tandem with shame. “I knew you would do this” is thus a reaction against seeking help, a reaction that has been cultivated by a long tradition that stigmatizes help-seeking behavior. This raises the question: how do we create communities in our classrooms that value help-seeking and help-offering behavior? Answering this question might allow us to have a greater sense of self-compassion, compassion that we might extend to others in our teaching and, also, extend to ourselves as teachers doing the best we can.

My Journey into Mindfulness

Here lately, I have taken a personal turn towards the literature of mindfulness and Buddhism as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. Given this turn, the topic of Dr. Cameron Gordon’s workshop on fitting mindfulness into a hectic schedule was of particular interest due to personal as well as professional connections I might make between mindfulness and my career. Being an avid practitioner of yoga, I was introduced to the central tenets of mindfulness and Buddhism by several yogis who incorporated such principles into their classes. (One yogi even structured a series of classes over several months around Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Living.) Because of this early exposure to mindfulness and Buddhism in yoga classes, I was already quite familiar with some of the central principles of mindfulness, specifically detachment, non-judgement/non-violence, and letting go of expectations and outcomes. Despite this novice experience, Cameron’s workshop helped to clarify some misconceptions about mindfulness.

To begin, I found it enlightening when Cameron clarified that relaxation is not a goal of mindfulness; instead, the goal is to (re)gain and practice focus on a single task or idea. He also clarified that clearing the mind is not the goal. As previously mentioned, although I am familiar with Hanh’s texts on mindfulness and Buddhism, it was helpful to have Cameron clarify these misconceptions, as I was initially under the impression that relaxation was a goal. This clarification was therefore actually a relief, as I have experienced quite a few mindfulness sessions and yoga classes where I did not leave feeling relaxed at all after having completed the session. Relaxation, as he explained it, is simply a side-effect of mindfulness, not the primary destination.

Second, I appreciated Cameron’s explanation of why removing expectations is imperative for curiosity. Expectations impede our ability to be curious about the larger world around us. This removal of expectations has been influential in thinking about and working towards letting go of my personal and professional expectations for my own life. My attachment to expectations really began during the months leading up to my dissertation defense and simultaneously being on the academic job market. This attachment to expectations resulted in tremendous amounts of anxiety including anxiety attacks. As an early career academic, it is quite easy to become deeply attached to expectations and outcomes. First of all, academia fosters these types of anxieties and attachments because we are conditioned to want more and more in regard to lines on our CVs (a point I discuss in my reflection on Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor). I do not think this is intrinsic to only academia, as I think this is largely conditioned by work culture in the United States and other capitalist economies. By becoming attached to expectations, we greatly diminish our capacity to become absorbed by our present conditions, especially our teaching and student mentorship. Second of all, academia conditions us to focus on outcomes and assessment rather than impart purpose and perspective to our students and allowing purpose to drive our teaching and research. Indeed, the neoliberal university’s pursuit of measuring learning outcomes and course expectations fosters a negative work environment. (The Slow Professor does a superb job of distilling this focus on learning outcomes and assessment by the corporate university but without the discussion of mindfulness principles.) In order to live and embody a practice of mindful teaching and living, we have to detach ourselves from these expectations and outcomes because this relationship (as Hanh makes clear in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching) is an unhealthy one that harms ourselves and our students.

The next point I would like to address is the devotion to a practice of mindfulness which Cameron emphasized during his workshop. It is our devotion to a practice of mindfulness that builds endurance. This can be done through both formal and informal means. One of the formal ways that I incorporate mindfulness into my daily life is through my curriculum (a point I discuss below further). Additionally, I incorporate an informal practice each day I drive to campus and especially as I’m walking to my classes (or, to be honest, I attempt to incorporate an informal practice as I drive to campus!). During my daily commute, I typically listen to audiobooks. Currently, I am listening to The Slow Professor for a second time as well as In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Culture of Speed by Carl Honoré. I also intend to revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching in the coming weeks. While my formal practice in the classroom allows me to put into practice mindfulness principles, it is my informal practice that sustains me and allows me to build endurance. However, it is important to keep in mind that a practice of mindfulness and building endurance is not a linear process, a point mentioned by Cameron. There are many times during the week when I have to strive harder to maintain this practice, and during these moments, I find myself returning to the principles of mindfulness as a way to remind myself of the path to understanding and stress management.

Finally, I would like to consider how we might incorporate mindfulness into the curriculum (a point mentioned previously). As a contingent faculty member, I am looking for a way to frame mindfulness as an important aspect of the curriculum. If a practice of mindfulness allows us to navigate daily life stresses, I have to wonder to what extent might mindfulness become a high-impact teaching practice in order to help students navigate difficulty in both the academy and beyond it (mindfulness does not appear on the list compiled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities). I have incorporated mindfulness writing exercises as a way to focus students. For example, on the first day of class, I tasked students with discussing their expectations for the class and/or the semester. After they shared aloud their expectations, I had students literally tear their expectations into pieces as a symbolic gesture of letting go of their expectations (many students quite enjoyed this activity; others, however, were annoyed that I requested that they tear their expectations into pieces after having spent so much time and careful attention in composing the free-write exercise that first day). Most of my students, which includes mostly first-year freshman, but also sophomores, seem to buy in to it, or at least they pretend to buy in to it. But there are quite a few still resistant to it. Cameron indicted that of his own students, 80% buy in to mindfulness but 20% do not. This begs the question: how do we engage students in mindfulness principles that encourage their growth and develop as burgeoning intellectuals but, also, allow them to navigate daily stressors and life issues? Finally, how do we convince our colleagues and our departments to see mindfulness and its association with high impact teaching practices as a way to facilitate and sustain positive learning environments?

Towards a Practice of Teaching Mindfully

In the coming months, this blog will be dedicated to musings about teaching and the classroom. While this blog is focused on teaching, many of the posts will be applicable to navigating life in and outside the academy. Please check back for updates!

Affective Disruptions: The ‘Bandwagon Effect,’ “Getting It,” and The Limits of ‘White Privilege’

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and Black Lives Matters activists’ disruption of political candidates (Bernie Sanders, for instance), more and more people are discussing the role of recognizing white privilege and the lack of empathy on the part of white individuals due, in part, to unconscious or implicit biases held by a majority population that has not experienced racism first hand. This lack of experience with racism has led many whites to not evoke empathy and/or outrage towards implicit and explicit acts of racism.

But, even more pernicious I think, is the ‘bandwagon effect,’ especially by those that only recognize racial injustices when they are captured by the media and brought to the public’s attention. I would consider Bernie Sanders’ addition of racial injustice in his platform, Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Black Lives Matter, James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and yes, even white allies after Charleston as all symptoms of the ‘bandwagon effect.’ These are all efforts that I would deem to be ‘on the right side of history,’ but are largely reactionary to the current times. Rather than be proactive in advocating for radical change and racial justice, these efforts by many white allies are unfortunately reactionary and, as Kim Zolciak would put it, “tardy for the party”.   

The ‘bandwagon effect’ is, in fact, a psychological term that originated in American politics. According to Wikipedia (my all-time favorite go-to source for spontaneous intellectualism), the ‘bandwagon effect’ originated in the mid-19th century and continued well into the 20th century. The original use of the term connoted political supporters who jumped on the proverbial bandwagon of surging party candidates without really knowing why they were in favor of said party candidate. My use of the term, however, slightly differs in that the ‘bandwagon effect’ for me at least connotes a reactionary response to present events. This reaction is an affective response that is both emotional and cognitive. The ‘bandwagon effect’ seems to be most effective in times of crisis and chaos, especially in the contemporary moment where racialized flashpoints permeate our everyday lives. Thus, the emotional state of current white allies largely surfaces during these racialized flashpoints; the cognitive impact of these events are, however, delayed and reactionary. Simply put, the affective component of the ‘bandwagon effect’ is important to consider for theorizing the ways in which emotion and delayed cognition are important dimensions for this discussion.  

These moments lead me to wonder what exactly are the limits of white privilege and the recognition of white allies that whiteness is both a political and historical construct that carries unearned privilege? Does the recognition of a white ally’s privilege in and of itself become a portal to understanding? In his article “Dear White Allies After Charleston,” D. Watkins writing for Salon.com explains that these types of discussions on white privilege and implicit/unconscious bias make whites especially “uneasy—probably because no one wants to feel like they have an unfair advantage over another person solely based on skin color.” He goes on to argue, “…if you are white in America, you have an unfair advantage solely based on skin color.” In order for whites to become allies of racial injustices, they must acknowledge their own privilege, “…understanding the gifts that privilege afford them in this country, and making their white friends aware. There are millions of white people African-Americans don’t have access to and we need white allies who get it to make those connections with whites who fail to comprehend” (emphases added).

The simple acknowledgment of one’s racial privilege cannot stop at the threshold of recognition. I would argue that this is one of the limits of white privilege—that simply recognizing one’s privilege does not, in and of itself, become a portal to ‘getting it’. By ‘getting it’ I mean the social, economic, political, and historical genealogies that have led to our current moment where racism exists on both implicit and explicit levels. This notion of “getting it” is not new; in fact, in her novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to this exact issue. Ifemelu, the novel’s protagonist, writes a blog post entitled, “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend.” Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 40:

 One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends not only get it, but also have great bullshit-detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and schools while black    people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they were white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be      accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” Nobody quite knows what this means.

When my father was in school in my NAB [non-American Black] country [Nigeria], many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called ‘reverse racism.’ Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind    of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set         free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the ‘slavery was so long ago’ thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it. (Americanh 2013, 360-61)

In this blog post, Adichie’s character Ifemelu illustrates both emotion and cognition as imperative components to ‘getting it.’ In order to ‘get it,’ one has to rethink racism in its entirety. To rethink racism means to rethink the institutionalization of an –ism that is dynamic and shifts and transforms over time. In his article “Rethinking Racism,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes this argument well when he asserts that racism needs to be reconsidered from the point of a view of a racialized social system. For him, racialized social systems combine political, economic, social, and ideological components that crystallize into structural racism. To think of racism as structural means to move away from individual accounts of racism and towards collective accounts of racism. This means understanding how U.S. history, culture, society, and economy are all shaped from the standpoint of white hegemony. White allies, in order to ‘get it,’ must understand the political economy of racism.

What Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and so many white allies fail to see is that policy changes do not necessarily lead to changes of the heart or mind. I would argue that changes at the level of society must occur before policy changes can even be effective in combating structural racism. “Trick down justice,” as Van Jones puts it, cannot come through policy changes alone. Only from a power from below (to note Foucault) can social justice be realized. Personally, I didn't need a moment or a movement to 'get it.’ But white liberals apparently do, in fact, need to have that moment or movement to understand the material effects of Racism 2.0. 

So, what does this mean for critical pedagogy and the classroom? To begin, the politics of affective disruptions can be easily translated to the ways in which counter-narratives in literature also project strategies of disruption. For instance, in Literature and Social Justice: Protest Novels, Cognitive Politics, and Schema Criticism, Mark Bracher argues that protest novels are effective for getting students to rethink their common assumptions about social injustices, such as racism. As a tool, protest novels disrupt the grand narrative of race and racism and intervene in the post-Civil Rights/post-racial moment. Protest novels counter this grand narrative; thus, as counter-narratives, protest novels illustrate tactics of disruption that “teach the conflicts” (Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars), conflicts that cause uncomfortable emotions. 

Protest novels and the politics of discomfort are not unlike the political strategies of Black Lives Matter. Granted, the strategies of protest by Black Lives Matter might not be appropriate politics of respectability; but their strategies of protest effectively disrupt white liberals through direct confrontation. The strategies implemented by BLM are necessary and, I would add, affective in that they do not play respectable politics. To my knowledge, respectable politics in the public sphere isn’t winning broad support. Perhaps this is what white liberals need in order to ‘get it’ and move beyond the assumption that the metropole (such as Seattle) is beyond racism. BLM countered Seattle’s tale of enlightened liberalism (the reaction of the crowd is case in point). To silence such protests that cause discomfort and "inconvenience" is to also implicitly support the historical policing of non-white bodies and the silencing of non-whites who dissent. Therefore, the power to dissent is largely invested in a white population that, regardless of the cause, seeks to police the speech and actions of those they do not agree. This discussion and discussion of such conflicts as protests (both novels and activism) might allow us to move beyond the limits of white privilege and simple recognition and acknowledgement of the problem of racism as a solution in and of itself. 

 

Sources:

  • Conor Friedersdorf, "A Conversation about Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders" (Aug 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/a-dialogue-about-black-lives-matter-and-bernie-sanders/401960/
  •  NPR’s OnPoint, “Race in America, From Watts to Ferguson and Beyond” https://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/08/10/american-race-ferguson-watts-michael-brown
  • Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah (2013)
  • MusingAndrea, “Everyone Should Have A Special White Friend? Musings on Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ Part 2” http://superselected.com/everyone-should-have-a-special-white-friend-musings-on-chimamanda-adichies-americanah-part-2-by-musingandrea/
  • Jamelle Bouie, “Black Lives Matter Protests Matter” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/08/black_lives_matter_and_bernie_sanders_why_the_protesters_are_so_hard_on.html
  •  Dan Mercia, “Black Lives Matter videos, Clinton campaign reveal details of meeting” http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/18/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-meeting/index.html
  •  D. Watkins, “Dear White Allies after Charleston” http://www.salon.com/2015/06/22/dear_white_allies_after_charleston_please_understand_this_about_your_privilege/
  • James Franco’s endorsement of Ta-nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me https://twitter.com/JamesFrancoTV/status/632610571360292864
  • Wikipedia page for the “bandwagon effect”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwagon_effect
  • Van Jones, “Disrupting Bernie Sanders and the Democrats” (Aug. 2015): http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/12/opinions/van-jones-bernie-sanders-disrupted/
Spotted in an apartment window on my way home in Seattle, WA (August 2015)

Spotted in an apartment window on my way home in Seattle, WA (August 2015)

First-Generation College Students, and How to Serve Them Better

With the dawn of the fall quarter/semester upon us, it’s important for us to remember the diverse populations we might teach and how to prepare them better for life at the university and beyond. In preparation for an early fall start class at UW (ENGL 108), we were tasked with thinking about our student population, which mostly consists of international students and some domestic students. We were asked to read one article (among a few others). In “The Struggle to Be First: First-Gen Students May Be Torn Between College and Home,” Alina Tugend explains the trials and tribulations that many first-generation college students face. In this article, Tugend interviews a handful of first-generation students at Berkeley and educational professionals who work with first-generation students. Simply put, first-generation college students face unique challenges that are not faced by second and subsequent generation college students.

One of the causes I enthusiastically champion is the plight of the first-generation college student. I’m incredibly passionate about teaching first-generation college students (both domestic and international) because of my own experiences in undergraduate and graduate school. Being a first-generation college student myself, I know first-hand what many of these students are going through in their first year of college and even throughout their entire college experience. I was born and raised in a small town in rural Mississippi with a population of 2500 and graduated with only 69 people in my senior class. I have several family members who do not even have high school diplomas, let alone college degrees. I am fortunate enough to have parents who valued education for my brother and I, and with their guidance, emotional, and financial support, I was able to attend a four-year institution and eventually pursue graduate school. Not everyone who is first-generation has this incredible amount of support, as two of my former students who were first-generation have already left the UW—one student for reasons he would not disclose and another student whose parents did not want to take financial responsibility for her.

My understanding of the cultural divide that exists between insiders and outsiders in academia has had a profound effect on how I teach students and the type of rigorous education I want students to have in my courses. I have taught several first-generation students (both ELLs and domestic students), and helping them navigate the terrain of academia is perhaps one of the more rewarding experiences in teaching. I bring this experience and first-hand knowledge in to my classroom and try my best to help both first-generation and multi-generational college students navigate the difficult and uneven terrain of academia, especially the dimensions that many take for granted (financial aid, fellowships, campus work programs, tutoring centers, academic programs, etc.). One of the ways that I gauge my student population is simply asking my class on the first or second day who might be first-generation, as I believe mentoring these students early on in the quarter is imperative for their success. I also share my own experiences with these students (office hours and conferences, for instance) in order to show them that it is, in fact, possible for them to complete their degrees and even pursue graduate education. 

One dimension of the conversation about first-generation college students that rarely receives attention is how higher education can become a source of alienation from one’s family. Speaking from my own experiences, higher education has been both a proverbial blessing and a curse in that higher education has opened up many opportunities in my personal and professional life, but it has also alienated me from my family and friends back home. I would describe this as a type of Du Boisian ‘double consciousness’ in the sense that first-gen college students are navigating two very different worlds—that of the university culture and that of their home cultures (Jesmyn Ward, in her memoir Men We Reaped, explains this phenomena much more eloquently than I). In the Berkeley article, Amy Baldwin explains, “It’s not just understanding the logistics, it’s feeling comfortable enough to engage in all parts of college life.” Isolation and the feeling of being a cultural outsider to college life largely because one’s parents did not attend four-year institutions puts first-gen students at a severe disadvantage often not faced by those students whose parents did attend four year institutions. Without having the support of insider cultural knowledge that is often gained through college-educated parents, first-generation college students often miss out on how to be at the university, including social activities. This is something I experienced as well because I was not sure of my place at the university, and this feeling of cultural outsiderness has carried over with me to graduate school (despite being in my sixth year of graduate school). As Baldwin puts it, “A campus really needs to understand the challenges of first-generation. It’s like going to a different country” (emphases added). I would very much agree with this sentiment because it is only by being a cultural insider to campus culture does one obtain “academic” or “educational capital.”  

One blind spot to this discussion (and one that I’m considering pursuing post-dissertation) is how non-elite institutions such as my own undergraduate institution may (or may not) perform a disservice to first generation college students. I’m intrigued that elite institutions might be better at being aware of the unique problems faced by first-generation students. I’m slightly skeptical that the UW, however, is as aware of these issues as it could be. My original dissertation idea was writing an ethnography of first-generation college students and how they navigated elite institutions. Perhaps an article (or two) will come to fruition in the coming years.

Another blind spot to this article that needs to be addressed is the definition of who is considered a first-generation college student. Many institutions define first-generation differently. The most inclusive definition is the one offered by ImFirst.org: “While there is no universal definition for ‘first-generation college student’ and much of the research uses the definition ‘a student with neither parent having any education beyond high school,’ we choose to define a first-generation college student as ‘neither parent having received a four-year college degree” (emphases added). So, if we want to be allies in making sure that first-generation college students stay and complete their degrees in a suitable timeline, we need to first be sure that students understand what first-generation means. I think some students get lost in the web of definitions (I did). I personally had no idea I was a first-generation college student until graduate school (yes!) because no one told me or did any of my professors raise this as a unique aspect of my experiences at the university. As teachers, I think it’s important for us to be sure that a more inclusive idea of first-generation is disseminated and that our students understand the unique challenges that all first-generation college students endure at elite and non-elite institutions alike.

Recommended sources:

·      http://www.imfirst.org/

·      http://www.imfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FAQ.pdf  http://thedartmouth.com/2014/10/15/colleges-differ-in-first-generation-definitions/ and https://professionals.collegeboard.com/guidance/prepare/first-generation

·      Alina Tugend, “The Struggle to Be First,” http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/spring-2015-dropouts-and-drop-ins/struggle-be-first-first-gen-students-may-be

·      Stony Brook University First-Generation Students, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXFLQ6tp8Qs

·      Karin Fischer, “The Chinese Mother’s American Dream” (July 6, 2015), http://chronicle.com/article/The-Chinese-Mothers-American/231239/?key=HG52JgFuNXFINy1nZm5FbzlSaXNlYUwvNXlMPyl9blBXFQ==

 

Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can’t Teach, Make Laws about Teaching, or Write Articles About What We Should Be Teaching and How We Should Be Teaching

On the latest episode of Real Time, Bill Maher hosted Caitlin Flanagan, author of the recent cover story for The Atlantic magazine. Her article, “That’s Not Funny!,” focuses on comedians playing the college-campus circuit and how they navigate the minefield of political correctness. Comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are staunch critics of the P.C.-culture of the modern campus; Seinfeld, in his interview for New York magazine, deemed campuses “too conservative” for most comedians’ material—“…they’re so PC.” In her article, Flanagan vilifies college campuses as incubators of politically-correct and ever-increasingly conservative students who are quick to be offended by jokes deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. She explains, “When I attended the [National Association of Campus Activities] convention in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed.”

I have often wondered how to teach comedy in the classroom, especially its intersection with racial, sexual, and gender politics. Baratunde Thurson’s How To Be Black, David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants all immediately come to mind as books that would make for exceptional teaching material. This is primarily the reason I was drawn to Flanagan’s article, as I believe comedy does have a place in the university classroom. The ways in which Flanagan historicizes the current moment, though, is something I take issue; her downplaying of the larger American culture and its impact on college campuses is something that must be attended to in any examination of American education. She writes, “College campuses have never been incubators for great stand-up; during the 1960s and ‘70s, schools didn’t dedicate much money to bringing in entertainers, and by the time they did, PC culture had taken off. This culture—its noble aspirations and inevitable end game—was everywhere apparent at [NACA].”

She argues that students have been conditioned to react this way to comedy for two reasons. The first is due to the fact that the students of college campuses today “are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses.” For Flanagan, this means social justice warriors, especially feminists. The second reason that she hypothesizes is that students are pressured to choose sides at the university: “These kids aren’t dummies; they look around their colleges and see that there are huge incentives to join the ideological bandwagon and harsh penalties for questioning the platform’s core ideas.” While Flanagan downplays the intellectual sophistication of students in the beginning of her article, she then pivots to suggesting that students are intellectually-savvy in choosing an “ideological bandwagon” in order to ‘play the game’ of partisan politics on college campuses. Students’ educational experience at the university has been narrowed to only a “range of approved social and political opinions.”

Flanagan’s article does not pick up on her accusations that teachers and professors at the university are to blame for PC-culture and students’ failures to understand rhetorical nuance. I would encourage you to view the (short) interview with Bill Maher to get a better sense of the implicit arguments that she makes in her essay (located below).

Let’s get real here: the conservatism that Flanagan and others point out is the conservatism of colorblindness perpetuated by neoliberalism in the wake of the post-Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the conservatism that Flanagan and others argue against is the conservatism that touts American patriotism, free speech, and the tenants of late capitalism that began under the Nixon administration and was carried to fruition by the Reagan administration. In the post-9/11 era in which these students were raised, it’s no wonder that free speech is increasingly policed, especially by those (e.g., conservatives) who argue that race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, and able-bodiedness no longer matters in the era of meritocracy (which, by the way, we know is a myth). Thus, the irony of what Flanagan calls “PC-culture” of college campuses is the increasingly colorblind rhetoric of “inclusivity” that would rather forget cultural and social differences in favor of ‘we’re all the same.’ Students have been conditioned to accept that the rhetoric of inclusivity (as purported by neoliberalism) must forget racial, sexual, and gender differences; thus, any mention of race, gender, and/or sexuality is considered to be inflammatory, even if that speech is in favor of celebrating those differences.  

The identity politics of the ‘60s and ‘70s celebrated cultural and social differences rather than erased them. This is, in fact, the key distinguishing point between that historical moment and the current one we live. Moreover, I would argue that college students are increasingly apolitical. I would venture to also suggest that perhaps the rise of PC-culture on college campuses is due, in part, to a technological age where students’ intellectual and cognitive abilities are not sophisticated enough to pick up on nuance and subtlety. Furthermore, Flanagan eschews culpability for the fact that American culture of the post-World War II era was largely responsible for raising children to see themselves as exceptional. We can see the apex of this in the post-9/11 era, where ‘everyone gets a trophy’ and students are risk-averse.

So, before Flanagan can critique college campuses and university professors and teachers for producing citizen-students who are more and more politically-correct, she would do well to attend to the historical legacies of American exceptionalism and the rhetoric of colorblind ideologies that have been simmering for more than four decades in the American imaginary, for it is these twin processes that have contributed to producing students who are increasingly apolitical and more apt to pursue occupations and degree programs that prepare them for labor production. Without such a historical critique of these antecedents to the contemporary moment, Flanagan espouses the same neoliberal ideologies that she purports are detrimental to students’ education.    

 

Sources:

·      Caitlin Flanagan, “That’s Not Funny!”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/thats-not-funny/399335/

·      Flanagan’s interview on Real Time with Bill Maher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kizOjQ-XD7U

The Work of “Teaching for Justice” in a Post-Everything America

I just recently finished hearing two fantastic podcasts yesterday, Terry Gross’s interview with author Ari Berman and Tom Ashbrook’s discussion of race in America (listed below). Both podcasts provide a foundational understanding to the contemporary moment we are in through historical lenses, historical lenses that many in the U.S. do not have, especially undergraduate students. Thus, when I stumbled upon Dan Berrett’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today about teaching African American history in our contemporary moment, I knew I had to begin writing my first blog post. Indeed, it is rather a coincidence (or perhaps not) that I am beginning this blog (and my first post) on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the 1st anniversary of Ferguson and Michael Brown’s death.

To give you a brief outline of Berrett’s article, he begins by considering what a post-Ferguson America offers scholars and teachers of African American Studies, in particular, how these issues make their way into our classrooms and how they affect classroom discussions and debates about race and ethnicity in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America. He contends that current events can be helpful and unhelpful: “Students can respond unpredictably, derailing class discussions. Faculty members often find they’ve let loose a flood of contradictory feelings in their students that they must expertly guide. Many professors of color must cope with similar emotions themselves.” The emotional investment in these stories by undergrads as well as teachers of American ethnic studies might, for some, be seen as a recipe for (classroom) disaster. But, as Berrett explains, these new events force “scholars to make pedagogical choices. Some have made the incidents the explicit topics of a new lesson or course; others have used them as entry points to teach previously existing material.” How do we (and by we I mean all teachers) respond productively to the current moment? What pedagogical interventions can we make as teachers and scholars of literature, for instance? What’s at stake in these conversations for our students and ourselves?

What I found to be important in this article is that we need to “[t]each the discomfort” of race relations in America. We need to teach the narratives that not only challenge our students, but make our students intellectually and emotionally uncomfortable because it is our through discomfort that we can grow intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is what it would mean to work beyond discussions of ‘white privilege,’ which I argue are both overdetermined and unproductive in advancing a critical race consciousness in our students. In one anecdote, Berrett profiles a course by Penn State professor Courtney Desiree Morris; her course, entitled “The Fire This Time—Understanding Ferguson” exposes her mostly white undergraduate students to “experiences that aren’t our own.” She argues that unless we do this, transforming the situation of the here and now is impossible.

Another professor profiled in his essay is also Marcia Chatelain, creator of #FergusonSyllabus. Chatelain explains that after the Ferguson incident, she incorporated discussions in her course on a daily basis. In one particular assignment towards the end of the semester, she challenged her students to bring up the discussion over Thanksgiving dinner. Berrett writes, “[Chatelain] wanted her students to look with fresh eyes at their own and others’ lived experiences. Many white students said they would never raised the issue because they felt awkward or uncomfortable. Most black students said they wouldn’t be able to escape it even if they wanted to.” These mixed emotions, Chatelain explains, were catalysts to students developing more sophisticated positions.

Finally, Jennifer Nash, asst. professor at George Washington University, cold-calls on students to “perform” certain arguments in class. Berrett explains, “The students didn’t have to personally support a particular position, but they had to articulate it. What, for example, would an argument against meritocracy be? Performing an argument helped separate ideology from identity, she said, and allowed students to analyze ideas more dispassionately. She demonstrated the technique herself, she said, to show her students a range of perspectives.” Nash demonstrates what bell hooks calls an “engaged pedagogy,” that is a pedagogical responsibility that models the type of risks that we ask our students to perform in the classroom. Without taking risks ourselves as teachers, we risk students’ personal investment in the subject matter. Without personal risk (intellectually and emotionally), we hold back a part of ourselves that might otherwise radically change how our students navigate the terrain of the uncomfortable.  Nash laments, “As an instructor…it’s utterly exhausting work.”

Indeed, the work of what Jacqui Alexander calls “teaching for justice” is incredibly exhausting work, especially in the climate of anti-intellectualism and vehement skepticism; our students traffic in these cultural and social sentiments. However, I am critically hopefully that “teaching for justice” can be a pragmatic endeavor, an endeavor that through time can become productive. I believe that teaching a curriculum that is culturally responsive to our current moment is especially needed when so many of our students look to our classrooms in American ethnic studies for answers on how to discuss and think deeply about the larger world around them. But Berrett cautions that we shouldn’t “overplay…the significance of the now.” I agree that too much focus on the ‘now’ obfuscates the historical and cultural genealogies that have allowed the ‘now’ to persist and reproduce. We have to do the work of cultivating historical and institutional literacies in our courses, especially as teachers of literature. Getting students to rethink their assumptions through an historical approach that focuses on the ramification of institituionalized racism has proven to be effective for my own classes. Only through an historical lens do students begin to ‘get it’ that race, in its current manifestation, is incredibly dynamic and nuanced. Such a critical lens is needed in order for students to navigate the difficult terrain of the here and now and begin to produce their own answers for the contemporary moment.

 

Recommended sources:

·      Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing (2006)

·      Dan Berrett, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons—and Risks—to the Classroom” (2015) http://chronicle.com/article/A-Year-of-Racial-Tumult-Brings/232245/

·      NPR Onpoint: Race in America, from Watts to Ferguson and Beyond http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/08/10/american-race-ferguson-watts-michael-brown

·      NPR FreshAir: Block the Vote: A Journalist Discusses Voting Rights and Restrictions; http://www.npr.org/2015/08/10/431238980/block-the-vote-a-journalist-discusses-voting-rights-and-restrictions

·      Courtney Morris’s class on Ferguson http://sites.psu.edu/ferguson/