Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The margin as central

Welcome to AcademicZ!

Like many people who come to realize their membership in minority groups, I have found myself at various points in life with an intense desire to learn more. Of course I’m sure all academics share a love of knowledge, literature, enlightening conversations, and good debates. However, being in a marginalized position, my identity plays a role in guiding interactions, particularly in the classroom as I assume a position of power to teach content. First, I would like to situate my perspective by sharing some personal instances in which I felt particularly driven to pursue an academic profession. I think this will be a good starting point to consider how and why people enter and/or metaphorically *fight* to be in academia and contribute to what are all too often considered “alternative” voices. Then, I pose some pedagogical questions.

My interest in minority identity issues stems from two influences: my love for history, and my consciousness as a Latina feminist.

I enjoy history because it stirs up thoughts, challenges assumptions, and angers me at times. As I tell my intercultural communication students, people who write history for the textbooks we read are highly privileged because they tell the stories about past events that are overwhelmingly accepted as hard facts. There rests inherent privilege in storytelling. For example, as a young person, I started to question why Native American extermination and land occupation by colonizers were so often sanitized in presentation. Why not call it what it was? Dehumanization, genocide, and stealing. I was even more baffled as to why everyone of Latin descent could be reasonably lumped into one large (but largely heterogeneous!) group as Hispanics - this really short changes the complexity of identities included.

Considering my own regional identity with family from northern New Mexico, it is perfectly normal for me that we proudly hold our own traditions, customs, food, and ways of thinking that constitute a blend of cultures ---> Chican@ = being Latin@/Hispanic (more specifically, of Mexican descent) AND U.S.-born. American but not white, American and culturally diverse. These identities co-exist. Reality is often sanitized.

Much of the history I learned excluded my group identities and it wasn't until much later that I acquired a more well-rounded view. This made me mad. I felt robbed. Like someone was keeping my own history from me. So I asked questions. I asked my history teacher in high school why some things were hardly mentioned, while others were elaborated upon for many pages. I asked my parents about their upbringing. I asked my grandparents about their life experiences. I searched for literature to provide me access to this information from those voices on the margins that I was so sure existed. Surely I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last to note this exclusion and identity tensions and become curious. Sure enough I was right and I have since expanded my personal library to include these histories considered “on the margin” but that are so central in understanding my societal position(s). I have also had many conversations with friends and colleagues who share these sentiments and similar pivotal life moments. I am satisfied to know this knowledge exists; but I am saddened more often than not that when I’m teaching I find I have to integrate mini-history lessons to catch students up on different ways of thinking that are perhaps unconventional. I love teaching mini-history lessons within my communication courses; I hate that my history (and that of many “others”) is marginal in the first place.

Another pivotal life moment occurred shortly after my confrontation with history. I was automatically drawn to a Chicana feminist class to count towards my Women’s Studies Certificate. I enrolled and it blew my mind. I already knew I was a feminist, especially once I realized the man-hating bra-burners were only a sensational media stereotype and NOT representative of the majority of feminists. Again, I recognized diversity within a broad umbrella term on its face, much like the diversity the Hispanic/Latino category encompasses. I first heard of the “double jeopardy” concept when I was in junior high – a woman AND a minority group member.

Well, it was at this point in my graduate education that I was finishing up my thesis and getting ready to graduate. I was also being strongly persuaded by my advisor to consider pursuing a Ph.D. It was this Chicana feminist class that gave me that final push I needed. It disturbed me to learn of the meager percentages of higher education degrees awarded annually to Hispanic females. I couldn’t believe how groups are differentially affected by poverty and systematically disadvantaged, or have experiences hitting glass walls and ceilings within organizations, though perhaps some would never admit to experience with institutional discrimination. I felt like I owed it to myself and my entire cultural and gender group to obtain a Ph.D. Of course, my collectivist-oriented family members are extremely proud of my accomplishments and my working towards a Ph.D. is a group credit.

“Dr. Martinez (one day soon), wow!”

But for me, my teaching and research can be pretty personal, exciting, fun, yet sometimes conflicting and difficult. The more I teach, the more I learn. The more I research, the more questions I come up with.

So, these two pivotal life experiences inform questions I have that are not easily answered:

1) How can we navigate multiple cultures at once as uniquely layered individuals and teach effectively to groups of students who are not similar? Where is the fine balance between living marginalization and teaching to the majority?

2) Is it possible to divorce ourselves from our personal identities and perspectives to teach and conduct research neutrally? Should this be something that is desirable? Is it fair to be asked to keep personal perspective out of our academic lives?

My colleague Kevin and I have pondered and discussed such questions and have come together on some shared experiences. On the one hand, it is a relief to know our experiences are not easily chalked up to personality. Kevin and I are effective teachers. We enjoy teaching greatly, take our responsibilities to students seriously, and strive to become better constantly. On the other hand, it is perplexing to teach as the “other” to the in-group.

We are both eager to engage discussions surrounding these identity tensions as Latin@ communication scholars.


  1. Many of your experiences resonate with me as a person of color and someone who feels the tension of personal/familial pride for being in academia and knowing that I am in a smaller minority in higher education. Your questions are both reflective and reflexive and invite further discussion.

    In regard to...
    "1) How can we navigate multiple cultures at once as uniquely layered individuals and teach effectively to groups of students who are not similar? Where is the fine balance between living marginalization and teaching to the majority?"

    I am not sure how we navigate this successfully. Much of my research focused on managing these tensions in what I call the 'trailblazing experience'. I believe we socially construct our realities, therefor I like to believe that we can take an identity that is positioned in the margins and re-frame it. That is to say that we can reposition ourselves through communicative tactics that will chip away at the control that marginalization often creates.

    As for the second series of thoughts...
    "2) Is it possible to divorce ourselves from our personal identities and perspectives to teach and conduct research neutrally? Should this be something that is desirable? Is it fair to be asked to keep personal perspective out of our academic lives?"

    I say no! Each of us brings a set of experiences, perspectives, and knowledge that makes us unique. As individuals we each bring something different to the discussion. We experience this tension in courses we teach. I have often joked with a good friend of mine who is a rhetorician that each of us approaches public speaking differently. In the process, he teaches the course differently than I and our peers. This differentiation is not limited to our area or focus of research. His research interests, and our identities should inform our teaching. To divorce these identities is to attempt to reach an artificial position that begins to separate us from that which is distinct to being human- our identities and ability to communicate it.

  2. Great considerations, Amanda. I do not think I have answers for your questions, I would need more time to consider them. However, I will risk an answer for your second question:

    "2) Is it possible to divorce ourselves from our personal identities and perspectives to teach and conduct research neutrally? Should this be something that is desirable? Is it fair to be asked to keep personal perspective out of our academic lives?"

    I agree with Kevin-Khristián. My answer is also no. Not just because it goes against my political views and goals in terms of research, but also because it is impossible. Our personal identities and perspectives are present in every little move we make - when we speak, how we approach things, our gestures. My experience in class made me realized how the specific context I come from - a non-US American context - has a prominent role in my perspectives.

    Therefore, from my standpoint, there is no such thing as value-free research/teaching. This is a Western positivist paradigm constructed to give voice and authority to a few White male. This notion, one of Enlightenment's legacy, must be continuously criticized.

  3. Kevin - I love your use of trailblazing to talk about what we do regularly! I do work hard to debunk my group stereotypes on a number of levels (in and out of the classroom) -- as a relatively young person who teaches college, as a female minority, as a Hispanic/Latina female soon to have a PhD.

    Of course it's one thing when students put you into boxed categories, but quite another when colleagues do so (but let's save that for another blog post).
    At the core of my teaching philosophy is the reality that I work to not just bring the margin to the center (bell hooks), but normalize the marginal alongside the dominant so as to create a more well-rounded perspective on any given topic (and one that is more inclusive of the student diversity within the classroom).

    Raquel - While I wholeheartedly agree with you that it is impossible and certainly not desirable (on a personal level) to teach or research in a value-free way (depending on your method), I do think there are some underlying tensions that speak to this balancing act. For example, when I teach intercultural comm., I include a section in my syllabus that says "It is likely that you may become offended at something said in class, that you may disagree with someone's experience or perspective, etc. but we will strive to keep an open mind and be respectful, at a minimum, towards one another."
    I constantly use myself as an example when teaching concepts, as well as examples from friends' experiences, and pop culture. I create a balanced perspective by bringing in plenty of diversity in ways that even challenge students' ways of thinking about diversity.

    However, I say it's a balancing act because there is this tendency among many teacher-scholars to latch onto and internalize the one or two evaluation comments at the end of a semester that say something to the effect of "this instructor should keep his/her political beliefs/opinions out of the classroom..."
    It's easier to forget about the other 100+ students who rated you highly and raved about how awesome you were as their professor! They already thought you were effective.

    I know that when I use any sort of controversial real-life example, I do so in an 'equal opportunity' way --- for example, if I use an interview with Obama for critical thought, I also show one with Palin. If I talk about Bush, I also will bring in an example of Clinton. If I talk about discrimination, I don't just talk about people of color - I talk about gender and (dis)ability alongside the race examples.

    That said, while I don't necessarily leave behind the complex person I am as a teacher-scholar in my classroom, I do think it is a responsibility of the instructor to create for a classroom environment that is comfortable, where students are not afraid to engage in discussion about such topics. In fact, sometimes it's the case that simply agreeing to disagree is the outcome - but I don't think all is lost because students still learn something in the end.
    Bottom line = it's not ideal to tease out our identities in the classroom as instructors, but there is a balancing act with regard to classroom climate and the way things are presented. We shouldn't shy away from controversy or difference simply because it might not be popular. There are tactful ways to present controversy and diversity both.

    The other point we have to consider is the type of institution we are teaching at --> I teach to a largely young, conservative, Christian, and Caucasian student body (mostly from Texas). There is some diversity at this institution, but not much or enough (the emphasis on tradition and sameness is pervasive). Perhaps this is also why my "other" identities are more apparent to me on a regular basis - because I don't fit in neatly with my dominant audience. I do play on our similarities though, if anything by just living in the same place and being on the same college campus.

  4. Dear Friends:

    I don't have much time to reply right now (am in the midst of grading hell), but wanted to take the opportunity to tell you that I appreciate your reflections and conversations. I think they are important, and I think they are useful for you and others. I look forward to being able to participate later, if only through comments!

    Thank you all,