Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reaching Out to the Other, or A Performance of Striving

Walking to where my husband said he would pick me up, I consider my new role as a student-teacher at a private university. "How important is identifying with students? How does it affect your teaching?" (Hernandez). My husband smiles at me from our new vehicle purchased specifically for the snowy winters in Colorado and tells me that we need gas ("How will we pay for gas? Why did we take the risk of buying this car?"). It is Tuesday September 4th, 2012, and earlier that morning, I had already gotten lost on my way to my department's convocation event, which welcomes new doctoral and masters students. I'm depressed and sweaty, and before I get picked up, I have decided to again walk alone towards a building that I have never seen or heard. You see, Frank Tuitt, an Associate Provost of Inclusive Excellence, is giving a talk today on bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom entitled "Education for Social and Political Change: The Continued Search for Education as the Practice of Freedom," so although I am emotionally and physically drained, I am determined to experience this lecture. In this blog posting, I weave my reflections of my first week as a student-teacher at a private university alongside my notes from a lecture on teaching to strive for a performance that urges my fellow Latin@ communication studies scholars to reach out to each other throughout the year. Utilizing an autobiographical performance as a response to some of the blog entries on this AcademicZ website, it is my belief and argument that an ongoing analysis of our blog entries and comments to each other should continue in order to strengthen our alliances as a Latina/o Communication Studies discipline.

As I walk, I am not quite used to the humidity, so I roll up the sleeves of my button-down turquoise dress shirt. I bought it at a Marshall's clothing store (it was on sale) before I left my California home to start my doctoral program in a new state. I'm depressed because I am alone and lost and my funding has been stalled by a bureaucratic system that doesn't seem to understand that I am the closest I have been to poverty in a long time. However, I am hopeful because this talk on bell hooks and the state of education has me excited about the possibilities of reaching out to the Other. About fifteen minutes later, I find my building by following a gaggle of freshmen undergraduate students, and I sit front row center eager to hear a female voice that has pushed me to strive for freedom many times before.

However, something is wrong. The male voice is saying all the right things ("This is the most diverse freshman class we have had since I have been here"), but I cannot quite connect because I am in a sea of whiteness. I am reminded by Bernadette Calafell in a recent blog posting that "this may be a red flag. Sometimes a department has had a history of problems around race, gender, and sexuality, and they naively think the way to change this is to hire a person of color (as if we magically transform a space with our presences like unicorns) or the university puts the pressure on them to do so." Although Calafell is discussing faculty positions, it feels like students are being used in much the same way. My notes are covered with critical questions like "isn't the classroom the 'real world'?" and "Citizens? Is that the only goal of education?" Again, I am feeling alone and lost and I'm remembering Bernardita Maria Yunis Varas' recent AcademicZ posting: "When I became a citizen, I was expected to forsake my country for the United States.  But how can they not understand?" I stop building my bridge to the Other and write disappointedly in my notes that "this is not a conversation with bell hooks." The male voice is saying all the right things, but shouldn't the institution change because of this diversity? Students of color are not just a quota on a piece of paper.

Leandra Hernandez's struggles discussing the realities of academia with her female Mexican-American student perhaps comes closest to how I felt in the moment: "Was it even my place to divulge such information about how I’m very saddened at times by the unwelcoming culture here? Should I put on a straight face and pretend that racial/ethnic differences are not a problem here?" Like a random bolt of lightning on a humid Denver afternoon, Tuitt brings me back into the space by attempting a performance where he dialogues with bell hooks on how to care for the souls of our students. He says that teaching and learning comes easiest for those who focus on the soul within the mind-body-spirit matrix of a person. He professes that "everyone can learn" and that as teachers we have to "be exciting." Is this really what bell hooks would say? Should it be my goal as a teacher to simply entertain?

"Once again, we are referring to a discussion of whether or not we subvert the classroom's politics of domination simply by using different material, or by having a different, more radical standpoint" (hooks, 1994, p. 148). I cannot care for the souls of my students alone. It takes a village. I am resistant to pedagogies that ask the instructor to turn education into entertainment or to strive for success alone without a community to draw strength and guidance from. I write in my notes: "What is the students' responsibility for a pedagogy of freedom?" As if to answer my question, Tuitt urges his audience to "resist the temptation to present oneself as an all-knowing expert." I nod appreciatively because I am beginning to hear my literary hero's voice again. He continues by stating that a "democratic setting is created through sharing of personal experience" and "students must enter the classroom ready to be active... they must want to learn." Maybe, I am beginning to build a bridge to this African-American male. Why did I hesitate before?

Bernardita Maria Yunis Varas writes passionately about how "the difference as I have come to recognize vividly in grad school comes from life and lived experience, in moments, emotions, relationships and people." Like the blog entries on AcademicZ, Tuitt and hooks place a significant value on voice and its power in the classroom. Tuitt emphasizes that we must "teach with multiple pedagogical styles" and that we must "build a community of learners" by "modeling how to use voice by using and sharing [our] personal experience." Maybe, there is something here that we can use to survive this academic space. Maybe, there is something here that we can use to connect to Others.

"Coming to voice is not just the act of telling one's experience. It is using that telling strategically--to come to voice so that you can also speak freely about other subjects" (hooks, 1994, p. 148). The talk ends, and like a good audience member, I stand and applaud. As I walk to where my husband said he would pick me up, I am suddenly proud that I know what it is like to not have the money to pay bills, gas, groceries, and entertainment. I am proud to be Xicano and queer because these histories of colonization and oppression have placed me (and Others) on a very different trajectory. I am proud because I realize that I do deserve to be in this privileged space. However, like hooks, Tuitt mentions how "learning and knowing is not enough. We must take responsibility to do something with it." In other words, now that I am here--what will I do?

In the tradition of queer scholarship and women-of-color feminisms, such as in Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader or Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader, I want to offer this performance as a response to three blog entries on the AcademicZ blog for Latina/o Communication Studies. Specifically, this is a response to "Excuse me, Perdón. And other translations" by Bernardita Maria Yunis Varas, "Being Honest to One’s Students and One’s Self" by Leandra H. Hernandez, and "Post Tenure Blues" by Bernadette Marie Calafell. To me, these blog entries are already in discussion with each other, and as a chorus, these blog entries highlight the importance of striving towards a practice of freedom for Latin@s in academia. What will I do? Given the harsh realities of being Latina/o in the academy, I will urge everyone to respond to the blogs on this AcademicZ page and to write whenever you feel alone or depressed. Somehow, I made it through that first week, but I can't help but wonder if things would have been better if I would have reached out to you all instead. This space to voice my experiences has given me the courage to fail, and collectively, our experiences on the margins have given us all the strength to get up and fail--and get up again. I find hope in this striving towards freedom. Will you take up my challenge? Will you be the community that reaches out throughout the year? I humbly ask for a response, because with others who understand what is at stake, we have a better chance of doing more than just surviving.


Arrendondo, G. F., Hurtado, A., Klahn, N., Nájera-Ramírez, O., & Zavella, P. (2003). Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Hames-García, M. & Martínez, E. J. (2011). Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.


  1. Amen for this courageous and honest post! This is the crux of the impetus for this very blog.-->

    "Given the harsh realities of being Latina/o in the academy, I will urge everyone to respond to the blogs on this AcademicZ page and to write whenever you feel alone or depressed. Somehow, I made it through that first week, but I can't help but wonder if things would have been better if I would have reached out to you all instead. This space to voice my experiences has given me the courage to fail, and collectively, our experiences on the margins have given us all the strength to get up and fail--and get up again. I find hope in this striving towards freedom."

    This echoes much of the intent that Kevin and I had when initially deciding to start a blog that would reach out to the national community of Latino/a Comm. teacher-scholars, grad students and professors alike. I realize that we all get busy with our own worlds that swoop away all of our time and energy, but it is very important that we maintain open lines of communication more routinely. I'm happy that I've been able to solicit various monthly blog contributors every month since last NCA. It has, indeed, resulted in greater connections, a diversity of voices and issues raised, and a way to keep in touch regularly even if it's just to read some food for thought each month.

    I comment on every blog post. I will continue to do so. Others, please join me in this venture!

    Robert, this blog has allowed us to get connected and establish a friendship before we even met in person, haha! For that, I'm thankful because that is the type of mentorship/academic connection/friendship process this blog intends to facilitate.

    As for your major concerns and uncertainties as well as mixed bag of emotions in this blog, I can relate. Many of those conversations are happening at my institution where the diversification of students and faculty alike is something that is fueled by genuine intentions but that is hard to implement in a productive, positive, non-tokenizing way. The mere presence of people of color on both sides of the academic world (students & professors) is not something to simply check off of a list and then proceed with business as usual. The process goes beyond (or at least it should!) the presence and visibility of diversity. I think the shortchanged aspect often comes from then making those diverse members of the institution comfortable, welcome, and enabled to be successful. I can speak for my institution and say that one aspect of my pleasant surprise in becoming socialized to this particular setting is that there are many groups for faculty and students alike with these sorts of diversity integration goals in mind. For example, there is the FemFac (female faculty) listserv, the NOAH (junior faculty) group, the Faculty of Color group that meets monthly over lunch, and the informal process that dept. chairs go through of strategically finding and assigning a faculty mentor to the junior faculty members in the dept. This mentor is someone outside the junior faculty member's dept., completely unrelated to the tenure committee, etc. for some obvious reasons and to ensure pure mentorship opportunities without repercussions for asking perhaps "dumb" or even perceived "taboo" questions. I meet with my faculty mentor, a tenured psychology professor, regularly for coffee chats and it has been a really productive and nice low-key relationship to have. I also have established friendships with my peers for various reasons -- we're junior, we're people of color, we're women (and people of color - that whole double whammy thing!), we're PEERS, we want to succeed in our work, be good professors, etc.

  2. I also find that one thing that is complaint-worthy but simultaneously worth celebrating is the idea that we, as minorities, are perhaps in positions of power in academia to also have additional service responsibilities because we're expected to mentor the next generation of diverse folks who enter this realm. That is a duty I gladly take up but I can also understand why others do not so eagerly embrace that --- time and energy commitment which cuts into the tenure clock tick-tocking away!

    I choose to carve out the time. I've attended OLAS (Organization of Latin American Students) functions and meetings, and reached out to let the members know I'm here as a faculty mentor to them. I attended the faculty-student mixer hosted by the BLC (Black Student Coalition) for a similar reason - to introduce myself, get to know the students, and let them know that, as a fellow minority in a higher education setting, I'm here for them as well. I'm also involved in the Gender & Sexuality Studies program and am bringing a transgender professor guest speaker to campus in the early spring. I feel that it is part of my own drive and motivation to also serve as someone who goes beyond merely a representation of diversity to reach out and enforce inclusion where I can, as someone with a title and subsequent position of power. These interactions and efforts go a long way even if not in an immediate, tangible sense.

    I practice what I preach particularly because I've been motivated similarly by others who have come before me - as a high school student, college undergrad, Master's and Ph.D. student, and now as a junior faculty member.

    Let's keep this collective space going for all the productive potential it has.

    As always, I welcome new contributors and encourage you all to broadly circulate this blog as you see fit. Don't be shy. Let's talk!

  3. Robert, I loved every word of your post. Every. single. word! Getting all of our recent posts together was a marvelous idea. I truly appreciate the connection and a call for us to come back and continue conversing with each other about these very important topics.

    Ah, a "sea of whiteness" -- story of our lives here. I couldn't have said it better myself. You know, that's exactly how I would describe every single one of my classes. I love my students, I really do, but it hasn't gotten any easier to identify with them or vice versa. For example, in my Interviewing course (thanks to Amanda's awesome suggestions), my students' final interviewing projects consisted of conducting a cross-cultural/"diversity" interview or an interview with a professional in a field they hope to enter someday. The very first in-class project presentation -- by one of my top students -- started with a disclaimer: "Guys, before I begin, I just want to let you know that I'm about to talk about a controversial topic, and I want to apologize beforehand because I know it's offensive. I interviewed one of my best friends, a transgender male." (We later found out that he was a queer man of color. Oh, geez. What the hell do you do in those situations. I wanted to stand up and scream both at her and in her defense, "Why on earth are you apologizing?! You don't need to apologize! You don't owe this apology to anyone!" In that very instance, her transgender best friend of color was being re-constructed as an atrocity, an offense, someone for whom she needed to apologize for because he didn't fit society's norm of a "man," her audience's norm of a "man." I know deep down that she didn't find him offensive, but rather that she felt she needed to cover her tracks because of her audience... As her presentation progressed, she gave marvelous quotations that she gained from her interview, including the fact that her best friend doesn't like being relegated to his biology and that he felt that no one ever cares about transgender rights and issues. As she mentioned interview quotations about his relationships, the audience's faces turned to squirms of disgust. I wanted to cry. Yuck. That might be a bit off topic, but I think it kind of gets at what you're saying here... I dunno.

    Also, getting at your thoughts regarding Bernadette's posts and Amanda's posts, as well, I can't count how many times someone has told me, "Oh, well, maybe you just got into the PhD program because you're Hispanic," or "Oh, they needed you to fill the quota." Really. Really?

    The bottom line is that I loved all of the important insights you had to make about, well, everything. :) I really enjoyed your pedagogy insights, as they helped me make sense of many issues I've had recently about "needing to be an entertaining teacher" and whatnot.

    Mind-body-spirit matrix -- off to go ponder about that now... :)

  4. Your post brings back memories for me. Being from rural nowhere in Ohio, staring at Ohio State was culture shock. I was the only Latino in the program. I bought a stack of readings from the bookstore and I said, "Wow, that's a lot to read for my classes." And my GA supervisor said, "That's just for one class." My cat was my only companion.

    I went to music stores and I read a lot. When I got married, I invited a few students & faculty to my wedding, but nobody came.

    Then I published something in a major venue and almost everyone wanted to be my friend. Now they all wanted me to drink beer with them. The rest (the senior doctoral students) resented me.

    There was no community then. It has evolved slowly over the decades. This blog is great. Our loose association on FB and at conventions gets stronger and stronger. You will find that you can approach any of us and we will try to help. Collectively, we've seen it all and together we have an answer for almost anything.

    Do the basics (learn from your faculty and learn from the articles you read) and follow your own path. Believe in your insights and think about the reader of your words--it might be a professor at first, but also think of the reader beyond your university who connects with some part of your experience.

    And remember that we're kind of like a flash mob. We're scattered around but we can come together fast. I've seen it happen. It's real.

    ~ Alberto Gonzalez, Ph.D. (BGSU)