Believing in the Great American Experiment

A few years ago I conducted a study with Indigenous students about their experiences in college. One of the questions I asked the students was who they thought higher education benefited. I initially assumed that Indigenous students would think that this was white people, given that the system of higher education was designed for white people and continues to maintain whiteness. But interview after interview, the participants shared their personal stories of how higher education represented a way to give back to their communities, a way for them to prosper, a way for them to build the skills and experiences and networks necessary for their future success. The participants stated firmly that success (in the terms they defined) was achievable if they worked hard enough for it.

When I teach interviewing methods, I use this as example of why you should stick with questions even if you aren’t getting the answers you think you should. I wanted participants to focus on the structural factors of higher education not on their individual experiences. Yet, after the study was done and I started analyzing the data, the responses to this question provided important insight into the notions we hold about meritocracy.

Throughout the rest of the interview, participants went into great lengths about their experiences with marginalization, how they felt colonized in their classrooms, and how their faculty and peers either ignored them or tokenized them. Yet, when they had the opportunity to discuss this in the “who does higher education benefit” question, they separated their experiences of marginalization from the actual system of higher education. Marginalization happened to them in their daily experiences but the system of higher education was such that they could overcome this marginalization.

This isn’t wholly surprising–the myths of rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps are heavily imbedded in the narrative of being a U.S. citizen. Still, it was hard for me to reconcile how students could so clearly identify the problems of racism and colonialism in their educational experiences, yet continue to think that racism and colonialism didn’t play a role in the system of higher education (or didn’t play a role big enough to affect their outcomes).

But after combing through all of our interviews and reading their journal entries, what I figured out is that to participate in the American experiment, you have to believe in it. The students in my study were very well aware of the failed parts of America–they lived these daily. But they held firm to the notion that one day the experiment might work. One day their hard work could overcome the systemic colonialism and racism they encountered. Those brokering in cynicism might point out that there is no evidence that the American experiment could ever succeed. But for those brokering in hope, if offers a motivation to continue the work forward.

I am pretty critical of the American experiment, too. And I don’t think much might change in my lifetime. But, let’s be honest–I really don’t know that. The future is unwritten. There’s a lot in my lifetime that has changed for the better. So who knows. My commitment to community and to making the world a better place stays the same.

If you broker in cynicism, I ask that you spend some time thinking about why people might broker in hope. Think about why Indigenous folks, who are continually marginalized in higher education, see immense value in their involvement within the system that marginalizes them. Think about why Brown and Black people, who are routinely devalued in our democratic processes, participated in an electoral process in tremendous numbers, while frequently being disenfranchised. Try to understand why they continue to show up for the American experiment.

Over the past few months, several of my posts end on a message of hope. I realize that for many, eternal optimism can seem foolish or ignorant of the realities of the world. I am neither. And if given the choice between cynicism and hope, I will choose hope every single time.

After all, I’m a hope inventor.

On Election Eve

At the start of the semester, I mapped out the topics for this blog but hadn’t thought about the post I’d write for today, the day before the election.

When I was younger, I had no concept of my role in the historical moment. I was in 5th grade when the “Cold War” ended and had just graduated college when September 11th happened. While these events loom large in the greater narrative of the United States, I felt detached to them in the way one feels detached from events that make a national impact but do not have a large local impact.

This historical moment feels different.

While I harbor no illusion about the role of voting in the United States (especially when voting is constantly weaponized), there is no question about the importance of this election. I remain hopeful, because hopeful is my default, but I acknowledge that others do not share this sentiment and I understand why. the world has been a very difficult place for a long time.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. what I do know is that regardless of the election, I will continue to do the work that needs to be done. I will continue to push against racism, and sexism, and marginalization. I will continue to push against institutions that maintain white supremacy and colonialism. I will continue to volunteer my time and my money to making the world I inhabit better for everyone else living here. It can be hard to do this when everything feels in tatters, but this is what we have to do. We really don’t have much of a choice πŸ™‚

Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others. — Jostein Gaarder

See you next week.

The Gift of Time

I teach class on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and like some professors, have struggled with the move to hybrid/remote learning. I’m an extroverted extrovert and have used the energy in the classroom as motivation to turn a long day into an excellent teaching session. But interactions virtually are not the same as interactions in-person, so when I don’t feel like teaching, I really need to pull from my enthusiasm stores.

I found myself in one of those low places Wednesday afternoon and knew that I wouldn’t lead a strong class so I decided to give students the night off. But the night off involved homework–I asked that they do something for themselves during the time we had class and to send me a note with what they did.

I normally do not tell students to take time for themselves in such explicit ways, although I do talk a lot in class about making oneself a priority (particularly around health–I insisted people stay home when sick long before it was cool to do so, thanks pandemic!). However, like many email requests I send that are ignored, I didn’t expect people to let me know what they did during their time off.

But they did! They sent me links to the music videos they watched, they sent pictures of their cats, they told me about their slow dinners, their time at the gym, the movies they watched, the quality time they had with loved ones, the drawings they made, and the laundry they folded (I love folding laundry so this spoke to me).

And in the messages of what they did, they shared how much they appreciated having permission to make the time for themselves, how rare that can be in the hustle of graduate school. Having time to decompress is necessary for all of us.

Their message also made me think about how faculty are particularly socialized to think about class time and decompression and work-life balance. When I first started as an assistant professor, I was also training for my first marathon. I’m an early morning runner, so that means I leave and return before the sun rises. And colleagues seemed genuinely surprised that I could handle the workload of being a professor while training for a marathon. Like did they really think I would get up at 5 am and start working? Or that somehow taking two hours out of my morning to run would negatively affect my productivity? It made no sense to me. But I think we’re often socialized/condition to place work at the center of our lives (it certainly takes up a large amount of time) and every thing else revolves around it. This is not sustainable, and not at all appropriate. At the same time, I’ve had to de-program my attitudes around graduate student work and engagement so as not to recreate the narrative that academic work is never-ending. I struggle with this and giving the student a night off when I need a night off (and not feeling bad or guilty about it!) is one small attempt to push back against my own entrenched ideas of work.

So I’ll put the same challenge to you that I did to them…take two hours this week for you. Do something that benefits you. And please don’t have it be anything related to class or work. And if you’re so inclined, let me know how it went πŸ™‚

Tissues in Aisle 9, Please

When I started this draft on Friday night I originally planned to write about how I found myself in the middle of a grocery store aisle crying so much that a store employee brought me a package of tissues, and said, “You look like you need these, hope things settle soon.” I had some excellent points about the last two months, and the stress of my job, and the energy required to manage everything during a pandemic.

But…as I sit here on this cool Monday morning, drinking coffee, I’m not sure I’m ready for that much vulnerability πŸ™‚ I’ve decided to focus on something else (although related): how to support graduate students through the stress of graduate school.

There are multiple forms of stress in graduate school. There are the administrative stresses, which include coursework, paperwork, and the requisite processes (e.g. plans of study, preliminary exams, defenses). Then there are the professional development stresses, which often involve preparing conference submissions, publications, attending conferences, and job searching.

Then there’s what I call the existential stress. Existential stress is how graduate school affects our sense of self. This type of stress affects us all, but in very unique ways. And for Black and Brown graduate students, existential stress is also informed by the underlying factors of white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism. Conversations with graduate students that begin over workload and time management often evolve into questions of fit and comfort and support, especially around their identities. I often joke about not selling your soul for a degree and there’s some truth here–often graduate schools expect some type of soul selling. The key is avoiding this as much as you can. Having faculty help you here is essential.

If this were a different type of blog, I might offer a list of suggestions for how to best advise students in the case of existential stress. But I’m still figuring this out myself, and you’d have to talk to the grad students I work with to know if I’m doing it well. Here are the things I do try to do:

  • Don’t dismiss. One of my favorite phrases to use here is “Your situation is unique and you are not alone.” I do not try to convince them that they are misinterpreting the situation.
  • Don’t start to problem solve. Before offering advice or tips, ask if this is what the student wants. A quick “is this a conversation where you want me to provide feedback or where you just want me to listen?” allows the student to decide what and how to share.
  • Don’t shill for the institution. The institution is incredibly problematic. It’s ok to let grad students know this. I never defend shitty policies or processes. I explain why institutions have them (see: gatekeeping) and how to navigate them. But I never pretend they are neutral.
  • Don’t forget boundaries–for yourself and for your students. I say no to students all the time and set limits around access. This is to protect me. However, this means encouraging students to do the same and respecting their boundaries with regard to their own work.

Since I’m a firm believer in the human condition being on display, I wasn’t particularly concerned about crying in a grocery store, even though I could tell people felt uncomfortable. I extend this belief to the graduate students who trust me enough to have these conversations with me. I don’t want them to be particularly concerned with what I think. What I want is for them to see I’m committed to them as individuals. I want them to see me as someone who helps with their stress and does not create or contribute to it. I want to be the person handing them tissues, sitting with them as things settle.

The Importance of Conversations

Last night, I had the opportunity to talk with Rebecca Nagle, writer, activist, and creator of the This Land podcast as part of Purdue University’s semester-long initiative on “Pursuing Racial Justice Together.” Everyone knows how much I love this podcast and I encourage everyone to listen to it. Tribal sovereignty is a complex issue that our own federal government doesn’t always understand , and This Land captures that complexity and makes it easy to understand. It’s one of the few podcast series I’ve listened to multiple times.

Needless to say, when the Division of Diversity and Inclusion reached out and asked me to moderate this talk, I was thrilled. Not only because I really enjoy her work, but because the opportunity to talk to other Indigenous folks around these issues is so infrequent. There are fewer than five Indigenous faculty on campus and none of them do work in my area. The ability to be in community with folks who understand, who get the underlying dynamics of colonization and racialization, who share a common history, is so vital. Particularly for those of us who spend most of our time in predominately white spaces.

The moderator set-up was interesting–I was in a studio, there were lights, I was wearing a mic, no one told me you could see I was wearing jeans–and because I wasn’t sure what I looked like on camera, I didn’t take as many notes as I wanted to. Which is too bad because Rebecca said some incredible things.

One point she made that I did jot down was “white supremacy defines itself to its own benefit.” Historically we know this to be true–one needs to look no further than Supreme Court cases that determined who is and is not “white.” And in our modern-era, white supremacy is defined in new ways, particularly through educational access and equity. Still thinking through the implications of this, so this is definitely a future conversation I need to have…

And go listen to the podcast if you haven’t yet!

(back to every Monday posting next week).

Why I’m Not Meeting People Where They’re At Anymore

Last week I gave two separate talks on similar topics. At the University of Michigan, a colleague and I presented the following, Examining the Hard Truths of Whiteness and Maleness in Engineering Education. Two days later, I spoke with faculty at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga at a talk I titled No, We Don’t Live in Tipis and Other Misconceptions: Understanding the Educational Experiences of Traditionally Marginalized Students. The conclusion of each presentation included action items for (white) faculty/researchers who want to “do better” when it comes to these efforts. The biggest takeaway from both (in my opinion) is that any movement toward equity requires direct, visible action. You need to be seen doing the work.

When I first started doing work on dismantling oppression/challenging hegemony, I fell into the camp of meeting white people where they were at. Everyone’s experience with this is different, but in mine this generally took the form of accepting people’s discomfort with action. I excused their unwillingness to confront peers or take a stand as a product of their current position–they were still “figuring this out.” I allowed their justifications for inaction (“what will other people think?” “I don’t want to rock the boat right now”) to go unchecked. I figured they would eventually get to the point where they’d start engaging more.

And what I realized is that letting folks stay where they were at allowed them to stay within their comfort zone, a gift Brown and Black people rarely receive.

I do not care where white people are at. I do not care if they are newly aware of systemic racism (again, a gift to arrive into 2020 and not understand how deeply fundamental racism is to our system). I do not care if this work is hard. Yes! It is. You might lose some friends. You might lose some professional connections. You might lose a whole host of things. I wish it were easier, I wish the fight for racial justice did not require costs. But it does. And for a long time Brown and Black people have absorbed those costs–now it’s time for white people to do the same.

Having Hope When Hope Feels Hard

I try to run five or six times a week, between four to six miles per day. During these runs I think about all sorts of things, but on occasion my mind moves to the apocalyptic–what would happen if during this run gravity stopped working, or there was a massive wave of water, or zombies emerged from the fields–what would I possibly do? And when I start to get agitated by this, suddenly my brain thinks, “oh, don’t forget to grab creamer at the store today.” It’s like my brain knows it has to stop itself. I leave the “what-ifs” and go back to the day at hand.

On Friday night, after hearing the news about Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, my mind moved to the apocalyptic. I started thinking about what a conservative super majority court would mean for everyone in my communities. I started to catastrophize, which was unfortunate because I planned to do some work that night. Instead I read the articles and comments and stories, all the hot takes about what would happen next. Yet, after about thirty minutes of this, my brain thought, “dinner! you need to make dinner!” so I turned on Murder, She Wrote and threw together a pasta dish. I didn’t return to the news.

I think about this, the brain’s capacity to catastrophize and calm down, any time something major happens, and right now that’s pretty much every day with our current government.

Not going to lie–on Friday night, even though my brain had calmed down, I was still feeling overwhelmed, with a nice side of dread. But then I saw that someone commented on my tweet announcing my upcoming talk with, “can’t explain how excited I am for for this talk!” And when I checked my email it was full of Black women interested in participating in a study led by two Black women graduate students I work with. Later, two students sent long messages about their research studies, feeling energized by our class conversation and their new directions. All these reminders that the world continues to turn, even when it feels like it should stop.

Ten years ago, when I was teaching a multicultural education course at Iowa State University, one student asked, “How can you keep teaching this class? Nothing seems to change! It all seems futile!” I paused and thought about that–because yes, at times it seems futile. But then I said to her, “Maybe it is. But since I’m already here on the planet, I’m going to do my best to make it a better one. There are a lot of people who thought things would never change, and they did. For the best. So I’m going to err on the side of hope.”

Hope is hard. Hope requires enthusiasm. Hope requires a sense of wonder, a belief in possibility. Hope requires working toward change, not knowing how long that change will take.

I do not know how the rest of the semester will unfold and I certainly don’t know what is going to happen in my greater local, national, and global world. What I do know is that my hope takes the form of mentoring students, it exists in my ongoing projects, it drives my desire to reimagine the university community. And these things need to continue, especially when it seems like the world is plotting against them.

Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it. — Albert Camus

Join me, fellow hope inventors, in creating the worlds we want, even when it seems hard.

Early Reflections on Fall Teaching

I’m on a 2/2 load (for non-academics, this means I teach two courses each semester). During the fall, one of my courses is always online so there is no change here. However, I’m also teaching my advanced qualitative methods course and thinking through how to design the course for multiple modalities occupied a better part of my summer.

I decided to teach my course in-person. I made this decision based on a few factors — we meet once a week, our class meets in the evenings, and I trust graduate students to stay home when they are sick (side note: I’ve been insisting that people stay home when they are sick for forever so I’m glad to see this become common practice. Health is important!). Plus teaching my course in-person gave me access to the classroom. I do not require the students to be in-person. They have three options: face-to-face, remote synchronous, or remote asynchronous. Modifying discussions and assignments to give students maximum benefit but also make sure no one feels left out took some maneuvering but it looks good in theory. We are only starting week 4 so I haven’t gathered tons of data yet. Two Wednesdays ago, my computer decided to restart, I had to borrow a student’s to use Zoom and I’m not sure the Zoom recording worked. But students extend me the same grace I extend to them–we all know there are going to be challenges.

I don’t particularly care for teaching in a mask and I dislike not having everyone in the same room. I’m frustrated that one of the more meaningful assignments in the class had to be scraped because the logistics of doing it online add a lot of burden to students (and I’m trying to limit that).

And I miss the before class/during break/after class spontaneous conversations. A lot of learning happened in those moments. But now everyone leaves the classroom and turns off Zoom without meandering.

I guess I’m adding “after class meandering” to the list of things COVID-19 has made me appreciate.

Why I’m Participating in #ScholarStrike

Although I’m not a tenured professor, I am participating in the Scholar Strike for Racial Justice, a mass action of higher education professionals protesting racist policing, state violence against communities of color, mass incarceration and other manifestations of racism. Scholar Strike is meant to disrupt the everyday routines of academia and show solidarity for other workers striking for racial justice. Aside from a faculty organizing meeting, I will not engage in any academic work on September 8th and 9th.

Instead, I will spend the next two days drawing attention to the experiences of Native and Indigenous students in education, as well as highlighting how educational environments play an important role in creating space and opportunity for racial justice.

The Summer That Wasn’t

Hi! I know that I mentioned taking August off but the research factory resumes paying me today and I thought some reflections on the summer were in order. 

I’m on a 9-month contract at Purdue and generally take the summers off. Every fourth year or so I’ll teach a summer course. It’s also not unusual for me to do grant work over the summer (organizing data, doing analysis). But typically I use summer as a time to recharge.

However, I decided to work this summer because we are in a pandemic. 

When I made these goals in May, I recognized they were ambitious. Four new(ish) manuscripts, data collection on two projects, redesigning two courses into a new learning management system, and the most important–submitting my tenure packet. Thankfully, several of them had hard deadlines which made planning easier. I completed the list on Friday.

Working through ten substantial goals led to several key observations.

Observation 1: Having unstructured thinking time is critical in creating intellectual work. Without the restrictions of meetings, or classes (or the travel time and prep associated with those), I could spend hours building arguments in different manuscripts.

Observation 2: My semester-life is not my summer-life and therefore I should not expect the same amount of work product at the end–it’s near impossible without giving up the other things that are important to me (running, food shows, watching Murder, She Wrote).

Observation 3: Working through the summer has made me less anxious about fall productivity. However, this could also be a result of submitting my promotion and tenure documents. I feel less pressure to get things out because I won’t be re-evaluated again for two years (assuming I earn tenure. we’ll cross that bridge if it happens).

Observation 4: Writing every day for an hour works for me.

Observation 5: Writing in large chunks works for me but only at the end of the process. I still plan to schedule my daily writing (60 minutes at the start and end of each day) but will block out large chunks when the manuscript is mostly complete to flush things out, etc.

Observation 6: I’m taking next summer off regardless of the status of the pandemic.