Why I Teach

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Friday night, before I went to bed, I saw a tweet that said veteran civil rights activist Anne Moody had died at the age of 74. I shed tears as if someone in my family had died because I felt as though I knew her. We were both born in the “Great State of Mississippi,” and I have assigned her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi to my American history classes many times. Her story seems to resonate with college students, perhaps, because she was close their age when she wrote the book.

Although I was sad about her death, in a strange way, my thoughts about Anne Moody made me realize why I teach after a week during which I needed some reassurance. This week had been a difficult one at the small southern college where I teach.

A student in my American history class, angry that I had assigned three books, in addition to the textbook, had complained to me in person and by email about having to purchase the books. Then, last week, she angrily confronted me after class. She reiterated that she could not afford the additional readers–two of the three which can be found online for free, while the third is less than seven dollars. She was also displeased with my teaching methods. It was clear that she liked nothing about me or my class.

In retrospect, I know that the student’s anger, although directed at me, had little to do with me. But I was not thinking of that during “the confrontation.”

This incident made me question my career choice. Sometimes the resistance to me, my classroom instruction, and my assigned readings is almost too much to bear. I asked myself, Why am I doing this if the students don’t appreciate it? Even though other students who witnessed the student’s verbal attack reassured me that her critique was not indicative of how they felt, I was discouraged.

Interestingly enough, this is where Anne Moody comes back in. The next morning I woke up thinking about her and all of the times that I had assigned her book. I also thought about the history that I had introduced to my students over the years–through lectures, discussion, readings, photographs, documentaries, and audio recordings.

I know there is value in learning about the past and its connection to our present. There is value in learning about people and our common humanity. So, I am here for the students in the “Amen corner,” who engage in call and response because they are feeling what I am saying. I am here for the students who have come to me in tears after a documentary on Wounded Knee. I am here for the student who seemed disinterested but then surprised me when he wanted to to talk to me about a website I recommended on Goreé Island. I’m here for the non-traditional student in my class who came up to talk about monopolies after I discussed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. I’m here for the student who said she actually enjoyed my lectures. I’m here for the students who had not read Coming of Age in Mississippi before my class but ended up thanking me for assigning it.

Yes, that is why I am here. Thank you, Anne Moody, for reminding me of that. Rest in Peace.

A Posse to Protect Your Star Player: Scholarly and Comedic Advice

FWCAIn March (28-29) I attended the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy Conference, which was hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This conference brought together faculty, graduate students, and post-docs “for professional development, personal development, and community building.” Through workshops and various discussions, the conference sought to identify challenges within the academy for women of color and suggest strategies to deal with working and succeeding in the academy. Although often cited as one of the best careers, a career as a college professor can be quite stressful.

Friday’s Keynote Address was by Nell Irvin Painter, distinguished historian and professor emerita from Princeton University, who provided suggestions on navigating the academy. She gave us the benefit of her experience and wisdom, and I was determined not to miss a word. Then, on Saturday, I attended a workshop that was presented by Carmen G. González, professor at Seattle University School of Law and one of the editors of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Both of these scholars offered sage advice and coping strategies. One of the themes repeated during their presentations and throughout the weekend was that women need to build networks of support in order to prosper. Their wise counsel took me to a less than scholarly place, however. These professors gave the same advice as one of my favorite comedians, Katt Williams.

People of color can find themselves feeling quite isolated on their campuses. To cope with the isolation and stress of academic life, Prof. Painter emphasized the need or collective support. She cautioned us not try and deal with academic life alone. Instead “you need your own ‘posse.'” (Yes, Nell Irvin Painter said posse!) This posse, for example, may include friends, mentors, congenial colleagues, older women, administrative staff, sorors and church members. You need to have a friend who will listen–without interruption–when you have had a bad day. You need people who can offer good career advice. In short, you need a group of people who will defend you when you need it and support you when you need it. While it is helpful if you and the members of your posse work at the same institution, it is more likely that at least some of them will not.

Similarly, Prof. González stressed the need for collective responses to life in the academy by building alliances. These alliances can be cross-generational (with mentors and sponsors); horizontal (with peers from your department or university); or cross-border (with people outside your department or university).

KattWmsIn much more colorful language, but with the same message, Katt Williams gives similar advice in his 2008 stand-up comedy DVD It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’. This comedy show is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Williams riffs on everything from Pres. George Bush to Michael Vick and Brittney Spears. But “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” Williams contends that we have to be a bit more selfish and take care of ourselves. After all, YOU are your “number one star player.” So, “make sure you got your team set up” because you will need four or five people who will “jump in and block bullshit” during a crisis.

America is a country that celebrates individualism, but it’s clear to me that there are times when we will all need a little support from our friends, no matter what careers we’ve chosen. Each one of us needs a posse. I’m fortunate enough to have a posse that includes my husband, former professors, friends from graduate school, sorors, and former colleagues. Who’s in your posse?

 

2 Dope Bookshelf: Women in Academia

Last weekend, at the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy Conference, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop facilitated by Carmen G. González, professor of law at Seattle University School of Law and co-editor of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Prof. González outlined some of the challenges confronting women of color as faculty members and then discussed “practical strategies” to address those challenges.

It was a powerful session, with many of Prof.González’s examples resonating with those in attendance. She stressed the importance of telling one’s story as the contributors to Presumed Incompetent did. Later I talked with her at her book signing, and she wrote in my copy: “Please share this book with others.” Now, I know she probably wrote something similar in all the books she signed that day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. This 2 Dope Bookshelf includes Presumed Incompetent and some additional titles that may be useful for women in academia.

 Women in Academia

womenask

Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, 2009.

 AcademicMotherhood

Maria Castaneda and Kirsten Isgro, eds., Mothers in Academia, 2013.

PresumedIncompetent

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, eds., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, 2012.

WomensRetreat

Atsuko Seko and Mary Alice Bruce, eds., Women’s Retreat: Voices of Female Faculty in Higher Education, 2013.

TellingHistories

Deborah Gray White, ed., Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, 2008.

Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Teaching and the Power to Disrupt

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Encouraging Yourself to Happy

Happy Face at the beach

Happy Face at the beach

On Monday, Da Realist 1 wrote a post, “Rejuvenating My Passion,” which is about her experience this past weekend attending an academic conference in IL. She spoke about it as being a “coming home” experience, one in which her attendance rejuvenated her spirit as an academic. It gave her an opportunity to go back to the people and the work that that was important to her.

Da Realist 1 was on to something in her piece. In fact, many of you, our readers, felt that she was as well, as demonstrated by the email and Facebook responses that talked about how her post was right on time for them. Personally, it reminded me of the value of doing the things that we enjoy and that we should try to do them as often as possible. Doing the work that we enjoy helps to balance the blahs that many of us experience when our professional and personal lives are not producing the type of fruit that we hoped it would.

The truth is, too often we don’t feel rewarded for our hard work, whether it be the work we do in our homes or the work that we do in the office. For me, however, I have always been thankful for is the relationship that I have had with my students. It has provided me a community of scholars with whom I could engage in conversations.

I have had students who are energized and optimistic about the research and scholarship that we do. They are also activists in their communities, volunteering to make a difference for women of domestic violence, educating young black students, campaigning in elections, and working in any other ways that they are needed. We are connected to each other on Facebook and Twitter and we continue discussing the issues that impact black people’s lives long after they have graduated. Some, I have even become friends with.

Not too long ago, I received a Facebook message from one of my students, telling me about the impact that my class has made in his life. Conversations like that make all of the academic bureaucracy worthwhile.

Wishing all our readers peace and joy!

Click here for Frankie Beverly and Maze’s song, “Happy Feelings” to help you get to happy.