Bringing in the Political Self: Teaching in the Era of Trump

Katie L. Acosta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University where she teaches courses on race & ethnicity, sexuality, gender and the family. In this post, Dr. Acosta reflects on teaching and academic freedom under the Trump Administration. 

I recently attended a meeting designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members and to brainstorm best practices for creating a non-hostile classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. “Try not to make statements that directly disparage a political candidate,” we were instructed. “Consider focusing on policy issues rather than personal characteristics. Consider avoiding clothing or paraphernalia in the classroom that directly support a particular political candidate. You don’t want to wear anything that might appear antagonistic to students who may not share your point of view…”

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration.  I’m supposed to teach my students about their social world, about Racism, Gender, Sexuality and the Family – while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply-offensive statements that our president has made during his campaign and since he was elected.  But herein lies the problem, my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in this meeting hearing the suggestions being made brought me back a few years to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed. That morning, I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured through social media learning the details of this awful tragedy. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach. I had decided I would avoid the topic entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain.  Inevitably, however, ten minutes into the lecture a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of skittles. But, my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society – of this country’s fear of Black men and boys and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during these encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally-driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms, or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible, and consequential. How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life don’t intersect. I can’t think of a single Sociologist that I respect who maintains these artificially separated worlds.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self.  I am an Afro-Latina queer cis woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I don’t? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if my students do make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of this semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being too political. But I don’t believe it’s done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it’s flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, I’m going to take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it, can we have fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon to flourish. And only in a democracy that is largely run by white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamaphobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic actions and policies of Trump’s cabinet picks.

While this is something that I do not have control over, I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation doesn’t so thoroughly miss the boat when it comes to understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country.  I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and one another on the many issues we currently face not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect, integrity and in the spirit of understanding.  For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

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Sacrificio

Lisette E. Torres is the Assistant Director of the Cooper Foundation Center for Academic Resources at Nebraska Wesleyan University as well as a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education at Iowa State University.  Her scholarly interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, knowledge production, critical visual and textual discourse studies, and the sociocultural context of science and higher education.  In honor of Fibromyalgia Awareness Day (May 12th), in this post, she reflects on what she calls the “narrative of sacrificio” and how it informs her experience as a Boricua mother-scholar living with fibromyalgia.

Sacrificio. Sacrifice. To give up something for the sake of someone else. To destroy, renounce, or lose something for a belief or an end.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican household full of women, I am quite familiar with sacrifice. My two sisters and I would be reminded almost daily about the sacrifices that family members have had to make for the love of family and country – my grandmother’s humble beginnings living in poverty on a farm on the island, my father and aunt having to walk to school (sometimes with no shoes), my grandmother coming to the mainland U.S. to work in a factory, my father fighting in Vietnam, my mother managing the household, my father having to travel 2 hours to and from New York City to provide for the family . . . the list goes on. These stories of sacrifice were meant not only as a way to demonstrate how resilient our family has been but also to remind us of the responsibility that the three of us had as Puerto Rican women. We learned that it was our obligation to always try our best and to give up our own wants and needs for the family. Social scientists often refer to this socialization as instilling the values of familismo, or one’s prioritizing family over one’s own needs, and marianismo, the notion of the assumed submissive female gender role of Latinas.

However, this narrative – the narrative of sacrificio – is one that I have also experienced as an academic. The “publish or perish” mantra, working more than 40 hours per week, and the unspoken expectation that scholars (particularly women) put off having families or give up having families all together encompass some form of sacrifice, whether it be time, money, or personal fulfillment. For women of color in the academy, this sacrifice is much deeper. It is the fragmentation of the mind, body, and spirit or the creation and acceptance of multiplicity (Ong, 2005). It is forgoing speaking the language of our ancestors to converse in the elitist, colonial jargon of the ivory tower. It is physically moving away from our families and communities in pursuit of job opportunities, which causes a multitude of additional challenges that come with relocation.

From my own personal experience as a Boricua mother-scholar, there is a great tension between having the racialized gendered identity of a Latina and an academic identity. I often feel pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I want to spend as much time with my son and husband as possible. I want to keep a clean house, provide healthy meals, and be present with my child, who is growing up so very fast that I do not want to miss a thing! Guilty about putting him in daycare, I forgo working on projects in the evenings and on weekends to try to get the most of my time with my family. I also tend to put aside some of my goals and needs in order for my son and husband to be happy; for example, I often have to take the day off to take care of my son when he is sick and have never expected my husband, who is also an academic, to do the same.

On the other hand, I am well-aware of the social and structural challenges of being a woman of color in the academy (Gutiérrez y Muhs, Niemann, Gonzàlez, & Harris, 2012). We often have to work harder and longer to receive the same recognition as our White, male colleagues. The purpose and content of our scholarship as well as our inherent intelligence is questioned, and heaven’s forbid that you have a family! The baby penalty is very real; mother scholars are often viewed as being less committed to their field and to the academy as compared to their male counterparts. They are less likely to find a tenure-track job, receive little to no assistance with childbirth support or childcare services, and do not receive the proper mentoring or career advice to help them manage family and work. Add stereotypes about women of color being fertile and emotional and you can see how women of color in the academy are in a double-bind (Malcom & Malcom, 2011) that is even tighter when you incorporate motherhood and the narrative of sacrificio.

As every academic knows, there is little time and energy to devote to research, teaching, service, and one’s personal life. Every hour is precious. We talk about “work-life balance,” though we know this is a complete myth. We try to remind everyone about self-care, exercise, and finding time to recharge (which we need to do, do not get me wrong!), all the while trying to ignore the culture shift necessary to change the neoliberal influence on productivity in higher education. Yet, we still judge others based on what we assume about them and the expectations of academia. If someone leaves campus before 5 p.m., then we think they are slacking off or cutting corners. Daily conversations revolve around “how tired” we are because we “stayed up until 2 a.m. working on a grant proposal/manuscript/course.” We complain about all the varied activities that we are engaged in while simultaneously looking down on others who may not be as involved on campus. We are complicit in perpetuating the culture of busy and the narrative of sacrificio among our colleagues. And we do this without considering the impact it has on women of color or on individuals with chronic illness/pain.

Personally, the narrative of sacrificio – from my Puerto Rican upbringing and from the academy – wears on me daily, both psychologically and physically. In the spring of 2015, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic syndrome with no known cure that is diagnosed by exclusion. The symptoms can vary among people, but they can include the following: widespread muscle and joint pain, fatigue, chronic headaches, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., cold, heat, light, sound, and touch), inability to concentrate (known in the community as “fibro fog”), stiffness, restless sleep, mood swings, and depression. These symptoms have made my career in academia difficult, aside from the structural challenges I also face as a woman of color who is also a mother. However, the words used to describe my lived experience with chronic pain are extremely limiting and cannot fully illustrate how it shapes the narrative of sacrificio in my life. Despite limitations in language, I will try to explain what it is like to have fibromyalgia. Having fibromyalgia is . . .

  • Sleeping a full 8 hours but getting up and feeling as if you only had 3 hours of sleep
  • Waking up in the middle of the night with non-stop thoughts or tingling arms/legs
  • Getting up in the morning and feeling like you worked out all night because your body is so sore and stiff
  • Like walking through really thick mud or walking around with weights around your ankles all day
  • Losing what you were going to say before you can even say it; the words get stuck and you have trouble with recall
  • Losing your train of thought in mid-sentence or forgetting the names of common things (i.e., you know what it is but you cannot get the word out)
  • Revisiting files, readings, emails, notes, etc. multiple times because you cannot concentrate long enough to remember what you read/saw
  • Feeling like a rag doll on a rack, limbs being pulled out of their sockets
  • Never feeling completely comfortable in a seated or resting position
  • Being hypersensitive to temperature changes; for me, I am almost always cold and cold temperatures cause deep pain in my bones
  • Being hypersensitive to touch; there are days when I literally cannot stand wearing socks!
  • Feeling like an open nerve
  • Feeling on edge, like you are ready to fight at any time
  • Feeling incredibly disappointed in a seeming lack of progress due to energy level
  • Feeling guilty and depressed that you cannot do all the things that other parents/academics can do

When a chronic condition like fibromyalgia intersects with the narrative of sacrificio found within Puerto Rican culture and the academy, it makes an already difficult journey as an academic almost impossible. As a mother-scholar of color, I am continuously trying to avoid the cultural taxation (Padilla, 1994) placed on faculty of color, balancing being an advocate for students of color on campus while also not participating on every single institutional diversity committee. Like most scholars of color and working moms, I work twice as hard to receive half the credit. I worry that I am not a good scholar or mother, knowing that I am being judged by others on both fronts. Stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and racial microaggressions are daily challenges for me that can wear on the mind, body, and soul. I know that I already have three strikes against me in a White patriarchal society – I am a woman, I am a person of color, and I am a mother. I am viewed as “less than” and “unworthy” of being in higher education. I am already presumed “lazy,” “inarticulate,” and “incompetent” by the mere fact that I am a woman of color, and I sometimes fear that my fibromyalgia adds to those assumptions.

In an effort to confront the narrative of sacrificio in my life, I have decided to accept that I have a finite amount of energy to give due to fibromyalgia and, since stress can exasperate my symptoms, I must embrace what Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman calls a radical reprioritizing of my life. As such, I have started practicing Taiji every week and taking time out for a massage every month, which helps with stress and pain management. I try to not to bring work home with me, accomplishing as much as I can in the office as possible and being okay with that. I also try to practice slowing down, with great reminders from my colleagues Dr. Riyad Shahjahan and Dr. Kimine Mayuzumi on their blog. While I am working on me, I want to share my lived experience with other women of color who suffer from chronic illness who may also be academics and mothers. You are not alone and the narrative of sacrificio does not define you! We do not have to sacrifice ourselves. As our sister in the struggle, Audre Lorde, wrote in a Burst of Light (1988), “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

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On not Writing

Erika Gisela Abad has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and works at Center for Puerto Rican Studies investigating intersectionality, cultural experience, and oral history among Puerto Rican communities and families.  In this post, Erika reflects on how her research in Puerto Rican Chicago sparks tension and memory in dialogues and debates with her mother.  

I struggle with not writing. Sitting with my mom after a long day’s work watching ridiculous TV shows on streaming media. I do this in the midst of professional uncertainty when my conscious tells me it is important to, well, send out applications. A woman struggling with the invisibility of her work, of her motherhood, closing the computer allows me to make her visible in the mundanity of the everyday to which we’ve arrived.

A mixed class Latina the second to finish college, the first PhD, I got this degree because making a living as a writer a mentor once told me, was going to be difficult. In the place many predicted the MFA would land me, I sit with my mom because of the reasons I write:

To heal, to release anger, to get to truths neither speaking nor working reveal. Drafting and talking through to forgive what moments trauma doesn’t want to let go. As I once wrote a mentor, it’s about getting to the table and trying to write what the other person coming to the table could or would look like. It’s about practicing with characters and metaphors how to listen through the trauma, whether the trauma be colonial, patriarchal or material – whether the trauma be that which has been named or that which must be kept invisible. Sometimes the struggle to survive demands struggles be kept silent. Human suffering, as inevitable as it is, often gets lost in the pursuit of fantasy as well as forgetting. Coming to the table is also about assessing whether the wheel turning revolution can be rebuilt or if the pieces of memory missing – memory missing because of what can’t yet be named – requires so many of us to rebuild it.

And sitting with my mom is about waiting, waiting for memory to reappear. And her memories awaken in the memories of others I record as an oral historian. Memories of parking lots turned into playgrounds, memories of late buses to colleges she never imagined. Memories of drinking Dr. Pepper for the first time, her comfort food, the comfort of being able to know more, taste more than poverty and patriarchy permitted to a young woman growing up where Puerto Ricans were trying to make place. These memories give her life beyond the college she never finished for no other reason than being by herself. Her stories lifting up from computer screens in a voice still weary of helping and reaching, come to life beyond the place of making meaning of leaving that requires returning, overwhelmed by isolation.

And I sit with that, when our skin color differences do not write away the sameness of racism we experience. A paleness that encourages forgetting that my brownness writes on the page, for the stage in ways that have her admit—not to me—that the fight continues. Responses to racism are coded in the traumas we share. Retorts and resistance colored by the adverse childhood experiences that divide us. Sitting is all she wants at the end of the day, at the end of days running, at the end of years climbing to find stable ground in which to root, in which to lift me, among her other children higher. My hands race and wring, legs twitch because work, all the kinds, exige movement.

And I struggle to not write in those moments: moments where the cogs in my head turn too fast for her to keep up; when the questions she asks receive huffs and stomps out looking for roads bigger than the rooms we occupy. In those moments where the grumbles she makes about the car driver who works when she doesn’t, because the car that is freedom to her and is more work to me in ways that put her back on the bus, on the train to move because her fixed time challenges the time that, for me, remains in constant question. The need for work fuels us in speeds and codes the other doesn’t understand.

It takes seconds to remember a woman speaking of a girl ashamed and strained by the laundry she carries on the bus. And I see my mom there, then, aching and taking days off to not have to, again cross the street with bags and baskets. She bought to own to never again walk or rent or borrow. She works to have the luxury, luxuries she couldn’t have back then, then when Puerto Ricans were beginning to make meaning, Puerto Ricans who form the history I collect. Her life fills up in the margins of those stories, of those whose mark on Puerto Rican Chicago get printed in newspapers, shine in their awards, appear on screens to see. Those Puerto Ricans now, in between arguments and questions, spark her to remember her story. Histories she lived differently, differently for reasons the more I learn from others, the more she reveals.

So I stretch and listen and sit still, waiting, waiting till she’s asleep to pull out the books, to open the pc, to take out the pen and paper to write. Because writing is still needed to heal, to move, to forgive, to let go, to uncover, to remember. But not writing—not writing in those moments I steal from reason, from economy—allows me to say thank you, thank you the only way a struggling writer knows how. By counting the wrinkles in her face, the sighs in her stories, knowing that, in between them, remain moments and movements to keep me writing.

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