Since storytelling (or rather the praxis of counter-storytelling as defined by early critical race theorists) centers my scholarship, I will use that mode of discourse here to introduce this arc of my mentoring and teaching.
Immediately upon finishing graduate work, I accepted a tenure-track job in a department of urban education at a prominent state university in Newark, New Jersey. I was drawn to my new position because I would straddle two worlds: I would teach college writing AND design education courses for secondary teachers who intended to teach in the poor Black community in which we were housed. Black college student protesters in the 1960s had conceptualized these connections between urban education, teacher education, neighboring high schools, basic writing, and composition studies with three goals: 1) ensure that Black youth in the community have an intellectual and political home for their college literacy courses; 2) connect local high schools to a new set of radical teachers of color; 3) frame the racial experiences of Black communities as central to literacy and learning. Not only had I just “trained” to do exactly this kind of work, but my dissertation and research focus on Black college student activism made this job absolutely tantalizing for me. That dream, however, never became reality.
In the time that I was hired to the day my first classes started in that fateful year of 2005, this dream job slipped away. The institution, the most “diverse” national university in the country for more than 10 years prior, seemingly no longer wanted to connect with its 1960s legacy of racial justice because its sole legitimacy now came from marketing its new student diversity and competitive research profile: basic writing was kept hidden, the departments and programs housing first year writing classes continually shifted, the connection to neighboring communities of color was measured in terms of the empirical data collected about them, and only high-ranking empirical research publications counted as the visible work of the urban education department. The original job description in my contract that rather seamlessly connected Black protest, communities of color, social justice, composition/ writing/ literacy studies, and secondary education was no longer possible. At the time, the changing nature of specialization in urban education research and the scholarship of composition studies had already become all but impossible to marry as a researcher and scholar anyway (before the turn into the 21st century, these fields had often worked in tandem.) Despite this national disciplinary tenor and the local campus changes that I was immediately facing, some things never vanished: the sociopolitical charge of who teaches composition studies, the cultural baggage of what college writing/literacy instruction does, social homogenization as the modus operandi of academic communication strategies, the contested relationship of composition and rhetoric to English/Humanities departments, and the alienation of Black and Brown youth (and in the particular case of this campus, young Black women). How and why are these histories of race, assimilation, higher education, and writing/literacy always so constantly entangled at the site of writing in the academy? These are the polemics that fascinate me most and speak to the specific ideological space that my scholarship, teaching, and service in relation to diversity represent.
I certainly enjoyed research and praxis in urban education with pre-service teachers alongside Black youth, community leaders, and neighboring high schools, but I missed the undergraduate classroom. Ironically, though I was not explicitly connected to humanities classrooms in those first three years in Newark, I was still assigned to every intense debate and controversy about writing, curriculum, and instruction at the campus. In my second tenure-track job, I did as my elders might say: jumped outta the fryin pan and right into the fire. No longer on the sidelines of a volatile campus dialogue about writing and curriculum design, I became a director of a writing program in an Institute for Writing Studies and an associate professor of English at a private, wealthy college. As a faculty director, we experimented with multiple ways of running a free-standing writing program that employed at least 80% tenure-track faculty to teach its courses. In this new setting, the third most diverse national university in the country, we simultaneously worked to bring our pedagogical paradigm in line with the experiences of racially marginalized college students, most of whom were first-generation. Marrying the impulse to alter labor trends in the discipline with a politics where we rejected a literacy experience rooted in fashioning students of color into good white middle class citizens put us right in the line of fire but we held on as long as we could. Today, I am back at the City University of New York, back to the historical location that was the catalyst of it all for me: 1) CUNY is the place where I taught my first college class; 2) CUNY is also the place whose history of racial-literacy-politics interests me most. Here, Black and Brown access to higher education is intimately rooted in New York’s 1960-1970s Black and Puerto Rican freedom struggles which are often domesticated (or altogether erased) by paradigms of middle class redemption, multicultural celebrations, or a colonial ethos of educational purposing. As someone who calls herself a race-radical, Black-Feminist-educator, I can count on never having a dull moment anywhere.
Each semester, each space, and each institution present both struggles and opportunities for intellectual and political work that questions and enriches my social environment rather than reify dominant relationships between institutions of power and subordinated groups. This means that I approach classrooms and learning as: the space for what people do, rather than what they have or do not have; a set of socio-cultural practices, rather than a set of neutral skills to be acquired according to already given political and social hierarchies; a deep engagement with political processes (we either construct ourselves as objects or we act as subjects who can change what lies before us); and an issue of context---personal, cultural, geographic, and historical. In my mentoring beyond the classroom, I work with: racially marginalized undergraduate students in programs like Ronald McNair; racially marginalized graduate students needing support with dissertations and professional entry into their fields; racially marginalized early career assistant professors in programs at my own colleges, the STAR program at the Literacy Research Association, and the CNV program at the National Council of Teachers of English. These are all formal mentoring programs designed to increase the numbers of people of color in programs that have historically struggled to recruit and retain them. However, these formal programs belie the range of work that must happen when intersectional justice is at the center of your teaching and research. Conversations, especially with young women of color, envelope my daily life, including dialogues with young women in colleges across the country who show up across every mode of electronic communication that I engage, all seemingly looking for someone who will tell them that they belong at their respective universities as queer/poor/disabled/women/of color. They will find you… and you need to remain findable so that you can help them challenge the real barriers that they face in their institutions when most people render their reactions as a figment only of their imaginations.
Mentoring is still bigger than individuals though. Just because an institution claims it has a certain set of values around justice and equity does not mean that its praxis approximates its official statements, no matter how worthy and eloquent those are. This conflict between the public performance of inclusion and the reality of social marginalization is especially felt by students who are of color/disabled/queer. You cannot just mentor marginalized groups from the sidelines of your office, inbox, and one-on-one interactions. You have to also be ready to challenge and change the very institutions in which exclusion has never been accidental.
September 22, 2018