Teacher Burnout is Real. But Not Because of the Students.

I’m so glad the semester is over. Yes, I have the usual complaints about too much grading, sickly students, and overall fatigue. But this year, this fall, my gratitude for a winter break has more to do with my emotional well-being than my physical.

My soul is tired.

Like many campuses around the nation, my college was not immune to racial tension, student protests, and faculty ignorance. In fact, because we are such a small campus (only 2200 undergrads and approximately 180 faculty), these issues felt exponentially larger than they might have felt at my graduate alma mater, Vanderbilt University.

On small campuses, the few people of color (student, staff, administration, and faculty) are highly visible. I can’t hide in my office. I can’t pretend to not know what’s happening on campus. I can’t feign ignorance of students’ emotional responses to hate speech because it would be more convenient for my professional and personal life if I didn’t have to engage such complex issues.

I’m not saying I would choose those things if I could, but it sure would be nice to have a choice. Instead, I am forced to engage in the following types of conversations with white colleagues repeatedly:

I am on the Diversity and Equity Advisory Board this year. It’s my official committee assignment (which I chose after not winning enough faculty votes to be on our governing board or our curriculum committee). The work of the DEAB is still a bit nebulous, but one thing that is not included is educating my fellow committee members about why issues of diversity matter to everyone and should be included in our “strategic plans”.

The chair of this committee is a white woman (not from the US) who’s been at the college for over 10 years. She is in the math department so in my naïve estimation, as a minority in her discipline I thought she’d have a better understanding of what our committee should actually be doing. I was wrong.

To her credit, she asked to meet with me to get my perspective on just that. I told her that we need to focus on structural issues related to inequities. I told her we need to create some standardization across departments in faculty hiring practices, diverse curricular design, and inclusive pedagogies. She blinked at me and said something akin to “well, people don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to be asked to change how they’ve done things for years. They don’t want their identities threatened.’

I get it. I promise I do. But in that moment I wanted to scream.

I had to clarify for her that that is the problem here: people perceive issues of diversity as threatening to their white identities. That is what we have to help the faculty overcome. That is why they are hesitant to even engage in conversations about hiring diverse faculty (nonetheless actually hire some). That is why students put forth a petition to diversify the curriculum so more than Western, Christian, white male perspectives are studied. That is why I have students crying in my office when their professor refuses to learn their names and when they finally do, say things like ‘what a cool name! Your people have the coolest names!!!’

*Deep breath*

Again, to her credit, she looked as if she had an epiphany. Then she said that math and natural science professors have an additional hurdle because issues of diversity “don’t fit” into their content. I told her that as a content expert it is her responsibility to spend 20 minutes thinking about how she can integrate diverse perspectives into her curriculum. She admitted that she hadn’t tried to integrate; but she had tried to add in conversations about diversity. I told her that forcing students to read current events and having conversations about racism was a good first step, but that disconnecting it from course content reinforces the idea that these issues are ad hoc. That thinking and talking about marginalized people can come after you’ve done the ‘serious work’ of learning about limit functions.

She pledged to try harder. I appreciated that.

But then she did the one thing to which I’ve yet to develop a response: she asked to have more conversations with me about these issues because she wants to learn more.

Le sigh.

She quickly followed that request with a sincere acknowledgement that it was not my job to teach her and that I clearly have enough on my plate (she’d been reading about the burden faculty of color have with mentoring students and serving on every committee as the diversity representative).

I assured her that if she wanted to brainstorm ideas for inclusive pedagogy, I would be happy to help. But I left her office worn out, a bit angry, and a whole lot frustrated.

I was not and am not angry with her. I am actually happy she had the courage to have this conversation, admit her shortcomings, and ask for help. This is, after all, what I encourage my students to do in their learning processes.

But for the first time ever, I’m tired of being the teacher.

Like my colleague said in response to student requests to include diverse perspectives in courses: “When will it stop? When will they stop wanting me to cover everything?”

The F-Word and Its Importance to Learning

Let me be clear before I begin: this is not a post where I bash students. This is a post where I express my befuddlement of student decision-making.

Some context: I teach a 300-level Educational Psychology course. It is required for the major and minor in Education and counts toward the Psychology major and minor. It is designed to be taken after 2 foundational education courses and one in-school practicum. I’ve taught this class (and a more rigorous version of it for graduate students) approximately 14-17 times over the last 3 academic years. It is indeed the course I teach most often. It is therefore the course for which I’ve received the most course evaluations. My average rating for this class is a 4.6 out of 5 (my average for other courses that aren’t as content heavy is a 4.9 out of 5).

The course is usually at capacity with a small wait list. I often have 25 students in the class, save the last two times I taught it where I had about 17 students in each class. The mean and median grade in the course is always a B+…except for the last two times I taught it. These last two experiences were also different than the prior 12-15 experiences because sophomores (as opposed to juniors) constituted the majority of the student demographic.

Educational Psychology, like most of my courses, is all about skill development. Thinking skills and writing skills. More specifically, it is about interpreting the content and expressing your interpretation in a comprehensible and supported fashion. My tag line for the course is “If you sell it, I can buy it.” The students come to understand that all I want them to do is adequately defend their beliefs. This involves a high level of metacognitive thinking, reasoning, analysis, and synthesis. It is the final two that trip them up. Students are so used to summarizing and describing, they have little experience with analyzing and synthesizing. They have been asked to share their opinions often, but they have not been asked to justify them in a scholarly manner. I therefore repeat the following phrase many times throughout the course: “I don’t care what you think. I care why you think it”.

The assessments of the course are designed to measure their increasing cognitive skills. They are required to write reflections on course readings 5 times during the course (they choose which times) within which they synthesize 2 readings. The syllabus clearly states that these reflections are not a place to give their opinions of the readings. On the contrary, they are a place where they should discuss why  different theories [mis]align with one another. They have a hard time differentiating this from comparing and contrasting. The reflections total 10% of their final grade.

Other assessments include a 2-day/4 hour classroom observation of another college course where students must figure out how theories translate to pedagogical practice. They are asked to identify where they see theories ‘in action’ and analyze why a professor makes the pedagogical decisions they do. This assignment is worth 25% of their grade and occurs two thirds of the way through the course.

Students are also alphabetically assigned to a small group (2-3) that presents an assigned reading for the day. The readings are theoretical reviews and are as short as 4 pages. Presentations last 45 minutes. This assignment is worth 10% of their grade and is the assignment on which they do the best.

There is a final essay and a final exam for the course, each worth 25% of their grade. The essay is a persuasive essay in which students must advocate for or against a particular learning theory for a specific age group based upon their developmental capabilities. They are required to support their argument with 2 empirical articles. It is a 5-7 page paper due on the last day of class.

The final exam is short essay (1 page per question) and contains 10 questions, each with different point values. Students are to choose 4 questions to answer. If they choose the four lowest valued questions and get them correct, their maximum score is 50 points or a letter grade of C. If they choose the four most difficult questions and get them right, their maximum score is 100 or a letter grade of A. They have 4 hours to take the closed-note exam. It is designed to be done in 1 hour.

Phew. I say all of that because it is necessary context to understand the purpose of this post. This most recent time I taught the course, I had 4 students drop the class. Now, two of them dropped for medical reasons and went home for the remainder of the term. One dropped one third of the way through the course because he was failing and decided he didn’t need the class for his minor and saw no reason to get a low grade when it was unnecessary. A fourth dropped 85% of the way through the course because she didn’t want the low grade to lower her GPA. She plans to retake the class next fall. Two more students came to my office to tell me they too were considering dropping the course, but I managed to put the course in perspective and they stayed enrolled.

What is stunning to me in this scenario are two things: 1) students even considering dropping a course as a viable academic option and 2) students dropping a course when they still have 55-65% of their grade unaccounted for.

I know many people will read this and say it is my fault as the teacher that students are dropping. I disagree both on a personal level but more so on a pedagogical level. I contacted the students two months before the course began, shared the syllabus and communicated the level of rigor of a 300-level course, especially for sophomores. I shared with them my focus on skills, not content. I gave tips for how to prepare for the course. I provided all rubrics for all assignments before the course even began. Most of all, I gave clear instructions in a multiple of ways, many times. I answered every email inquiry within 12 hours and met with students before and after class to help craft outlines for assignments and to provide tips on how to read course texts. I also give extensive feedback on all assignments.

All teachers want their students to do well and I am no different. But I also want my students to progress and actually acquire some skills they didn’t have before my course. I am less concerned with their final grade and more concerned with their final cognitive state. I monitor their progression via their reflections and pop quizzes (which 50% of do not count against students). I attend to their comments in class and their questions. I alter my daily lesson plans to address the gaps I see in their reflections.

I am therefore stunned when a student comes to me expressing a desire to withdraw from a course before they’ve given themselves a chance to develop. This is especially ironic in a course about the learning process. While they clearly articulate their need to develop self-regulatory learning strategies, they are so in fear of failure, they do not give themselves that opportunity. It would’ve never occurred to me to drop a class in college. Once I was enrolled, I was committed. If I was not doing well in a course, I redoubled my efforts and if that didn’t work (and trust me, there were times it didn’t), I reconciled myself with the fact that I was not going to receive an A, A- or B+. While I of course blamed the professor for their alleged poor teaching/poor instructions/lack of feedback, it never occurred to me to do anything other than complete the course.

I certainly would not drop a course when 2/3 of my points were still available. I like to think I have more confidence in myself than to quit 30% of the way into a process. But then again, I’ve always viewed learning as a process. I am not sure my students view it the same way.

A process involves change over time. It requires adaption and reflexivity. A process is concerned with growth instead of the outcome. While I kept a keen eye on my GPA, I always measured my success by how much I determined I’d learned. And my learning was not restricted to content. In most cases, it was learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a student. I developed strategies and coping mechanisms when the content was a bit beyond me (hello, statistics!). If I ended up with a B- in a course (what’s up, Intro Psych?!?!), I was proud of myself for figuring out how to get that grade instead of the C- I might have earned if I didn’t adjust my study skills.

There has been a lot of chatter circling social media about the value of failure. Indeed, in my Ed Psych course we spend time discussing that very matter within the context of fixed versus growth mindsets and self-regulatory learning. We address it again during our discussion of motivation and self-efficacy. The students understand the importance of experiencing failure to cognitive growth. But they have a hard time feeling it.

While only 1 student has ever truly failed this course (students view a B- or C as failing), I don’t want to be the professor who facilitates this type of experiential learning, but I see the value in it. Failure is where you experience growth. It is when you assess your decisions and their effect on the outcomes. It is when you learn how and of whom to ask questions. It is when you force yourself to be honest about who you are and what you are capable of doing. One must go through failure to develop the skills to get passed it.

I am concerned we’ve established a system that facilitates students walking around it.

Finding Voice When Silenced

Today is a hard day. I, like most Black people, am unsurprised at the news that Darren Wilson was not indicted. But that doesn’t stop my sadness. Or my hurt. Or my frustration with being part of a system in which someone’s fear is valued more highly than someone’s life. I am frustrated because I want to do something, but am uncertain what to do. I want to say something, but I am uncertain of what to say that could ease a miniscule amount of the pain ripping through the Black community. So as I wait for the words to come, I remember a time when I found my voice.

*********************************************************************************************************************************************

When I was somewhere around 7 years old, my brother and I were part of a gifted and talented poetry class that met before school in the mornings. I don’t have a ton of memories from that time in my life but I do remember two things very clearly: 1) we read only poetry by Black poets and 2) I fell in love with Langston Hughes in that class.

Of course I didn’t know I was in love at the time. I just knew that I absolutely wanted to perform a piece of poetry and that it HAD to be to “Dream Boogie” by Langston Hughes. For those who are unfamiliar, here it is:

Good morning, daddy!

Ain’t you heard

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:

You’ll hear their feet

Beating out and Beating out a —

You think

It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:

Ain’t you heard

something underneath

like a —

What did I say?

Sure,

I’m happy!

Take it away!

Hey, pop!

Re-bop!

Mop!

Y-e-a-h

At such a young age, I think I was drawn to the iambic pentameter of the poem. I remember bouncing up and down and reciting it over and over. Even today, I remember how proud I was that I’d learned this poem, not knowing the lasting effects that experience would have on me.

Fast forward to middle school when we were doing the traditional American public school nonsense surrounding ‘Black History Month’. One of the options for a ‘Black History Project’ was to do a research paper on a Black author. I recalled Langston Hughes from my childhood and chose him. This is when I encountered a poem that would forever change how I viewed myself as a Black person: “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor — Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, And reachin’ landin’s, And turnin’ corners, And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light. So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now — For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

You can imagine that at 11 years old I didn’t really get it. But in the midst of my research I learned a lot about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and Jim Crow. This was also the time when the Million Man March was happening in Washington, DC and my dad let me and my brother stay home from school (he also made us write a paper on the importance of this march which, in the eyes of an 11 year old, was of course worse than going to school).

That following summer I turned 12 and participated in a theater and drama camp. This was probably my favorite camp experience of all time because I was finally old enough to appreciate the beauty of performing arts as a way to have voice. Like most 12 year olds, I wasn’t articulate with my words (despite journals full of awful poetry), but I had enough emotions and thoughts to fill an auditorium. That summer, I channeled all of myself into that camp. I ended up being in almost every piece at the final performance. I stepped, I sang in the Gospel choir (Kirk Franklin anyone?), I did a swing dance, was the lead in a series of African dances, and I was also a part of a trio of young women reciting Nikki Giovanni’s, “Ego Trippin”:

I was born in the Congo I walked to the fertile crescent and built    the sphinx I designed a pyramid so tough that a star    that only glows every one hundred years falls    into the center giving divine perfect light I am bad I sat on the throne    drinking nectar with Allah I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe    to cool my thirst My oldest daughter is Nefertiti    the tears from my birth pains    created the Nile I am a beautiful woman I gazed on the forest and burned    out the Sahara desert    with a packet of goat’s meat    and a change of clothes I crossed it in two hours I am a gazelle so swift    so swift you can’t catch me    For a birthday present when he was three I gave my son Hannibal an elephant    He gave me Rome for mother’s day My strength flows ever on My son Noah built new/ark and I stood proudly at the helm    as we sailed on a soft summer day I turned myself into myself and was    Jesus    men intone my loving name    All praises All praises I am the one who would save I sowed diamonds in my back yard My bowels deliver uranium    the filings from my fingernails are    semi-precious jewels    On a trip north I caught a cold and blew My nose giving oil to the arab world I am so hip even my errors are correct I sailed west to reach east and had to round off    the earth as I went    The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid    across three continents I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal I cannot be comprehended except by my permission I mean…I…can fly    like a bird in the sky…

I remember auditioning for the recitation of “Mother to Son”, but being advised to instead participate in “Ego Trippin”. I took the suggestion well and was rewarded with an introduction to Black women poets. I spiraled out from Nikki Giovanni (after purchasing and voraciously reading an anthology of her work), reading poems by Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. I let their words inspire mine and slowly, I found my voice. While my poetry was adequate at best, my prose was becoming stronger. I wrote every story, every school paper, and every note to my friends with a tone of authority and confidence. Having always been an avid reader, I worked on becoming a critical reader. What was the author really talking about? How did they orient themselves within the context of the piece? Why are these sweet lyrics being presented with strong dynamics? What do people see or think or hear when I speak? I looked for myself in every word. When I couldn’t find myself, I rewrote it to suit my needs.

When I went to College, I knew I wanted to be an English major. I thrived in a department with small, discussion based classes where we read and wrote about a book per week.  I learned to adjust my more flowery and esoteric English writing to fit better within more concise and precise Psychology frameworks.  I wrote with both hands from two lenses. I wrote my feelings while also examining my thoughts. It was cathartic.

I went to grad school and wrote on behalf of other people. I gave voice to marginalized families who felt they couldn’t speak on behalf of their own children.

I became an Education professor. I cultivate student voice, both written and oral. I encourage receptive, procedural and expressive skills because if my students can’t or don’t speak for themselves, someone will speak for them.

I created a blog. For myself. To work through the complexities of my identities and how they created my  presence.

I struggle every day with how to best serve this world. I sit in the wake of a series of political and racial injustices and find it difficult to locate my voice. I open a blank document and just start typing thinking that saying something is often better than saying nothing. Then I remember the 7 year old girl with glasses and crooked teeth who found her voice on a page of poetry.

Then, I speak. And though I’ve never actually said this, I always want to:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

 

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

 

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

 

I, too, am America.

~Langston HughesI, too, sing America.

#BlackLivesMatter #WeTooAreAmerica

My Degrees Will Not Save Me

My degrees will not save me.

Episode 1

I came to this realization when I was 21 and nearing the end of my first year of my PhD program. It was Spring Break (that is the last time those two words ever meant anything to me) and I’d journeyed to NYC to visit my two best friends: one of whom was completing her first year of law school and the other of whom was gearing up to begin her first year of medical school. Because it was early March in NYC it was still a bit chilly and two of us were wearing Dartmouth sweatshirts while the third opted for Cornell (her law school). We’d decided to see some awful Halle Berry movie at a place near Columbus Circle. When the monstrosity movie ended, we left the theater and entered the NYC sidewalk foray. I was walking on the edge of the sidewalk near the street chatting with my friends about our precious wasted dollars when I was suddenly pushed from behind into the street of oncoming traffic. Fortunately a car slammed the brakes and I was able to jump back onto the sidewalk soon enough to see a middle aged white woman push past my friends saying ‘I’m so sick of all of you!’  To make a long story short, I ran after her and caught her at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change. I politely asked her why she pushed me in the street. She responded ‘because I’m sick of you girls taking up space and being so loud!’ When I replied that we were not being loud, she said ‘well no, YOU weren’t but black girls are always so loud. The other day I had to walk through two black girls fighting to get to my car!!!’  I was honestly baffled because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that had to do with me. She then went on to tell me a story of how she got in an elevator with a black man and he didn’t speak when she said ‘hi’. She also noted that he was wearing headphones and perhaps hadn’t heard her…I cut her off after story number 3 of how she was pseudo-offended by black people and told her that had nothing to do with me. It was clear this woman was in no way going to apologize for her actions so I just suggested to my friends we leave. Instead, my soon-to-be attorney friend had a twenty minute heart to heart with her. The woman started sobbing saying how she’d been very stressed lately and just couldn’t take more of ‘those people’ getting in her way. My friend asked her what we’d done to be in her way and she replied ‘you just are.’

Episode 2 (this is actually episode 3. I wrote about episode 2 in Narratives of Success in the Black Community)

Fast forward to last Fall. I was driving the 1.2 miles to work and was about a block away driving behind a pick-up truck on a one lane street. After you go through the light, it opens into two lanes and the left lane pretty much becomes a turning lane (read: sit behind 8 cars waiting to turn at a light with no arrow). So as soon as we went through the green light, I put on my signal and moved into the new right lane, as did the car behind me. During that process, the pick-up truck decides he too is going to get in the right lane, but because he is driving slower than me, he cuts me off. In order not to hit him, I have to swerve and drive into someone’s front yard. The car behind me swerves into their driveway. No one is hurt. We all proceed forward. I am smart enough to not drive behind that truck anymore so as soon as possible, I move into the left lane. Then the one thing I was hoping didn’t happen, happened. We end up side by side at a red light. My heart was beating fast. I started to sweat. And I kept repeating this in my head: don’t look over. Don’t give him eye contact. Despite me acting like he wasn’t there, I could see out of the corner of my eye he’d rolled his window down and was leaned out yelling, ‘You Black Bitch!’. All I could do was pray the light changed soon. It didn’t. I was confident this man had a gun as I live in Colorado—an open carry state, and his pro-second amendment stickers on his car confirmed my suspicion. I was confident this man was so enraged, he was going to reach for his gun at any moment and shoot me. I contemplated driving through the red light because a car accident is certainly safer than being shot from 8 feet away, right? Then I saw the white man who’d been driving behind me get out of his car and approach the screaming driver. I wanted to turn and tell him ‘sir, please get back in your car. That isn’t safe.’  But then I thought, ‘he’s white. Of course he is safe.’

Episode 3

This past May I was headed to commencement. I needed to be there early because I was sitting on stage to introduce an honorary degree recipient. I left my house at 7:05am. At 7:06am, there were flashing lights behind me. I live at the top of a hill so I can pick up speed coming down the hill. The speed limit is 30, but I am certain I was driving well above 30. I was speeding and deserved a speeding ticket. The white state trooper pulled out of the gas station where he’d been sitting, but by then I was about to merge onto the highway. I saw him coming and knew he was coming for me but I merged onto the highway anyway. Why? Because I didn’t want to turn right onto the abandoned access road parallel to the highway. My first thought was ‘I need to be somewhere with a lot of witnesses.’ So I got on the highway and when he was directly behind me, I pulled over. Before he got out of his car I was sure to get my registration and insurance out of the glove compartment, and my license out of my purse. I knew better than to have my hands anywhere but on the wheel when he approached my car. He approached, I lowered the window half way and he went through his spiel…with his hand resting on his gun (yes, that is standard practice for police when they approach a car). I was terrified. Not of a $117 speeding ticket, but of the reality that at any moment, this man could pull his weapon and shoot me because I sneezed, or scratched my head, or in some way made him feel ‘threatened’. When he walked back to his car, I realized I’d been holding my breath and had tears in my eyes. By the time he’d given me my ticket I was so anxious, my hands were shaking too badly to drive. I sat on the side of the highway for 3 minutes willing my body to relax enough for me to arrive in time to don my academic regalia and hob nob with the Board of Trustees and College President before the ceremony.

commencement

These are just three incidents in my life where it’s been made abundantly clear that no matter how ‘articulately’ I speak, how many degrees from top institutions I have, or how many tenure-track professorship positions I am offered, I am and always will be perceived as a volatile, Black woman whose life and worth are of little to no value.

So as the scene in Ferguson, MO continues to escalate and black lives continue to be thrown away because of perceived threats (read: bias and racism), I continue to wear my business clothes, get in my Sante Fe, drive to a campus where students pay $55k a year, and teach in a classroom where I am the only person of color with whom many of my students have interacted in their lives.

In other words, every day, I live in fear.

Which picture would they use?

graduation

laughing

Within the Ivory Towers: Managing Grief in Academia

I don’t really know how to start this post but I certainly feel the need to write it. Yesterday I learned that one of my best friends since the age of 13 passed away. He was one of those people who was just good. Better. And he never got a fair shot in life. He had been ill for quite some time, so while his passing is not a surprise, the sadness is the same.

It’s a similar sadness to what I felt when my grandfather passed away during my first semester of graduate school. I was not able to attend his funeral because there was a snow storm and my flight was canceled. My current state is a lightweight version of the extremely deep pain I felt (and continue to feel) when my brother passed during my fourth year of graduate school.

Friends and colleagues of mine have experienced similar grief, but I’m always particularly aware of grief when it happens within the rigid walls of academia.

To make a long story short, there is no space for grief in academia. With every loss, I felt a simultaneous anxiety around having to step away from my 1st year project, dissertation research, and first day of class. Some might say that I am using my work to distract from my grief and perhaps yes, that is true to an extent. But when I examine my pain more intensively, I know I am not avoiding my grief; I am saving it for after work hours. I also know that this pattern is in part, my need to continue forward because if I pause to cry at my desk, my sadness will overwhelm me.

I cannot afford that.

I cannot afford to appear weak. In graduate school, it was about proving my worth. I did not want my advisor or my committee to think I didn’t have the fortitude to do what needed to be done. One sign of weakness could be my exit point off the PhD highway. It may sound dramatic but it’s not. PhD students fight continuously for respect from faculty and sometimes, one another. I was a 21 year old first year PhD student who was accepted into the top program in the field on her first try straight out of undergrad. I was rare. I was black. And all eyes were on me.

While I did not share my grandfather’s passing with anyone in my program, I could not help but share my brother’s death. That grief could not be hidden so I had no choice but to leave for a bit. And I do mean a bit. I went home for about 5 days and then took a pre-planned vacation to Miami for 4 days. After that, I was back on the grind. I told myself it’s what my brother would’ve wanted (which is true. He wasn’t one for wallowing in things you can’t control), but it was more because I knew I couldn’t lose ground in my program.

The department knew what I was going through yet not a single person besides my advisor offered even a word of condolence. I was told they would send flowers to his funeral. They did not. I was not offered extensions on looming deadlines, nor did I receive an email of sympathy or even a clichéd line of encouragement. I was given nothing.

At 24 years old, struggling to complete a PhD I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, I didn’t have the emotional strength to fight that battle. I accepted their behaviors as par for the course and used it to strengthen my resolve to get the hell out of there ASAP. And I promised myself that if I ever became a professor, I would never treat my students or colleagues that way.

But ‘that way’ is the norm. As a faculty member now, I see colleagues experience grief and for the most part, they too suck it up and come to work as if nothing was amiss. Those rare few who take some time off are whispered about at faculty meetings. Words like ‘dramatic’ and ‘depressed’ and ‘absent’ are complemented by expressions of disdain and scorn. How dare they not be at the meeting? It’s been a month since his son died! It’s been THREE months since her partner died!! They should be back by now!!!

My campus has experienced a lot of loss in the last few months. Students and colleagues leaving Earth far too soon has made everyone emotionally vigilant. And while academia encourages us to create a student experience that engenders the happily educated image of a coed, the same cannot be said for faculty. While we create task forces to deal with ‘campus issues’ and hire third party firms to conduct research on the ‘campus climate’, where are the support groups, counseling sessions, and offers of leave for faculty? I cannot even request these things without appearing to be some depressed weirdo who can’t handle the challenges life throws because that is the culture of academia.

We academics are tough. We are committed. We are expected to approach our personal lives in the same informed and educated fashion we approach our profession. We should be well versed in grief and ensure we move through those stages properly—in our own time.

The divide between who I am as a human and who I am expected to be as a professor is awful. It makes me feel ashamed of the two tears that escape my guard and splash onto my desk. It makes me feel awkward when friends ask me if I’m okay and if they can give me a hug. My mind is saying ‘I shouldn’t need a hug’, but my heart is saying ‘yes, please’.

So to those who’ve offered hugs, sent emails, delivered a clichéd message of support, surreptitiously squeezed my hand, called, and made me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry, thank you. You make it possible for me to get out of bed and go to work and be the scholar academia forces me to be.

grief

 

 

 

 

The Politicization of Pedagogy

This is not make-believe, or as we used to say, for play-play.

I teach real shit to real students in a real classroom. My classroom is a battleground. I talk about issues of stratification, marginalization and subjugation. We read about access and opportunity so students might recognize that the latter cannot exist without the former. We watch documentaries depicting the ‘other’ so that students can use the social as a mirror for the self. I push them to contextualize their experience through the lens of someone else with hopes that tolerance turns to understanding.purpose of education

This is real life.

This is my life. My presence is political.

I am a twenty-something single, childless black woman in a space never meant to be my own. Questions about hiring processes, affirmative action, targeted opportunities and other banal phrases meant to ask ‘what the f*** is she doing here?’ Well I got news for you. Celie said it first: “Dear God, I’m here!” I made it. I played the game. I earned the right to sit at the table.

My journey was political.

I befriended whom I needed and smiled at just the right time. I laughed at lame jokes and cried when no one was looking. I asked for help when I knew I needed it but was certain not to appear unable. I wrote three drafts but told you I freestyled it because you needed to be impressed. I gave you that. And you gave me…

My body is political. And you made that so. My afro, mocha skin, thin frame, thick lips, tall stature, wide nose…I carry all that into the classroom. Proudly.

This is my positionality. I come from NorthEast where I pushed kids off slides, broke glass bottles over heads and pulled knives on uncles. Did I mention this was before age 7? I skipped gifted and talented because it bored me, but I was smart enough to fall in love with Langston Hughes and learn that life is not a crystal stair. I fought for position at school, on the street, in the house.

My knowledge is political. I understand content to the extent I’ve experienced it. I read and write and talk and write and laugh and think…that I will never get a handle on the interrelatedness of life. I cannot choose when to enact the parts of me that best fit the theory currently in question. I cannot ignore that I am a walking contradiction, an oxymoron of educated black or smart woman or eloquent southerner. All I know I live.

This is real to me. I make it real for them.

So yeah, my pedagogy is political.

From My Clothes to My Pedagogy: They Almost Walked Off With All My Stuff

(I can claim credit for neither clause of the title of this post. The former was stated by a friend and colleague during a discussion about preservation of self in academia; the latter is of course referencing a well-known poem by Ntozake Shange. The poem, in its entirety, follows in italics.)

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine/this aint yr stuff/
now why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own self

I’ve hit a point, in my 3rd year in my position as Assistant Professor of Social and Political Issues in Education where I feel like I am fighting for myself. For the past 6 months I’ve watched others encroach on my intellectual property and steal. Yes, they asked, but still…in  my subjugated position as “Assistant” Professor and “Junior” Faculty, a request made of me is more like a demand. All I want is for them to put me back and let me hang out in my own self.

somebody almost walked off wit alla my stuff
& didn’t care enuf to send a note home sayin
i was late for my solo conversation
or two sizes to small for my own tacky skirts
what can anybody do wit somethin of no value on
a open market/ did you getta dime for my things/
hey man/ where are you goin wid alla my stuff/
to ohh & ahh abt/ daddy/ i gotta mainline number
from my own shit/ now wontcha put me back/ & let
me play this duet/ wit silver ring in my nose/

Your email ‘requests’ for my syllabi, my readings, my classroom activities. For the synopses of my past and future ideas. For all of this, I wonder—where are you going with all of my stuff?

Because it is my stuff. Borne of me. My passions, my ideas, my interactions with life. Mine. Why do you feel entitled to me?

honest to god/ somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i didnt bring anythin but the kick & sway of it
the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs
this is mine/ juanita sims/ that’s my name
now give me my stuff/ i see ya hidin my laugh/ & how i
sit wif my legs open sometimes/ to give my crotch
some sunlight/ & there goes my love my toes my chewed
up finger nails/ niggah/ wif the curls in yr hair/
mr. louisiana hot link/ i want my stuff back/
my rhytums & my voice/ open my mouth/ & let me talk ya
outta/ throwin my shit in the sewar/ this is some delicate
leg & whimsical kiss/ i gotta have to give to my choice/
without you runnin off wit alla my shit/
now you cant have me less i give me away/ & i waz
doin all that/ til ya run off on a good thing/

For real though. Why do I have to fight for what is mine? If I were a man or white or better yet, a white man, you would never have the audacity to ask for my things. What’s worse is that you can’t do with them what I can do with them. You might as well throw them in the sewer. Disposable.  Of no value. None of it is theirs. This is mine.

who is this you left me wit/ some simple bitch
widda bad attitude/ i wants my things/
i want my arm wit the hot iron scar/ & my leg wit the
flea bite/ i want my calloused feet & quik language back
in my mouth/ fried plantains/ pineapple pear juice/
sun-ra & joseph & jules/ i want my own things/ how i lived them/
& give me my memories/ how i waz when i waz there/
you cant have them or do nothin wit them/
stealin my shit from me/ dont make it yrs/ makes it stolen/

Yes, I want my things. They are mine. You think you can leave me with your leftovers after I’ve prepared the meal you’re eating. Stealing my shit from me doesn’t make it yours; it makes it stolen. Inauthentic. Inorganic. Wrong. They know.

somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/ & i waz standin
there/ lookin at myself/ the whole time
& it waznt a spirit took my stuff/ waz a man whose
ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow/ waz a man faster
n my innocence/ waz a lover/ i made too much
room for/ almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i didnt know i’d give it up so quik/ & the one runnin wit it/
don’t know he got it/ & i’m shoutin this is mine/ & he dont
know he got it/ my stuff is the anonymous ripped off treasure
of the year/ did you know somebody almost got away wit me/

To add insult to injury you think it’s okay to do this. You think it’s perfectly acceptable to take what I earned, what I created, and call it yours. Sometimes I don’t think you know you have it. But I am shouting, THIS IS MINE! My named treasure. Followed by three letters. I almost let it go.

me in a plastic bag under their arm/ me
danglin on a string of personal carelessness/ i’m spattered wit
mud & city rain/ & no i didnt get a chance to take a douche/
hey man/ this is not your perogative/ i gotta have me in my
pocket/ to get round like a good woman shd/ & make the poem
in the pot or the chicken in the dance/ what i got to do/
i gotta get my stuff to do it to/

I stopped. Not again. Once because I didn’t know any better. Twice because I trusted you. But now I have me in my pocket and I know what I have to do.

why dont ya find yr own things/ & leave this package
of me for my destiny/ what ya got to get from me/
i’ll give it to ya/ yeh/ i’ll give it to ya/
round 5:00 in the winter/ when the sky is blue-red/
& Dew City is gettin pressed/ if it’s really my stuff/
ya gotta give it to me/ if ya really want it/ i’m
the only one/ can handle it

You almost walked away with all of my stuff.

Then you couldn’t.

iconic black women