Managing My Need to Manage Myself: Finding Space to Breathe and Reboot

I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time. I created this blog to give myself a space to vent, think aloud, and sometimes solicit feedback from the internets when I needed guidance. But mostly, this blog is for me.

So I don’t feel guilty having taken a few months (ok…more like 6 months) away from this space. I needed it. More specifically, I need time to wade through a new space in which I found myself last Spring and Summer.

On the heels of a professionally challenging Spring semester I started a very demanding Summer. I had a grant proposal due on Aug 5th, needed to prepare my third year review file, was teaching 3 classes (2 concurrently), and had to write 4 chapters in my book if I was to stay on track with my publisher.

In true Manya fashion, I had a schedule with due dates and a really solid plan for making sure that this would be a productive summer complete with scheduled time to celebrate my 30th birthday in New Orleans.

Then the person I had been dating came to visit. And he got sick. And he was admitted to the hospital. And he died. All in a 5 week span.

I’ve written before about managing my grief while trying to be a functioning academic. But this time it was so different. Losing my grandfather during my first year of grad school was hard but he a) was older and b) had cancer so it wasn’t a surprise. Losing my brother in my third year of grad school was devastating. But again, I can soothe myself when I remember that he didn’t really want to be here anymore. Last Spring I lost my best friend to complications associated with HIV. That hurt. A lot. He was young, he did want to be here, and so many people counted on him to be their light. Including me.

But all three of those losses represented a loss in my history. These were people with whom I shared a piece of my past. My grandfather building a swing set and teaching my cousins and I about snapping turtles. My brother was the one who could always remember minute details from childhood experiences. My best friend was a reminder of how much fun I had in high school and how I started becoming the person I am today. But this most recent loss is all about my future.

When you meet someone and you date them romantically you can’t help but envision what it would be like to really be with that person. You know, marriage, kids, all that. And even if you aren’t that deep into your relationship, you start to feel a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe this time, this is it. And you’re happy.

I was happy.

Then he got sick. So sick he was bed ridden and not eating or drinking. I had to take him to the hospital 2-3 times a week to get fluids. He lost 50lbs in 3 weeks. I was his primary caretaker. I would wake up every 2 hours at night to check on him and make sure he was breathing. I lived in fear that when I came home from teaching a class, I would find him dead in my house. I was so relieved when I was able to get him admitted to the hospital because I felt like it was no longer my responsibility to keep him alive.

The doctors and nurses were amazing. They did everything possible to figure out what was wrong. I was able to teach a 3-4 hour class and not have pressing guilt that if something happened, he would be alone. I was at the hospital by 7:30am every day. I left from 12:45-4:15 to teach. Then I went home at 9pm every night to shower and sleep and spend time with my dog. That was my life for 9 days. On day 9, he had emergency surgery that he pulled through by the grace of God. I called his mom. She came on day 10. On day 13, he was doing so great. He was up, walking around, talking, wanted to eat and drink for the first time in 4 weeks. I was elated. I was meeting with nurses and learning how to take care of him once he came home. I was making arrangements for rehab and physical therapy and thinking how I could change the bathroom so someone with a walker could move around. On day 14 he went back to ICU. He wasn’t oxygenating. He was septic. He had pneumonia. His kidneys stopped working. He died at 1:50pm on June 30th. I was holding one hand, his mother held the other.

For 5 weeks I’d done nothing but worry about him. About Ron. Now, I had to worry about myself. My mother came the next day. People brought food. Mom made sure I ate. And then she left because life doesn’t stop just because you feel like it has. And I was left alone in my house for the first time in 6 weeks. I was in this new empty space alone.

I kept on with my schedule. It’s all I knew how to do. I wrote, and went to New Orleans, and wrote and planned courses and slept. People checked on me. I was as okay as I could be.

School started. I was finally able to see a therapist. I cried a lot. I stopped drowning myself in work and faced my grief. I went to visit my parents for a week. That helped.

And now I’m in a new space. So many pieces of my heart have been broken by loss in the last 5 years, but I am finding that I have a lot of heart left.

I was especially reminded of this when a student/mentee came into my office, sat down and said “You need to write a blog post. It’s been too long.” He even gave me an idea of what to write about. But more importantly, he gave me a reason to reclaim this space, this blog, as a space for myself that sometimes becomes a space for others as well.

So no, this post is not about educational inequities or being a professor. It’s about being a person who is learning to take the space I need for what I want.

(Stay tuned…I do actually have a blog post about charter schools coming soon)

When Trying Isn’t Enough

God is testing me.

Last week I attended the College Language Association (CLA) annual conference. It is a humanities conference primarily focused on Black/Diasporic language and literature. As an education professor, I was there because I was on a panel about a chapter I’d contributed to a book on Black masculinity. I didn’t know prior to going that CLA is basically a “Black” conference. The brief history I surmised is that it was created because MLA was not a welcoming space for scholars of color.

I’m so glad I went because I needed that experience. I needed to be in a space with other scholars of color who care about the issues I care about and who experience the microaggressions I experience. Within 2 hours of my arrival, I met my panel organizer and editor of a soon-to-be published book entitled, Real Sister: Stereotypes, Respectability, and Black Women in Reality TV. She and I sat and talked for hours about our respective lives at our PWIs and in a community without other young professionals of color. She talked about not having anyone with whom to attend happy hour, see a movie or get afternoon tea. I talked about finally having a core group of friends after 3.5 years at my institution. I talked about the fact that beyond those 5 women, I too am alone in a city where the NAACP office was bombed a few months ago. I shared more with a woman I’d just met than I’ve shared with colleagues I’ve known for years. As the words poured out of mouth I realized the desperate need I had to share and to be valued and to have my experiences validated.

Now that I’m back in Colorado Springs, CO I am reminded by the hour that this space in which I’ve chosen to exist will not listen to my voice; will not value who I am; will not validate my experiences.

Yesterday’s faculty meeting was a smack in the face about the realities of what it means to be a Black woman under the age of 30 at a PWI. On the faculty floor was a conversation about diversifying the curriculum, born of a student initiated petition. It is important to note that their petition is not solely about diversifying the curriculum. On the contrary, the spirit of the petition is about honoring the experiences of marginalized people. They suggest we the faculty do so through our curricular and pedagogical decisions.

Some faculty did not hear that. All they heard was an attack on their ‘academic freedom’. They heard the ‘imperative tone’ and balked at the audacity of 19 year olds telling “us” when they wanted a written and public response. They were outraged that students would dare ‘dictate’ the curriculum when in fact, none of their courses ‘have anything to do with issues of race, class, gender or sexuality’. Multiple faculty expressed concern about ‘fitting in’ more content when ‘they scramble to get through the units as is’. One white male professor stated that he already talks about China in a single course and sarcastically asked “will they want me to talk about Russia and Germany too? Where will it end?”

Well sir, while you are basking in your privilege, others of us are living in marginalized bodies whose discriminatory experiences don’t end. Some of us don’t have the privilege of considering diversity an additive component of ‘real’ academic work because some of us embody what it means to be diverse. Some of us cannot shed our skin or hair, or change our sexuality or family background to suit your needs. I am sorry marginalized people—and our experiences—are an inconvenience to you. I am sorry that you having to read a few books and do some google searches and rearrange a week or two of your syllabus is beyond your mental and emotional capacities. Phew…just the thought of that much effort is too much for you, huh?

Imagine how exhausted we the marginalized are when we have to rearrange our lives and our bodies to accommodate your white, upper middle class, English-speaking, male, heterosexual norms. Imagine how I feel when students storm into my office in tears because of something YOU said or did in class today. Imagine my surprise when students whom I’ve never even met seek me out as a resource because there are so few people who honor their existence and their experiences.

These students are not only Brown or Black students. They are not only women (actually, most are male). And they are not only queer students. Or first generation students. Or low-income students. Or students with learning disabilities or psychological diagnoses. They are each a mix of those identity characteristics and their diversity speaks to the institution’s failure to meet the emotional and psychological needs of its students.

Today a student of mine hit a crisis point in managing her mental illness. She’s been reaching out for the past week and myself and colleagues did the best we could to help. But she doesn’t feel that way. She feels abandoned. She feels thrown out and discarded by the institution. She sent me an email thanking me. Then she sent me an email informing me that she attempted suicide but was found by a cop.

Today is a hard day for me. But it’s always harder for the students who feel unsupported and unloved.

An Open Letter of Love to Black Students: #BlackLivesMatter

These words could’ve been–have been–words I write, think, and feel everyday. We stand with you, beside you, and for you.

Black Space

IMG_5465 Black students and professors, Beaumont Tower, Michigan State University, December 6, 2014. photo by Darryl Quinton Evans

We are Black professors.

We are daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, godchildren, grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, and mothers.

We’re writing to tell you we see you and hear you.

We know the stories of dolls hanging by nooses, nigger written on dry erase boards and walls, stories of nigger said casually at parties by White students too drunk to know their own names but who know their place well enough to know nothing will happen if they call you out your name, stories of nigger said stone sober, stories of them calling you nigger using every other word except what they really mean to call you, stories of you having to explain your experience in classrooms—your language, your dress, your hair, your music, your skin—yourself, of you having to fight for all…

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The Road to Hell is Paved by You

Your intentions don’t matter to me. No, really…they don’t. I don’t care if you ‘meant’ to be complimentary. That is not a compliment. I don’t care if you think what you are saying or doing is perfectly acceptable. It’s not. It’s offensive and racist. To hell with your intentions. Because frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Here are a few things that happened to me in the last 3 weeks.

1) A friend and colleague of mine was nominated for an award by a local arts council (she is a professor of theater and dance). Three of us went to the event to support her nomination and to enjoy some time away from work. We meet at her house and get dolled up for the event. We arrive at the event and are clearly the best dressed people there (this isn’t saying much. The bar for fashion in this city is lower than dirt). Oh, I should mention that my friend group is comprised like this: 2 black women, 1 brown woman, and 1 white woman who is often mistaken as Latina or Asian. There were three other people of color in the room of about 200 people. Three times during the short evening (we left halfway through the program) people asked all or some combination of us if we were ‘a singing group’.

Riiiiiight, because a group of women of color dressed up are clearly here to entertain you. Please hold while I shuck n jive right quick.

2) At the same event, we sat down in the middle of a table set for 10. There were already 2 older white women at the end of the table but the remaining 8 seats were open. 10 minutes after we sat down, a party of 3 (two white women, one white man) claimed the remaining seats at the table. We were still in the cocktail hour so the line for food was long. We chose not to get in line so we were sitting and enjoying lively conversation. I suddenly feel someone standing behind me to the left. I look up and it’s one of the ladies in the trio. She is just hovering and clearly attracts our attention. When we are all looking at her, she asks (in a meek, timid voice): “you aren’t going to steal my purse are you?” Then she paused to hear our response.

Hmmm…lady, I don’t want your Ross purse.

3) A colleague knocks on my office door, enters without waiting for a response and sees I am meeting with a student. She slowly backs out but I ask her if she needs anything immediately. She comes into the office and hands me something small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. She tells me to open it. It is bronzer in the shade of ‘sun kissed’. She tells me it’s ‘beautiful’ (3 times) and exclaims about how much she knew I’d like it. Yes, please give me lots of bronzer so that I may continue to paint myself in black face every day.

Newsflash: my skin is brown. I don’t need bronzer.

4) A Masters student sees me for the first time in about a month. My hair is different now: I’m wearing it in its natural state in all its afro glory. This is what she says: oh wow! Your hair is awesome like that. It was nice before, but that…that is POWER hair. It makes a statement. You should wear it like that all the time. How’d you get it like that?’

Oh, I just woke up and started the process of creating miniscule curls packed densely together. And I did it because I wanted to make a statement.

5) It is 8am and I am meeting colleagues at a local bagel shop to have a meeting. While I wait for my colleagues to get their food and join me at the table, an older white woman approaches me and says: “You are gorgeous. I love that color purple you’re wearing. It really pops against your skin. It would make me look drab but if I had skin like yours, I’d wear purple every day!!!”

If you had skin like mine, you would know that brown skin has far more severe influences on life than fashion decisions.

After numbers 3 and 4 happened today, I was done. I debriefed with a colleague who ‘gets’ these issues. She was rightfully annoyed and angry and she posed the following question: whose responsibility is it to educate these people?

I don’t know. But today, they don’t pay me enough to explain my skin, my hair, nor my presence in the context of white life. And I don’t *intend* to explain this tomorrow.

The Importance of Community for Marginalized Faculty

Like most institutions of higher education, my College has been trying to diversify its faculty and student body in all facets. To most people this ‘initiative’ or ‘strategic plan’ is just rhetoric meant to fuel the tanks of the ever stratified system of education. But to those of us working within this system, these types of initiatives are what enable us to get up every day and work in an environment where we are perpetually ‘the only’.

Yes, we knew when we accepted the coveted tenure-track offer that we would be joining a campus whose diversity tapestry (I heard a Dean use this phrase and I kind of like it) was threadbare. But we joined because like any teacher, we have hope. Hope that one day we won’t be the only or that we won’t represent the voice of all women/racial and ethnic minority/queer/religious minority/disabled/low income/working class people. We hope that on the first day of class we will have the pleasure of watching students from all backgrounds enter the room. We hope that the anxiety we carry with us will dissipate and be replaced by a sense of community and belonging and acceptance.

Community. That is what I really want to talk about. This abstract thing that can’t be quantified or measured, but is at the heart of interpersonal interactions. That is the heart of any college campus.

I didn’t realize what a big role community would play in my professional life. I always thought of community as something relevant to your personal life: your family, neighborhood, friends. And while having community is indeed important when I am not working, I am finding it is more important when I am working. Community—people—are why I do what I do. I want to create community, enhance communities, sustain communities.

And I do that in a myriad of ways: through teaching, through service, but most of all, through friendships. Some people call this collegiality, but I call it friendship. Because true communities are built upon genuine bonds that extend beyond proximity; they are about shared emotional experiences, shared values, shared lives.

My College has a fairly large (given our small size) LGBTQ population among the faculty but we are lacking in ethnic and racial diversity and in age diversity. While the latter will change with time (eventually older faculty retire and are replaced by young faculty), the former only changes with concerted effort and careful reflection of the College climate and the general climate of higher education. And it looks like we’ve got storms brewing.

The institutionalized microaggressions experienced around issues of diversity in higher education are overwhelming and obvious to the nuanced eye. The lack of recognition of the rigor of interdisciplinary scholarship surrounding issues of race and gender is paramount. The subjugation of requests for financial and personnel support to grow interdisciplinary programs/department is intolerable. The expectation that faculty of color teach and research issues related to people of color is offensive. The failure of ethnic minorities and women and nonnative English speakers to get tenure is alarming. The constant ignoring of valid issues brought to administration by students, staff and faculty speak to the underlying and not so implicit desire to keep things as they always have been. As my father likes to say: Things aint changed all that much!

My College has over 200 faculty members. Within that 200+ count are roughly (I am sure I am leaving someone out of my count so add 5 to be safe) three African American women, one African American man, Two Asian women, one Asian man, four Indian American women, two Indian American men, five Hispanic men, one Hispanic woman, and a handful of international professors. Of those people, 13 were hired in the last three years. That is progress. But it is only half the story.

While we’ve done well to hire many faculty of color, we’ve also missed out on opportunities to keep faculty of color. This year alone the College is losing three men of color from its ranks. Last year we lost a woman of color. The year before we lost two men and a woman of color.

I acknowledge that the College cannot make people stay any more than it can make people apply for jobs; however, I feel that colleges in general can do more to create a sense of community for marginalized faculty. With the addition of three faculty of color (TT) this year, my community expanded in a meaningful way. But every time I gain a friend, I lose another so each year I am breaking even. That is not growth. That is stagnation.

And it hurts. It’s painful to watch my friends pack up their offices and leave. It is painful to have to tell students why a course they really want to take won’t be offered next year. It is painful to realize that come August I must start anew building new bonds, creating new relationships and work even harder at sustaining a fragmented community. This wears on me emotionally.

The sense of loss I feel eventually turns to anger. Anger at myself for being in this situation, anger at the College for not caring enough about diversity—about me—to invest in people I could call friends, anger at the system for continually talking about diversity but doing nothing to enact it.

I need the support of people who understand my experiences. Who understand why sometimes I need to get up and walk out of meetings or why tumblr_mbgpu25P5X1qenxhzo1_500I have tears in my eyes when I’m speaking on behalf of students who feel they can’t speak for themselves or why I chose to buy a house ‘out East’ instead of downtown near campus. I need people to call when I have questions I’m not comfortable asking others. I need people to laugh with when the stress of being in battle is wearing me down. I need people to stand beside me and fight with me against outdated policies and antiquated thinking. I need people to see beyond my skin and ever-changing hair styles to see the value in me.

That is what I have in my very small, every changing community. I just hope it lasts.

Top 10 Hate Crimes Against Professors

My final post in this 3-day “Back to School” series is a simple list of things students do without realizing how offensive they are being. Again, this post was written in jest but the content is grounded in real life experiences.

theotherclass

I was chatting with my best friend about how much I detest grading papers that are overwritten. I shared an example of a student’s paper whose first sentence was 3 lines long and contained 4 words with 5 syllables and 3 words with 4 syllables. What I actually said to her was: ‘It’s like she took an idea and beat it to death for the next 10 pages.’ My friend responded: ‘that’s a hate crime against professors.’  And it is. So I thought of other things students do that constitute hate crimes (because we hate it).

10. Saying you will come to office hours and then not showing. We have office hours because we are supposed to. BUT if we know students are not going to come to office hours, we spend that time working on other things. If a student happens to come, then we stop and speak with…

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A Letter to Grad School Applicants

Day 2 of my reminder to college students as they begin another year. While yesterday’s post was for all students but especially freshmen, this one is for the seniors who will be knocking down electronic doors asking professors for letters of recommendation. Though it is only August, most graduate school deadlines arise in October. Following these steps will keep you ahead of the crowd and perhaps put you in the ‘first glance’ pile of applicants. Good luck!

theotherclass

Dear Applicants,

It’s the fall semester, which means many of you will not be paying attention in class because not only do you have senioritis, your thoughts are on the 12 grad school applications waiting for you. And after you finish not paying attention in class, you will be asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. To make this process easier for us all, I’ve compiled a list of tips derived from my experiences 7 years ago as an applicant, and my experiences during the last 2 years on a graduate school admissions committee.

General Advice:

  • Have an actual plan. Know what degree you want and why. Grad school is not for you to find yourself; that’s what college was for.
  • Research careers associated with your intended degree. You may discover that you don’t need an advanced degree to do what you want to do. Or you may find…

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