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Posts Tagged ‘higher education’

typewriter if not now

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

– Audre Lorde

What keeps me from writing about racial justice? What stands in the way of articulating both the inequities in higher education and a vision for building structures of inclusion? While the fear of getting it wrong looms large, looking foolish worries me far less than doing harm. What I write could galvanize those who prefer white campuses and the insidious myths of individualism and meritocracy.

Back in November, an Admissions officer at the university where I work shared his reactions to the election on his personal Facebook page. His harsh post went viral, prompting conservatives across the blogosphere to point to his words as evidence of “liberal intolerance” propped up by the higher education system. This one employee’s private views became fodder for efforts across the country to gut inclusion initiatives. This is not hyperbole. Remember when the Tennessee legislature voted in April to cut all funds for the university’s diversity office?

At my Unitarian Universalist church, we’ve been grappling with a similar constellation of concerns. A polarized national climate has illuminated the deep and widening fractures in our communities. The choices we make matter. Each time we come together, we have a new opportunity to understand and undo the structures of white supremacy in our traditions and in our congregation.

Indeed, every setting in which we find ourselves offers up avenues for taking steps on racial justice.

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Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

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So many sweet successes, each alone more than enough.

Today, a group of emerging higher ed superstars wrapped up our yearlong Leadership Legacy program. Before the university president’s speech, before certificates and applause and cake, participants shared the ideas for change we’d launched into existence. It thrilled me to describe an alumni mentor initiative that’s now charging forward, with current PhD students paired with graduates. This program aims to retain and support the success of underrepresented students (first-generation and students of color) by offering a connection with graduates from similar backgrounds.

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One of my coworkers just told me I should go somewhere to hide. Security has been called.

I ducked into my office. Now here I sit, perched on the quiet, stiff chair (not the squeaky roller one) under doused lights behind a locked the door. On my credenza under two years of accumulated, unfiled papers is the list of steps for how to respond to a campus active shooter.

Someone is looking for me. Not the general Director-me, but the specific Name-me.

She’s unarmed (they think) but how would we know?

Digging through papers makes noise. The active shooter list stays buried. I remember it says we’re supposed to silence our phones. Keep the room dark. Tapping on a computer keyboard makes noise, so don’t be tempted.

Deep breathing makes noise too, I now discover.

A heartbeat is deafening.

They told me we need to make her think I’m not here.

If only I wasn’t.

This piece would make great fiction.

If only it were.

Sometime when the threat has passed and my pulse slows, I’ll write about what it’s like to be a student advisor in the age of VA Tech and the Oregon community college. I’ll describe the trainings we receive, the offices we have to call, the way skittish professors will invoke feeling “threatened” by emotional students, and the chilling consequences such a claim can have. I’ll explain how, just when you decide it’s all a little too much paranoia, a student walks into a law school class right next door and attacks an instructor with a box cutter.

Someday I’ll write that. Another day when my keyboard’s noise is no longer a danger.

This is not supposed to be the trenches. But I sit here in paralyzed silence hearing only the throb of my own blood against my skull as it primes me for attack. I know, of course, that this is the real gritty world as much as the busy street 5 stories below. All of my community is here. All the financial stressors, the diminishing mental health support, the demands for excellence in a context of dwindling resources, and the social isolation that plagues every overcrowded city. It’s all here, inside this not-so-ivory tower. The students carry enormous burdens. Which means we do too. This is the trenches after all.

I hunker down wait for someone to come for me, to tell me it’s safe now.

If only.

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I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take, and hoping that you grow some new muscles. It’s not really that mystical.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly
 
 
When my two star students poked their heads in my door four years ago, I bit back the “no.” Their half-apology for just a few minutes had a red flag flapping over it. They wanted something big. Bigger than anything in my job description.

“A graduate student research conference,” they said. “Students run it. Students present. Faculty moderate the panels.”

Students? Faculty? I wouldn’t trust them with a bake sale. Please. Leave the administering to the administrators.

But I turned from my other work. “Come on in,” I said. “Tell me more.”

So they did. They talked about networking and research collaborations, about presentation practice and scholarly community.

I pictured catering orders and room setup, abstract review and program tracks.

The students wanted practical experience in more than just presenting research. This was the toughest part. I could get us from zero to showtime in a snap. Add the task to my list and make it happen. Anyone who manages programs and people knows that an event is an event is an event. Steering committee, marketing, budgets, presenters, tech and space. Hire a wage assistant to make calls and print name badges.

Whatever the substance of the work — in this case, graduate student advising, but it could be affordable housing advocacy or the international association of clown car manufacturers — a thousand details large and small keep the machine chugging (sometimes hacking) along. People like me pull those levers.

People like my students? They get to do cool research and write about it.

In truth, my students’ brains intimidate me a little. These folks are digging into some of the most pressing topics facing our world. Poverty, climate change, security, infrastructure, health care. They conduct research that shapes policies and legislation. As for me? Inside the university, my role is to clear paths. If I can help students through the briar patch of public higher ed bureaucracy with their skin intact, they can get on with their research.

But those two students knew better. Doctoral grads today are stepping off the stage into a 2015 world, and it’s far from Kansas or 1975. The protected academic research-and-teach career has died on the vine. Folks with PhDs today are expected to know how to do things. Like lead people and projects, like find and manage money.

Like organize conferences.

Those two students wanted to do more than show up and present ideas. They wanted to make the thing happen.

We began.

Like parenting, mentoring is agony. Every stage, every step, takes twice as long and breeds three times as many mistakes. A mentor has to will herself to sit back and let meetings unfold through hours of jumbled conversation that could easily find resolution with a few simple facilitation tricks. A mentor must step with care through one-on-one conversations to offer opportunities for reflection. Mentoring requires pointing people in the direction of resources and contacts, and letting them seek out the tools they need. Like a parent, a mentor must stand at attention behind the curtain, poised to pull the nose up if the machine takes a dive.

I did my part so they could do theirs. The students ran that first conference, and they were giddy with pride. Emerging scholars traveled from around the region and country, and the event exceeded every one of its aspirations.

Then next year, two new students showed up at my office.

And the next.

Every year for four years, I bit back the “no.” I fought through weariness and overcame painful resistance to the colossal undertaking that has yet to appear on my job description. Every year for four years, I faced a fresh opportunity to hone my mentoring skills.

Every year for four years, I sat in on panel discussion and listened as new scholars shared research and ideas on everything from labor policy to gender violence. I watched my students shine as they handed out awards and tallied the number of attendees.

The conference grew. A major TV news personality gave a keynote. A student joined us from Japan. The organizers got hold of funding from other parts of the university. They joined forces with a larger student organization to pool talent and resources. Last year, they reached out to a major international policy association to find out about partnering on the conference. The association sent a representative to spend the day shaking hands and taking measure.

Then the big national association decides they want in.

And the world bucks under my students’ feet.

Four weeks ago.

They show up at my door.

“Help,” they say. “What does this letter mean?”

A fait accompli. The national association lays out a plan for a regional graduate student conference. It will be a consortium event with nine participating schools.

I read and re-read the letter. The phrase hostile takeover hisses through my brain. I look at their baffled faces. I look at the 472 other items in my inbox that are far more pressing than this.

I bite back the “no.”

I turn from my other work. “Come on in,” I say. “Let’s sit down.”

We do. I take a breath, rub my face, then begin.

“Okay,” I say. “What matters most?” I apply facilitation and advising techniques. I guide them through their complex and understandably histrionic responses. I help them hatch a plan of action. I sift around in myself for some kind of map, knowing that from my perch behind the curtain, what matters most is reflective practice. These students have before them a chance to manage conflict and lead change with strategic and effective dexterity.

I have before me a chance to help my students learn how to pull the levers. And how hard. And which way.

In the four weeks between that letter and the association’s big conference call, the students come by. They poke their heads in. Individually. Pairs and trios. They hover around the door. They want more.

I don’t have time for this crap. We’ve talked, we only know what we know, we’ll deal with it on the day of the call. I bite so hard against the “no” that I nearly split my tongue.

“Come on in,” I say. “What do you need?”

An ear, a sounding board, an easy out?

A firm grip? A soft word?

A hand?

“Enter that call like you’re sitting at the head of the table,” I say.

“Do your research,” I say. “How can you find the budget and planning models for the other two regional conferences?”

“What matters most to you?” I say.

“Write it down,” I say.

The day of the call, four of them come. We take over a room. They take over the call. The nine other people on it — faculty and administrators from both the national association and seven regional universities — wake right up when these students chime in. With force I’ve never heard in those emerging voices, the students lean in and articulate a clear vision. They name their questions as opportunities.

I sit back and watch it unfold.

The students have swagger and expertise. Halfway in, the faculty and administrators are directing all inquiries to them.

Somehow, the students claim every part of the shiny new regional conference they’d chosen to keep, and delegate every part of it they’d chosen to surrender.

At the end of the hour, folks on the call begin talking RFPs and laying out a timeline. One of the students interrupts. “I want to say how important it is to have students involved in the planning.”

Isn’t this a given? Apparently not. The nine other people on the call marvel and fumble.

“You mean on the steering committee?” someone asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“So, you mean students will be the ones voting on things? Actually planning everything?”

“Yes,” I say. I glance around the table. Four students are rolling their eyes and suppressing giggles.

“You feel comfortable leaving budget decisions in the hands of students?

To my left, one shoves an invisible gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Everyone else chokes back laughter.

“Look,” I say, leaning into speaker. “Students have built this thing and led this thing for four years on their own. All I’ve done is sign the forms. They are responsible and capable. I trust them completely.”

Silence on the phone. Beaming faces around the table. I take the advantage. “The thing is, our students need this experience. Academics, professionals, whatever they do after they leave school. This conference is supposed to be a learning experience. I figure, let them learn all of it.”

What I really want to say is Dude. People rise to the expectations you hold out for them. How high are you willing to go?

The grudging decision is to let each school figure out for itself who will represent it on the conference planning committee. We all know who will sit at the head of the table here.

And because no one is going to ask me, I can give my “no” a rest.

But only for a minute.

Because it’s clear that word is missing from my job description.
 

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They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.

On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.

The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.

Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.

The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.

Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?

I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.

The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.

When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.

 

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