Saturday, November 22, 2008

Successful Diversity

My path in graduate school was not strewn with roses or paved with gold. It also wasn't a bed of hot coals, and lets be frank--anyone complaining about the rigors and traumas of graduate school has NOTHING to complain about once you start reading about the working conditions and compensation of various professions--like miners. Whether it's gold or coal or diamonds, mining is a dangerous profession, and especially in places like China and South Africa, the working conditions are not simply less than ideal, they are life threatening (and there's no OSHA rep to call when you develop nasty lung symptoms later).

So bear with me--I understand from what privileged place I am speaking.

My graduate program was hard. And I don't mean that it was more intense or rigorous than any other grad program. I mean that I was the most naive graduate student to enter a PhD program in English literature, and my fellow students quickly realized this, because I often felt like chum bait at a shark feed. Of course walking into a Boston graduate seminar in literary theory dressed in khaki shorts, white tee-shirt, white keds, and a pony tail tied back with a white scrunchie, just puts a big red "X" on you--like the red-shirted guy in Star Trek--you assume that on the next away mission, that guy is a goner. The program was competitive--literally and figuratively (only half my peers in my first year Master's program were invited to continue on to the PhD portion--it was THAT kind of place); the atmosphere in the classroom was often one of one-upmanship--who could tear down and deconstruct the fastest--and no one was spared, not the novels we read, the secondary criticism, our fellow seminar members, and even our professor. I learned not only to do that day's reading but to try to read additional materials on reserve or on the side and then to demonstrate my knowledge as a pre-emptive smack-down to another student who might try to knock me down.

And should I say, at this point, that during my three years of graduate coursework, I never took a class from a non-white professor and I was the only graduate student of color in all of my English seminars, with the exception of the "other" Asian American woman "S"--who took particular delight in ripping me apart, perhaps because of our shared California background and Asian American identity.

[Lest you think I am complaining about the dear faculty at my alma mater, let me also say I had wonderful professors who were great teachers and brilliant scholars--so I don't want to seem unduly ungrateful, and even my peers challenged me to be a better thinker, so I shouldn't seem ungrateful to them to, although it did feel like a trial by fire, at times, and I did wish for a more diverse curriculum]

So lets fast forward to Fall semester 2008 and the current graduate seminar I am now co-teaching, which has just ended (yes, absurdly early, but Southern U's semester ends the Wed. after Thanksgiving, and this seminar met once a week on Thursdays, so we end before Thanksgiving). The seminar is on theories of subjectivity and literature that spans three centuries--from Aphra Behn's Oronooko to Chang-rae Lee's Aloft. It was an overly ambitious course, in both primary and secondary reading, and my co-teacher (a fantastic senior colleague "R" who is an amazing teacher and brilliant thinker/scholar and honestly is one of the main reasons this class is so successful) and I weren't sure if it would be a huge success or a complete failure because of its large scope, but I think we managed to pull it off, in large part because of the wonderful chemistry of the class.

And here's where we get to the title of this post. Because this was the most diverse class I've probably ever taught in every way you can imagine. It was diverse in the materials we were teaching. We spanned multiple continents and regions: Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean. We covered female and male authors, queer and straight, novelists and theorists, poets and literary critics. We covered the racial pentagram with texts either by or about (or both) Asian American, Euro-American, African American, Latino, and American Indian people. And most importantly, our seminar members were a very diverse group. First of all, I have to applaud the graduate admissions committee in my department, who admitted one of the most racially diverse groups of students to enter Southern U. Up until 2 years ago, it would have been taken for granted that graduate seminars would be all white spaces. And I mean not only content of material but the bodies of the professors and the students. Of course there were always exceptions--my colleagues who are African American and Latino and the sole African American and Asian American graduate students still in course work would have proven that claim false. But generally speaking, it would not have been a-typical for students to be in a nearly all-white space.

In our seminar we have people from a truly mixed and diverse background. Female and male, people who are queer and straight, who are married parents and who are single, people who had careers prior to coming to graduate school, people who went straight from their undergraduate institutions to Southern U., and yes, we have racial diversity--besides myself, there are two other Asian American women (one of whom identifies as "mixed race"), there are three African American students, and a Jewish student. And these students are studying a variety of subjects, including Medieval literature, contemporary ethnic American, Southern literature, popular culture, hip hop, American modernism, and the list goes on and on.

[For anyone who thinks that it is unremarkable to have 6 visible racial minorities in a graduate seminar at Southern U., then let me explain that when I started on the tenure-track here, besides the African American faculty (about 5) there was one professor of Latino background, making about half a dozen self-identified/visible racial minority professors out of about 60. And in terms of the graduate student population, there was one African American male graduate student, two female African American graduate students, 2 Latino graduate students, and one Asian international graduate student--so half a dozen out of over one-hundred graduate students. Not a great stat.

Last night we had an end-of-semester pre-Thanksgiving turkey feast, in which I roasted a 19lb turkey, my co-professor brought libations, and students brought side dishes. It was wonderful, geeky fun, because we ended the night with our medieval scholar reading the prologue from Chaucer's Cantebury Tales (the way he reads Middle English will have you swooning--or maybe that's just the English geek in me) and then, almost in the next breath, recounting the DVD extra from R. Kelly's "Trapped in a Closet" hip hopera (we were all in tears laughing at the description). And after the last person left, with their left-overs covered in foil, I felt like I had been healed of my traumatic graduate school memories of cut-throat courses and attempts to insert diversity into the conversations I was having in and out of class. Because the students in our seminar were very respectful of one another--and valued the diversity of opinion and insight that each one provided to the class.

One of the problems with education is that it's easier to measure failure rather than success, but I have to say that if this group of students is any indication, then it shows that diversity is successful, because I believe our seminar was much richer and stronger for having such diverse voices and backgrounds. And honestly, it's nights like last night and classes like this one that remind me why I love being a teacher.


CVT said...

Not much to say here - just that I feel you, and congratulations.

Crystal said...

This post brought a smile to my face. I had an awful time in graduate school and didn't complete the program. I LOVE the idea that you were able to heal your experience and it's especially cool that you could did it while providing a safe space for current grad students. Good for you!

Jennifer said...

CVT & Crystal,
Thanks for the notes--it's nice to know that there are folks are there who get what I'm talking about.