Friday, April 25, 2008

One with my research

So this post continues the thread begun yesterday over the question of an authorial voice. I speculated and rhetorically questioned whether I, or anyone else for that matter, had the right to research and write about issues that did not match my personal identity. (click here for yesterday's post)

Again, let me be clear, I agree with one of the commenters who avowed that one's subject position and one's research should never be thought to be one and the same. In other words, I think most everyone would agree that it would be ludicrous for someone to tell me that I couldn't teach Jane Austen just because I wasn't a white British woman (or a white person in general). But at the same time, I am well aware that when I walk into my Introduction to Asian American Literature course, the students often expect to see someone who looks like "me" and when I ask them how they would feel if they walked in and saw a white male professor, many disclosed that the credibility of the instructor would fall short based on their preconceived ideas about the "experience" of the instructor as a non-Asian American person versus those of a visible Asian American person.

It does turn out that I am one with my research, as the title of this post states. But it's also true, and more important for my scholarly credibility as well as classroom authority, that my TRAINING has been in the area of Asian American studies and Asian American literature.

A very well-intentioned and beloved former mentor of mine in graduate school, Professor "A" once gently told me that I should not feel pressure to study Asian American literature just because I identify as Asian American--that I was free to study any topic of my choosing. I took what he said as a testament of the times and his own liberal views of the world because I know there are stories from colleagues of mine (and stories that continue to this very day) of departments who pigeon hole graduate students of color into studying African American literature if they are black, Jewish American literature if they are Jewish, and in my case, Asian American literature because I'm Asian American. Or there is an expectation in a job search for 19th century American poetry that the Asian American candidate can be a two-fer and teach both Emily Dickinson and Maxine Hong Kingston--when really, just because a person visibly presents as Asian American doesn't mean that (a) That person identifies as Asian American and more importantly (b) That person has any valuable TRAINING and EXPERIENCE in teaching Asian American literature.

I tried to make this known to a well-intentioned colleague who, on discovering that I was joining the faculty at Southern U. exclaimed that the students would be glad to finally have someone to teach Asian American literature because my predecessor, a lovely man in the Asian Studies department, had taken on the task of teaching an Asian American literature course at the behest of a group of very activist Asian American students. But these students had been decidedly disappointed because my colleague, an older Chinese man (who identifies as Chinese and not Asian American) is trained in classical Chinese poetry and not Asian American literature. My colleague claimed that I, an authentic representation of Asian American-ness, would be able to "relate" to my students better than my predecessor. To which I replied that my PREVIOUS EXPERIENCES teaching Asian American studies classes would certainly benefit students who wished to learn about Asian American literature. I left alone her implication that only Asian American students would find their way into an Asian American lit course and that only I, an "authentic" representation of Asian American-ness would be able to "speak" to them on their level.

[Aside--you can well imagine that at a place like Southern U. I am not teaching classes only filled with Asian American students, although in all fairness I do admit to teaching one first-year seminar on globalization and global Asians (yes, very punny) that was 50% Asian American students, a first for me here since most of my classes have some Asian American representation (as well as African American and Latino) but remain predominantly white. And to the best of my knowledge, I've been able to "relate" to all of them just fine]

I think I'll end with all of that, only to demonstrate that our beliefs and desires about "authenticity" are often tricky--and I share some of those same desires and beliefs, even while questioning them and trying to resist them.


CVT said...

I feel drawn to comment here, even though I don't know exactly why. This whole issue pushes and pulls me all over the place. I know I would be a bit dismissive of a white man teaching Asian-American studies. Yet I would be fine with an African-American woman teaching European history (and feel like that shouldn't be way out of the norm). I don't think I would be as hypocritical about literature, though, simply because lit is just about reading a lot of the genre - experience that is not gained through physical immersion, but rather by studying.

And, in spite of this awareness, I STILL think I'm right in feeling this way about it. I feel that a person of color in the U.S. is automatically bi-cultural. There's no escaping immersion in "white" culture here. So they've got that AND whatever racial experience they have. Therefore, they are in a position to be able to speak knowledgeably about white AND their race's culture (to some extent). Not experience AS white, but pure knowledge of the culture.

On the flip side, however, it is extremely unlikely (however - NOT impossible) that a white person would have enough experience with a different culture (if they were born and raised in the U.S., that is) to be in a position to teach about it. Studying it for a couple years and LIVING it for a lifetime are very different things, indeed.

And I know many people will disagree with me on this one (probably the white folks), and I welcome some dialogue. But I really feel right in this.

This I know for a fact: if I went to a "diversity" training that was led by a white man, there is no way in Hell I would be able to respect it. A white woman would be a bit better (because she at least would have true life experience of being on the other side of a power-spectrum), but still . . .

I'm curious about other views on this.

dance said...

I'm glad you did different posts for teaching and studying/researching, because I do think different issues apply. And actually, let me specify undergraduate teaching--within the conventionally accepted ethos of American colleges as a place to shape young minds, there is a legitimate argument to be made that the experience of the professor *is* an element in the course, and is therefore a legitimate hiring factor, much as I hate the ghettoization (looked at that way, though, experience makes a difference in far more than just ethnic studies-type courses). But that's the just the issue of whether personal identity/experience matters.

The second question, applicable here, is how close does that identity/experience have to be? Is just not being white enough? (My undergrad, incapable of getting/keeping black profs, consistently hired Latinos to teach Af-Am surveys). Does the bi-cultural Chinese-ness make a difference? To answer that, we have to sort out what the actual benefits of that experience in the classroom are, and where it applies. For the black-white biracial student in a class on Race-Mixing in American Lit, would you being the biracial child of a Korean war bride bring you any closer to their experience than your Jamaican Chinese bi-culturalness? I don't think so. Without that bi-culturalness, though, I'm not sure just not being white would be enough.

I strongly suspect, that were we at a point where there were Interracial Studies Programs (perhaps created by student protest), the pressure to only hire directly mixed people would be *very* high.

I'm wary of any argument that LIVING something is necessary to teaching it, largely because living something, by itself, only qualifies one to teach a subsection of the topic in question (e.g., a Vietnam vet's experience of the war does not qualify him to teach about the social currents in the US that resulted in anti-war sentiment). But as a card-carrying member of academia, I'm obliged to believe that academic study carries some value that lived experience does not have. Which, as a good liberal who wants to listen to the voice of the people, makes me uneasy.

I'd be perfectly fine with a white man doing diversity training--in fact, in that context, he might have more credibility with the bulk of the audience.

Um, long comment, a bit all over the place. Sorry.

dance said...

Likely of interest:

This post on hiring an Af-Am-ist, considering such issues

Jennifer said...

CVT & Dance,
Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful comments. I just put up another blog post on this same thread, and that I think may speak to a lot of questions and observations you are both raising.

I guess I would simply echo a lot of what you've both written about--even though I am really struggling with issues of legitimation and authority and authenticity over race and teaching and writing.

I do have one specific observation for each of you.

CVT--I really do hear you and share some of your own gut level feelings, but I've also encountered many wonderful white allies whose work on issues of race and Asian American studies blows me away. And while I would also be wary of going to a diversity training and seeing a white man leading the discussion (although truthfully, a lot of times it's a white woman), I also agree with Dance's comment that sometimes a white American talking about white privilege to a largely white audience is a very powerful thing. So I disagree that a white person can't teach Asian American studies--maybe they can't "relate" to the experience of being Asian American, but they can teach the literature and the history and be respectful of it and acknowledge that there are voices that have been marginalized and silenced and find other ways to relate to their students (sort've like the article that Dance linked to).

Dance, thanks for the link--it was very thought provoking. I have actually taught a class called "Mixed Race America," and I never tried to speak as an mixed-race person, and I certainly tried to have the voices of students in the class who identified as "mixed-race" be heard (and they really were and respectfully so by everyone in the class). But I don't know that my students cared what my personal identification was, other than perhaps not-white. Although none of them ever expressed that either and we had many lively discussions about all sorts of racial issues.

Would my students have benefited from taking a class called "Mixed Race America" from someone who was him/herself mixed-race? Potentially. I think a lot would depend on their experience, as you noted, as well as their training. And I guess, like you, I'm uneasy with the training part--and I think there's the political part, right? Because one could easily envision a mixed-race America class taught by a mixed-race person that stressed a conservative ethos of "one America" (maybe ala Walter Benn Michaels) that doesn't get at the heart of race and racism and multiracial issues in America. And whether I taught the class or a white person or a mixed-race person, I think any class dealing with race has to look at racism and not just with a belief in a melting pot/assimilationist vision of America.

dance said...

You know, my hypothetical about student protest for Interracial Studies taught by mixed-race people, was very much all about politics (not at all about the potential quality of your class :) ). I don't pay much attention to the mixed-race movement(s), but as I understand it, it does contain a strand of "being mixed is *different*. E.g. The black-white biracial are not black." A lot of the drive to change the census seemed to be about that (there's some anger, I believe, in the black community about white mothers who refused to see their children as black being a driving force there). But I'm pretty sure that there are people claiming mulatto in their blogs while they disavow black. And others who wanted a "mixed-race" box rather than a "mark all that apply" solution.

And I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that the racial experience of racial ambiguity and having two parents of different races (no matter which two) is qualitatively different from the racial experience of being non-white (any type of non-white) in the US. So that *if* one privileges experience enough, then the difference in the classroom between non-white and mixed begins to matter more.

Now, I personally would not privilege experience to that extent. But I suspect that college students are checking the multiple boxes in increasing numbers, and *if* they start wanting to demand their own representation in the curriculum, and *if* the strand is out there that mixed-race-ness is *different*, then I would not be surprised to see this become an equally hot issue. At present, mixed-race-ness is a bit of a fringe that anyone can claim academically, and in historical non-US contexts, white people are studying it with very little issue. I'm not sure it will stay that way. Of course, today's students are not the same students who protested for the rise of ethnic studies in the first place, so I doubt this will ever happen. On the other hand, apparently Af-Am black students are showing some discontent with Caribbean-American black professors as not representative of their experience. So I wonder how this will shake out in the future, particularly if Obama is elected, as US pop culture romanticizes mixed-race people, and as the way that institutions count and track people make it clear that the artificial "mixed-race" category outnumbers Af-Ams and Latinos at a given school (which it will someday unless there are some structural changes in either K-12 schools or admissions).

Jennifer said...

Hi Dance,
Just a quick note to thank you for your multiple comments--this is EXACTLY what I had hoped would eventually happen--to have such a rich conversation with smart and insightful people about issues I'm mulling over!

I just wanted to say that I didn't mean to come across as defensive (don't know if I did but thought I should throw that out there) when mentioning that I had actually taught a course called "Mixed Race America"--I do think there's a way in which lit classes get coded differently than American studies or even history classes in terms of teaching and authenticity (although it does come up in lit classes and even with fiction writers--more on that in my future post). But in other words, if we are looking at fiction in an English class and the professor seems knowlegeable about that piece of fiction and the time period or genre, most students seem to cut that professor slack. In other words, in my department we have some prominent white American scholars of AfAm lit teaching and at least from the students pov it seems to matter more that the professor in question has a good track record as knowledgeable/credible teacher/scholar than his experience. Of course this is someone teaching 19th C. African American lit, so there's another way when you draw further back in time, students need more of a "guide" in the classroom and realize that the "identity" of the teacher and subject matter may matter less.

Contemporary stuff is, of course, tricky. And I take your point about students wanting advocacy of certain professors they can "relate" to or who will speak to their own experiences.

And maybe I'm a bit conservative and hypocritical in saying this, but I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the idea of classrooms being therapeutic spaces. I know that they are--I know that my Asian American students often come to my classes becasue they are in the midst of an identity crisis (they often reveal as much either in office hours or in class) and they want to see something in me or in the literature that can help them through this period. But I also know I'm not trained as a therapist--I can only provide them with an entry into the literature and the culture. And perhaps, privately, share some of my own struggles, which I coped with in college by taking Asian American literature courses (see where my hypocrisy is coming out?)

But here's the thing--there should be on-campus forums and resources for these students--outlets for them to explore emotionally what they are seeking intellectually in the classroom.

But am I now just doing this brain/emotion divide? And yet, I'm so aware as an Asian American woman that I don't want to be put in this "nuturing" role for my students as a cultural therapist guiding them into a coherent racial identity--although I know that is part of what they need and part of what I do--I guess I don't want to be pigeonholed into doing it.

Now I'm rambling so I'll stop.

Bernie Malonson said...

Heh, heh, heh...., you said "Essentialist".

Seriously, I have never heard the term used in this context before.

Here is a thought. Is your concern that an "outsider" who does not share in the experience of the "insiders" is suddenly being given legitimacy to speak to the issues that directly affect the insiders?

I ask this because you gave the point of a professor from an Asian nation such as Japan or Korea being given legitimacy to teach Asian American literature by virtue of being Asian, but not American.

At the end of the day we are all unique individuals with unique experiences (some shared, some similar, some completly unique). Even though we can be grouped and categorized for expediency it really is a loose affiliation.



CVT said...

Wow. I want to drop all sorts of comments on this one, but it's nearing my bed-time.

A couple things:

First, we're back in University/Academia-land, from what I see, which is a totally different world from that in which I live (and I'm not saying this in a smart-a## way, but also from that in which most of the world lives). Therefore, my comments on who teaches what change a bit in that context.

Because I teach middle school kids. Kids in the strangest phase of their lives. A phase where they struggle so much with acceptance and insecurity that certain things can make more of an impact (usually in a negative way).

Let me explain: a college student has chosen their school (to some degree, let's not go too far into the real "choice" of the matter). They have chosen their degree. And they choose their classes (to some extent). They are entering adulthood and social independence. Therefore, they should be able to take some things with a grain of salt, and discern whether personal experience or academic experience matters more in a specific classroom context.

Same thing with a diversity training - if you're a white guy (or gal) signed up for a diversity training led by a white guy (or gal), then go for it. I agree that a white person is more likely to really listen to explanations of white privilege from another white person than from a person of color (don't get me started on that one, but it IS true). And if I sign up for a diversity training, I'm not looking to be taught about white privilege, so I will side-step that choice of facilitator (because I DON'T want a white guy telling me about the "POC experience").

That's choice. That's being an adult and dealing with it.

However, in the context I live and work - that kind of choice doesn't really happen. A kid gets put in a class, and they are stuck with it. And they are not in a position to sift through deeper messages and meanings due to their mental maturity (to some degree, at least). They're vulnerable. So if they learn that - in school - white folks are the ones that are going to tell them about Civil Rights (talking about the same three people over and over again - and nobody else), US and "World" history, or any type of literature, that's what they're stuck with. The same stories that they're going to learn through general media and the broader culture, in general.

But if a kid of color walks into a classroom and sees a teacher of color teaching them some deeper history . . . well, that opens eyes. It tells that kid that somebody like themselves CAN bring them knowledge. That knowledge isn't just something that white folks have a hold on.

Because things are pretty cut-and-dried in middle school (and on into high school, really). I can see it in my kids' eyes when they walk into the building and see a teacher LIKE THEM. No matter of debate or intellectual reasoning can take away the fact that kids are looking for SOMEBODY LIKE THEM to teach them something. To validate their experience. To let them know that the way they have walked in the world is legit.

And a white teacher can do that. They can. But it's less likely, and it can never have the same impact as somebody that appeals to the visual signal of "that teacher LOOKS LIKE ME." The real world is not "Dangerous Minds," "Freedom Writers," or any other of those films. Those who go into it as "white saviors" are going to come out fried - because they didn't come in open to being reached, in kind.

I'm soap-boxing right now. I don't even know if I had a point. And I want to make sure I'm clear that I'm not talking about myself here - as a hapa, I pretty much miss being somebody like any of my students (here in Portland, at least).

I just get reminded from time to time that this blog tends to draw the battle of minds known as "academia," and that's not where I'm coming from - so I find myself frustrated, at times. Misunderstood. I said it a while back, and I'll say it again - when Academia-land starts happening, I feel that overwhelming need to explain what it's like here on the ground-level of education (as broken as it is), and I just don't think I can get through.

ARGH - the old "lack of explanation frustration," the mark of a person of color in a liberal white line of work . . .

Jennifer said...

Hi Bernie--nice to know that you are still reading this blog!

Essentialist--yeah, that's basically a way of saying you think that race is really linked to a genetic or biological quality--that there is something intrinsic or inherent about race instead of seeing it as a social construct/political category.

As for insider/outsider, I wouldn't actually put it in the abstract, for me issues of race are best talked about in specific terms. So in specific terms in the U.S. my concern is mostly about white privilege and racism and the way that gets communicated in various ways, directly and indirectly, by the racial identity of the professor/teacher and the racial identity of the students.

Which brings me to CVT's comment--which I think is a good one to note because he's right that this blog post deals with academia in the collegiate sense rather than education in the K-12 or general sense.

And the reason for that is that I want to be able to speak in specific terms and the ones I know are the ones in higher ed. That's the world I know best and the position I can speak from. So I hear your frustration CVT, but unfortunately I can't speak to it because I don't know what it's like to be a K-12 teacher and I think it'd be arrogant/disrespectful for me to imagine that world--I mean, I can guess and I have friends who are teachers and they tell me stories and I read about K-12 education, but it is a really different universe and you are right that the impact for students of color seeing a teacher of color in the classroom is HUGE, a lot of the time because it would seem to me that teachers are another form of authority and that there are so many messages we send kids, especially kids of color, that "authority" gets embodied by middle-aged white men. So seeing another example of an authority figure who isn't a middle-aged white guy seems like it could be a very powerful thing--add to that someone who may "look" like you--I think that makes a huge difference.

Anyway, I appreciate you adding your own perspective into the mix, but as I'm laying out the groundwork for the anecdote I want to eventually get to, it is going to be an academic analogy that I'll use since that's how I'm approaching/seeing this particular topic.

dance said...

CVT, thanks for this comment---and thanks for the distinction between college students making choices vs. middle school students, as the ability to choose was exactly the context unarticulated in the back of my mind.

Eastern Reflections said...

I admit that I didn't read the whole post, I stopped right at the part when you said your students, when asked, would believe someone NOT Asian teaching Asian American literature is not qualified enough.

It reminded me at the time when I was still dating my ex. He was of mixed Asian background (Cambodian, Thai, Chinese). He had a son whose mother was white. Anyways, my then BF was very much into martial arts (typical stereotype? yah...but it was true in his case)......he was talking about how he was wanting to find a good martial arts school for his son....and said how when he visited one recently, he automatically left b/c he saw the instructor, who was teaching the kids in his son's age group, was a white female.

He then states that he would rather find an Asian male instructor to teach his son b/c he would then feel more confident that his son would be learning better.

I got upset about this and said what if the white female's instructor had been some old Asian man (you know, the stereotypical view of the wise but ancient Asian man who could destroy a room full of men with a few moves?)........her qualifications should be just as good then. We argued about it for a bit, but he insisted that his son would learn better if his martial arts instructor was ASIAN like himself! UGHHH!!!!!