a troublemaker in training

Last night, Rosie was reading her weekly story homework to me. It was all about little Jessica. Jessica loves to play soccer but her older twin brothers, Jason and Jamal, don’t think much of her playing because she is a girl. Throughout the short (about 20 pages) story, Jamal’s catch phrase is “she’s pretty good, for a girl.”

In the story, Jessica ends up scoring the winning goal in her brothers’ championship game when she fills in for a sick player. Sounds great, right? The message seems to be: see, girls can be great at soccer too! One problem: In the very last line of this story, after everyone else has congratulated Jessica for her skillful playing, Jamal utters his catch phrase: “Yeah. She’s pretty good…for a girl.”

When I saw this line, at the end of the page, I assumed that there were a few more sentences on the next page. Surely, there was more to the story; Jamal and his sexism weren’t going to get the last word, were they? But, no. That was the end. So, Rosie and I decided to add one more line to the story: “No, Jamal!,” all of his teammates exclaimed. “She’s a great soccer player period!”

Here’s what I wrote on Rosie’s reading sheet about her reading this week:

“Rosie did a great job reading. We both decided to add onto the end of the story by having all of Jamal’s teammates call out his sexism.”

Ha! Rosie was pretty proud of that. This morning at school, I overheard her telling her music teacher about it. Yep, she’s a troublemaker in training.

note: This isn’t the first time I’ve been inspired to write about my kid’s reading assignments in first grade. Back in 2010, I wrote about a book FWA read, We Care. 

Unofficial Student Transcript

I just posted the bulk of my introduction to my intellectual history over at Undisciplined. I thought I’d post it here too:

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Welcome to my intellectual history project. In these pages, you will find a series of essays/accounts/fragments about my life as a student. While a few of them concern my earliest years in kindergarten and first grade, the bulk of them are from college, graduate school and my post-Ph.D teaching and researching (1992-2011). Collectively, they represent my efforts: 1. to make sense of my current status as existing somewhere beside/s the academy and 2. to experiment with ways to bring myself into my academic work on subjectivity, agency, narrative selfhood and storytelling.

I. Origins of this Project

My efforts to reflect on and write about my experiences as a student in the academy have been happening for over three years on my blog, Trouble. But, I didn’t envision making them the focus of a singular writing project until this past fall (my first fall since I was 5 that I hadn’t been in school as a student or teacher), when I started creating tentative outlines of my autobiography and brainstorming information architecture for my new website, Undisciplined. Then, in December of 2012, when I was sorting through my old files and organizing papers that extend all the way back to college (1992-1996), I realized that I wanted to write a series of accounts in which I used my own archive as the source material for critical reflections and interrogations of life as a student in the academy.

As I began digging through my files in the basement for documents that seemed significant, I was relieved to see that even though I had moved around quite a bit as a student—from Minnesota to California to Minnesota to Georgia to Minnesota again—I had managed to hang onto some key documents: the final evaluation for my senior thesis, a copy of my master’s proposal, papers (with my teacher’s comments) from my first year in college, name tags from conferences, old student ids. I also explored my digital files, searching through hidden folders (that I only managed to find after trying out different keyword searches), dating back to my masters, and discovered past papers, presentations, my senior thesis, my master’s thesis and my dissertation.

Looking back at these materials, both the physical and the virtual, conjured up a mix of emotions that made me feel joyful, sad, nostalgic, angry, and conflicted all at once. I had done so much work over the years. Amassed so many articles, all carefully organized with printed-out labels, on feminist theory, identity politics, poststructuralism, feminist and queer pedagogies, feminist theology, ethics, radical democracy, queer theory, critical race studies and more. But even as I marveled at my dedication as a student and scholar, I was troubled by how this work was all in the past—I had stopped teaching and doing “academic” research in December of 2011— and haunted by the questions: What was this work for and why had I stopped?

In order to spend time working through these questions, not so much to answer or resolve them, but to learn to live with the discomfort and uncertainty that they generate, I started writing. The first account I wrote was “Pithy Chewiness.” Then, inspired by the process, I wrote, “Promise.” I began looking through past accounts I had already created on my blog or in digital stories and combining those with new reflections. I read through old papers and wrote about how my perspectives as an undergraduate or an early graduate student had shifted, been complicated, challenged or reinforced.

I’ve tried to be honest with and truthful about my experiences, even as I’ve realized that this project has increasingly becoming a way for me to justify and value the work that I’ve been doing and that (I feel) has been undervalued or ignored by others.  I’m not sure that I’ve always succeeded in being honest, but I have found the process of writing (and collecting) these various accounts of my student life to be useful and provocative and very necessary.

II. Explaining the Title

Over the past 15 or so years, I’ve requested my student transcripts many times for graduate school applications and my academic job portfolio. An official transcript, complete with an authorized seal from the institution on the back of the envelope, is expensive. And not always required for the first round of the application process. So, at some point, I acquired an unofficial copy. When a school needed my transcript, I’d send out a pdf of my unofficial copy instead of spending $5-10 (each) on a fancy, official version. 

At the top of my unofficial Claremont School of Theology transcript is a stamp that states:

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When I was thinking about what to call my intellectual history writing project, I played around with various titles, but none of them seemed quite right. Then, one day, while I was looking through a folder filled with old job application materials, I spotted this transcript and the “unofficial” statement stamped at the top. Yes, this was it, I thought. A great title for my project! Unofficial Student Transcript.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like this as my title. My intellectual history project is a record of my student work within the academy, from the earliest days of being a student in school all the way through to my explorations of and experiments with how to continue learning and engaging as a student while being the teacher. I’m including documents from school days, like report cards, lists of courses taken and taught, evaluations from professors, syllabi from past courses, copies of my doctoral exams, research and teaching statements and academic cover letters. In many ways, this project functions as proof, much like a transcript, of my time in school and my sustained engagement with key ideas and concepts in my chosen fields of study. Documenting my time as a student, which represents the majority of my life thus far (33 out of 38 years!), is important to me. I want to remember it and take it seriously and the process of reflecting on and documenting it allows me to do so.

But, the student transcript that I offer in the following accounts from my early years through Post-Ph.D work are not official. My perspectives and approaches to understanding the work that I did and the value of my education are not authorized by the academy or the institutions that I attended. In fact, my accounts frequently come into conflict with the “official” story about why and how one gets an education, earns a Ph.D and trains to be an academic intellectual. As will become apparent through my accounts, I have some real problems with the academy, or what I’m calling the academic industrial complex, and how it trained me to think, engage, teach and communicate my ideas to and with others.

My transcript is also not official because I’m not a real scholar, at least according to the hierarchy of Academics. I don’t even reside within academic spaces. I stepped out a year ago and am writing this in my uncertain position beside/s the academy. While the dismal job market was a factor for my current staate, I’m really in a self-imposed exile, where I’m trying to make sense of and take stock of where I stand (or want to stand) in relation to those academic structures and systems that shaped me into the troublemaking and troublestaying scholar that I’ve become.

In addition to lacking status (and a position) in the academy, my methods for thinking and writing are not officially sanctioned in the AIC. Much of my work for this project originated, in some form, on my writing and researching blog. While this work involves “serious” and deep engagement with “important” ideas, it was/is not usually recognized as such by academics because it’s not peer-reviewed or published in a top-tier journal or through a big-name publishing company. It also isn’t recognized because my aim was not to produce the newest, most cutting-edge theory that would ensure my status as a big-time fancy academic (BFTA), but to communicate and connect with a wide range of folks in my life that reside inside, outside and beside the academy.

As I compose this introduction, I’m starting to see that my assessment of the academic industrial complex might not be totally fair. I’m sounding angry and a little bitter. And maybe I am. I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life to the academy. I was (and continue to be) passionate about learning, engaging with and deeply reflecting on interesting, provocative and world-shifting ideas. And I’m very disappointed with what the academy has done to that passion and how it’s trained me to be a scholar who feels compelled to spout jargon and reference countless theories every time I have a conversation.

My lack of fairness is another reason my student transcript is not official. It doesn’t offer objective, always factual truths. It’s biased, subjective and filtered through my current perspective as someone who is struggling to negotiate opposing forces and feelings. On one hand, I have an appreciation for the theories and ideas and training that my student years provided me. And I have many fond memories of being a student. But, on the other hand, I’m angry and frustrated about the current state of the academy and the ways in which it exploits students and teachers. And I’m sad about my loss of passion for being an educator.

Finally, my student transcript is not official because the accounts I’m providing in it are intended to unsettle, call into question and trouble any inclinations I have (and, believe me, I do) for offering up neat and tidy stories about my life as a student. I don’t want to offer up easy resolutions or moments of redemption; I want to play with and maintain the tensions and conflicted feelings and understandings in my accounts. My troubling intentions, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t, make me an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator whose accounts should never be official. And, I must add, I wouldn’t want them to be. I like being unofficial and inhabiting the spaces that that unofficial status makes room for. Continue reading Unofficial Student Transcript

Judith Butler on debate and academic freedom

Since I’m busy working on my intellectual history project right now, I don’t have time to critically reflect on Judith Butler’s recent remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement). But, I wanted to link to it and mention a few passages (bold emphasis is mine) that seem noteworthy and consistent with themes in her work that I’ve been teaching, researching and writing about for years.

on academic freedom and the importance of democratic debate

“The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.”

on exercising critical thinking/judgment

“But I would like briefly to continue with the question, what precisely are we doing here this evening? I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

not pro or anti but we

“One could be for the BDS movement as the only credible non-violent mode of resisting the injustices committed by the state of Israel without falling into the football lingo of being “pro” Palestine and “anti” Israel. This language is reductive, if not embarrassing. One might reasonably and passionately be concerned for all the inhabitants of that land, and simply maintain that the future for any peaceful, democratic solution for that region will become thinkable through the dismantling of the occupation, through enacting the equal rights of Palestinian minorities and finding just and plausible ways for the rights of refugees to be honored. If one holds out for these three aims in political life, then one is not simply living within the logic of the “pro” and the “anti”, but trying to fathom the conditions for a “we”, a plural existence grounded in equality.”

re-imaging justice

“What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war, ask for a new constellation of political life in which the relations of colonial subjugation are brought to a halt. My wager, my hope, is that everyone’s chance to live with greater freedom from fear and aggression will be increased as those conditions of justice, freedom, and equality are realized. We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together. Perhaps the word “justice” will assume new meanings as we speak it, such that we can venture that what will be just for the Jews will also be just for the Palestinians, and for all the other people living there, since justice, when just, fails to discriminate, and we savor that failure.”