I’ve been noodling on whether or not to post this, and I’m waking up this morning to the feeling that this post is nothing compared to the everyday challenges I faced as a writing teacher. I’ve been going through old files this week, and I’m reflecting on how much of the students’ lives you see through their writing. I’m often haunted by students from my past that I know didn’t make it because of the harsh realities that most community college students face–so much depends upon which side of the tracks you born on.
Let me tell you a story about a photo.
On the morning that I took the photo that Amanda Coolidge used in her recent keynote, I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to build myself up with the confidence for the day. I had just paid a visit to my parents—people who sacrificed everything to make my life better–it’s always so hard to say goodbye. I was thinking about how they have a difficult time explaining what I do, and to be honest, I struggle to describe this work to people outside of higher education. The jargon of higher education isn’t always easy when you are a first-generation college graduate. Our story is hard to share.
The day before I took this photo I spent 8 hours in a vendor hall right across a publisher doing focus groups. In the vendor hall, employees of other companies used the language and the research of my colleagues, and they gave Starbucks card after Starbucks card to faculty who shared their opinions about their new pricing structure. Their new day one access. Their new concern for students who could not afford their textbooks.
Another company a row over was doing similar work, using the same dialogue, and they were angering faculty. It was one of those conferences where they have a passport for a raffle, and every twenty or so minutes, somebody would come up to me with strong opinions using the phrase “You People.” Everyone feels better after they say this phrase. It’s my job to stand there and listen to the outrage. I wasn’t the only table who heard these comments. You People. You People.
Prior to this work I do, I never went to the vendor hall as a faulty member, except, that is, for the “free drinks and food” (paid for by the companies who sponsored the conference, mind you). I avoided eye contact with the sales people, and I never in a million years would have shared my opinions and outrage. I saw them as people who needed to pay their bills. Just like me. Just like me when I was a bartender, a cocktail waitress, cashier, or an adjunct. Just like me in a capitalistic society where nothing is free. I thought it more polite to be quiet, and nibble on my cheese and crackers and talk with my friends. I thought it more effective to organize and do work that undermines their business model. I thought it more effective to help students and faculty the best way that I could. Sharing my strong opinions with them felt like talking into the wind. You People. You People.
That day, the day of the chalkboard photo, it was my job to be in the vendor hall, and I was honestly thrilled to talk with most faculty and administrators. I get to meet a lot of cool people even if this isn’t my favorite venue to do so. In that space, however, I represent the work so many wonderful people who truly care about students. People who care about adjuncts. Teaching. Learning. During the vendor hall gigs, I will gladly sup on a good sauce of spicy campus politics with you. Dish it up! I’m listening. I’ll take an extra side of faculty rage at administrators (and vice versa), please. Give me a dessert of innovative policy topped with administrative creativity, and I’m in heaven. Share a side of adjunct woes, and data-driven work that helps their labor conditions? I’m in love. I’m all ears. Tell me how the shit gets done to help students and teachers, and I’m yours (academic terminology emphasis, mine).
In the best case scenario, this work is pure joy. In the worst case scenario, it’s like bartending, and you are stuck behind the table and have to serve everyone and listen to everything. You People. You People.
That photo that Amanda remixed was taken on a day where I roamed the streets after work searching for part of my youth that no longer exists. Atlanta, like most cities, has been revised and remixed into a more sanitized version of what it once was. Whole neighborhoods were displaced for the 1996 Olympics. Many spots around the downtown area that I remember as a teenager are gone.
What I remember as “home” does not exist. Although truthfully, I never felt like I belonged there, and towards the end of my teenage years I counted the minutes until I could leave that city. It never felt like home to me.
Quick digression: Have you see those last twenty minutes of “The Deuce” where Vincent walks the streets of modern day Times Square? That’s perhaps one of the most brilliant twenty minutes of the prestige shows on HBO, by the way (paraphrasing my Mister). I got weepy when Paul, the bartender/bath house owner, who asks the best question of the show summarizing the challenges of gentrification: Where will The People live? (Looking at you, Seattle).
Where was I? Oh, right. Feeling seen, as it’s popular to say these days. And Amanda’s amazing keynote. Like Amanda, I’ve struggled to belong. Still. Always. Her story, albeit incredibly different than my own, resonated with me. The Where I’m From Question isn’t easy. Explaining What I Do For A Living can be even harder.
In the talk where I co-presented at this same conference, I said, for some of you, I represent the villain in this work, and I know I will never win you over, and that’s fine. A few years ago, a wise sage shared with me that this work is A Big Tent, and I didn’t quite know what that meant then because I only knew my work, my people, my community. I was pretty naive, honestly. I’ve learned a lot since then. This work, I have learned, is indeed A Big Tent, and I think there is room for a lot of ideas. You may not—and that’s fine too— I’ll adopt the quote that helped me that last week in October from my colleague: You do you, Boo.
I wanted to present on this topic because I was asked by a dear friend whom I respect and love dearly to join her. Some of my best conversations about teaching are with her! When she shared that she didn’t want to do this talk alone, I wanted to support that vulnerability. That’s what we do in my corner of the tent, mind you, we support one another when we’re vulnerable. And let me tell you, I have felt more vulnerable in 2019 than any year of my life (a story for another time). I felt honored that somebody I respect asked me to present with her—back in April, mind you. I felt like I could support her ideas and share my mistakes. Wholeheartedly. Authentically. And I could learn some new ideas to build on some old ideas.
I presented not to people who knew any of the insider baseball or to those who openly criticize the work that I do. I was there to reach people who are new to this so that they could learn from my mistakes. Just as I have learned from others.
I don’t remember all of what I said, and as people kept trying to walk into the door, and I looked around at several people in the room who are my heroes, research citations in old papers, friends, collaborators, colleagues, strangers, my boss. I overshared. I said things I wished I hadn’t. I kept a smile on my face. I felt joy listening to my friend talk about this really good idea. This really good idea. For You People. For me. For Everyone.
What did I hope to get across? I wanted to share that this work is not sustained by rage and anger though it was the flint that started the fire for me. I’ve learned over time that it cannot sustain the passion for my work. I need a short list of things. Hope. Positivity. Joy. Kindness. Heroes are people. Villains are people. Victims are people. I highly recommend that you read the article, that is, if you are one of the lucky few with access to this database. I had to read a shared copy because I do not have access to these journal databases.
A few people on Twitter—that pretty hate machine—shared that they need that anger in response to what was shared about my talk. And I get that. I’ll stand by that bonfire as your guest from to time to time. I get it.
What are the origins of my anger? In the talk, I admitted my deep class resentments (why was I born on this side of the tracks and not you?), my shame of debt we carry for our educations (how else could we have done it?), and the horror of burning out as an adjunct teacher (I loved teaching but those labor conditions crushed my soul).
The spectre of the imposter syndrome rose up next to me about the doctorate that I thought I’d have by now while standing in front of people who have that D and R in front of their names.
All of those feelings came from a deep dark place that I’m trying to forget. Trying to forgive. Trying to accept. Trying.
I used to lift my fist to the heavens shouting “may the bridges we burn light the way” and I loved snarking and sassing my way to some sort of leadership style. Those wishful fires dim the more I learn from faculty who feel deeply frustrated by their current choices. Their current work conditions. Their current state of teaching. The current state of learning.
I shared that one leader advised me that we do this work “one coffin at a time” and I loved that quote for many years. Loved it. Some people in the room knew exactly who said this to me and laughed. Others looked horrified. Others learned a new quote that they will take back to their corner of the tent.
Almost ten years later, those people (You People) are still alive. Those that retired have come back as adjuncts. The coffins are empty. This work has not grown in those places. But I’m hopeful.
Rage and anger? The flint that started the fire for me. Truly. Those flames dim over time as I walked from workshops with teachers who love their students but have to use materials and outcomes mandated by the accreditation process. On the way to my rental car, I pass by community college students who are clearly living out their cars. The rage and anger does not disappear, it’s just not the emotion that can sustain my work. For me.
Rage and anger is not how I can start my day. Everyday. As I try to consult with administrators who believe in The Commons yet receive 3% of their budget from the state. As I try to help a leader who has left this work to facilitate a food pantries for students. As I try to help a lead who is no longer supported by her institution to do this work.
Over time, as I have had the privilege to visit over a 100 colleges and attend many conferences in 18 states to speak about this work, I have found that I can’t walk into a room full of curious people and tell people to “burn it all down” because that doesn’t work. I have the privilege of getting on a plane and going someplace else. Whereas the people I work with have to stay there. They need solutions, ideas, support, and empathy.
I have since openly-licensed the photo I took because I meant to do it before her talk, and I forgot. It’s done now. Ready for the reuse.
This is the story I wanted to tell you about a photo.