Saturday, August 23, 2014

Intersections: On Annoyances, Mistakes ... and Possibilities

by JONATHAN HSY

[This posting forms part of a thread on race and diversity in medieval studies and academia as a whole; see previous postings by Michelle Warren (on twitter: @MichelleRWarren), Dorothy Kim (on twitter @dorothyk98) and Helen Young (on twitter @heyouonline); note also our own Karl Steel in a related thread here and here.]

Making space

This series of guest postings about diversity and medieval studies (expanding to race and “things medieval” more broadly) might look like it has been carefully orchestrated but has actually been quite spontaneous—this whole thing emerged organically from conversations in person and over social media with other medievalists, and I hope this venue will continue to spark timely discussion and make space for new voices and different vantage points (so far we’ve featured junior and senior scholars, women and men, people of color and white folks, US and non-US contributors, writers attending to race in the historical past as well as our present).

I did want to point out to our readers who might be new to this discussion that matters of race in medieval culture (and our perceptions of the medieval past) will be explored further in a forthcoming issue of the academic journal postmedieval edited by Cord Whitaker: “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages,” Vol 6, Issue 1 (2015). This issue will build upon formative discussions launched by medievalists (our own Jeffrey Cohen, Geraldine Heng, Suzanne Akbari, to name just a few) and expand how we think about cultural encounter/exchange and reorient approaches to Jews and so-called Saracens, Moors, and Mongols (among other “others”) in the medieval past.

This particular blog-series on ITM has had an “academic” professional tilt—but these contributors have also taken a chance to reflect more informally to draw from personal, practical, and everyday experience. Opportunities to reflect in this more personal ways about embodied experience in professional spaces are precious few (although the collaboratively peer-reviewed digital journal Hybrid Pedagogy has published a series on pedagogical alterity offering varied perspectives on how embodied experience shapes teaching)—and in general the more conversational flexibility of blogging is one aspect of it that I find absolutely vital.

As a medievalist who is both Asian-American and identifies as gay or queer (depending on the context), I can easily consider myself one of those “divergent bodies” referenced in Dorothy Kim’s excellent posting. Most of these blog posts on ITM have had an Anglo-American (i.e. US-oriented) center of gravity, but I’ve participated in conferences in (Anglophone and Francophone) Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia, and my reflections in this posting apply to my motion through majority-white spaces here and abroad. Through my experiences across these venues, I know all too well what it feels like to be “the only one” in a professional setting, and (often before I realize I’m even doing it) I can find myself strategically counting bodies in the room and reassessing “how I belong” in any given social or professional space. In my own posting here, I reflect on my own experience and suggest how we can all work together to change things in the real world (hint: undergraduate teaching).

Let’s talk about Asianness—for a moment

I’ll address my concurrent and overlapping identities soon, but first I’d like to say a few things about the whole “being Asian thing” in particular. Being a person of Asian ancestry (i.e., a person with a face that “reads” to others as Asian) in medieval studies is a peculiar thing. In my particular experience as a US-born, native English speaker (with varied capacities in other languages, living and dead), I’ve learned to strategically toggle between marked and unmarked “otherness” in the field. I present myself in ways that most people would consider “professional” and I can be more or less “processed” as if white—but there are times in professional settings when I’m jarringly reminded of how I’m unavoidably “different.”

Most of the time my “perceived otherness” emerges through awkward exchanges or other minor annoyances. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mistaken for “the other” Asian guy in the room (or at the conference, in the department, at the meeting, in the archive). There have been times (inside and outside the US) when I’ve randomly been redirected toward the lone scholar from Japan who just happens to be at the conference ... as if the mere fact of our “shared-Asianness” means we must automatically share the same interests or something (I’m never sure what exactly the expectation is when this sort of thing happens). If I state I have interests in medieval travel literature, people unfamiliar with my work often assume I work on Marco Polo and China (which I don’t). Even a seemingly innocuous question (at a conference reception) like “How did YOU get interested in medieval studies?” opens up a whole can of worms. Depending on how it’s asked, such a question sounds as if I need to explain or justify my very presence in a space that is “naturally” coded as white.

In these sorts of interactions I don’t believe the deliberate intent is to offend, but the effects of such exchanges—even (or especially) if they involve someone who is “trying to be nice”—are still harmful. These episodes send (conscious or unconscious) messages that “add up” over time (see here, or even more pointedly, here) to remind you that you’re a perpetual outsider and you must continually re-explain, assert, or justify your very presence in professional spaces.

One complicating factor of growing up Asian-American more broadly is a toggling between perceived relevance and irrelevance in contemporary US conversations of race; such discourses can often cast racial difference in terms of reductive black/white binaries. When the events in #Ferguson first began to unfold, perspectives of Asian-Americans (among other nonwhite and nonblack groups) were ignored—and its only recently that people have addressed how the “model minority myth” deployed by Asians and non-Asians alike can serve to devalue black bodies in particular.

What I find so curious about “being Asian” in a broader US landscape of race discussions is how often Asians are not actually discussed as Asians but rather as a way for people (usually in the white majority) to discuss other things. Asians became Stephen Colbert’s “trope” to mock Native American mascots—a move bravely and justly confronted by writer and activist Suey Park, creator of the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag. And we live in a world where a totally unfunny white dude will try to use “Asians” as a trope to satirize discussions of white privilege—and when actual Asians point out why this is a problem, he claims “it’s not about Asians” and Asian-Americans are just too humorless to get the “joke.”

When it comes to discussions of race and the “monochrome Middle Ages” myth that Helen Young has addressed (which extends beyond the US per se), Asians strangely get trotted out yet again as part of this rhetorical “invoke and ignore” strategy. George R.R. Martin’s quip “There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England” is meant to signal that the mere idea of Asians being present in a fictional medieval-ish world is so completely outlandish that one can’t entertain it (direwolves and dragons on the other hand, TOTALLY FINE).

These kinds of social messaging from inside and outside the academy can make a person of Asian descent like myself feel systemically unwelcome, marginalized, or excluded—in the broader sphere of (Anglophone) discourses/ideas, but also in the much more “rarified” field (medieval studies) where I actually claim the most professional training and expertise. My particular Asian-American perspective is, of course, only one aspect of a much larger landscape, and I admit I am speaking from a particular US-based perspective here. The broader structural issue we all face (regardless of where we are) is the urgent need to re-code what it means to think about “things medieval” in the academy and outside of it. In other words, there is not just “one way” a person should look, speak, act, think, love, or move in order to be recognized as legitimate.

Intersections and institutions

I started off by discussing systems of “Asian exclusion” because an unstated “model minority” myth (in addition to homogenizing the varied experience/backgrounds of all people of Asian ancestry) has a way of making it seem like everything’s just fine and dandy for Asians and Asian-Americans in higher education. My anecdotes offer a few reminders that change still needs to happen on the inclusion front. I also focus initially on my identity as Asian-American since race is (in my own case) a category of difference that I do not voluntarily disclose but one that others readily perceive during a first encounter. At this point, I want to broaden this discussion beyond my own situation to consider intersectionality—how it informs so many kinds of social and embodied difference. 

This concept of intersectionality has its origins in feminist thought and reminds us that it’s not “all or nothing” when we discuss (conscious or unconscious) prejudice and its effects: gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, disability, age, rank, employment status—it all interrelates. You can be advantaged along one kind of social axis while also be disadvantaged by another.

While I’ve mentioned my own particular intersecting kinds of otherness in the field, I acknowledge my varied forms of insider privilege. Broadly speaking, I enjoy status as a tenured faculty member at a diverse, research-active urban institution in a progressive gay-friendly environment. I am a native English speaker and can rely on important information around me being in English. I was raised Protestant and the academic calendar always accommodates Christmas and lets me enjoy time with family. I can walk and I can enter any building on campus without needing to scout out a ramp first. I am male and cisgendered (i.e., my gender identity matches the biological sex assigned at birth). I hold a PhD and both my parents earned graduate degrees.

In pointing out these social advantages I claim, I stand by what Dorothy Kim has stated: those of us who have tenure or hold otherwise claim privilege should be committed to making medieval studies (and academia) a safe, inclusive, and accessible space for all—and to change the conception of “what’s possible” now and in the future. As far as the present-day profession is concerned, many different kinds of people need to be included in leadership positions and planning roles.

We can all do things informally to change the climate of our professional meetings too. When the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship publicizes lactation rooms at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, it sends a message that medievalists who also just happen to be working mothers are welcome and valued. Participating in a polyglot Chaucer reading or actively helping to promote a new Chaucer adaptation that features a Nigerian/British/Icelandic cast sends a message to attendees of the Congress of the New Chaucer Society that the field isn’t just Anglophone and isn’t exclusively white. Organizing an informal gathering of LGBT folks and allies at a local queer bar (big thanks to Anthony Bale for first floating this idea on social media!) sends a message that medieval studies is a safe place for many kinds of people.

As far as the future of the profession is concerned, a big part of cultivating a more diverse faculty is attentive mentorship of graduate students. This informative report on mentoring first-generation and graduate students of color offers sound advice for anyone pursuing graduate study (not just those advising people of color). It’s important to note that broader socioeconomic factors can play a role in the complexion (deliberate pun) of academic medieval studies. Nonwhite people and/or ethnic minorities might not necessarily have access to the kinds of cultural capital and early training (especially in European languages, living or dead) that would “track” a person toward a humanistic field like medieval studies (or Classics, or Renaissance art history, for that matter). Mindful early guidance of students of color who might have promise in the field is thus a very important thing to keep in mind for both for faculty who are white and for those who are people of color. It made a huge difference for me that I had (white) undergraduate mentors who proactively engaged with my interests in medieval studies and were realistic about the challenges that would come with this path.

How faculty diversity matters

In her posting on diversity and mentoring, Michelle Warren deferred the question of why diversification of faculty is important. I’ll take up this baton by considering the undergraduate classroom: teaching is, after all, the most significant way that we academics actually make a difference every day. Again, I’ll refer to my own experience here. I teach in the department of English at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and the general trend has been that some (but not by any means the majority) of students we have in our medieval and early modern classes turn out to be US-born ethnic minorities (this reflects our general undergraduate demographics). In addition, an increasing number of students at my institution as a whole are “international,” i.e., not from the US (I’ve had quite a few students from South Korea, mainland China, Iran, and Ghana, for instance).

Having a person with an Asian face in the classroom—in a field where one might not expect to encounter one—can create a more expansive “horizon of expectations” for all kinds of students. The very fact I’m there sends a message that medieval literature isn’t “just for white people,” and for those students for whom English is a second language my presence send a message that anyone can “do” Middle English. And broadly speaking there is something very empowering about having sustained interactions with “someone like you” as an authority figure when you have never had that experience before.

I’m stressing here that “being there” is more than “faculty diversity window-dressing.” It’s also what I do outside the classroom that counts. In casual conversations during office hours, I’ve found it interesting that it has so far only been the nonwhite students (US-born and those from outside the US) who have felt open with disclosing the real family or cultural pressures complicating their decisions to pursue interests in English or in a humanities discipline—more than a few students have expressed to me a kind of obligation (even burden) to obtain a “practical” degree or one that is perceived as more reliable, lucrative, or otherwise more prestigious “back home.”

My sense in these (often unsolicited) interactions is that they give students a chance to “vent” but also to give some thought to what an education is “for,” what they want out of it, and how to manage the discordant cultural expectations they face—a conversation they might not have any chance to pursue otherwise. I think there’s an intangible benefit to at least giving students the chance to gain exposure to a wider sense of “what’s possible” with their life-paths, and to explore modes of reading, creation and expression that they find rewarding—even if they end up don’t actually end up majoring in English or pursuing medieval studies.

At this point I have a less clear sense of how students’ experiences have been shaped by interacting with faculty member who isn’t straight. I teach Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale in the vast majority of my courses, and we inevitably end up discussing the Pardoner’s body—which reads as indeterminate in terms of modern-day categories of gender and sexuality—and the text offers an opportunity to think critically about discourses we’d now identify as homophobic. I use more informal words like “gay” and “gay-affirming” in class (or when discussion turns to theory and politics, the term “queer”) to signal that homophobia and transphobia are unacceptable in the classroom. (I’ll also mention my partner in passing just as any other instructor might casually mention his or her spouse.) I find that after the class on the Pardoner’s Tale (which tends to be early in the semester) students can become more open to discussing gender and sexuality in the texts we read. While I find students don’t specifically open up to me about matters of sexual orientation in office hours, I do find they will feel OK expressing interests in (say) queer theory—and of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that any such student self-identifies as queer. This all just means that Im trying to do the best I can to create a safe space for everyone no matter how (or if) they might self-identify.

Owning mistakes—whoever you are

So what are the next steps here? A huge part of creating a more inclusive medieval studies involves changes that are systemic, structural, and professional (as other postings in this thread have addressed). But what can a mere individual medievalist do? One strategy is teaching in more open-minded ways about race and embodied difference, as Helen Young suggests at the end of her posting. 

But another significant part of the learning process (i.e., growing as a human being!) is owning your mistakes and changing your behavior when you recognize there’s a need to adapt. When someone makes an offensive comment (even when it might not be consciously intended), call out that person’s behavior—and be willing to check your own assumptions when YOU discover you’ve messed up. [All of this is “easier said than done,” I know.] In this spirit, I offer a few anecdotes to suggest how I’ve negotiated my own place in the medieval literature classroom—with particular reference to some interactions with kinds of embodied difference that are not my own.

Teaching The Prioress’s Tale

In my experience teaching at GWU, I’ve found the vibe to be largely secular. Reflecting the broader demographics of this institution, my classes typically include at least some students who see themselves as ethnically or culturally Jewish (even if not strictly “observant”). I quickly learned that teaching Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale—a story full of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence—presents challenges as well as opportunities. It has always been my strategy to make the text’s anti-Semitism a key part of class discussion, and this usually engenders a productive discussion of how we perceive anti-Semitism in the past and the present. It can also provide an opportunity for students in class to collectively consider how notions of Jewishness are disseminated in literature or other forms of cultural messaging.

There are have been times, though, when I’ve made mistakes. One year, I cluelessly scheduled the class session on the Prioress’s Tale on Yom Kippur which meant that the Jewish students in class were absent (including ones who weren’t otherwise “observant”). Of course, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of conducting a discussion about anti-Semitism and the expulsion of Jewish communities from medieval England in a room totally devoid of its Jewish classmates (and I’m sure some students in class picked up on this too). I’ve since learned to, you know, actually pay attention to the list of religious observances that our university disseminates and be more mindful in my class scheduling.

I’ve also learned to be more careful in how I frame our discussion of this tale in the first place. One time when we were discussing this text in my class, a student abruptly disengaged from the conversation. I noticed this shift in behavior (she was otherwise a reliably active participant) and I asked if something was bothering her—and it turns out she had reached a point where the text was to her as hurtful as reading Nazi propaganda. I’ve since made it my strategy to prepare students for the discussion by stating (in the class session before we read this text) that it an ugly and hateful text (specifically, it’s anti-Semitic) and we are going to have a frank discussion this about this aspect of the work.

Throughout these discussions I’ve learned, too, not to make any assumptions based on a student’s name or appearance—much as I would not want someone to make assumptions about mine. Some students may choose to disclose being Jewish in a classroom discussion (I’ve found in this case it’s not unusual for some to do this), but others may not. And some of these voluntary disclosures can be unexpected: I have had more than case where a student with an Asian face and Anglo name turned out to be Jewish.

In some of our conversations online and in real life, our Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has made the point that presentations at medieval professional venues shouldn’t silently “assume a shared belief in Christianity.” The same goes for the undergrad classroom: keep in mind the possibility for different vantage points and what that really means. Think about how to make the classroom a space where everyone can engage.

Disruptive bodies

In one of my classes, a student had a foot injury and as part of his recovery process he had to stand or walk out of the classroom at certain intervals. When he revealed to me later that he was struggling getting from class to class and sitting for solid blocks of time, I suggested he consult our Disability Support Services; he found the office was helpful in informing his instructors about his mobility accommodations even if in these emails the student would always put the term “disability” in scare quotes (he, in this context, did not self-identify as “disabled”). Initially other students in class were confused by this student’s actions and thought his movements inside and outside of the room were distracting—but once (with his permission) we took a moment to briefly explain the situation and how we were conducting class, we all adapted to this new rhythm.

From this experience, I’ve since realized that the “disability boilerplate” on my syllabus (i.e., language that describes accommodations and resources for students who have disabilities) should be explained on the first day. It could be the case that someone who might benefit from accommodations (in terms of the room’s spatial configuration or its pacing) might not think of himself or herself as “disabled” in the first place (and the question of what social factors would make someone avoid identifying as disabled might warrant some consideration too). As an instructor, I need to send the message that the classroom is a space for all kinds of bodies and minds. 

Some practical tips: Put some thought into what you want to include in your course syllabus regarding flexibility to many modes of learningBefore you categorically ban all laptops from your classroom, consider having an open discussion with your students about how and why they use the technologies available to them, remembering there may not be “one proper way” to keep notes or attend to class discussion (see for instance Rick Godden’s great blog posting reminding instructors to “not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way”). This isn’t just about “conforming to a top-down policy” from university administration. Adapt your language to the particular shape of your course and the community that YOU really wish to cultivate.

Being "the only one."

Given my own experience in educational and professional spaces, I try to be more sensitive to what it feels like being “the only [insert your category here]” in class and to be more mindful of how the particular composition of the classroom can inflect a discussion. In one of my classes, we were discussing the Travels of John Mandeville and its description of “Ethiopians” and discourses of blackness and beauty. There happened be only one black student in class that day, and as we approached this topic many of the classmates’ glances began to drift, as if on cue, toward this person…perhaps in anticipation that this student would soon speak up, or otherwise just to gauge her reaction; in any case, it was an unconscious and unspoken shift in the class dynamic that “singled out” the student in a way that obviously made her uncomfortable.

This student avoided eye contact with me as this was happening (clearly she did not want to be called upon) and, picking up on this weird classroom dynamic, I redirected the conversation by inserting myself in the moment. I said something to the effect that “as a nonwhite person I find these Eurocentric racial discourses cause me great discomfort. We obviously have both white and nonwhite people in this room, so what are some ways we can all approach reading this passage today?” I found that at this point all the students felt they had more of a “way into” the discussion and there was no longer this perception that only one “type” of person bore the burden of responding to this passage. It was one way to give us all permission to openly acknowledge the many different bodies in class and to engage in a shared discussion.

Although I touched base with this particular student later about things in office hours and we had a productive conversation about this and made sure she hadn't felt alienated, I don’t doubt that I could have done better—but I at least tried to “call out” a (subtle) shift in class behavior as it was happening and do something productive with it. (For another perspective from a different kind of classroom and urban environment, see this blog post.)

Knowing others

In her recent book Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference (2014), Stephanie L. Kerschbaum reworks current discourses about diversity in higher education by adopting what she terms a “microinteractional” perspective on how we present and define ourselves in shifting contexts. Her book, which focuses on the writing classroom, attends to interactions that transpire not along pre-determined scripts or markers of difference but dynamic configurations that emerge through institutional spaces. Kerschbaum draws upon some of her own lived experience of deafness and reminds readers that difference is not a “fixed” or stable category but “dynamic, relational, and emergent” (57). One message I take from her book beyond the specifics of teaching writing is that we (those of us who teach) should be careful to avoid engaging students (and one another) along the lines of any pre-conceived social norm.

Kerschbaum’s experiences as an instructor and a deaf woman both inform her work. Early in the book, she observes: “I regularly find myself making minute adjustments in response to unfolding awareness of how others perceive my deafness and assume its relevance for our interactions” (7). Later, she reveals that “[a]s a deaf woman who is often the only deaf person in the room,” and her particular “interactional preferences” shift from moment to moment depending on the context (24-25). In this posting, I’ve reflected on some of my own forms of intersecting difference and some of the microinteractional adaptations I’ve made in my own behavior. 

Microaggressions are real. Prejudices and misperceptions are harmful. But we’re all in this together, and—to repeat something I’ve stated on this blog before—I hope that when we move through our various social and professional spaces we can strive for a more informed and mindful empathy: a sensitivity to always-emergent forms of difference, and an earnest effort to know and to engage with others unlike ourselves.

13 comments:

Lisa Schamess said...

What you say about secular identity and Jewishness rings true for me. Increasingly, I understand my position in the world as passing for white at times. When I taught the Prioress's Tale in high school, I was interested in the central question of Chaucer's own stance - is he commenting on racism in the Church, especially since he has sketched the Prioress as vain, superficial, and self-absorbed? Is he simply (my position) faithfully recording a type of story that was often told, as an ethnographer? And, if the latter, is his "just the facts" approach a kind of silence and submission to the story's weight in his culture? Was he casually or actively anti-semitic?

I found, too, that in teaching it myself, I was increasingly and personally uncomfortable during discussion. Should I discuss my Jewishness or leave it out of the discussion. How would my Jewishness change that discussion? What (as a person who can pass) would I hear if I did not disclose my Jewishness?

Lisa Schamess said...

(and also, I should add, in empathy with the student you described, that particular story does stir feelings of legacy trauma, if I may call it that--the ways in which the blood libel has been used to demonize Jews. One important reason I feared disclosing my identity in that room of mixed company was that I and other Jews would have to be publicly Jewish, which sometimes feels very dangerous. The well-meaning questions about Jewishness begin, or the really, really astonishing question, "but didn't the Jews deny Jesus" etc...Explaining to non-Jewish people why exactly the story is so harmful and so painful is, in itself, triggering. I have, perhaps, a cellular response to being accounting for and asked to explain myself in public. Note that I began this p.s. in parentheses. I'm actually having a kinetic reaction as I type this--heart racing, flight/flight response).

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Lisa: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here, and indeed it's a tricky thing to figure out how much to disclose about your own identity and relationship to the material (especially when one can "pass" as unmarked). I think a big part of this is assessing the vibe of the classroom (whatever its mixture/composition) and trying things out. It's can be a risk but it can also be rewarding; my thinking it's better to at least try and have a more informed discussion rather than depriving the class from a chance to have it at all.

I don't think it's any person (student's or instructor's) "obligation" to be "publicly [whatever]" -- it's more that the classroom should be a space where it's safe to make those kinds of disclosures.

Really informative to have another perspective on this...

Lisa Schamess said...

Yes, these crucial questions about disclosure, silence, privacy, social interaction, complicity...when to disclose, what to disclose, about oneself...these fascinate me a lot.

Thank you for this very rich addition to this series. It will be a backbone for a lot of my thinking even though I am not actively teaching now--it will inform my thinking on urban public policy and civic engagement.

Karl Steel said...

"I'm actually having a kinetic reaction as I type this--heart racing, flight/flight response"

Lisa, just last night I was having dinner with someone whose work is on just these physiological reactions to racism. I don't want to say too much, because I don't know how much has been published yet, so for now I'll underline that there's good science on this topic.

Lisa Schamess said...

Thank you, Karl. As you well know, we writing teachers (and all teachers) have to struggle to keep the discourse embodied and in the present moment, not so abstract and cerebral (e.g., perceived as 'objective', 'safe', etc.) The privileging of non-emotional, non-physical responses to texts really gets in the way of advancing a discussion of this type, yes? I'd be very interested in knowing more about this topic. Glad to know that it is being looked at.

Lisa Schamess said...

And....just hours after this exchange, while pursuing another set of tasks entirely, this came into my thinking-box: http://theconversation.com/the-world-watches-ferguson-but-racial-discrimination-is-also-a-health-issue-across-the-us-30797

Jonathan Hsy said...

BY THE WAY folks there's an excellent conversation happening now over on twitter about the "apolitical" whiteness of Digital Humanities. A very timely convo indeed: https://storify.com/adelinekoh/the-digital-humanities-and-race-and-politics-or-th

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jonathan, this is so incredibly helpful to read. I'm finding these posts remarkably generative as I retool syllabi and approaches to try to create a more open and diverse classroom. It's hard to talk about these things -- but deeply, deeply important, as this series of posts has illuminated.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@MKH: Thanks so much for your kind comments -- I do hope this one was helpful and encouraging. And I'm so very glad that we've had this series of posts -- as you note, it is often uncomfortable and awkward talking about these things but we need to do it (and must KEEP doing it!). Very honored to be part of this transformative co-blogging assemblage with you!

Jonathan Hsy said...

Comment from Miriamne Krummel
(posted here by her request)

I have often reflected on the invisibility of Jewishness. To you (and many other medievalists), it has become a given that I'm Jewish, but I am not obviously "Jewish" by name or look. I look more like my one non Jewish relative (whose name I bear: Krummel) and "Miriamne" is not an immediate give away either, like Racheal or Sarah, for instance. In college I had to out myself in conversations about, say, Merchant of Venice or I could remain invisible. This invisibilty poses an interesting problem that Asians and Blacks and Latinos/Chicanos don't have. That issue involves having to out ourselves as an Other (sometimes an act that involves courage) and on the other hand happily pursuing the pleasures of assimiliation. The personal issues are legion.

Also: take a gander at Gish Jen's Mona In the Promised Land. Great fun. Great read.

Steph said...

Joining the conversation--this discussion about disclosure and the ways that making a particular aspect of one's identity perceptible in the classroom is really valuable, particularly in thinking not only about how others might orient to information about ourselves that we reveal but also about the ways that we become (often painfully) aware of ourselves and the ways we move in the classroom.

I'm also thinking about the ways in which instructors' identities (especially those parts of themselves that are not necessarily immediately apparent, and thus need to be openly remarked upon or disclosed in some way) matter to the way students process and engage material. Jonathan suggests that casual references to one's partner, openly engaging course content related to gender/sexuality/queer bodies might be disclosures that invite students to more openly engage those topics themselves--they might otherwise feel those topics are taboo or off limits, or simply be uncertain about how a professor might respond or take up such lines of inquiry. Similar observations have been made about faculty disclosing disabilities.

However, I'm thinking too though about the complicated ways that such disclosures also invite students to explicitly/openly orient to the instructor's body/self as a text in the class. I think part of the point here is that the instructor is never absent, that their body is always there, right, and thus always being read/interpreted/oriented to in some way. But I'm also thinking about the many motivations behind *not* revealing some identity that would possibly shape or direct or influence the subsequent/ongoing interaction. . .

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Steph: Thanks so much for chiming in here! You are so right that this whole discussion of (strategic, contingent) disclosure in the classroom implicates everyone: students as well as the instructor. This question of disclosing (imperceptible) disabilities is an important one, and your comment makes me think so much more about how my own body emerges as a text in class. There is a deal of risk and vulnerability in opening yourself up to that kind of attention, and I like to think that being mindful to these social dynamics sends a signal that you're trying to create a shared, safe space.