It was such a privilege to learn with Stephanie Kerschbaum this week. Not only was she UWM’s Vilas Trust guest lecturer, she also joined our classroom community and discussed her book, Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference, and article “Anecdotal Relations” with us.
When we think about differences between people, what is it we’re thinking of? Chances are we think about demographic differences, and that we also conceive of these differences as static or permanent. Instead, Kerschbaum argues that “differences emerge during interactions” (9). The stakes for such an approach are high. As her first chapter, “The Market for Diversity in Higher Education” shows, when we leverage demographics for marked difference, we commodify people. And I hope it goes without saying (though I’m obviously still going to say it) commodifying someone’s identity is grossly unethical.
UWM currently has plans to become a Hispanic Serving Institution. With Stephanie Kerschbaum in our class, one of my colleagues asked how we saw her “Market for Diversity” chapter informing UWM’s new initiative. This is an important question for us to dwell on—we are commodifying “Wisconsin’s fastest growing group of college bound students.” And as Kerschbaum warns us, “In this language, difference is neither dynamic nor flexible: it is individual property that institutions cover” (32).
We already know what it’s like when institutions, largely white (male) ran institutions, consider people as property because of difference.
Additionally, we are never just one facet of our identity. Drawing from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, Kerschbaum urges “teachers [to] consider their students not in terms of single identifiers but as the embodiment of a complex set of identifications that must be considered together, rather than independently from one another” (10). In this way, we can begin to conceive of how difference functions relationally. To use an example Kerschbaum brought up in class, and that she’s written in her book, “To evoke my deafness as difference, it must be considered relationally: How does my not-hearing (of a particular form) make me different from a specific interlocutor?” (72). Her deafness is not a static marker of difference. Difference(s) must be contextually based, and can only emerge in social interaction.
With that said, Kerschbaum asks us to think about the difference between “Learning about and Learning with Others” (74).
She asked us, in class, “Can you imagine what ‘learning with’ would look like in your class”? One of my classmates answered this question by explaining the games he employs in the beginning of his class period. He argues that by allowing play to set the tone of the room, he learns with his students as they all participate in building confianza.
Bringing up the concept of confianza led to an important part of conversations we should all be having on the teaching of language. Because our language practices are so tied to who we are, to ask students to share their language, with each other and with us, we need to create a classroom community that fosters relationship building. To do this, we must give time for it. Like Kerschbaum argues, we must be able to see our students one on one. And Like Rachel, our professor illustrates in her book Translanguaging Outside the Academy, “Relationships formed, and translanguaging was possible because of these relationships” (115). In between those two examples, we can demonstrate confianza in our classrooms, what Steven Alvarez defines as, “a reciprocal relationship in which individuals feel cared for… built through an ongoing, intentional process that is centered in local communities and involves mutual respect” (4, Community Literacies en Confianza).
Mutual respect cannot be established if our students feel commodified or if we regard their identities as static.
As we near the close of our semester, I think we can all see connections and themes between all of our readings and class discussions. If languages and dialects have to be seen as fluid and flexible (and they do have to), then that must mean we also have to see the identities involved with languages as dynamic and contextually based. Even if they’re not using language in that moment, to quote from Kerschbaum’s lecture, difference(s) “are contextually embodied and deeply rhetorical.”
I want to close by repeating Stephanie Kerschbaum’s question: “Can you imagine what ‘learning with’ would look like in your class?” Does it look like Alvarez’s confianza? Or maybe it looks like “Writing Risky Relationships” wherein we learn how to “mak[e] mistakes and lear[n] from them. It also means listening to conflict, difficulty, and resistance for the sense-making behind others’ acts” (Kerschbaum, 149). And maybe learning with can happen “over humor, songs, and play” because, in the writing classroom we don’t learn “Without taking risks and making mistakes” (Bloom-Pojar, 115).
In this week’s class, the main focus of our discussion was UWM's initiative to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). HSIs are colleges and universities where the population of Hispanic students enrolled comprises 25% of the institution’s total enrollment. According to UWM’s press announcement about its upcoming initiative, HSIs “are eligible for funding to support student recruitment and retention, faculty development, community outreach and more.” The announcement is, as you’d probably imagine, full of buzzwords and quotes from university officials that work as perfect sound bites to drum up excitement for this next chapter at UWM.
Excuse me if I sound bitter—it’s not that I don’t think this initiative sounds exciting and rife with opportunity. It’s just that I’m often wary of such announcements due to the fact that, more often than not, these initiatives are deployed only on the surface level—meaning that they make for great PR, but don’t actually do much to serve the communities they’re claiming to assist. My classmates seemed to share my apprehension. The term “tokenizing” was woven tightly into our conversation. By targeting a group specifically, even with supposedly positive intentions, are we not merely reminding that group that they are the “other”? How does a university truly and effectively serve these students while simultaneously working to ensure that they are actually being helped, not just singled out in order to check off some boxes?
While our class is certainly not a group of experts, and it is impossible to find concrete answers to these questions within the course of a few hours, we did manage to come up with several ideas that we felt would assist our or any university in its journey to becoming a true Hispanic-Serving Institution—or, ideas that would serve any institution in becoming more inclusive and effective, whether they hold the title of HSI or not. (Disclaimer: although this blog post is my own, these ideas are the result of a class-wide discussion, and I by no means want to take sole credit for them). Here’s the list we compiled:
1. Diversify curriculum and faculty. It’s hardly a secret that the mainstream curriculum at most colleges and universities abides by a very specific tradition—that of white, Western males. In UWM’s announcement about the plans to become an HSI, Chancellor Mark Mone said that these efforts “will benefit all students through a learning environment that prepares them for today’s world.” If we truly want to prepare students for “today’s world,” then it is vital that they be exposed to voices both within and outside of their own communities, both through their coursework and their institution’s faculty.
2. Incorporate public texts and linguistic diversity into classrooms. While it’s certainly important for students in higher education to engage with academic texts, we must recognize that not everyone who has important stories to tell or is doing critical work within their given field is going to be releasing their work through that medium. Just because someone does not use an arsenal of sophisticated vocabulary or isn’t getting published within a prestigious journal does not mean that their work should go ignored. Further, this sort of work is not necessarily what resonates with all students. Instructors should work to find a variety of voices distributing their work in a variety of ways—perhaps through blogs, various forms of social media, and other public forums—to spotlight voices that may otherwise go ignored in academia.
3. Change terms, not just content. Many students are not only unfamiliar with traditional academic vernacular, but also run the risk of feeling alienated in the classroom due to this unfamiliarity. Instructors should work with their students to figure out what sort of vernacular their students are comfortable with, incorporate it into class discussions, and help students to most effectively utilize it within their work (while treading lightly, of course, so as to not become appropriative). This may sound like a tall order, and we’re not calling for the common vocabulary of academia to change overnight—just a simple willingness on the part of instructors to acknowledge the vernacular their students are comfortable with is a good start.
4. Be comfortable with the fact that you’re not always the expert. Bringing different voices into the classroom and encouraging students to embrace their own vernacular and language means that instructors will often have to step out of their comfort zone. We cannot be afraid to allow the dynamics between instructor and student shift a bit—sometimes, they will be the expert and teacher, and we will have to defer to their expertise.
I’m sure this list could go on—in fact, it should. These are merely a few idea of how the university could and should go forward as it works to achieve the title of HSI.