Three cheers for recording equipment

I was interviewed for the campus weekly newspaper last week; the story ran today. And the story ran "above the fold," which was nice, even if I think I look a little goofy in the accompanying photograph . . .

The reporter for the paper did a marvelous thing and recorded our conversation. I can tell because the direct quotations in the piece were in fact direct quotations -- they are exactly what I said, not paraphrases or shorthand recollections. Having been somewhat misquoted in several past interviews, I'd like to give a public tip of the baseball cap to Mike Unger for getting it right! I think I come across in the piece close to how I am in daily life, which was nice to see.

Oh, just for the record: 7 biological, 19 adopted, 2 in line for adoption, and one guardianship. Making me officially the oldest of 28 children.


Safe spaces

Last Wednesday (running a bit behind in my blogging here, as in so many other areas of my work…) I attended "Safe Space sticker training." This is a program sponsored by the campus life department and the GLBTA (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered-Ally) center, the point of which was to certify the participants as providers of a safe space within which people can explore their sexuality. For participating we got a nifty rainbow sticker, which is a concrete designation of wherever we post it as a "safe space."

The training was interesting. The central exercise was a group discussion about sexuality, but not one in which people necessarily had to speak from their own experiences. Instead, everyone had to assume the identity of a GLBT person, and try to speak from that place. The instructions were to think about how our own lives might be affected if we had that identity; for those of us who were GLBT individuals, we had the option of speaking from our own actual lives, and for those of us who were not, we should think about how our lives might have been different if we were. [And people who were GLBT individuals were also given the option of adopting a different GLBT identity than the one the enact in their everyday lives.] The point, I think was two-fold: to get non-GLBT people (those who would be "A"s) to really confront what it would be like to struggle with those issues, and to give GLBT folks an opportunity so safely talk about their experiences under the cover of "I might be just playing a role here."

The exercise worked very well; having never really had an opportunity to ask a self-identified transgendered person what kinds of challenges they faced, it was nice to be able to do that in such a setting. There was another, perhaps unintended result of the exercise: by placing all of us in a position where our enacted roles bore no necessary relationship to our actual life experiences, it raised the opportunity to wonder who was "telling the truth" and who was "making things up." I was surprised to see how much I was wondering about the stories that people were telling during the discussion, and whether they were "true" or not. This was surprising to me both because it didn't matter to the exercise, and because it illustrated how central certain notions -- like the "true identity" -- are to our everyday practices of relating to one another.

It was particularly odd at a session devoted to creating safe spaces for the exploration of various sexual and gender identities to find myself so internally insistent on knowing whether the stories that people were telling were true. It wasn't as if knowing whether someone was gay or a lesbian or whatever would have caused me (or anyone else in the session) to dismiss them; the whole point of the exercise, after all, was to create a safe space! But it was almost as if the ambiguity of the situation was itself uncomfortable. Intellectually, I'm not surprised, but emotionally it was odd to confront that uncomfortability in myself.

Indeed, in a "safe space" of the sort that my office will now be labelled as, there needs to be tolerance for precisely that kind of ambiguity. In that way it's different than a classroom space, where my pedagogical reaction to ambiguity is to push students to clarify and to commit and to stake out claims. Classrooms should be safe, I think, but safe for something different: safe for arguing positions, safe for trying out ideas, safe for speaking your mind with the understanding that you will have to defend what you claim. As long as the differences between the spaces are kept clear, I think, there's no problem.



So yes, it's true: I am moving. Not moving my residence, and not moving my place of employment, but moving my office -- from the relatively secluded confines where I am presently lodged, into a student dormitory.

Yes, you read that right: I am moving my office into a dorm. Where students live. And where said students are more likely to come and find me, as opposed to my present office which is more difficult to get to -- my new locale will be right next to the student mailboxes, placing me right on the main traffic path for the undergraduates who inhabit the dorm.

Why am I doing this? In many ways it's irrational, since one of the causal implications of my moving is that I will have less undisturbed time in my office to write and to do the kind of work that gains one prestige within the academic discipline of International Relations. Whether things should be this way or not (and I don't think that they should be, but that's material for another post or ten), one's prestige as an academic depends basically not at all on one's teaching -- including one's relations with undergraduate students -- and almost exclusively on one's research productivity. Hence the urban legend that the way to damn a junior faculty-member is to give her or him a teaching award before she or he gets tenure, since this is supposed to be a signal that they're spending too much time with students and not enough time researching and writing.

Of course, by all indications I'm about to get tenure, so maybe those restrictions no longer apply to me -- at least not as much. Regardless, though, prestige within an academic discipline is virtually never about teaching, and hence devoting more time to teaching (which means less time for writing and research) means going against the socially dominant norm. So why am I doing this irrational thing? Besides the suspicion that I may simply be insane -- which, judging from the looks on many of my colleagues' faces when I tell them about my plans, may not be too far from the truth -- I suspect that there are better reasons.

In fact, I can think of two.

1) the kind of academic I am -- the kind of academic that I aspire to be -- is a student-focused academic. That means that my vocation is to teach students, and everything else that comes with my job should be subordinated to that end. Moving my office into a dorm seems a logical continuation of that path.

2) teaching students is not just about seeing them for a few hours each week in a classroom. It's about reaching the students in a more profound way, connecting with them in such a way that I can really produce the kinds of social spaces within which they can explore contentious issues and try to ascertain who they are and who they want to become. It's hard to do that if your only interactions with students are distorted by the authority and control techniques of a classroom setting! Moving my office into a dorm increases the potential for such informal interactions, as well as enabling me to engage in some co-curricular programming -- and literally reach students where they live.

So after two years in my present office, I will be moving on Tuesday.

I originally had big plans for this move, and in particular for the packing of my office. I wanted to take some time and really triage all of the accumulated crap in the office, and throw a lot of stuff out before I left. But I ran out of time and find myself doing something quite different: tossing things into boxes and planning to triage after the move, during unpacking. In some ways that's fine, because the important thing has been done -- all the stuff in my office has been neatly divided into small boxes. Now all I have to do is to sort it while unpacking, and remember precisely what is in that box labeled "who the heck knows?"