“Teaching Practices in the Era of BLM” Follow-Up Q&A with Dr. Carolyn Ureña

The program in Comparative Literature and the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies sponsored a student-led event on February 5th, 2021, under the title “Teaching Practices in the Era of BLM.” The event, organized by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán, Paulina Barrios, Mònica Tomás, Milan Reynolds, and Amanda González Izquierdo had over 100 people attend. We were honored to have Dr. Carolyn Ureña, a Comparative Literature alumnus and now Assistant Dean for Advising at University of Pennsylvania. Along with Dr. Jonathan Daniel Rosa and Dr. Angel Jones, Dr. Ureña spoke on the ongoing importance of incorporating pedagogy that addresses systemic racism and white supremacy in educational spaces. We thank Dr. Ureña for the opportunity to share her responses to the questions that came out of that workshop and for providing such necessary theory and practice for antiracism in the classroom.

Watch a recording of the workshop here!

Dr. Rosa and Dr. Ureña, how do you see your presentations overlapping and/or diverging? What ideas sparked for you as the other presented?

Thank you for encouraging us to think about our presentations in tandem. I was particularly struck by Dr. Rosa’s illuminating example of Black Cuban-American actress Gina Torres being interviewed by the Telemundo anchor in English. This inability-to-recognize Torres as Spanish speaking, the host’s claim that they had allegedly “both” succumb to stereotypes immediately drew my mind back to my recent re-readings of Fanon on “The Black Man and Language” (of which I spoke in my presentation). I am very much interested in language as a tool of colonial violence, as a tool for accessing power, but also as a weapon for policing who and who does not belong to a particular culture. When Fanon writes about the white French doctors who talk down to their Black and Arab patients in an invented patois/gibberish, they are invoking their position of power as physicians, which shields them from sounding ridiculous since they claim to be meeting the colonized subject “where they are,” so to speak. I’m wondering what it means for the Telemundo host to have spoken her accented English in order to do the same with Torres. How is this complicated by the fact that in some ways, the star is more “powerful” than the host, since her words and image are what sell in this case?

While Dr. Ureña’s presentation centered hope and the stubbornness of idealism, this reveals the ways in which students are often so oppressed that it can be emotionally, physically and structurally devastating pulling them further away from hope. How do we think about joy, foster and encourage in a way that doesn’t rob students of the fullness and validity of their feelings?

Thank you for your question! I would like to clarify that “idealism” in Fanon is not necessarily (or not always) a happy thing, and in my writing on Fanon my aim is to show that hope does not always appear in the places or ways we expect. So when I talk about being stubborn in asserting the presence of the body, I mean this as a proactive stance in opposition to the “business as usual” attitudes that would have us ignore the complexity of the body in favor of the so-called “rational” mind. When I speak of hope in Fanon, I am drawing attention to the moment when he resigns as chief psychiatrist in Algeria, when he writes an impassioned and damning letter to the Resident Minister to reject the colonial structure (I urge everyone to read it!). Many might view this moment as Fanon “giving up,” but I argue this moment of rejection is what opens up new and unexpected opportunities (to this effect, my most recent article on this subject is titled “Hopeful Resignation”). This understanding of hope and idealism, I propose, does not rob students (or anyone who embodies it) of the feelings of anger, indignation, sadness and even momentary despair. What it does, I find, is show us a new way to understand what it means to take a stand, that anger can be quite productive — sometimes saying no, leaving a situation, literally quitting (as in Fanon’s case) can actually push against narratives of “grit” and resilience and allow us to challenge the standards for what it means to succeed, to hope, to be fulfilled.

Link to the article I mentioned: https://brill.com/view/journals/bjgs/6/2/article-p233_233.xml

I am wondering how to factor in how my body experience changes in contexts, for instance, I might feel out of place in a white American classroom, but my body experience is a privileged one in a different context internationally because of caste and class. How do I think through the first experience to listen and respond better to students who come from less privileged backgrounds?

Thank you bringing your own bodily awareness to this discussion. One of the many aspects of existential phenomenology that I find compelling is precisely that it allows us to acknowledge that our bodies are not static because we are always in relation to something/someone else. In other words, we do not exist in a vacuum, so, as you pointed out, we feel differently in our bodies depending on the environment, depending on the presence of other bodies as well. I think the activity I mentioned, the Social Identity Wheel from University of Michigan, might yield especially interesting insights if you were to complete the task with each environment in mind: which identity to do you pay most attention to in situation 1? what identity do you think others notice most, etc? Then repeat for environment 2. The idea here is that one’s growing awareness of the complexity of the experience can help us become more aware and attuned to our students’ complexity as well. Above all, as educators interested in adopting a Freirian model of problem-posing pedagogy, I would say we need to ask our students about their experiences, past and present. I would also ask your students a version of the question you asked me. As with the experience you described, the first-gen, low-income college experience can be very disorienting, and gaining a particular kind of education can make one feel alienated from one’s home (I’m reading Fanon’s “The Black Man and Language” through this lens). Likewise, for me, attending a primarily white institution as a Latina was certainly a reminder that I was one of just a few, whereas back home in the primarily Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in NYC, I was one among many, from an ethnic perspective.

As part of the problem-posing pedagogy, do we seek particular pedagogical structures/strategies that would also gradually bring students to their own? Do educators avail themselves of particular methods for structuring questions in the classroom?

I love that your question points to the possibility of students developing thier own pedagogical strategies — when I teach Freire, I actually tell students that just because I am aiming to build a Freirian classroom does not mean they will encounter this everywhere they go. Therefore, I want to help them become Freirian student-teachers, so that whatever classroom they enter, whatever syllabus they encounter, they feel empowered to ask themselves and their friends “what is the goal of this class? what about this is important or relevant for me, for my growth?” My point being, they don’t need anyone’s permission to bring their questions to their learning. That being said, I always talk about the importance of being strategic, as I am not throwing out the rule book that may say “these are the grading standards, this will be on the test,” since certain kinds of academic success, even traditionally construed, can open important doors; the question is, what do we do when we open them? Still, there is much more to learning the materials than memorizing and producing the right answers.

In terms of methods for structuring questions, I often find myself encouraging questions that denaturalize the presence of the text or object in the class, by which I mean, encouraging the student to put themselves in the role of the syllabus writer (i.e. teacher!) — why do you think we are STILL talking about this old/strange/boring (if that’s how it’s being received) text? What can we gain from it? What can we set aside? If it’s somehow mandated by the discipline/class/high school…. why might that be so? Answers range from utilitarian to utopian, and that’s part of the point — nothing is obvious, nothing is static, which reminds me of when Fanon writes, “Society, unlike biochemical processes, does not escape human influence.”

Oh! And I mentioned during the Q&A that literature is a great place to discuss race and difference more broadly, even simply by starting to ask questions about why particular characters were made to speak by particular authors in particular ways, and I have a recommended text for this — Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” about two young girls, one white, one black, and their repeated encounters throughout their lives. The thing is, Morrison never tells us who is white and who is black. Check it out, you won’t regret it. But you don’t have to take my word for it! (here is LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, reading and discussing it: https://www.stitcher.com/show/levar-burton-reads/episode/recitatif-by-toni-morrison-part-1-200144090)

What would you suggest / recommend to professor (white/black) to feel comfortable in raising racial questions in class—how to be intentional in incorporating racial issues.

For handling these kinds of discussions — whether for the first time or each new time — I am so grateful for the wealth of resources to be found at college Centers for Teaching and Learning. As educators, we really never need to do this alone. We can seek help and guidance from other educators, others who know how to start these discussions. I’ve mentioned the University of Michigan Inclusive Teaching resources (https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/). UPenn’s Center for Teaching and Learning has some great, evidence-based resources and strategies as well (https://www.ctl.upenn.edu/Node/160, and has sponsored events about trauma-informed teaching that included representatives from Counseling and Psychological Services. If you search for resources on how to discuss the 2020 Election results, you’ll also find helpful advice that is applicable in this context.

Even after reading through these kinds of materials, we may continue to feel unsure, and my thinking at the moment is that true learning happens when we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. I believe the commitment must come before the comfort. I think of our students, those who are not yet comfortable speaking in class — we encourage them to try, we find ways to let them know that we will not let them falter, that we will help them through that first comment and also give them feedback on how to improve. Oh, and you better believe their classmates will give feedback (nods, building on the comment, eye rolls, silence). I would say to you and all professors, speak sincerely, humbly (even announce it — I’m not sure how to have this conversation, this is the first time I am trying, and I need you help), and above all, ask questions. Students overwhelmingly appreciate being heard, being included, as well as our willingness to be human in front of them.

Once again, we thank our presenters Dr. Ureña, Dr. Rosa, and Dr. Jones for thoughtful and pertinent talks, and the Comparative Literature Program for supporting this workshop.

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