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Fairly Represented



Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us for our summer reading series. We're joined by guest host Candice Mayhill, who we last heard in episode 19 of season two. For this series we've asked members of the AACC community to read excerpts from their original writings, specifically texts and stories that enlighten and inspire. Our readers will also share what led them to write their selection, what they learned, and of course, how they redefined themselves. We hope you enjoy the series and return for season three beginning this fall.

HEATHER: My name is Heather Rellihan. I'm a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and the chair of Interdisciplinary Studies and I'm gonna be reading a passage from the introduction to a book that I co-edited with Genevieve Carminati called "Theory and Praxis: Women's and Gender Studies "at Community Colleges". This section is entitled, "Personal Narratives "in Women's and Gender Studies "at Community Colleges: Challenges".

In March of 2013, about five years after I completed my Ph.D., a representative from the College of Arts and Humanities (ARHU) at my alma mater contacted me to ask if I would speak to current graduate students on a panel about “professional pathways after graduate school.” Initially I was happy to receive the invitation. During my time as a graduate student, the idea of teaching at a community college had never been mentioned by any of my mentors, any professors I took classes with or any of my fellow students. Therefore, it never entered my mind as an opportunity until one day when I happened upon a job advertisement for a local community college. When I saw the advertisement for the position (which happily I ended up getting hired for, and is the position I currently hold), I considered applying, but I didn’t know anything about community colleges and I had questions. I went to my mentors and asked them things like: Is there tenure at community colleges? Will there be time to write and encouragement to publish at community colleges? Do community college professors make the same amount of money as professors at four-year schools? No one knew the answers, which further otherized community colleges in my mind. So years later, when I received an invitation asking me, a community college professor, to come and speak to graduate students I was pleased. I thought it was great that the school was making an effort to provide more information and encouragement for graduate students to consider community colleges among their career options. However, my response to the invitation changed as I read the email more closely.

The email explained that the event was designed to give current graduate students “an opportunity to hear from Arts and Humanities alums about their career paths and tips and resources for finding jobs ‘outside academia.’” The invitation went on to explain that there had been a “similar event in the fall for students interested in learning more about pursuing tenure and tenure-track careers in academia” and the panel discussion I was being asked to speak at would be divided into “four different professional pathways: Government, NGOs and Think Tanks; Museums and Archives; Community Colleges and Non-Higher Ed Teaching; [and] Academic Administration and Arts Organizations.”

I was confused. It seemed that there were two events: one the previous semester that focused on “real” academic jobs, and another event for the current semester that was focused on jobs “outside academia.” I was a tenured professor at a college, but I was being asked to speak on a panel about jobs “outside academia.” At first I thought that the problem was that the email writer simply didn’t know what job I held. After all, I didn’t know her. Apparently my department had forwarded my name to the dean’s office and so things might have just gotten confused in the process. But then I realized that community college teaching was specifically mentioned as one of the four “professional pathways” that structured the event. So clearly, whoever designed the event consciously framed community college teaching as “outside academia.” I decided to play dumb. I wrote back saying that there must have been a mix-up and that they must have intended to invite me to the previous semester’s panel, the one on academic jobs. The event coordinator emailed back explaining that no, they knew I worked at a community college, they still wanted me to come speak, and that they were using the term “outside academia” “very broadly.” What followed was a back and forth that eventually moved from the event coordinator to an associate dean. The associate dean said that while the fall panel had been focused on “the academic job search,” they wanted the spring event to be “a more interactive forum for grad students to have exposure to, and real conversation with, a range of professionals who have graduated with an arts and humanities Ph.D., both within and beyond the academy.” In her framing, the fall and spring panels were not mutually exclusive or opposites, but the spring event was more just inclusive. She went on to explain that she hoped I would come and speak so that I could offer the graduate student attendees insights “about how community college teaching may be unique compared to what they have experienced at UMD.” I declined to speak on the panel, but noted that if the university decided to offer a new panel, in an upcoming semester, where community colleges teaching was not separated from other college-level teaching, I would be happy to participate. I was snarky, and my best self might have sent a more carefully worded email, but in the moment I felt justified. Community college students continually receive messages that they are not real college students, as I told the associate dean, and I would not participate in that narrative.

Was I overreacting? On the one hand, I don’t think anyone was intentionally trying to offend me, or for that matter to say that they thought community colleges are not a part of academia. I’ve planned discussion panels like this before and the truth is that events often evolve and change over the duration of the planning process and, especially if a number of people are involved in the planning, different perspectives can be added to the event in ways that are inconsistent. Maybe one planner thought that graduate students should learn about community college teaching and another planner wanted to expose students to opportunities with NGOs and both got added to the same event, a separate event from the one about teaching at four-year schools, through a series of edits that were more a result of happenstance than a unified vision.

The associate dean didn’t take me up on my offer to speak at a future campus-wide event, but several years later I was reminded of the event because I was contacted again by the university, but this time from my home department. I was asked to speak to graduate students in the program I had graduated from, something I had done once before. The first time I spoke to the graduate students from my program I was on a panel with others from my graduate school cohort and we all spoke about our experience in the program and our paths after completing our PhDs. The second time, I was again asked to talk about my “professional career path post PhD,” but this time the panel was framed a bit differently: the heading for the panel was “Non Academia & NGO Positions.” I went through the same back and forth I had done with the previous panel. This time I ended up going to speak. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I had relationships with people in my department I was more hesitant about taking a stand. As before, I didn’t feel like the person was trying to be offensive. I did feel hurt, though. Maybe because it confirmed for me what I had suspected: that my department didn’t view me as one of them. Maybe because I hold women’s studies to a higher standard: I believe that because the field is committed to understanding social hierarchies and advocating for the marginalized that they should be better able to see the ways in which the othering of community colleges hurts the marginalized students that disproportionately attend these schools. I see myself as a college professor and I see my students as college students. However, my interactions around this panel and the previous event, combined with many other experiences I’ve had since I’ve started working at a community college, seem to indicate that other people don’t view me as a “real” college professor and don’t view my students as “real” college students.

I went back in forth in my mind about whether I should share these stories. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that my alma mater has been trying to present community college teaching as a career pathway for its graduate students. I wish that option had been presented to me when I was a graduate student. Furthermore, I don’t think that the slights that I perceived were intentional, and on some level I can understand why professors and administrators at a research university view community college teaching as something quite different from what they do. However, I think it’s important to talk about these stories because they reflect stereotypes about community colleges that are widespread throughout the culture, and they reveal the othering that community college professors often feel when interacting with our peers at four-year schools. I’ve shared these stories from my vantage point, talking about how they’ve affected me, but one of the questions we might ask is how this othering of community colleges affects community college students. How does it affect a student’s sense of self when they get the message that they are not legitimate college students? Does it affect how they view their potential? Does it affect what they think they can achieve? Does it affect their ability to persist and succeed? And on a larger scale, how do these stereotypes affect how funding is allocated to community colleges? How does it affect the ways in which outside stakeholders define and restrict what a community college education can be? My point is that these stereotypes about community colleges have consequences, and for this reason I thought it was valuable to share my story.

CANDICE: Welcome Heather and thank you for joining us today and for sharing your thoughts and for reading with us. This idea that you talked about, this incident that happened and the feelings associated with it, what inspired you to write on this topic and then to share it here with us today?

HEATHER: Having taught at a community college for about 15 years one of the things that's been very clear to me is that there is a certain stigma associated with community colleges that is shared by a lot of people. It was a stigma that I myself had before I taught at a community college and the stigma is that community colleges are somehow lesser, not real colleges, somehow inferior, you know they're 13th grade something like that. And I think that this stigma around community colleges is not only inaccurate, but it's also harmful. And so even though I did feel a bit conflicted about sharing the experience that I talk about in the passage because I wanted to make sure I wasn't being unfair to the people that were involved in this story. I do think it's important to make visible some of the sometimes subconscious or underlying or hidden assumptions that people have about community colleges because I think that ultimately they're very harmful.

CANDICE: I agree, absolutely. And this is an important and difficult topic I think to reflect on and to write on. As you were articulating your ideas here what challenges did you face in your writing process?

HEATHER: I think when one is thinking through how to share a story that they're only gonna be telling their version of, but which involves other people. One of the concerns that I think it's natural to have is are you fairly representing the other people in the story. And in the story that I share I don't think anyone's intention was to insult community colleges or to insult me and so one of the things I struggled with in writing the piece was making sure or at least trying to have what I wrote be more about the stereotypes around community colleges and less about maybe personal intent. It's a story worth sharing because I think it speaks to issues that are important, but I also didn't want the focus to be on individuals who I think didn't have any malicious intent when they were interacting with me. So trying to figure out how to both tell the story in a way that I think gets to the point that I was trying to make, but also be respectful of other people's intentions and also be thoughtful about the fact that they're not getting to share their side of it in my narrative. Those were some of the things that I struggled with.

CANDICE: And what did you learn through that process of writing about the stigma and making sure that you're being fair about yourself, about others, about your community or about the world?

HEATHER: I think one of the things that I learned is that the recursive approach of writing helps you to sort through things in your own mind or at least it does for me. And so the first draft of this narrative is quite different than the one that eventually got included in the book and I think that's because each time I would go through and re-read it I would be having a conversation with the text. Am I articulating that person's perspective fairly accurately? Do I sound defensive? Do I sound like I'm misrepresenting? Should I add something in here more for context? So I think for me one of the benefits of writing, especially personal narratives is that the active reading and re-reading and re-reading your own writing allows you to I think have a conversation both with the text but also with yourself because the me that wrote the first draft got a little better with each draft because I was essentially talking to myself and asking myself questions. And through that process I think not only does the writing get better, but I think hopefully you as the writer have a little bit more of a sense of the nuance of your own thinking and then if that nuance then comes through then both the piece is better, but also maybe you have a better understanding of whatever it is that you're writing about.

CANDICE: I love that idea of having a conversation with the self who wrote that first draft and a lot of those conversations can lead us into redefinition and we are all about redefinition here. So how has reflecting and narrating and writing about this experience redefined you?

HEATHER: I think that for me teaching at a community college is a passion, and redefine to me, the prefix in some ways kind of indicates something maybe completely new or different or maybe that's just my take on it. I don't know if I would say redefine, but maybe revise, you know continually revising. And writing this book has really re-centered my passion for not just teaching at a community college, but also teaching Women's Studies classes or Gender Studies, Sexuality Studies classes, teaching classes that deal with social inequality and diversity issues. And I think always with any kind of writing project for me it refuels my passion for writing itself. I think a lot of the work that I do there is not a tangible product to show for it. You know a lot of what I do is reading and thinking and talking and there is something about having something published that is shareable and you can pick up and touch and send to people that gives you some sense of accomplishment. So I think for me it's also refueled my passion for writing.

CANDICE: And since you do have this tangible, published product that you can share how do you hope that it helps students or staff or faculty or perspective members of a community college redefine or refuel or revise themselves?

HEATHER: That's a great question because to me that question is really the goal of the book. So the book I about people who teach Women's and Gender, Sexuality Studies classes, courses at community colleges and most of these programs are quite small and the people who do this work can often feel isolated. Often times the coursework in these classes can deal with issues that require extra emotional labor on the part of the professor because the content often surfaces personal stories from students which need to be integrated into the kind of theories of the course in ways that have to be done quite carefully and thoughtfully. So it's difficult work at times and that combined with the fact that often these programs are quite small, I think people who teach these classes, especially at community colleges can feel isolated and so the book actually emerged out of an intent to create a conversation across the country through these often small programs and that's why we decided to use the format of an anthology that includes pieces from people at various schools around the country, but also student's stories. So one of the things that I love about the book is that it includes personal narratives from students who have taken Women's and Gender Studies courses or majoring in the field and so I think my hope is that the book helps to create more community to share ideas, to form a kind of network of people through a written text that helps to then maybe bring people together in more kind of permanent ways. So my hope is that in at least some small way it helps redefine our sense of Women's and Gender Studies at community colleges. It is the only book on the topic. There is indeed very little written about it, even in journal articles, so I think one of my hopes is that it really does redefine the sense of community for the folks that are doing this work in colleges across the country.

CANDICE: I do think that we all hope that reading and writing do bring out conversations that can really extend the idea of what community even means past a smaller community and into a larger one which kinda leads me into my next question about what are you reading lately, Heather? That we might want to read or that you think is important for other people to take a look at or that's just fun. What are you reading?

HEATHER: One of the books that I am reading right now is called "Teaching With Tenderness: Toward "an Embodied Practice" written by Becky Thompson. And this book is an analysis and really in some ways kind of a thoughtful consideration of her own history with pedagogy and thinking about ways to kind of extend the work of some other influential thinkers, like Bell Hooks in "Teaching to Transgress" and Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", which are also both books that have been very important to me. But Becky Thompson particularly in her book "Teaching with Tenderness" tries to bring in contemplative practices, mindfulness, meditation, ritual and think about how they work in pedagogy and especially how they help to do social justice work in education. And so I've been quite inspired by her work and I see it as something that's very related to the kind of teacher that I hope to be, so that's one text that I've been reading.

CANDICE: And are you working on any other projects or have you recently completed anything that you would like to share with us?

HEATHER: I've been working on a few academic pieces, but the thing I'd like to share is actually a book I guess that I'm writing with my 10 year old niece. I'm very close to my niece but she lives in Seattle because of the Covid pandemic I have not been able to see her and so one way that we've decided to try to stay in touch is that we created a Google Document where we take turns writing paragraphs in a story. And we actually just finished the first, what we're calling our first book and starting on our second and it's a really fun process because each person writes a paragraph each day and it could be like a half a page of three fourths of a page and then the next person has to pick up and kind of respond. So nobody can really control the story because it's always shifting based on what the previous person wrote and so it's been really fun. The book is about two characters that are named after me and my niece, Heather and Gabriela and we are given magical powers to help people during the Covid pandemic. And so our title in the book is "The Very Important Helpers" and we go from person to person or group to group and use our magical powers to help people, so each chapter in the book is kind of like a different little adventure of us helping people. So that has been as you might imagine a complete joy to work on and it's also been a wonderful way to kind of share through this process of creating a story a new level of my relationship with my niece.

CANDICE: I absolutely love that. Now I want like the Heather, Gabriela podcast. Thank you again Heather so much for joining us today and for sharing your time and for sharing your story with us. Stay safe and hello to your niece Gabriela as well.

HEATHER: Thank you, Candice.

Redefine U is production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our summer series guest host is Candice Mayhill. Executive producer is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Amanda Behrens. Our writer Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Jeremiah Prevatte, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan. Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website, I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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