I’ve been engaged in recent conversations with another woman of color who also teaches in an MFA program, and it’s got me thinking again on how to work with a diverse student body. I’ve always been really positive, thinking that our presence as WOC faculty would ease any kind of anxiety that WOC, that POC may have upon entering their MFA programs. I still believe this — yes, our presence, our visibility as faculty does indeed mean something.
What exactly though, is it to mean?
The thing about workshop is this: We are encouraged to experiment, to risk, and in doing so, we potentially lay ourselves bare and consent to be vulnerable. What happens next? How can we prepare and protect ourselves emotionally for what may happen next? No amount of talk about professionalism can truly negate the emotional toll this work can have on us.
When I think back on my own experiences as a student, I remember that while I was very prolific, grad school wasn’t the most comfortable environment. Being encouraged to experiment and to risk is supposed to be a good thing; indeed, I took that encouragement to heart and was able to grow my poetry as a result. I had a mentor there who said to me that she was less inclined to worry about me because she knew I had a community, a support system which existed outside of the MFA program. I always returned to that community to ground myself, to give proper perspective to what I was learning in the classroom.
And when I felt embattled, that community became a necessary lifeline. I felt embattled when I’d receive indirect or naive comments about race, ethnicity, and the relative “ease” with which we ethnic writers could now publish. The implication was that with all our newfangled ethnic presses, we writers of color were not held to the same rigorous standards to which “mainstream” (read: white) writers were held. The implication, and oftentimes, the explicit statement was that for us writers of color, “anything goes.” The resulting action was either a dismissal of our work, and/or an assumption that anything “ethnic,” that anything we wrote about our “oppression” was loose and sloppy and not worthy of critique.
The challenge then, was to find that balance and synthesis. As an emerging writer, I used to describe my “place” as being perched upon that razor sharp line between community and academy. I’d come to realize that I was romanticizing my position.
But now, experience tells me that perceiving one’s place as being perched in a precarious and painful position between two apparently unbudging worlds/ideologies is not so far from the truth. I have come to realize that for myself, there is no such thing as safe space. My previous attempts to pretend there is no tension between those two worlds — was that idealism or denial?
How do we not make it personal, especially as POC and WOC, who have continually been warned to expect to be embattled, who have also come to realize that “safe space” may be a myth? And how do we reconcile that place between worlds/ideologies? I have always thought of my role as an educator, as an adjunct and working artist, as steps in that direction, but now I am questioning how to make my presence there more meaningful and beneficial to those seeking my mentorship.