Woman of Color in the Academy: MFA Industrial Complex, Revisited

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.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

One Comment

  1. hi barbara,

    thanks for the invitation to read and think about this post.

    yes, it’s meant a great deal to me, seeing and taking classes with faculty of color and queer faculty. visibility for me has meant hope for potential allies and mentors, and sometimes, models for how to teach, how live in the world as writers and artists. as a 1.5-generation immigrant, a child of the first generation in my family to go to school in the states, of haphazard class background (finance and food service), i’ve looked to writers and teachers to imagine what’s possible in my own life. i think too that visibility is only one piece of the equation: not all minorized faculty care about shifting existing power structures in the academy. what this has looked like for me and my peers is teachers bringing in noncanonical work, practicing engaged pedagogies, and undertaking extra, often emotional labor to mentor students and help them navigate the craziness. i’ve been handed opportunities to publish and talk about my work, been encouraged, pushed, challenged in crucial ways. all this has mattered a lot. has shaped my ideas about community, how i want to cultivate relationships with other writers, how i want to teach.

    even before starting at my mfa program, i’ve taken for granted that safe spaces don’t exist for me. i have not figured out how to prepare for embattlement, but for me, it isn’t not taking things personally. and i know i’m speaking from a place of privilege here, since i don’t have a job on the line or students depending on me. it’s only that as i get older it’s becoming more and more important to bring the various parts of my life together. i’m thinking of bell hooks’ observation on the traditional classroom expectation that students (for that matter, anyone showing up to work) leave their shit at the door: ‘The self was presumably emptied out the moment the threshold was crossed, leaving in place only an objective mind—free of experiences and biases. There was fear that the conditions of the self would interfere with the teaching process.’ i was never good at this. i constantly let conditions of the self interfere with my learning, which is why i felt incredibly guilty for a long time about being a mediocre college student. but asserting wholeness of self, blurring the distinctions between professional-personal-political-ethical-physical-emotional-poetic-aesthetic, has so far felt like the only worthwhile response to the power and language negotiations i’ve encountered in the mfa industrial complex. it’s been messy, but it’s also been real, which is all i want out of a struggle even if i can’t win. thinking now of elaine castillo’s consideration of trinh t. minh-ha’s work, of how life and writing can come together: ‘Autobiography not as self-closure or circumscription, but as part of a constant and irrepressible openness, continuity and contiguity. The third act of the political is personal, the personal is political, is: Take the world personally. Take it to heart. Don’t stop taking it to heart. Be called oversensitive, all the time.’

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