“Infiltrate What Exists, Innovate What Doesn’t”: Mentoring in the Academy, Leading By Example Part 1 – The Feminist Wire

“Infiltrate What Exists, Innovate What Doesn’t”: Mentoring in the Academy, Leading By Example Part 1

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In her 2010 presidential address to the American Studies Association, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore invited us to “infiltrate what exists, innovate what doesn’t.” I achieved this last May when I was promoted to the rank of Full Professor.  The rank of professor is the highest of the standard academic ranks in the United States, and is held by 29.5% of U.S. academics. Specifically, there are currently 176,485 tenured full professors at the nation’s public and private research universities – 72 percent white men, 17 percent white women, 8 percent men of color (Black, Hispanic and Native American combined) and 2 percent women of color – combined. The numbers are less promising at liberal arts colleges, which is where I earned my promotion.

I visualize myself as a mentor; this two-part piece is offered in that spirit. I am a straight Black feminist, queer-friendly sister who made it. This piece is built around my academic professional development plan, and it is part of what I hope will be a larger conversation around mentoring and developing positive, empowering, caring space within the academy.

I hope to convey the highlights of my teaching, scholarship, and service at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and in the Twin Cities community, a place I have made my personal and professional home for the last 19 years. I trace the core components of my pedagogical philosophy informing that work, as well as a clear sense of the interests and goals directing my future work. The purpose is to provide a (not the only) model for other feminist scholars, especially women of color. Far too often, we are without mentors. My example here offers a way to start a larger conversation about mentoring for feminist, queer, antiracist, and people of color scholars.

As an interdisciplinary scholar trained in American Studies and, most recently, the law (I earned my JD in 2011), my area of specialty is contemporary African American history since 1945, with a particular emphasis on women’s varied roles in Black and American histories. In my research, I examine the contributions of women of color to feminist theory post-1970, using source material that includes everything from autobiography to critical legal studies, as well as social and political history. I strive to recover episodes of historical significance that have largely been neglected, ignored, or lost within general scholarship and contextualize them within broader historical frameworks.

However, recognition without action is not enough; we must apply the lessons learned (or ignored at our peril) to the world in which we live. To this end, I reach out beyond academic discourse to remain civically engaged, accessible, and relevant, providing my students a contemporary model on how the study of the humanities, public advocacy and political activism can lead to productive conversations and real social change.

Passion for public advocacy and political activism informs my teaching, scholarship, and service. Over the course of my career, I have created opportunities for students, colleagues, and community members to take what they learn and apply it in meaningful, engaged ways. This philosophical orientation is also a theoretical one. It has motivated me to create new courses, new learning opportunities, and even a new department during my time at Macalester. My training in American Studies gave me special insights into my study of legal texts, and my legal training has enhanced and honed my work in critical race theory (CRT). CRT investigates how the law, explicitly and implicitly, has subordinated and reinforced the subordination of men and women of color. I believe my cross-disciplinary teaching and research in both CRT and legal studies uniquely places me in a position to facilitate a better understanding of the law, and also point to ways in which the study of law may contribute to the humanities.

Here, I offer the professional development plan I developed for myself to share a clear sense of the interests and goals directing my career in ways that satisfied me. The framework is familiar as the structure of any professional development statement in the academy, including the three core elements of my teaching, scholarship, and service. It concludes with an articulation of my next significant scholarly activity and additional professional goals.  In the first installment, I speak directly to my teaching. In the second installment, I discuss scholarship and service, returning back to ways we can think about infiltrating and innovating while mentoring our feminist peers.


Pedagogy is a form of social practice and it should inspire a lifelong, hands-on learning commitment to students. Teaching is not simply a matter of improving academic preparation or demonstrating an area of ongoing research. It must expand our sense of possibility for the world beyond the classroom. This belief informs my philosophy of teaching: students grow as individuals when we invite them to engage in rigorous classroom methodologies and meaningful civic engagement.

I have adapted and expanded upon existing courses and curricula to develop several innovative courses because they enhance and build upon my subject area specialties of race, law, and feminism. The fact that these courses are included in the Critical Theory Concentration, Legal Studies Concentration, and the Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Department reflects and reinforces my interdisciplinary interests, and underscores my ability to make meaningful contributions outside of my home department of Political Science.

Whenever possible, my courses involve a field component that requires students to make critical “real world” connections. Often, I have had to create these types of connections from the ground-up because students might not have had these experiences prior to my course.  I begin with simply exposing students to the world beyond their own home communities. To this end, I developed several courses that involved students traveling with me to a place (or places) where they would learn history in situ.

One example of my civic engagement pedagogy is a course I offered in the late 1990s on Critical Race Feminism, a discipline that is part of an evolving tradition within the legal academy that began with Critical Legal Studies (CLS). Adrienne Katherine Wing characterizes CLS as an intellectual tradition embracing critiques of individualism and hierarchy in modern Western society. As a primary methodology, critical scholars analyze supposedly neutral concepts, revealing the contingent power relations these concepts mask and conceal.

I brought the students in my Critical Race Feminism course to a ceremony for women graduating from St. Paul-based Genesis II for Women, Inc., the first community-based corrections program for women in the state of Minnesota. The program includes women who participate in a day treatment program in lieu of a prison sentence and women who are part of a probation plan. Many of the women in treatment had young children whose lives had been devastated by their mothers’ problems. Furthermore, many of the women had never learned to parent, which led to a structured parenting education component to the treatment plan.

After the students read Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right of Privacy by Dorothy E. Roberts, I brought the class to observe some women reunite with their children. In their course evaluations, students noted that the experience of taking their classroom reading and applying it by observing real-life situations was an invaluable learning experience for them. This experience was also valuable for me — it inspired me to pursue formal training in the law.

I felt that it was time to take my own academic preparation—and, by extension, my teaching—to another level.  I entered the part-time evening program at William Mitchell College of Law in 2007, three years after obtaining tenure at Macalester College, to practice engaged learning outside of the academy. In 2009, I won a highly competitive $96,000 Bush Leadership Fellowship from the Bush Foundation, which paid my salary for a leave of absence during which I completed my JD. The Bush Leadership Fellowship is a catalyst to shape vibrant communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota by investing in courageous and effective leadership that significantly strengthens and improves the well being of people in these three states. With my law degree, I wanted to apply my political and theoretical beliefs to action-oriented work that expanded rights, opportunities, and privileges for marginalized people, especially women and people of color. I also realized that my “on-the-ground” legal practice with vulnerable people, a component of the law degree curriculum, would have profound value for my students when I returned to the classroom. I would be able to share my real-life experiences, making instruction more relevant and meaningful.

When I returned to Macalester from law school in 2011 (a week after graduating), I taught all new courses because I wanted to bring a contemporary relevance to the curriculum.  In the spring of 2011, I revised my popular Black Public Intellectuals course, inspired by my new experiences in law school. I had first taught Black Public Intellectuals in 1997, the year I finished graduate school, a period marked by the rise of Black scholars in the public sphere where suddenly newspapers, popular magazines, and even television shows featured Black intellectuals. Following my graduation from law school in 2011, I realized that my original syllabus had become outdated, and I re-designed my course to pick up chronologically where my previous course left off. I had originally taught Richard Wright’s Native Son, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Autobiography of Angela Davis, John Edgar Wireman’s Brothers and Keepers, and bell hooks and Cornel West’s Breaking Bread – all wonderful and inspiring texts, to be sure! But it was time for something new.

I decided in my new course we would engage the distinct genre of “political autobiography.”  This was the first time I taught this course only using texts written after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  When I first started teaching Black Public Intellectuals in 1997, Unbought and Unbossed was out of print.  A man named Barack Obama had just been elected to the Illinois State Senate, and Colin Powell’s memoir was one year old.  In 2011 three of our five texts were written in 2010.  William L. Andrews says that slave narratives were written to “Tell a Free Story.”  In this course I revealed a new story of political Blackness. Walk in My Shoes: Conversations between a Civil Rights Legend and his Godson on the Journey Ahead (Andrew Young with Kabir Sehgal, 2010), Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition (Shirley Chisholm, 1970 and 2010), My American Journey (Colin Powell, 1996), Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (Condoleezza Rice, 2010), Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Barack Obama, 1995). The books brought a diversity of perspectives, ranging from a prominent Civil Rights leader to the first Black female Secretary of State and speaking from places left and right of the political center.

My course on Black Intellectuals wasn’t the only class re-invigorated by my sojourn as a law student.  I had stopped teaching my course on Black Feminism while I was finishing my book, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton.  Once I completed my own work, I felt I had the authority (and we all struggle with this, don’t we?) to teach this course in a more sophisticated way. I would be able to incorporate not only my experience from living through this era, but also the extensive research I conducted for my book, But my time spent working with impoverished Black women for my JD, sparked new ideas for my syllabus.  I was excited to dig into the details with my class, examining closely how the President’s policies affected feminist identified Black women.

One of our assignments focused on 1996 welfare reform:  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  Teaching the course fifteen years after this legislation passed allowed us to honestly discuss President Clinton’s support of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act as a possible “centrist” move to help ensure his reelection.  We explored how the dismantling of Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) affected impoverished Black women in particular because poverty is racialized.  To underscore this concept, we compared the welfare laws in Vermont to those in Mississippi, and I was able to share my experience with Black women affected by this act, like the ones I met who were incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.

Later that summer in 2011, I had the opportunity to try out the class Race and the Law with an entirely new audience: the students at the William Mitchell College of Law. During our first class we explored how we had been taught law. We learned about Langdell’s “case-dialogue” method and formalism, the school of thought that coincides with it. We then examined the legal realists who posed the first critique of formalism, followed by the critical legal studies scholars. We covered this background so that they could understand how, when, and why critical race theory entered the Academy.  On the second day of class we viewed the documentary, Race – The Power of An Illusion: Episode Three: The House We Live In. After that we discussed the concept of “whiteness.”

We then spent the following six weeks reading critical race theory, and as their final written assignment I had them write a ten-page critical analysis of Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law. It was with this text that we came full circle; the authors Farber and Sherry, both long-standing liberals, argue that “radical multiculturalism” gives liberalism a bad name. They claim that race theorists embrace a system of thought that admits no objective reality, no truth, and no hope of a just or equal society.  On the final day of class I left the students with this question—is critiquing a post-racial or color-blind America in 2011 really “beyond all reason?” The students were too indoctrinated to “look behind the mirror” to see their whiteness, but they thanked me for being “fair.”

For me, this class tested my own pedagogical philosophy that it is only by working outside one’s comfort zone that we gain insight into our beliefs, and ourselves. Teaching Race in the Law in the fairly liberal setting of Macalester is much different than bringing that course to law students, (including a Republican State Representative), and I most likely never would have had the courage if I didn’t have that JD behind me. Despite the law students’ resistance to critical thinking, I still left the course with a sense of satisfaction, and a better understanding of where the points of resistance are from an opposing point of view.

When I returned to Macalester in the fall, I taught the new American Studies Junior Seminar:  Race and the Law.  In the course I added my signature “travel” component, and we visited Dakota County Jail and Lino Lakes Prison so that we could see first hand the difference between jail (typically for lesser offenses and shorter sentences) and prison (for more serious offenses and longer sentences).

In the fall of 2011, I also re-vamped Introduction to African American Studies. When I first started teaching this course in the ‘90s I focused on how African American Studies became a discipline.  We had read The White Architects of Black Education:  Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 by William H. Watkins.  The purpose of this text was to examine how white abolitionists founded Historically Black Colleges.  We then read Fabio Rojas’ important work, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, which explains how the study of Black folk arrived on college campuses.  I demystified the radicalism of Black studies by reading Noliwe Rooks’ White Money, Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education.

The shortcoming of this course is that we didn’t read many foundational texts.  When I re-designed the course in 2011, we started with discussing Reconstruction by reading Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and the autobiography of Ida B. Wells.  We then analyzed the tensions between Nationalism and Marxism by examining the public intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, and his rival Marcus Garvey.  We used the 1936 Scottsboro case to help us understand the often-overlooked time period between World War I and II. We learned about A. Philip Randolph’s organizing of the Pullman Porters and their influence on the 1963 March on Washington by looking at mainstream and “Negro” presses.  We read the memoir of Daisy Bates in order to think about gender and the Civil Rights Movement.

The course had two urban engagement highlights:  we attended August Wilson’s Play, Two Trains Running at the Penumbra Theater, the nation’s largest and most esteemed African-American theater; and we Skyped with Howard University students who were protesting the 2011 execution of Troy Anthony Davis.  These experiences helped us ask how far we have come from Little Rock and try to address the “Problem of the 21st Century,” which is mass incarceration – what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow.

In the spring of 2012, I taught two new courses: Explorations of Race and Racism, and Feminism and the Law, as well as the Senior Seminar.  The main objectives of Explorations of Race and Racism were to explore the historical construction of racial categories in the United States; to understand the systemic impact of racism on contemporary social processes; to consider popular views about race in the light of emerging scholarship in the field; and to develop an ability to connect personal experiences to larger, collective realities.

We engaged several questions as a group: What are the historical and sociological foundations of racial categories? When does focusing on race make someone racist? What is white privilege, and why does it matter? All students were asked to think and write about their own racial identity. This course, or its equivalent, was required for majors and minors.  We read four texts:  1) Learning to Be White:  Money, Race, and God in America by Thandeka 2) Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb by David Kushner 4) The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, and 5) The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” edited by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting.

I wanted to try something in the classroom that I had never attempted before, so I attended a workshop at the Center for Scholarship and Teaching on “Low-Stakes Debate as a Fun Classroom Activity.”  The faculty demonstrated and discussed a range of easy-to-implement class preparations designed to get students debating. My class was large, (28 students), so I broke them into teams.  I had them choose debate questions and vote on their two favorites.  The final course project was to debate the content of “A More Perfect Union.” Our two questions were:

  • Does Obama equate black anger to white resentment?
  • Was Obama elected because he is mixed race?

Not only did my students listen carefully, speak confidently, and think on their feet, but they also reflected on how much more informed they felt to vote in their first Presidential election in the fall.

I also taught Feminism and the Law.  When I was in college, Lani Guinier was on the University of Pennsylvania’s law faculty before she was nominated to the prestigious and crucial post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. When the Political Science Department decided to invite Professor Guinier to be the Theodore Mitau Lecture in 2012, I designed my course around her visit.  This decision was humbling because I realized that my students did not revere Guinier’s racial analysis the ways that I do.  My ultimate recognition of this came when in turn the Women’s Gender, and Sexuality majors invited Dean Spade, who was an Assistant Professor at the Seattle University School of Law where he teaches Critical Perspectives on Transgender Law.  When I was coming up, Guinier was “new scholarship” – today, Spade represents a new generation. I am grateful that my students introduced me to scholarship related to sexual orientation and gender identity law, and social movement law.

My favorite course that semester was the Senior Seminar, where the students were enthusiastic and committed. The Seminar brought into play many different topics and concepts, ranging from race, sexuality, privilege, oppression, power and identity. The students were not only active in discussions and presentations, but also articulated how they could use their new understanding to affect change in their communities. There was an appreciation for working with others from different backgrounds and learning from their peers. The attached video snapshot shows not only students contemplating the above topics, but the close rapport that evolved over the course of the seminar: Vimeo.

During the summer of 2012, I became the faculty coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, and taught the seven-week seminar. The Summer Seminar covers topics such as “contemporary issues in higher education,” “the politics of knowledge production,” and “preparing to apply to graduate school.”  This course is designed to train those pursuing PhDs and subsequent careers in academia in selected core fields in the Arts and Sciences. My objective was to prepare students for the professoriate.  We met twice a week for seven weeks.  The students learned how to “jump start” their research with a session from Dean Jane Rhodes.  We had Professor Alicia Muñoz (Swarthmore alumna Mellon Fellow) join us for two sessions.  She facilitated discussions with, Bimbola Akinbola ’11, who is a Mellon Fellow on her way to a PhD program at the University of Maryland, and Brittany Lewis, ’09, who just earned her M.A. at the University of Minnesota.  Our primary text was David Noble’s Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism (I will elaborate on this course and my role as the faculty coordinator in the second installment).

In the fall of 2012, I taught Engaging the Public: Writing and Publishing in American Studies for the first time.  In this course the students formed the editorial collective for an on-line journal. To succeed, classmates built a community, collaborated, and compromised in order to build the final product—an on-line journal called Tapestries: Interwoven Voices of Local and Global Identities, published on Macalester’s Digital Commons. One of the most important things students learn, says Caroline Karanja ’12 (Madison, Wis.), is “Collaboration—working with other people; not necessarily seeing eye to eye but learning how to compromise. Because it’s a group editorial board, it makes things a little more difficult. You have to listen to everyone else—that’s been a really important thing for me to learn.”

My classroom has been greatly influenced by Ruthanne Kurth-Schai’s contention that learning is fundamentally relational. To create a truly democratic liberal arts learning experience, I make connections across different facets of knowing, including peer-reviewed journals and the popular press. And I try to lead by example: my own writing and publishing in American Studies spans both academic journals and popular news websites, inflecting the same perspective through different mediums, even different styles of writing, to engage the public in the kinds of discourse typically limited to academia.


Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2.