Critical reflection on my experience as a student in unexciting classrooms enabled me not only to imagine that the classroom could be exciting but that this excitement could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual and/or academic engagement.”
-- bell hooks, Teaching to Trangress
As a first-year graduate student, I found myself needing to reorient my mindset to what I considered “appropriate” for the serious academic nature that is often associated with pursuing graduate studies. At the completion of my first year in a master’s program, it is safe to assume that regardless of one’s personal background, we are all actively trying to find that mindset that aligns with the higher education environment that we are collectively building.
This led to the question of how we are performing the role of “Student”, even as we attempt to evolve into “more suitable” positions that suggest our expertise and knowledge on any given discipline. But have we stepped outside of ourselves, in the midst of working to become “Teacher/Scholar/Researcher/etc.” and asked ourselves: When/how do we stop being a “Student”?
Pedagogy in Question
This spring semester, I registered for a course titled “Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences”, taught jointly by Cathy N. Davidson (The Graduate Center, English; The Futures Initiative) and Eduardo Vianna (LaGuardia Community College, Social Sciences; The Graduate Center, Psychology). My intention for this class was to start thinking about my future plans as an educator (in literature and writing at the university-level) and get ideas for effective teaching methods that will help my future students engage with the material that could be relevant to their personal lives and the general society we live in.
Like in my past years as a student at an institution, I felt lost in the sea of texts that uses obscure language to explain complex theoretical concepts and ideas… The feelings of inadequacy and intrusion fed into the imposter syndrome that should have vanished, after the previous semester, when I realized how much I liked being back in school and returning to a groove that I had back in my undergraduate days.
But I found comfort in learning that other people in my class felt the same way. Some were already in the teaching field and registered for the course in hopes to change/modify their approaches so that their students can apply the skills they learned in a classroom setting. A few were preparing to become teachers while working on their individual projects as students themselves. Nonetheless, we came into this classroom space, in the roles of “students”, because we wanted to improve our outlooks on education and become agents of change in transforming the educational space.
Academic Transcript With Nuance
When I first started grade school, I attended a Catholic school under the Archdiocese of New York. I received basic education in math, science, social studies, and “English” (reading and writing comprehension in the English language, both of which I had trouble “mastering”, as a child of immigrants trying to understand the language of home and the language of school). I was then transferred to public school in 5th grade, under the East Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, NY. This particular school district is known for having a populous of Black/Latino/immigrant residents. However, the Board of Education did not reflect nor represent the great majority of the population, when it came to funding and public interest for the students attending the schools under East Ramapo. (It is still an issue that persists to this day, but I will not disclose any more information here; you can view news reports on the state of the school district by Internet search.)
Nonetheless, I was considered a “good student” with all of my teachers at East Ramapo. The most common feedback I received was being “a pleasure to have in class”. In modern Internet-speak, the comment spawned into many jokes that analyze the truer meaning of how teachers viewed students who weren’t too troublesome in class yet met the bare minimum requirements to pass the class…
I was an honors student in middle school, then an AP/Honors student in high school, with my name included on the Dean’s List for 3 years (I struggled with my studies in 9th grade, which I will elaborate on later). I was ranked #27 in my graduating class. I was inducted into numerous honor societies, including the National Honors Society, that seemed to serve more for the personal ego than for anything else productive. In retrospect, I was a “model student” that other students should aspire to be, if they could only become serious with their studies.
So, what did it mean for me to be just “a pleasure to have in class”, despite these accolades?
Behind that comment is a teenager who balanced 6-8 different subjects each year, having no personal time for recreation or leisure, let alone inadequate hours for proper sleep. The “pleasant student” had to continue doing homework past 1am every night, despite being told by her parents that she needs to go to sleep now because she needs to wake up early for school in the morning. Those very parents wondered why she still hasn’t finished her work, despite numerous reminders that this is the typical workload for someone taking AP/honors classes.
It took years for me to realize that my inability to really speak up in class, even if I knew the answers to my teachers’ questions, was because I was suffering from prolonged burnout, which caused lack of appetite (pointed out by comments like, “you look so thin!” or “do you even eat anything?”), irritability (mistaken for being a bad personality trait rather than a serious mental health issue), and periods of depressive moods (which prompted “well-intentioned” folks to offer quick solutions like “just smile more” or “stop being so negative all the time!”). There was no way for me, back then, to figure out what was wrong with me, despite wanting to show how serious I was about my studies, to let my teachers know that I cared about their classes, and to prove to everyone that I was good enough to be someone beyond being a pleasure to have in class.
Stepped On By Stepping Stones
Cathy N. Davidson’s book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students For A World in Flux, mainly focuses on the structure and impact of higher education/the physical university, as we know it today, and how it needs to be transformed and modernized for the new diversity we have now. From the introduction, she states:
[W]e need to redesign higher education systemically and systematically, from the classroom to the board of trustees, from the fundamentals of how we teach and learn to how we measure outcomes, select, credential, and accredit in this hyperconnected, precarious time.
Davidson provides historical background on the emergence of the “standard” university, starting with Charles Eliot as the president of Harvard in the late 1800s, and how the basic structure of operation has remained unchanged to this day. She also discusses the ways in which the idea of higher education is being challenged across small corners of the United States, most of which tend to be overlooked unless we are the very people who are involved in these changes, such as CUNY or community colleges.
This reminded me of my senior year of high school, being one of the “elite students” who was being conditioned to believe that attending a big name university would be beneficial to me as a student and to a school district that was underfunded and needed to bolster its reputation at the county- and state-level. I remember being told that attending the community college just over one mile away from my high school (locally referred to as “RCC”) meant that we failed to achieve higher on our “path to success”. In the minds of faculty and administration that needed to prove they could produce brilliant students with ambitions, four-year universities were the pinnacle of personal success, socio-economic mobility, and so much more…
That may be true, to certain degrees… until you have to take into account the aspects of affordability, adaptability, and integration in these new spaces of education and socialization. Most of these spaces, for young people of color and for those coming from low-income households and communities, these spaces are difficult to navigate, even though we were encouraged to jump ahead anyway, because in the real world, no one will hold your hand. It was as if telling someone that drowning builds more character than learning how to use any floatation device for water travel.
I attended a CUNY from 2011 to 2015. I wanted to stay in New York, but had hopes to move into the city from my suburban home and enjoy my 20-something independence that was ingrained to my psyche through television and movie portrayals. My years of being “the good student” would finally be rewarded, if it meant that I could delve more into subjects that I actually liked and embracing the youth that older adults encouraged me to live, as a rite of passage into adulthood.
I did not get any of that.
For those four years, I commuted two hours a day between my house in Rockland County to campus in the Upper East Side. In hindsight, this seems more cost-effective than having to rent an apartment or live in a dormitory owned by a third-party agency, all of which cost Manhattan prices. There was barely any time for socializing, due to my commute schedule and the impersonal environment of the college campus (CUNY is more of a commuter school than a typical university that cultivates any sense of a student life). All I had going for me was attending classes and completing assignments in a timely manner, which often posed difficulties that I would later learn to be certain measures of disability that I could neither fathom nor articulate to anyone.
I did not want to be seen as a bad student. I wanted to maintain the facade of someone who had everything together, despite having problems that made it impossible for me to fully invest my time and energy in work.
In later years, when I was ready to talk about what was going on with me at university, I was shocked at how there were other people that went through or are going through similar experiences that brought up familiar feelings of lack. We were not living up to the expectations deemed by society as acceptable. We were outliers in a system that perpetuated normalcy--one should be following a set path in order to be considered “successful”, “functional”, “able-bodied”, “upright”, “normal”.
The assigned readings for the class introduced me to myself in past years of being a student, from primary school to undergraduate studies at a city university. The works of two prominent Black women writers/scholars, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, brought me back to those times when I needed to be seen as a human first before a national, standardized statistic.
Audre Lorde used to be a name that was inserted into discussions in feminism, by way of her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. But reading her other works like Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (a biomythography) and Sister Outsider was like discovering a(n academic) godmother I never knew about until I reached my late 20s. A Black woman raised by Catholic Caribbean parents understood the intersectional complexities of life that a young Filipino American woman experienced, and she put her stories into writing that resonated because it was told from truth rather than from disciplinary expertise.
The Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetic Document Initiative is an organization that archives and publishes original texts by prominent figures associated with CUNY. Their publication of Audre Lorde’s work in teaching, “I teach myself in outline,” Notes, Journals, Syllabi, & An Excerpt From Deotha, brought me closer to understanding this person who identified herself as “Poet as Teacher-Human as Poet-Teacher Human”. The essence of this document is a person who wanted to ground students as “people” first, to recognize the various walks they came from when entering the classroom space. Her syllabi from teaching at John Jay College and Hunter College (the very college she attended as a student, then dropped out, as explained in Zami) showed the necessity to introduce literature by Black writers, writers of color, and queer writers to younger folks who had been conditioned to view and regard the literary canon as predominantly white, cis-male, hetero, able-bodied, and affluent. Her notes for every class session and select journal entries portray the highly regarded poet-scholar as a human being doing her best to educate other human beings on how to be human beings who are compassionate, conscientious, and critical to the world that needs more human beings to be like that.
bell hooks was also just a name, in my undergraduate education, until she became a voice and guide in my current formation as a critical thinker and aspiring educator. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom was the text that awakened all those years of hiding my personal grievances as “Student”, but it also made me think about the role of “Teacher” using the classroom as a space for activism. This form of activism concerns the practice of freedom, where both teachers and students step out of their respective roles and regard themselves and each other as “Humans”. This act of defiance against an institutionalized system shows that it is a collective effort that can begin in a space that has been normalized to distinguish (and disguise) authority and subordination. The epithet from bell hooks’s book became the inspiration for the writing of this piece.
Reaching this far into my academic career as “Student” has been a feat and an accomplishment. The slow transition into “Scholar-Teacher” is progressing, as I continue to handle the work at paces that are favorable to me, now that I have considered the impacts it will cause for future spaces of knowledge-exchange. Forming a pedagogy that puts people first is essential to creating communities that allows for discussions and discourse on sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic matters because the ideas we share need to be put into practice. Experience is both a learning tool and a tool for revolution.
[All images used in this piece are owned by Anjelica M. Enaje]