“Intersubjective Commitments: Acknowledging the Limits of Our (Educational) Experience”
By Mark McBeth, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
I have a series of confessions to make prior to responding to Collin Craig and Staci Perryman-Clark’s article. 1. I was a reviewer of this article for WPA. When I first read it, I was intrigued and realized what a significant place this article had in the WPA conversation. Admittedly, the melanin count at any given WPA conference does not represent the field the way we think it should. Who could argue with that fact, and I think we’re always thinking about ways to improve the diversity issues of our organization. At the annual WPA conference, it looks . . . well, Caucasian. But on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that the white folks there represent only whiteness. I know at CUNY that I also bring other ideals and counter-ideals to the table that fully represent and serve the multiplicity of identitarian contingencies that exist at my urban, public institution. 2. I work at an institution in NYC where my own identity as a member of a classroom (albeit the authoritative one as professor) is often a minority one. I’m a white, gay male in his recent fifties who has had the privilege of good public education in both high school and then a small private college outside of Philadelphia. I received my Master’s in Language and Literacy and then my Ph.D. in the CUNY system because I did it while I worked within the system 35 to 40 hours a week as an administrator. In this sense, I’ve been very privileged; my degrees got paid for but I paid for them in divergent ways as well. All of these subjective facts are only important because I often think how my students’ experience of post-secondary education compares and contrasts to my own and how I need to remain vigilant how my personal WPA responses cannot be based on idiosyncratic reactions to curricular and administrative decisions. Resisting the sentiment, “Well I worked for my education this way,” WPAs have a responsibility to commit to intersubjectivities that recognize viewpoints that aren’t their own.
Comparatively, my students represent the global citizenry of our world because they are African-American, African, Latino/a, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, non-Anglophones, multilingual, genderqueer, working-class, and strangely, absolutely normative by general societal standards. My classrooms tend to include students who have a diverse cultural capital than I do because they bring their experience of race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, nationality, and linguistic abilities that supplement what I can ever bring to my classroom. In fact, the most normative or traditional students tend to be the “queerest” students because so much non-normativity and divergency prevail and, frankly, dominate in my courses. In my progressive New York City classroom, I wonder if my “closeted” conservative students don’t suffer a certain silence that their more outspoken liberal and culturally-diverse classmates don’t go through in the context of our liberal, most-bluest-spot bastion.
When I first started directing the Writing Center at City College, I had a Muslim women who wrapped for her religious beliefs; she once entered my newly-appointed office and told me straight-forwardly that she disagreed with my sexual orientation. I remember being both insulted and impressed by her candor at the same time. (How does one stand for one’s beliefs while respecting the beliefs of others at the same time?) I suggested to her that we would have to agree to disagree about our diverse opinions and then negotiate how we would work together to advance students’ literacy in our mutual endeavor in the writing center. I think we both felt discomfort and a certain resolve in our discussion and, ultimately, sorted our differences. She was always an excellent and thoughtful tutor, and she made me consider how my queer identity inflected into the type of writing center I wanted to perpetuate. About a year later, she arrived in my office unwrapped (which upset me because I thought someone had willfully absconded with her wrap). She explained to me that she had made this decision on her own and then we then discussed how her process of unwrapping paralleled my own of coming out of the closet. We had both shifted our identities and the symbols that accompanied them. We both felt a need to explain to our families and friends why we made these decisions. And, we both had an understanding of the implications of both our visible and verbal rationales of “coming out.” Suddenly, our differences were very much the same and, strangely, parallel. While Queer Theory often claims that we are different, I would counter that often we have the same differences.
This non-sequitur speaks back to Collin and Staci because during my review of their original submission, I asked them to consider and include some queer textual citations in their article (i.e., Munoz) that I thought would substantiate and extend their already thoughtful work. I can’t give up the fact that I think all folks are queer depending upon what context they inhabit; homosexuals sometimes feel unsafe amongst all straight folk; black folk sometimes feel uncomfortable amongst all white folk; non-English speakers sometimes feel shy among all anglophones; WPAs feel only a certain camaraderie once a year when they convene at the annual WPA conference. Who hasn’t felt outside the normative in particular situations and, likewise, feel relief when given a community of like-minded compatriots? And so, what do we do with an acknowledged discomfort that gets beyond victimization and uses it productively to address issues of poor representation, lack of access, and silenced voices? None of us have figured out how to negotiate the centuries of historically uncomfortable conversations we need to have about race, ethnicity, creed, and sexual orientation. Staci and Collin have provided us a venue in which these extremely delicate conversations should occur—where they make us aware of the disparities of equality and justice--where we recognize blind spots in our approaches to change. I wish more people would participate in this guttingly-intricate dialogue with the same thoughtfulness and candor so that we could analyze where we might have gone wrong as well as how we can make it better.