June 17, 2020 — “Normal” is a word I hear often these days. It carries with it the allure, of well, normal. I sense that it is often used with good intention. A longing for stability and certainty about the world and our place in it. And as a leader and teacher I think there is a good reason to express a certain degree of skepticism about its meaning. Especially in the current context of a global pandemic, world-wide economic decline, and the calls for justice by Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. A return to “normal” feels to me inadequate for the deep work that I need to do and that the institutions that I’m part of and love also need to do. In my head I hear the lyrics to a Bruce Cockburn song: “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” And by worse he means the divide between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, and the empowered and disempowered. His song from 1983 is a prophetic warning to question normal as an operating principle, then and now.

This moment, now, compels me as educator and leader to address the realities of structural racism in every institution, especially schools, that support and perpetuate the pandemic of whiteness as normal. I don’t know how you are doing with this moment. Perhaps you carry sadness with you or fear. Rapid change and loss may well have brought weariness, bone weariness and a sense that you don’t know how to keep moving forward. Or even what forward looks like right now. You may be welcoming the change that is sweeping the world and the possibility found in chaos. You might sense that disruption is clearing away old habits and offering new ways to grow and heal. Regardless, I invite you to be fully present to your emotions. To feel them in your body. To know that they are real and contain the energy of transformation for self, others, and the field of education.

The questions I’m holding today are many and varied. Where should I look for wisdom, sense making, or something tangible to anchor to in hard times? What can I do when it feels like everything around me is in turmoil? Faculty, staff, students, and administrators are preparing for the fall quarter. I wonder how anyone can really plan amidst all the changes we are going through individually and collectively? I wonder how can we pick up the shattered pieces of social structures that empower some and disempower others—without recreating systems of oppression? I feel simultaneously charged and disoriented. I don’t really know what the best course of action is. I find myself searching for the generative space between deconstruction of power and privilege; and the construction of newness grounded in liberation and freedom for all. What can I do, is a daily question for me?

Two sources of wisdom have helped center me lately while keeping me open to personal and social change. The first dates to 1948 and the eve of the atomic revolution and potential world destruction. Four elders were appointed by the Hopi Nation to share ancient wisdom and prophecy. One story tells that now, a world in crisis, is like a mighty river. The eleventh-hour is here and so is the time to act.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.  And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

I hear in the prophecy of the Hopi elder that fear plays an important role in the way I and others choose to respond to this moment. The pain and loss associated with climate change, COVID-19, economic collapse, and the death of so many Black, Brown, and indigenous people feels like a mighty river. It is sweeping normal away and flushing out the no longer useful ways of being.

What can I do? I can let go and join the river as it flows to its destination, not my hoped for normal, but the river’s natural end point. What is of most use to me is the truth that once I let go and stop hanging on to my white-male-heterosexual privilege, for instance, I will find myself in the company of many others. In community we can celebrate and rejoice together as power is reconfigured in service of everyone, and every learner. Now is the time for me to give up privilege in order to give it back to all.

The second wisdom story comes from a June 5, 2020 National Public Radio StoryCorp conversation between a Black father (Albert Sykes) and his 9 year old son (Aiden).

Aiden: So, Dad, what are your dreams for me?

Mr. Sykes: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolding.

I like thinking in metaphors. They help me get beyond my rational mind to the living heart of truth. Albert Sykes offers me an understanding of change that combines the destructive and constructive image of a fist. What can I do? Now is a time, as many social justice educators argue, to raise a fist and break apart the power structures that oppress and kill (emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically) so many. At some point, the closed fist will open, in its own time, to reveal gifts. New ways of knowing and being that the wounded world and broken schools need for healing.

Neither wisdom story offers a systematic and structured plan for change. They can’t be condensed into an email of next steps and phases or written as a five-year strategic plan. I find the wisdom that speaks to my heart takes its own time to settle in and create the conditions for growth and change. I need to sit with this wisdom and let it work me, rather than me applying my expectations and timeline to it.

Now is the eleventh-hour, a time to act. For some that means jumping into the river and swimming with fellow radical educators and protestors. For some that means sewing masks, painting slogans of empowerment, or pursuing other ways to disrupt and deconstruct the system. For others it means writing scholarly articles or leading professional development grounded in social justice practices and principles.

What can I do? I can look for companions with closed fists waiting for them to open and reveal gifts of insight, change, and the way forward to a more humane, compassionate, and just world. What can you do? What is in your fist today? What gifts do you carry? What is your unique wisdom to share with all of us?

Sept 7, 2019—What are your core values as a teacher; the three qualities of self that you strive to maintain at all cost? How did you come to this understanding? Through experience or scholarly study? Have those values been consistent across time? Would an observer agree or disagree that your teaching corresponds to those core commitments? What makes you uniquely you in your classroom? I’ve been recently reflecting on my core values as an educator. The trigger was a leadership retreat. The facilitator, for pre-work, sent everyone a handout inviting us to identify our core values. The working theory was that once we had individually identified our values that we could synthesize them into a collective list and from that list identify three to five themes or values defining our work. We never quite achieved the final goal but the activity did help me identify my core values. My top three values are: flourishing, relationships, and Love. There are certainly a number of sub-themes radiating out from each primary value but I think they all fit under these three core values.

By flourishing I mean things like growth, joy, change, curiosity, organic, and dynamic. It can take varying forms in accordance with the needs and talents of a particular person. Flourishing for one student can have different manifestations than flourishing for another student. But the unifying element is movement toward wholeness and fuller notions of self. Assignments in my classes that favor student choice and differentiation are more consistent with my value of flourishing than assignments that are pre-set and deterministic in their outcome according to my opinions and views.

Relationships are all about connections and honoring the inherent worth of the other. It is an acknowledgement that the individual “I” is problematic. The true-self exists only in relation to others; change the partners that one interacts with and notions of “I” change as well. This is well known in classrooms where students are frequently code switching to accommodate the “I” to the specific context the teacher has established. Yet, at the same time there are certain inherent qualities to the true-self that are less transient. But those attributes are best identified in the company of others; a community that names the deep gifts of self and checks false perceptions. In my classroom I work to build community and relationships that include people as well as texts. I encourage students to enter their readings with a sense that they are in direct conversation with the ideas the author is putting forward. I invite them to “hear” the words in the text that connect with the heart of their learning-self because it is through that unique connection that a relationship can form and support learning.

Love is both a standalone core value and the matrix within which flourishing and relationships find meaning and purpose.  \Love is that aspect of learning and classroom spaces that draws the learner toward something greater than self.  It invites learners to experience emotions like curiosity, passion, heart-break, grace, and commitment. It helps to be committed—deeply in love—with content when the nature of learning bogs down or becomes confusing. Love binds things together in a mutual relationship of two “others” seeking ways to flourish while realizing that self-flourishing is contingent on the flourishing of the other.  Love in the classroom can find expression in ideas, knowing a colleague well enough to predict their stance on a subject, giving a colleague the grace to let them change their ideas, and a class-wide shared sense of mutual commitment to sticking with a tough text that challenges superficial notions of self.

During the retreat the facilitator presented a framework for organizing core values that is based on three questions; 1) why do you act a certain way, or the ultimate goal you hope to achieve?; 2) how will you go about working toward your why through discreet activities?; and 3) what do those values look like as a finished product, the wholeness of the work? When I organize my three core values to align with the three questions I find the following to be true. My why is Love. I’m at my best as an educator when my curriculum and instruction sets a climate of learning that transcends the ordinary. A classroom culture where ego, commodification, and competition is displaced by a sense of shared connection to something greater than self. Love inspires courage and fearlessness to explore, change, and hold firm with fidelity to truths. The how of my instruction, the ways I work toward Love, are relationships. They materialize in an array of activities involving students, text, classroom settings, and me. I encourage students to listen to the “voice” of the text. To hear how words and ideas in a reading are speaking to them, seeking a relationship of engagement. During instructional breaks we always have food, we gather around the table of fellowship and share stories of the day. We even pursue topics raised earlier in the class. Relationships are the micro-activities building toward the what. When combined into a collective whole the what, the evident object, of my core values is flourishing. The classroom is alive with positive energy, collectively and individually, inviting inner integrity to become external and vibrant. A student who spontaneously shares a deep moment of learning and understanding, connecting concepts and personal experiences in novel ways, is flourishing. They are becoming a new person, a truer version of self. Such expressions of transcendence elicit feelings of awe and anticipation of what might come next.

What are your core values? Can you winnow them down to three? How might those values map onto a framework of why, how, and what? If presented with your core values would your students concur or would they name a different set of core values? What the features of your instructional context that make it easy or hard to enact your core values?

The Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) held their 40th Annual Conference right here in the mile high city from November 5-7. We are excited to announce that 12 University of Denver faculty and students participated and shared their research on institutional change. These movers and shakers’ research covered a broad range of important issues that are sure to advance the conversation of inequality in Higher Education and stimulate collaboration among researchers and decision makers. We took some time this month to visit with these individuals and discover what their scholarship is all about.

Post Doctoral Fellow

Dian Squire

Dian Squire

Dian Squire, PhD Loyola University, Higher Education: Dian Squire is the postdoctoral fellow in the Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (in)Equality. His research examines diversity, equity, and justice in higher education.  His current research focuses on the experiences of graduate students of color.

Presentation: 

  • Graduate Student Session: Conversations with Newly Minted PhD’s.  
Doctoral Students

Meseret Hailu

Meseret Hailu

Meseret Hailu, PhD student, Higher Education: Meseret’s research interests are grounded in comparative international education, with a special emphasis on gender issues in STEM programs in Ethiopian higher education. Methodologically, she aims to craft a mixed-methods research agenda.

Presentations: 

  • Examining the role of Girl Hub in Shaping College-­‐going Culture for Women in Ethiopia
  • Understanding Diaspora women’s Experiences in Ethiopian STEM Higher Education

Delma

Delma Ramos

Delma Ramos, PhD student, Higher Education: Delma’s research interests include access, retention, and graduation from higher education institutions, with an emphasis on underserved populations. Additionally, she focuses on the evaluation and assessment of programs with similar foci and on issues pertaining to educational quality in postsecondary education.

Presentations:

  • The Uphill Battle: An Analysis of Race and Gender Struggles in the Academic Pathways of Doctoral Women of Color
  • Limiting Levels of Involvement of Low-Income, First-Generation, Families of Color through Controlling Images
  •  Inequity in Workforce Outcomes of College-­educated Immigrants of Color: Human Capital Transferability and Job Mismatch

MSarubbi headshot

Molly Sarubbi

Molly Sarubbi, PhD student, Higher Education: Molly crafted a 3-day, embedded conference experience for local Indigenous practitioners and Tribal College Presidents in which they could have participated in various conference presentations, events, and community building sessions. In an effort to further celebrate the Indigenous cultures of expression, she also scheduled local spirit leaders to lead the group in opening and closing ceremonies. Local artists also were invited to showcase their cultural works.


Raquel Headshot

Raquel Wright-Mair


Raquel Wright-Mair, PhD student, Higher Education: 
Raquel’s research is grounded in social justice and focuses on issues of access and equity, as well as the identification of ways to create inclusive campus environments for underrepresented populations. Her research agenda includes looking at the experiences of students, faculty, and administrators of color on college campuses and examining structures, policies, and systems necessary for their growth, development, and success.


Bryan Hubain

Bryan Hubain

Bryan Hubain, PhD candidate, Higher Education: Bryan’s research is multifaceted and mutually informing. He focuses on the intersections of identities and how specific intersections of marginalized identities influence someone’s personal experiences and perceptions. His current dissertation research agenda focuses on a queer and intersectional analysis of the narratives of Black gay international students and racism in LGBTQ communities.

Presentation: 

  • Dialoguing the improvisation of risk: Critically addressing racial inequality and racial incidents in higher education 

Varaxy

Varaxy Yi-Borromeo

Varaxy Yi-Borromeo, PhD student, Higher Education: Varaxy’s research focuses on historically underrepresented and marginalized populations in higher education. Specifically, she is interested in Southeast Asian American college student success.  Varaxy is also interested in graduate student support, especially for graduate students of color.

Presentations: 

  • The Uphill Battle: An Analysis of Race and Gender Struggles in the Academic Pathways of Doctoral Women of Color
  • Understanding the Experiences of Faculty Engaging in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Curriculum in the Classroom
  • The Impact of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on Sense of
    Belonging among White Students and Students of Color
  • Navigating Two Worlds: Educational Resilience of Burmese and Bhutanese Refugee Youth
Master’s Students

Jeffrey Mariano

Jeffrey Mariano

Jeffrey Mariano, Master’s student, Higher Education : Jeff’s research uses the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) model as a means to explore how faculty members across various disciplines (STEM, professional fields, arts and humanities, and social sciences) incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum into their classrooms. Specifically, this study highlights the ways these faculty engage the cultural backgrounds and knowledge of their students and the barriers and challenges they face.

Presentations: 

  • Understanding the Experiences of Faculty Engaging in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Curriculum in the Classroom
Faculty

NickCutforth-150x150-e1425592954469

Dr. Nick Cutforth

Dr. Nick Cutforth, Research Methods and Statistics: Dr. Cutforth’s research and teaching interests include school health and physical activity environments, qualitative research, physical activity and youth development, university/community partnerships, and community-based research. His current research involves school-based intervention studies related to physical activity and healthy eating among K-12 students in the San Luis Valley in rural Colorado.

Presentations:

  • The Civic Engagement Movement: A Symposium and Participatory History
  • Exploring the Power and Potential of Community-Based Research to Address Educational Inequality

Ryan Gildersleeve

Dr. Ryan Everly Gildersleeve

Dr. Ryan Everly Gildersleeve, Higher Education: Dr. Gildersleeve’s research agenda critically investigates the social and political contexts of educational opportunity for historically marginalized communities. He pursues this agenda in three inter-related braided lines of inquiry: critical policy studies, cultural analyses of higher education institutions, and poststructural philosophy/critical qualitative inquiry. Cumulatively, he hopes to contribute new tools for the study of inequality and the role(s) of postsecondary education in affirming social opportunities for non-dominant youth.

Presentations

  • Ritual Culture and Latino Students in American Higher Education
  • Exploring Posthumanism in Higher Education: Methods, Contexts, and Implications

Judy Kiyama

Judy Marquez Kiyama

Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, Higher Education: Dr. Kiyama’s research examines the structures that shape educational opportunities for underserved groups through an asset-based lens to better understand the collective knowledge and resources drawn upon to confront, negotiate, and (re)shape such structures. Dr. Kiyama’s current projects focus on the high school to college transition experiences of first-generation, and low-income, and families of color and their role in serving as sources of cultural support for their college-aged students.

Presentations: 

  • Limiting Levels of Involvement of Low-­‐Income, First-­Generation, Families of Color through Controlling Images
  • Presidential Session: Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs
  • Presidential Session: Culturally Relevant Research in Higher Education
  • Exploring the Power and Potential of Community-Based Research to Address Educational Inequality

Frank Tuitt

Dr. Frank Tuitt

Dr. Frank Tuitt, Center for Multicultural Excellence: Dr. Tuitt’s research explores topics related to access and equity in higher education; teaching and learning in racially diverse college classrooms; and diversity and organizational transformation. Dr. Tuitt is a co-editor and contributing author of the books Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms, and Contesting the myth of a post-racial era: The continued significance of race in U.S. education.

Presentations: 

  • Dialoguing the improvisation of risk: Critically addressing racial inequality and racial incidents in higher education
  • The (un)intended consequences of campus racial climate on university faculty
  •  The Black Womanist Manifesto: Navigating Media Influences in Higher Education

NOTE: This blog post is being featured from the official blog of the University of Denver’s Office of Graduate Studies. View the original post here.


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