The “radical” thing I did in higher education

I cultivate and guard my affirmation as radical self-care.

One of the most radical things I have done as a Black woman in higher education from the time I was a graduate student and with increasing, steadfast commitment as a faculty member is to show up affirmed and function from this space of affirmation.

I cultivate and guard my affirmation as radical self-care.

I’ve written before about the importance of showing up to my work in academia from a place of affirmation rather than in a search for affirmation. This is indeed one of the “secrets” to my success.

So why is this radical in the context of higher education? Because one part of the unspoken curriculum of higher education is the way in which the academy wields an individual’s need for “affirmation” as a powerful tool for compliance, conformity, and acculturation. The latter is particularly true as it relates to individuals from marginalized and minoritized groups.

So what’s the violence of demanding acculturation? Isn’t learning the culture and “fitting in” a good thing, you may ask? Well no, not by default, especially when “fitting in” is a required process of shedding parts of yourself to take on characteristics deemed “professional” and “civil”. Indeed many of these “demanded” characteristics have little to do with the “contracted” work, but are wielded as appropriate evidence that one “belongs” or “fits in”⁠—or at least is committed to doing so.

As Dr. Django Paris describes, the engagement of formal ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives “has always been understood in a one-way assimilate or fail model filtered through the White gaze” (Paris, 2019, p. 219).

Very early on, I recognized that many colleagues, supervisors, and leaders were attempting to offer me “affirmation” as currency. That is, offering me “affirmation” if⁠—and only if⁠—I were to “perform” success through recognized words, paths, production modes, and full-sale buy-in to their conceptualizations of how success and collegiality looked, felt, and presented as to the “majority” in the academy.

I learned that I couldn’t show up needing their affirmation, because the cost of gaining it⁠—and especially realizing that the extension is generally a “short-term loan” and new requests for compliance to “retain” it were just around the corner⁠—is higher than any cost I ever intend to pay. I’m just not built that way.

As I’ve explained before in “How I Work and Thrive in Academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation”, the academy tries to “train” all of us to depend upon, crave, and require their affirmation as one of the key gates along the entryway to and progress along the path of success. Admittedly the course or curriculum has more “lessons” for those of us from marginalized and minoritized communities.

Quote from Montgomery, B.L. 2019. How I Work and Thrive in Academia.

So the most radical thing I’ve ever done in the academy is to completely and irrevocably hold on to my power of defining who holds sway to affirm me, and more importantly who does not.

This is not to say that a need for affirmation is not a core human need; yet, it’s a danger to walk through the world or the halls of the academy in desperate need for it. There are those⁠—including in leadership positions and other positions of power or influence⁠—who are like a lion on a hunt for prey in the ways that they stand ready to offer affirmation to fulfill your need for it that requires you to cosign your own undervaluing, if not your oppression.

This stance I’ve taken is radical because those who understand what has been taken from them will often feel unmoored. They will feel unsettled⁠—if not completely disarmed⁠—when they must engage with you not through offering you the reward of their “affirmation” but through authentically recognizing your already affirmed self and a need to reward your intellect and contributions, rather than demanding your gratitude for the promise of temporary affirmation.

So I’m perceived as radical because my “affirmation bank” is ever full, and I require deposits into my banks of authentic “respect” and genuine “scholarly recognition”, which too frequently run at a deficit in the academy.

References:

Montgomery, BL (2019). How I Work and Thrive in Academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation. Being Lazy and Slowing Down, https://lazyslowdown.com/how-i-work-and-thrive-in-academia-from-affirmation-not-for-affirmation/

Paris, D. (2019). Naming beyond the white settler colonial gaze in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 32(3), 217-224.

If you have comments on this post, as always find me on Twitter—@BerondaM.

Where you sit shows where you stand

My grandmother used to encourage us to always sit at the knee of the “elders” when given a chance to gain some wisdom.

The concept of sitting at the knee must be understood as both a privilege and a responsibility. It is a rare privilege to be in the space of an “elder” who has granted access to her wisdom. It’s also a responsibility—once there—to fully embrace, absorb, and carry forward the wisdom granted.

Apart from being a privilege and a responsibility, the particular knee at which you sit also demonstrates where you stand.

The knowledge that you seek, gain and apply demonstrates more than anything you may say about where you stand.

I’m using a bit of the time that’s been gifted back to me due to curtailed travel in the face of COVID-19 to sit at the knee of select elders and increase my bank of knowledge and to seed the accrual of new wisdom.

This week alone I participated in online discussions with Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality Matters and a joint conversation with Angela Davis and Nikki Giovanni on radical self-care amidst a pandemic.

These conversations allowed me to sit at the knee of these revered elders and to reflect on prior knowledge, renew understandings of critical concepts such as intersectionality and self-valuation, and gain new insights altogether.

The reality of invited time and treasured space “at the knee” is that you gain some insights that you can share immediately, whereas some of the wisdoms need time to marinate before they emerge or which may be uniquely for you and never intended for public consumption.

Some of the immediate wisdoms that I gained at the knee of these generous elders are clear reflections of where I “stand” in the world in regards to my values, goals and visions. One of these was related to the need for and the power of community.

Angela Davis gave a powerful reminder and call to action in her statement that “we generate courage, strength, and power by coming together…you must cultivate community”.

In a completely separate conversation but reflective of where I stand and how the universe will give you repetitive messages that confirm your purpose and commitments, Kimberlé Crenshaw also engaged the importance of community. She also highlighted another principle that is completely reflective of the platform on which I stand in her exhortation that even moments of crisis and uncertainty can provide key moments for powerful reflection and growth.

While this is a mere glimpse into where I’ve been sitting this week, I not only pay attention to whether where I sit is reflective of where I declare that I stand, but I also ask how those who mentor and lead demonstrate where they stand based on where they sit.

I ask this question related to whether they sit and listen to voices that stretch them, that enrich their accrued knowledge in meaningful ways, that ultimately “call them higher”. To be called higher can be to actively seek new knowledge that pushes an individual in pursuit of expressed commitments, through sitting with those that not only affirm them individually, but who hold strengths, actions and ways of being in the world to which they aspire.

Sitting at the knee of the elders is actually a high calling. It requires that we be fully prepared to listen, reflect, learn, and apply new knowledge.

Indeed, it is a position to which we should actively seek to be called so that our work can reach its highest potential.

How do you find and embrace opportunities to “sit at the knee”?

I’d love to hear more about it. Find me as always on Twitter—@BerondaM.

Processing and proceeding

I generally write mostly outside of my home, apart from early morning sessions in a home writing space, that is.

I have routinely written on planes, in airline lounges, in coffee shops around the nation and world and more…my life rhythm generally drove my writing rhythm and productivity.

Writing….in Deutschland…Ein kaffee in meine hand

COVID-19 and the associated coronavirus pandemic has literally grounded me and through my own “process and proceed” reflections I have also been grounding myself in this time and space figuratively.

Initially, I grounded myself in the continuation of my writing practice through “forcing” myself to write more at home in my “morning space”, but my mind struggled to convert this treasured space to an everyday and “all-day space” for writing. So, after urgent deadlines were filled and no longer served as the motivation to “stick and stay” in my home writing space, I tried relocating to other places in my home—with variable and limited success.

This only served as a short-term solution.

As spring has slowly emerged in mid-Michigan, I have found a new seasonal solution…finding deserted spaces with a bench—even just a large stone or clearing will do—to write in nature. A self-made tea or coffee in hand, I’m finding inspiration, new words, and new motivations in these sacred spaces among the songs of birds, comfort of a gentle breeze, and gratefully receiving gifts of oxygen and occasionally shade of the plants surrounding me.

A quiet writing space by the water

My “writing space” and time are different, as dictated by a different time and different challenges in the face of COVID-19.

Whereas I can no longer be “alone together” to write in public spaces surrounded by the energy and sounds of other humans that I treasure in places such as cafes, in nature I’m able to be “alone together” with other beings, including my plant and bird kin.

A quiet writing corner under trees in bloom in spring

Today, between writing bursts, I listened to the birds in their song-based conversations. I listened to the trees “speak” through the rustling of branches and emerging leaves. I didn’t capture all that they were saying to each other and perhaps to me; yet, I listened intensely in hopes of capturing some seed of wisdom, of kinship, of shared understanding of our changing world.

Just as I have had to learn to “be different” in this time, I will likewise have to be different after, because the world itself undoubtedly will be different.

At least I am learning more about the flexibility I can—and must—demonstrate by providing avenues and searching out spaces for being with other beings to facilitate continuing my work—my conversations with the world.

We will all have to emerge from this pandemic different. I have specific hopes about the ways in which we will be different.

May we be with each other differently.

May we be with other beings differently.

May we truly emerge different and better.

May we emerge more thoughtful, more aware, more humble, more “grace-full”, more “grace-giving”.

I’d love to hear more about the ways you are processing and proceeding in this unique moment in time. You can find me as always on Twitter—@BerondaM.