Last week MUIH - my institution - circulated a dress code policy* for our student & faculty clinic that was racist and misogynistic, among other things. When I read it after a friend posted it on social media, I thought it must be satire. "Conservative headwraps to contain and cover dreadlocks are required.” “Cleavage is not permitted.” “Non-naturally-occurring hair colors are not permitted” and on and on it goes.
Thinking about how it must feel to read this policy as someone entering the student clinic made me queasy. If I were starting my work as an intern I wouldn’t feel like I belonged there, and I’m not part of a marginalized group. I felt horrified to be associated with an institution that would put out a policy like this - one that purports to be a place of healing and "oneness.”
Me + the Institution = ?
At times like this, the question, “Do I want to be a part of this?” surfaces. On one hand, the dress code does seem to be the work of a small group of individuals and hadn't received approval from the "higher ups." On the other hand, when you work for an institution that doesn't matter. On some level I represent the institution, and the institution represents me. By being there, by assuming my faculty role, I am a willing participant.
How important is it for me to be here, to make change, to do what I love to do and what I think I'm good at doing? Am I making a difference in ways that count? Does leaving further concentrate the racism/misogyny within institutions? Is there something I could have done to prevent this from happening? Should I be doing my thing somewhere else? Is it possible for institutions to change in meaningful ways? I think so. But I could be wrong.
After Ferguson, one of the steps I took was to look at how we address race at MUIH. I made a request for the faculty senate to take on this issue, and shortly thereafter a diversity committee was formed. (A small sign of moving in the right direction, which happened more quickly and with less hassle than I had anticipated…) When the call for faculty, staff and student members went out, I chose not to apply although the topic is of high importance for me. I am already on the faculty senate and other committees. I am a ranked, full-time faculty member. There are many spaces for my voice to be heard. I wanted to leave space for people whose voices are not heard. Maybe I should have joined. Maybe my presence would be helpful there. These are my own struggles with where to step up and where to step down so that others can be heard.
When it comes to the dress code fiasco, and to the University in general, I think what we're seeing is a lack of diverse voices. Like most (all?) institutions, as we grow we are emphasizing hierarchical power structures that are moving the university into alignment with business models and – I say – away from our original values.
One of the reasons I stay is because I think that we are small enough as an Institution that we could break away. We don't have to do things the way most universities do them. Our small size could be an asset. Theoretically, it should be easier for us to change and to experiment with other models and ways of being. We can still choose something different.
If…If what? I don’t know, really.
On letting go
I'm not an expert on social change, by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know teaching. One of the things I think I bring as a faculty member is a push back against the “normal” way of doing things, a request to rethink our models of teaching & learning, our assumptions about students and spaces and policies.
What I’ve learned from teaching is that building a classroom where students are empowered requires big-time trust. Letting go of control is a leap of faith. When student voices and choices matter, truly, we don’t know what will happen in the course. We are not in complete control of the outcomes or specifically what students will learn. Things aren't always done exactly as you would have done them. It’s the hard way.
Similarly, to hear different voices institutionally we have to open up in ways that are uncomfortable for those in power. To me, this goes beyond forming a committee that will report to upper-level administration, who will then have control of the message. The people on committees are those who can speak up, who have time for committees, who are local or who can call in at the appropriate time. People who do well on committees are those who think quickly on their feet and express themselves eloquently in the moment.
Not to mention the following issue, summed up nicely on my twitter feed yesterday:
How do we make change in institutions without loading the onus of labour on those already disadvantaged by institutions?— Curls McBobbins (@zaranosaur) August 24, 2016
I don’t know how to fix anything, or how to answer @zaranosaur’s question. Here my idea about the dress code, though. It won’t solve everything, and it may be a start.
One small "What If?"
What if we opened the current dress code policy as a Google doc? What if we asked anyone who was interested in doing so to edit at will? To add comments – to express anger, to propose alternatives, to point out problems? What if we all work together on the same document, shifting, crafting, and creating one that works? What if we responded to comments left by others in open dialogue? Why did you remove that requirement from the document? Why do you keep re-adding in this requirement? What is not professional about purple hair? I am truly asking.
Modern technology allows us to be almost endlessly collaborative. Hundreds of people can edit the same document, anytime, from anywhere. People can edit after they have a chance to think about it. Every version can be saved. Every comment can be considered, discussed. I have seen the power of community more times than I can count. Things emerge from collaboration that we would never create individually. The right answer evolves; a balance is reached. We can do it. We could do it.
Many of my thoughts in this post were inspired by a keynote presentation by Tressie McMillan Cottom at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute I attended a few weeks ago, and by a Virtually Connecting breakout session at the same conference. Recordings of both are below – I highly recommend watching them!
* In case you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to link to the policy, it’s because of a conversation I listened to from the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. In this conversation, Miriam Neptune brings up the importance of lineage and recording the provenance of institutional change. This document is part of the Institutional history, and I think it’s important that it’s recognized as such.