on youth, small-college-towns and growing up.

by la rebelde

I’ve been working on a fellowship application that asks lots of questions about the kinds of courses you would like to develop for undergrads at small liberal arts schools and how you would teach them. I only have two course descriptions so far. I’m worried that all of my ideas are more suitable for upper-division students, and not for first- and second-years.

I went to a SLAC and I admit that sometimes I tend to think that my undergrad classes were much more challenging than most of the ones I’ve taught as a grad student at big state universities. Maybe it was the culture of debate at my campus. We definitely learned to articulate ourselves—I mean OVER-articulate—and all the time. I assume there are pockets of this kind of culture in large state schools, but it seems fewer and further between. Anyway, I went online to browse the course catalogs of my alma mater–to remind myself what the courses generally look like. (When I was in college, the catalogs were not online, so I can’t even look at the course descriptions for classes I actually took!)

And for a moment, looking at the catalog and the website, I felt a little nostalgic. As I’ve written in this blog before, I hate libraries. Still I have fond memories of laying on those colorful couches under the sky-lights, with my books scattered all around, flirting with silly boys/my then-boyfriend, discussing topics that, at the time, seemed SOOO important and life-defining.

There’s something about these teeny schools. They’re super privileged and really white and really rich. And except for professors and administrators, you rarely interact with people outside the 18-22 year old range. I remember it as a more carefree time, when I was more innocent, more optimistic, and very dramatic. Ooooh, I do not miss the drama. But I miss being excited about learning new things—everything seemed new then. I miss my less cynical self, who was more open to discussing ideas, to exploration, to love. I had struggled before. I had felt pain. But I hadn’t yet been crushed.

Of course, things can sometimes seem rosier in retrospect.
And I’m a grown-ass woman now.

I’m applying to these teaching fellowships because I need to eat next year. And because I like to teach—that’s why I went to grad school in the first place. But I’m anxious about the possibility that I might end up in a small, white, rural town with nothing else but the college. I’ve seen single/separated young women of color faculty end up in those places. They were amazing teachers and scholars, but they seemed lonely, isolated, and I’m wondering if they went more than a little stir-crazy. If I feel at all like that in LA, where brown people abound, how will I feel if I end up teaching in a small college town?

It’s all very daunting. I never imagined that I might one day be a faculty-type person. And who knows if I’ll even get an offer. But the whole thing has made the twitch in my left eyelid come back. It hasn’t been around since I was grading finals while preparing for comprehensive exams!

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15 Comments to “on youth, small-college-towns and growing up.”

  1. It’s not just women faculty of color who get lonely and stir-crazy at those places. I’m sure there’s a special loneliness and stir-craziness that belongs particularly to WFOC, but the face is, those little colleges are hard places to be a youngish single academic. And the tough part is that some people get shunted from one-year position to one-year position. I took an anthropology class as an undergrad from a woman who was on her SEVENTH such job in her SEVENTH small Midwestern college town.

  2. You are right, Pete. I was being self-centered and thinking about myself (and one professor in particular) in this context because I have to write something about diversity. But I’ve heard that it’s difficult across the board. Wow, 7th year?! I hope she was able to find a more permanent position!

  3. I was just thinking/blogging about this, reflecting on how many more places are kind of an option for me b/c I’m married (and will therefore make more sense to people..not fair but true) and have kids, making my little family a kind of built in support that moves with me. Point being, I think you’re absolutely right about this. I was reflecting on it in terms of women in general but I think you’re right to point out that one would be doubly isolated as a woman of color. what the hell, the idea of that many white people makes me uncomfortable and I am white.

  4. sometimes uncomfortable is good. I realized last year when teaching at one of these schools that I needed to be challenged. I’d gotten a bit too comfortable in my small ethnic studies classes. i kind of felt that if I was truly comitted to diversity and making people aware of matters outside their world, then I had to “walk the walk” so to speak. I agree that after a while it would drive me crazy, but it’s not a bad place to start your career. Especially since they throw tons of money your way….you know, because they’re committed to “diversity” :) What do you all think about this though, is it our responsibility to teach at these places so that there is a broader awareness of issues that effect “under-represented” peoples or not? Someone told me last year that it was like being a missionary–for obvious reasons this makes me uncomfortable.

  5. vero: Your comment reminded me that, thinking positively, there are always things to be learned from these kinds of experiences. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negative. I do think that as educators, we have a responsibility to broaden awareness about “minority issues.” And that is complicated by who we choose to identify as target audiences–or who we decide to reach out to.

    But I think we also have a responsibility to take care of ourselves, so that we can be better mentors/teachers/activists/scholars. For me, right now, I’ll be honest–I’m being selfish in my thinking. Uncomfortability with teaching a primarily white student demographic is one thing, but personal unhappiness is another. I’m not saying that happiness is not possible. There are always at least a handful of students of color who are thirsting for mentors (I was one of them) and you never know who you might meet. In fact, I have a single friend who taught for a year at a SLAC in a small midwestern town, who had a great experience. But he is also more comfortable with leading a solitary life and focusing all of his attention on teaching than I am.

    I’m just not sure if it’s fair to have expectations of ourselves take on the burden of teaching at these places in order to raise awareness. The fact is, most of us don’t love academia or teaching above all else the way that missionaries love God and believe in spreading (his) word. (I actually don’t know much about missionary work, so this is probably a crude understanding of it.) It makes me think that one thing to consider is whether and how much their (SLACs’) commitments to diversity meet our own.

    Of course, as you say, there is always something to be learned by going outside our comfort zones. And such fellowships are great because they provide fellows with vital teaching experience and students with mentors of color and more “diverse” curriculum. It’s still scary to me–not the teaching part, but the living part.

    Hmmm…gotta think about this some more. What do you think, vero? all yall?

  6. I’m going to say something that is definitely coming from a place of naivete, since I’ve never been in the position of living in any small town or going to a small liberal arts college. So y’all can feel free to smack me down for my ignorance.

    I know it’s hard to make friends as a single woman in a place where people are paired off. I know it can feel isolating to be one of the few or only person of color. But does that mean that we’re also isolating ourselves by going in there with these preconceptions…that we’re *going* to be lonely and isolated because of these things? Are we closing ourselves off the the possibility that we can reach out and make friends–maybe not with the ideal close group of mujeres that we are sometimes privileged to have, but to find friends who may not fit our expectations for race, gender, and age? And to look for friends outside of the campus environment? Y’all know I have my knitting, and have determined that if I end up in some snowy little town in Iowa that I will by god find some knitters to keep me company. But you can also look for volunteer opportunities, or for church groups, if that’s your thing.

    I don’t want it to sound like I’m minimizing the impact of culture shock. But oddly enough, I first experienced culture shock when I went to New York, one of the most diverse cities ever. I couldn’t find a tortilla to save my life (there were very few Mexicans there at the time). You just do what you can, and have your mama send you some tortillas.

  7. i’ve never had the SLAC experience, but i appreciate what olga had to say about just being open to the experience, at least initially. if after a few years you are miserable there, then start applying to teach in other places.

    it seems scary to put yourself out in the middle of nowhere, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

    that said, even in “diverse” areas like mine, there are still issues regarding community and student expectations.

  8. Olga + Jennifer: I agree that there is a danger of engaging in self-fulfilling prophesies. And I think that being open to new experiences is always important.

    I should add that not all small college towns are the same. The one where I went to school had a population of only 10,000 and everyone worked for the college in some capacity. But I’ve also lived in 2 other small college towns that were bigger because they had universities there. For me, living surrounded by white people, being the only brown family in my entire HS in WV (possibly the town), the only Asian Am family in my school in NM, teaching primarily privileged white students (even in ethnic studies)–those experiences are not new. And I have always found good people to spend time with in all situations.

    So I think you’re right, it’s not all negative. But I remember what those experiences were like. In the last place I lived, I was often frustrated that other students of color constantly complained about the town–because as small towns go, it was a pretty good one! And we did have a great community–not as close as the mujeres I rolled with in Tejas though, but a community nonetheless. It wasn’t all bad. Am I still anxious about having to return to that lifestyle/context? Hell fuckin yeah. I think I’m a cynical idealist on this one. ;)

    We are incredibly fortunate to be part of a tight knit group of mujeres. It’s a rare and precious thing. For reals. And btw-when I lived in NYC, I couldn’t find good tortillas either. And I never got around to taking the train to the tortilla triangle in Brooklyn to get some. (And I lived in Brooklyn!) I made my own instead.

  9. your SLAC sounds like mine. it was so great, but it was also isolating, and it takes time to find your people. what i was surprised about is that when i was working at same SLAC later, it was easier to find students who were into activism, WOC, etc stuff, in a way, they seek you out. which has its positives and negatives, but i guess my point is don’t underestimate the potential for great student-prof interatcions in all white area, hopefully the SLAC you land at will have drawn some students of color that will also enrich your experience!

  10. I suspect you may be applying to a fellowship I had a couple of years ago.

    I did end up at a SLAC in middle of nowhere for a year. The academic, professional, and social experience was much better than I ever imagined. The downside was being 3000 miles away from my wife.

    If you would like to ask me more about it, get feedback on your application, etc., feel free to drop me an email: xoloitzquintleAThotmailDOTcom.

    Good luck!

  11. I had a great time as an undergraduate in comfortable libraries and in a culture of debate, interesting classes, at an urban R1 with over 30,000 students.

    When I started teaching at my former SLAC, a very selective one, I was shocked to discover that the professors there were presenting as “new” seminar ideas which had already been passe *for graduate students to teach freshmen* at my R-1 some years before.

  12. P.S. I was open to the experience etc. and I had no idea exactly how bad it would be.

    And I am white.

    And it was urban so I could leave the school and go elsewhere.

    And I had been selected in large part because I was white and the author on whom I had written my dissertation, while not white, was at least male, canonical, and dead.

    The only minority faculty they hired was for “minority” slots and these faculty said they felt like trained parrots in gilded cages.

    I do not think they taught the establishment a thing, they just made their statistics look good. One more possession, like an oriental rug.

    There were so few Black faculty that *I* was Black Student Advisor.
    I was selected for this because other faculty claimed they did not know what to say to Black students.
    I was so shocked when I heard this (at a meeting) that I blurted out “do you know what to say to *any* students, then?” … and that is how I came to be judged adequate for the job.

    I could go on and on. I still shudder to remember this place and thank the gods that I am gone.

  13. Although I have returned to say: I shouldn’t be so negative, that kind of place isn’t that way for everyone, and it is a job which is important!

    I just wouldn’t recommend adding more duties to it, such as ‘it is my duty to teach these people something’ or ‘If I am open to this I will like it,’ things like that. Those things sound reasonable but if they are just justifications they are hard to maintain, and make life harder.

  14. thanks for all your comments, cero. i think this is good advice–maybe for all university jobs even. and i appreciate your sharing your experience at your SLAC. even if it may have been “negative”-sounding, it seemed honest.

  15. I don’t think I have anything useful to say except that it’s hard to imagine myself in a place that does not have a critical mass of Mexican people. I’ve never done it, and who knows if I actually will do that once I begin my professional life.

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