I have met a lot of graduate students in the past three years: at national conferences, at talks and workshops that I have given, from personal emails/DMs, and in the classes that I teach. I wish I could stay in touch with ALLL of them. I have seen graduate students from seemingly every corner of the humanities and social sciences, and even some from math and science education. There is one thing that they all have in common at this historical moment: THEY. ARE. MAD. AS. HELL. I love it and hope with every connected fiber and tissue related to my being on this earth that they STAY MAD… MAD AF!
On day three of any given week, my Wednesdays, I teach graduate studies. This semester I am teaching a course called “Intersectionality and Activist Research in the Movement for Black Lives.” It’s a methodology course that tries to take seriously that a critique and refusal of neoliberal anti-blackness in higher education has to be achieved before our research can make a difference. There are 18 students in the class and at least another 10 still on the proverbial waiting list— there just weren’t enough seats in the room to let them in. I make my whole day available to my grad students, up to and after my class. I leave the house between 10am and noon and get back between 10pm and midnight. I wish I could spend more time with them, but that’s as long as I can stay awake. So this day, day three in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, is all about teaching graduate students in the 21st century.
It’s only been in the past two years that I have even liked teaching graduate students. Before now, I found them mostly whiny, nervous, and needy and I gravitated towards the undergraduate students who were just so much better at keepin it all the way real! Graduate school infantilizes you, makes you feel like the big, bad academy and its arbitrary rules are beyond your grasp so you forget you a grownass wo/man who knows how to navigate and cut through bullshit (and you gon see a whole lot of basic bullshit in the academy; it ain’t nuthin erudite or difficult). It was exhausting being around so many graduate students who had no social awareness or critique of their environment or higher education and so just wanted you to hold their hands, give them rules/standards, and answer dumbass questions they should have been able to tackle with their own common sense. The graduate students who I meet today ain’t like that at all…. and they do solidarity like none I have EVER seen. Like I said, their anger and disgust with the academy and the whiteness, patriarchy, and exclusion of their disciplines fuels them to act and to act up. I love every moment of it. They come with RECEIPTS every damn week. Yes, RECEIPTS! Callin mofos out each week of class, naming the names and takin it to to folks’ face! These graduate students understand the depth and possibilities of decolonial refusal.
I know this is a radically different era because it diverges so sharply from my years in a PhD program (2000-2005). By the time I started dissertating, my advisors— Suzanne Carothers, Gordon Pradl, and John Mayher— supported and trusted whatever creative move I tried to make, regardless of whether or not it ended successfully because they valued my process. However, getting to that point was a LONG journey. My very first graduate seminar in my very first semester, a required doctoral course, was the worst class I have ever taken. I remember it vividly. I was simply cast as the antagonistic loud-mouth. No one wanted to make waves and jeopardize their future opportunities. This meant that no one had a intelligent critique of anything. It was a curriculum theory seminar and it didn’t matter where you landed on the political spectrum, this class taught you absolutely nothing. Because I worked part-time and did consulting as a full-time student with four classes per semester, I chose my coursework quite deliberately. I just did not have the time to waste on useless reading and writing. This class pissed me off every week! Many of our required readings came from the Brookings Institute. I was the only one who brought that up in class as an issue as, of course, the antagonistic one. Most of the students in the class did not consider themselves conservative or right-wing like Brookings and yet they did not flinch or ask a single question about the relevance of this to our work. After all, being down for the go-along eventually produces silence, complacency, and complicity. Internet search was a REAL thing back then (though google search was still a baby) but my peers had not even bothered to do that because they were determined to obey. If you asked most of them today, they couldn’t tell you what Brookings was/is or that Mickey D assigned so many readings from it (Mickey D is what I called that professor because he was about as real and deep as McDonald’s). There was only one required reading all semester about race (from Brookings) in a class about curriculum theory and nothing from a Black author. No one said a word against it. Not once. The class was so bad that even if you were a conservative, right-wing Republican, you wouldn’t have learned a thing, certainly not enough to get you taken seriously by Brookings. Issa all-around failure. Mickey D wrote on my final paper that he was not interested, as a white mainstream man, in my ideas regarding race, hegemony, dominance, and whiteness (his exact words) and gave me an A-. I got an A in the course but still stomped my way to the dean’s office on his basic Mickey D butt. My fellowship required me to present and publish annually and I so insisted that this would not be possible if I had to sit in submediocre classes that did not reflect current research trends. From that point, I got out of every required course in the program and only took the courses I wanted to take. It made no sense to me, as someone who studied language, to have to sit in classes taught by folk like Mickey D when someone like Ngugi was teaching across the street. I fought for myself and won that battle… and I was the only one in my cohort and program/school who took classes with Ngugi, who taught me more about teaching just from his presence than anyone I had met.
I had no peers who battled our curriculum and program with me, but if I were a graduate student today, it would be different. This is as much a rhetorical and linguistic shift today as it is a political/curricular one. I see and hear this in the ways that radical scholars like Tiffany King and Eve Tuck have taught me, work that I see within the terms of what Tiffany King calls a “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism”:
Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism … diverge from the polite, communicative acts of the public sphere… they do not play by the rules…practices of refusal and skepticism interrupt and out codes of civil and collegial discursive protocol …. The force, break with decorum, and style in which Black and Native feminists confront discursive violence can change the nature of future encounters…. Refusal and skepticism are modes of engagement that are uncooperative and force an impasse in a discursive exchange.
I can’t say all graduate students today are ready to burn shit down. Many, if not most, are mediocre, careerist weasels with hopes of nothing more than selling us out so they can become the next celebrity tokens. But there are enough dope, decolonizing, critical graduate students today to get some fires started. There’s no way that I would go back and re-do graduate school. No one wants that but I do wish I had been in graduate school with the folk I see today. If I were a graduate student alongside the students I see today, I would be further advanced theoretically, politically, and ideologically because I wouldn’t be as suffocated by the mediocre theory and praxis that are often sold as the only viable options. I feel sorry for all these fools with their Mickey D inclinations today. Their days are OVUH!