Walking-Questioning Away From Tenure
Postcards to the Academy from the Resistance by Latinx Anónima
POST-CARD #1: Learning to walk, questioning…
Place: A Private Small Liberal Arts University
Date: September 11, 2018
Climate: Humid, threatening rain; tense.
Visibility: Poor, a dense fog creeps across the landscape. “Without a flashlight you can’t see a damn thing!*”
Greetings, Academic Industrial Complex!
It has been seven years that I have spent laboring, loving, and learning within your ranks. Those seven years are marked on my body; in the two emergency hospitalizations; in the scar that runs like barbed wire across my abdomen; in the migraines and vertigo spells that have made it hard to walk, teach, and live without losing my balance. Those seven years are soaked as tear stains into the couch in my office — the pain of my students, my colegas, my own, now part of its fabric green fibers. I have silently cried, laughed, written against the grain, theorized, taught, advocated, marched, and published, all in a struggle to not “perish” and to get to here, to almost- tenure. And yet, throughout the entire journey of constructing my tenure dossier, I began to question the destination of that journey. Tenure, after all, is that institutional exotic fruit, allegedly delicious and nutritious, that has been dangled before us to invite our desires. Years of (mis)education, sweat, tears, blood, flesh and bone, have been invested in our collective want of this fruit. And yet, here I want to contemplate its potential refusal and the alternate futures that might be seeded in that resistant “No, I no longer want you because I no longer need you.” What might it mean to walk questioning away from that which you educated me to desire?
Conceived in the spirit of what the Zapatistas call “caminar preguntando,” or to walk questioning, I write this postcard to question how we walk, where we walk, and why — to keep present that how we walk matters and that the roadmaps we create through the act of walking-questioning have always mattered in our struggles for liberation, for life. For the compañerxs of the Zapatista movement, the concept of caminando-preguntando emerged at a historical moment when the indigenous communities of Chiapas, who had been evidencing the growing possessive impulse to restrict their freedom and movement, finally said, “Ya basta!” Despite power’s impulse to contain, to limit mobility, to restrict freedoms, the Zapatista movement reminded the world that there exist creative ways in which everyday people are mobilizing and moving in resistance to power. When a movement stops asking questions, of itself, of the world, it is no longer a living thing; it becomes fixed, static, brittle, dead. For the Zapatistas, all questions are for walking, not for staying put.
And yet, there have been far too many moments along my own journey where I have done just that, stayed put. Stayed in my place. There is the assumption that bodies like mine — brown, immigrant, indigenous, female, working-class, Latinx, the first in our families to attend college and the first in our communities to get a PhD — don’t get to walk away from things like tenure. We are told and trained to desire this — to seek the love of an institution that we know deep in our marrow does not love us back. To search for an institutional home within a place that can be a war zone for many of us. And yes, I tread lightly on this metaphor, knowing full well that there are actual wars being fought and that death is certainly more than a metaphor. And yet, bodies go missing here every day — bodies of knowledge, the bodies of women of color. I am not the first to note how this is an institution that traffics in the death, disavowal, dispossession of gendered bodies of color (Hong, 2008, see also Lorde (2007), Gumbs (2011), and others). Every day, every breath, is a defiant act of resistance within the comfortable walls of the academy. We are supposed to be happy, grateful even, in that comfort. There is cruelty to that “happiness” and those “happy futures” (Ahmed, 2010) that entice us to stay. To sink into our chairs until finally we lose the will to move, to question (Ahmed, 2017). The desire becomes the violence.
We are supposed to stay. Stay put. Stay in our place. Stay the course. Deliver on the “immigrant bargain.” And many a mentor and well-meaning friend will offer up a compelling analysis for why it is necessary for “us” to stay in the academic game, in the eye of power: because folks like us are needed to change how the academy looks, thinks, and walks. But that angling to get a seat at the table with power holders and joining their ranks has made me shift uneasily in my seat as of late. I can’t sit peacefully with that framing, the restless question that prickles within me always asking, “What of our refusal of that seat at the table? And through that act of refusal might there be an opening towards other ways of doing this work? Or perhaps I refuse to sit at all. Perhaps I want to continue to move, to walk questioning?”
I think of all of the times I have stayed. Stayed put. Where I have beaten off the impulse to move (or had it beaten out me). That time when your senior male colleague publicly asked you to sit back down so you could listen to your other male colleague share his feelings, even though the meeting had gone well over normative time. Your daughter’s last volleyball game would be marked by your absence yet again — a day in the life of single academic mothers of color “who cannot or will not closet their motherhood” and who thus must make choices between our commitments to our work and our family, “choices” that communicate deep lessons about who really belongs in the academy (Tellez, 2013, p. 83). But inside you are running; you are disobedient and you are talking back to your male colleague (whose own children have the security to look out onto the bleachers or field and see a smiling parent beaming back at them). Sprinting through your mind: “I wonder how many times straight white cis-men are asked to sit back down and put aside their needs and desires so as to listen to the feelings of their female colleagues, their Latinx/women of color, single-m/othering colleagues laboring within an institution that certainly doesn’t prioritize their needs and desires.” But the spaces for running in that moment are far too narrow. And you fear cutting yourself on the multiple obstacles that lay strewn along the way. Your tenure dossier hangs in the balance. And so you sit back down. You stay silent. You stay put. You stay in your place.
You stay in your place throughout all of the times that you’ve witnessed this institution mill through bodies of other women of color, the university machine churning un/wanted flesh in-and-out, positioning them precariously under the rubric of “visiting.” Each year you watch as the institution imports their “diversity” from international pools of applicants. Meanwhile, the bodies of Latinx, African- Native-, and Asian-American women go missing. They, too, are temporary. Visitors ad perpetuam. The struggle with being a perpetual visitor is that by virtue of your visitor status you are bound to overstay your welcome/visa. And as you note this, you perhaps begin to observe that “tenure” in the tenure-track is made to make us forget that we, women of color, will always be temporary. We forget (or are made to forget) that this has always been borrowed time. We forget (or are made to forget) that at the end of the day we are still on a “track,” on a train being driven by someone else.** Walking-questioning in this way is to remember what power has made us forget — that the “tenure” portion of the tenure-track will not keep us safe. That at the end of the day, we are still on a track. We are still on the train. And yes, “certainly [we] arrive more quickly and more comfortably, but one arrives where one does not wish to arrive” (Subcomandante Marcos, 2007, p.174).
You analyze. You critique. But still you stay.
If the desire (for tenure) is the violence? Is the resistance in the refusal, in the questioning? I leave you to walk with that question.
POSTCARD #2: Walking-Questioning Towards Other Futures, Other Worlds…
Place: A Private Small Liberal Arts University
Date: September 12, 2018
Climate: Cool, a light rain mists through the atmosphere; hopeful.
Visibility: Fog is still thick but has dispersed a bit. You can see your feet. They are walking.
To those of us desiring to walk-questioning towards other futures,
Some might say that the option to walk-questioning away from the “security” of tenure is giving up. And yet, I wish to argue that my decision to walk-questioning away is a particular kind of giving up — a giving up on the false comforts or “security” that the institution of tenure promises, a giving up on a security predicated on the insecurity of many. We know full well that brown gendered bodies of color can never be safe, that at the end of day we are navigating these processes as intersectional beings and that often the “promises” of these institutional “rewards” come at the expense of our humanity. In this giving up there is thus a giving in to the possibilities for love, for life, for other futures — for “a world where many worlds fit,” in the words of the Zapatistas (p. 96). Others will say that I must stay. For my students, particularly my students of color. But what good am I doing for my students of color, and more generally for women of color in the academy, by staying at a place that traffics in disease, death, and disavowal; what kind of practices am I mirroring for the young Latinx and other women of color who end up in my office each semester, their eyes red, their bellies swollen with worry? I want to say that perhaps walking away, as we learn from the Zapatistas, is a “lesson in dignity,” one that motions to other futures where the life of the racialized, the gendered, the classed is prioritized over their death. If the desire is the violence, the resistance is in the questioning of the normative narratives we have internalized, and then perhaps dignity can be the new path we travel through those questions? These questions are ones to be walked with, whether we have tenure, whether we choose to walk away from it, or whether we stay.
What if all of the multiple options being offered by power conceal a trap? As Durito (Subcomandante Marcos’ alter-ego) observes, “in reality, power offers no liberty other than that of choosing from multiple options of death” (p. 197). How might walking-questioning away from tenure be a way to insist upon life? Is walking-questioning away from tenure to insist on living and to insist upon another university, another future, another world that is loving of life (biophillic) rather than desiring of death (necrophillic)?
As women of color in the academy, we are already “rebel pedestrians,” otherly walkers in the resistance. We must learn to question the destinations of our journeys, particularly those made in the name of our “inclusion” and “success.” It is through this walking-questioning that “we can decide where to go and what will happen” (p. 173).
“We resist unto death that which killing kills. We resist unto death that which kills forgetting. We resist unto death. We live. We are here.” (p. 38). As women of color in the academy, we are a movement with many feet, and we have the force of our collective dreams to move our steps.
Caminémos-preguntando. Let us walk-questioning.
With armed love,
Your Compañera, already afoot, in the Rebel Lands of the Academy
Latinx Anónima is an assistant professor who wishes to remain anonymous, and is a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.
*From one of Subcomandante Marcos’ letters in The Speed of Dreams (2007).
**In the piece, “Durito on Trains and Pedestrians,” Durito, Subcomandante Marco’s alter-ego, notes that “the politics of power under neoliberalism is like a train….in that train of neoliberal politics, the forward coaches are foolishly fought over by those who think they can conduct better,” forgetting the fact that the locomotive is being driven by someone else (p.173).