On being disciplinarily disobedient

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I am fortunate to be a mentor to several amazing, vibrant scholars. I tell them that I am not always sure that I’m good for their careers, but I’m positive I’m good for their hearts.

This may sound like a demurring humility or perhaps the emotional (uncompensated) labor that a woman is expected to provide, but it is neither. I know how to support people in the methodological and theoretical rigor that scholarship requires. I know, with detail and rigor, how to articulate the often opaquely expressed but materially felt demands that higher education imposes on people of color, particularly women of color. I am soberly aware that being published in pricey academic journals behind paywalls does not begin to contain what intelligence is. I am lucky to be in conversation and collegiality with many accomplished, successful peers. These are often the assumed components for successful career mentorship: build capacities through supportive and critical feedback, make the implicit rules more explicit, and foster opportunities through connections. I am in touch with these skills and regularly leverage them. Yet still I hold that I am better for the hearts of my students than their careers for one unapologetic and prevailing reason: I transgress discipline boundaries in the interest of knowledge for liberation.

The academy loves two things above almost all else: disciplines and disciplining. Experts receive credentials by demonstrating deep, often singular depths of knowledge. Apprentices are granted expert status by others who have already established that singular expertise. Those deemed to have fallen short on these pre-determined measures are institutionally disciplined through processes in graduate school, in hiring, and in promotion and tenure. Some of that disciplining is explicit and formal. A great deal of it is also codified in informal interactions. “If you’re going to be viable on the job market, you’ll need to choose a content area and stick with it so you can teach those methods courses.”  This is undoubtedly true but also insufficient. And advice for disciplinary expertise does not exist outside of longstanding, intersecting vectors of oppression. To the contrary, who is deemed a researcher and who holds the highest ranks reflects all too neatly the subject positions protected by white heteropatriarchal capitalism.

But an analysis of who qualifies, through sociopolitical histories, as expert should not result in a dismissal of expertise overall. 45, Carson, DeVos, Price…the federal government reminds us on a daily basis that American anti-intellectualism is only accelerated with purchasing power. And neither should thoughtful analysis be confused with eclecticism. In fact, a move away from a tradition requires perhaps the deepest understanding of that tradition, or the move away is more fickle than principled. It is not enough to be disobedient as a personality tic, we must be principled in what is disobeyed and why. Without a productive questioning of what has become codified, enclosed expertise can erode into a thin utility of credentialing the next crop of authorities.  Rigor is always needed to know when to move away from a discipline and when to improve it by modifying how it is articulated.

We think of disciplines and methodologies as distinct from each other.  A literacy scholar publishes in journals that are distinct from where a scholar of race submits her work. An ethnographer only uses interviews and field notes. Boundaries prevail as we discipline the disciplines and make the discipline the center of study instead of how, as one example, whiteness has long narrated itself by naming the desirability and criminality of migrants. It is precisely because of my work within and across literacy, coloniality, and race that I can name the narratives the facilitate those structures.

Peoples, particularly those cast outside of the culture of the academy, are disciplined as a way of patrolling the perimeters of disciplines. Martin Nakata’s 2009 book Disciplining the Savages; Savaging the Disciplines makes these points beautifully and thoroughly. He explains in the book’s opening pages that [Torres Straight Islanders] “have long understood their need to be educated in the ways of the world developing outside of our islands…However, educating ourselves has also meant running the risk of blindly taking on knowledge and practices that have served to keep us in a subjugated position.”

I often wish that education, seen as a lower field on most every college campus, would cast off its wishes to be legitimated through sociology, history, economics, and of course, now, business schools. Learning and adapting the tools and questions formed through these disciplines is vital, but seeking legitimacy through them conjures the risk of something related to Nakata’s warning to his people. We might lose our focus on schooling and learning, and most certainly liberatory education, in the desire for disciplinary legitimacy.

Disciplinary legitimacy is the question at hand when beginning educational researchers are routinely asked to debate if educational research is, itself, a discipline, or if it merely draws upon other disciplines. This debate, typically not a genealogical investigation about the raced, classed and gendered professions of teaching and teacher education, but about disciplinary uniqueness, frustrates me as a dalliance with precious time. And heart.

While 1st and 2nd year edschool doctoral students to and fro about educational research as either a discipline or derivative of other disciplines, both the stewardship of learning and the malleable tools that disciplines can provide remain at bay. Enclosures of minds, bodies, and neighborhoods fortify while specialists separately each write about this pattern through varying vocabularies, in part because they need to demonstrate the expertise in that domain. The power of understanding that domains are constructs is that we remember that they are permeable and that we can shift them. What questions are we both freed and obligated to ask if we see disciplinary knowledges as always potentially conversant?

What if we said that to understand race and schooling in society, we must also study housing policies?

What if we said that to understand anti-black racism in schools, we must also understand the ongoing attempts to erase Indigeneity?

What if we said that to contend with the ongoing racist structure of schooling we needed to understand racism as animating empire and capitalism rather than only attitudinal?

What if a course addressing theories of society studied the work and lives of disciplinarily defiant scholars including Sylvia Wynter, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cedric Robinson, and WEB Du Bois rather than sequencing through the -ologies?

What if, in essence, we create the parameters for study that encouraged more dots to be connected, instead of specific curricula from disciplines made more entrenched with each year’s syllabus?

Let me bring this back to one my ‘lanes.’ Education and educational researchers should become much more fluent in connecting the economic, political, and historical engines that drive societal safety and vulnerability. Schools are one of the most consistent interfaces of multiple societal histories and desires. For example, asking why there remains such a predominance of white female teachers in K-12 schools and schools of education begs connecting a religious history of a feminized workforce, an intertwined investment in Black and brown children being expendable, and various socializations through racist heteropatriarchal capitalism. Connecting these dots would enable us to better address how and why Betsy DeVos, the least prepared Secretary of Education, ever, was confirmed, and perhaps, why there is such venom and costly protection for her now. And yet none of that worthwhile investigation would yield essential knowledge about the ways that Black educators in the South established the first public schools there. Or that literacy has long been nurtured as fugitive denial of anti-literacy laws and benign racist policies. Or how vital study has been to every social change movement. Very little of what I’ve just listed is the core curriculum for beginning doctoral students in education. I am not suggesting that we supplant one established core curriculum for another. Rather, as a field of study, we should become more disciplinarily disobedient to better grow and steward an understanding of schools as one of the social geographies where racism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, property rights, enclosure, and freedom converge.

I tell my students that I am better for their hearts than their careers because I hold them accountable for knowledge-building that transgresses boundaries that need to be transgressed and resists resting easily on any prevailing principle, of any tradition. They must show evidence of their claims. They cannot simply state, “racism is ubiquitous” and move on to what they want to say about experiences of racism. Of course racism is pervasive, but we must do the work of making clear how and why racism was created, why it is maintained, and then explain how articulating experiences with racist schooling practices helps us to facilitate different ways of being with each other and re-imagine education. It requires a rigorous heart to do that work instead of listing principles on dusty powerpoint slides. The quintessential question of science, “how do we know?” cannot ever be sufficiently answered by a slide about theoretical underpinnings.

I tell my students that I am better for their hearts, in part, because I want them to be knowledge builders and creators who imagine new futures into existence. The academy is rather inhospitable to rethinking itself, and has demonstrated that interdisciplinary studies can also be a conduit for expressions of power. It would be minimally disingenuous for any scholar to promise career stability as a by-product of imagining freer futures. More fundamentally, it would mean that we hadn’t studied freedom movements very well. Within entrenched structures, it takes heart to imagine new, freer futures into existence because those structures will push back. But if we consider learning as a praxis of freedom, where better than education, to imagine new worlds into existence? Especially collectively. It takes heart to interrupt the individualistic competitive culture in much of schooling but the reward of heart manifests lies waiting.

One of the practical ways that we can engage in this heartful work is by reading work that defies disciplinary definition and knowing something about the contexts in which they were written. I’m fortunate, with others, to read this kind of work as calling, as genealogy of willful, transgressive thinking, and as pedagogy for how to be disciplinarily disobedient cultural workers.

Here are just a few texts that have helped us to think about knowledge building as a pursuit of liberation:

Spill by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Freedom Dreams by Robin DG Kelley

The Invention of Women by Oyèrónké Oyëwùmí’

Representations by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon

The Undercommons by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten

To change how the world is, we have to, in great part, change how we are with the world. In these tumultuous days of destabilization on several, simultaneous fronts, I think regularly about how are we with each other and ideas that can help us to reckon with historical and infrared societal stress.

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