The Promise of Transformative Education

Last fall, Juana María Rodríguez, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, delivered a keynote address during the Liberal Arts Experience Workshop C3 hosted at her institution. She has allowed us to share the text of her address below. 

When I first heard about the Creating Connections Consortium, I was immediately struck by the ways my own experiences navigating the ladder of higher education were mirrored in the larger vision of C3. My undergraduate degree is from San Francisco State University, my Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, my Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from Berkeley and my first tenure-track appointment was in an English Department at Bryn Mawr College, a small, liberal arts college for women. My time as both a student and a faculty member at these very different kinds of institutions have all shaped how I have come to see the connection between academic culture, student and faculty success, and the significance of diversity. In my comments, I want to help us think about the work of diversifying the academy, but I also want to open a space for talking about the kind of affective responses that diversity instantiates.

Let me begin by clarifying some distinctions about what we mean when we speak about diversity. Very often diversity means making the spaces of higher education more inclusive of individuals who have historically been under-represented at these institutions. But let us step back and think about what ‘under-represented’ actually means, both numerically and symbolically. According to the US census, Latinos now constitute 38% of all Californians, but on Berkeley’s campus only 7% of graduate students identify as Latino—and less than half of those are enrolled in Ph.D. programs; 13% of the US population is African Americans, but only 3% of Berkeley’s faculty are African, Afro-Caribbean or African American. Native Americans constitute close to 2% of Californians, but their representation among graduate students, not to mention faculty is so low that it is termed statistically negligible, numbers so small they are not even included in the available charts. What might it feel like to be statistically irrelevant? Even the term ‘under-represented minority’ seems to suggest a sort of benign declaration, a failure of representation. In fact, we know that these statistics are directly related to generations of overt federal, state, and local housing, educational and employment policies that have denied racialized minorities access to certain jobs, certain neighborhoods and certain schools, denied the material and social benefits of what legal scholar Cheryl Harris terms “whiteness as property.” For a population like people with disabilities, access can literally mean access to the building, to the classroom, or to basic course materials—access which has all too frequently has been systematically denied or simply deemed too onerous or costly to merit inclusion. Again, what might it feel like to have the academic accommodations that make your education possible, deemed too much of a burden? But what ‘under-represented’ means is also very much context specific, even white women who have historically benefited the most from affirmation action policies, continue to be under-represented in the STEM fields for example. Under this definition, diversity, in terms of race and gender, but also in relation to disability, sexuality, immigration status, and age is very much about championing a belief in a university that is inclusive and representative of diverse bodies and communities. And this is important work.

Diversity is more than that, however. It is more than just counting bodies and checking boxes. At an educational institution like Berkeley, diversity is also a shared principal, part of our collective belief that education should be and can be transformative. As educators, part of our mission is to empower our students to become engaged global citizens in a diverse and changing world. As the recent New York Times story about the experiences of women at Harvard’s business school suggests, success is not predicated on access alone, instead performance outcomes are directly tied to academic culture. At Berkeley and elsewhere that has meant understanding the connection between the ways certain bodies have been marginalized, stigmatized and devalued, and the ways certain knowledge practices have been marginalized, stigmatized and devalued. We can continue to admit more students of color, hire more faculty members who are disabled, offer spousal benefits to gay and lesbian staff members, but if we don’t also do the work of transforming the academic cultures in which we live, we have done little to deliver on our promise of transformative education.

We have long known that one avenue towards transforming educational institutions is by diversifying the curriculum in order to make the histories, social experiences, cultural practices and creative theorizations of marginalized groups core to what it means to be an educated member of society. Very often however, diversifying the curriculum gets translated as sending students off to ‘that class’ or ‘that department’ to learn about ‘those people, and in my mind, that is not just an institutional failure, it is a failure of intellectual imagination. Diversity requirements like the American Cultures requirement at Berkeley are wonderful additions to the core curriculum, but they are not enough to address the systemic exclusion and marginalization that has characterized the academy. We need to teach our students to approach the world in unfamiliar ways, and give them expansive tools of inquiry to help them form compelling interpretations for what they encounter. Valuing diverse perspectives and diverse modes of inquiry is absolutely central to that project, allowing us to ask new questions of familiar materials and to valorize under-researched archives. We need to not just value difference, but learn to value differently. What might happen if we take a canonical literary text, Chaucer, Cervantes, Poe or Morrison and examine it through the lens of disability studies? How might that intellectual exercise allow for new insights into how bodily difference might be imagined or expressed? How might our understanding of national citizenship be expanded, challenged or transformed through an engagement with indigenous ideas of sovereignty? How might the prevalence of third gender designations in India, Indonesia and elsewhere help us contest social science data organized around static gender binaries? What happens if we interrogate the experience of chattel slavery not only as a political, historical and social reality but as a phenomenological reality, a uniquely perverse way of inhabiting one’s own body? The fields of disability studies, queer theory, gender studies or ethnic studies, have at times concerned themselves with the identities, histories and cultures of specific bodies and communities that have been marginalized in academic literature and that work of expanding our knowledge of the world has been crucial. But these fields have also been centrally engaged in posing larger questions, of grappling with what we might term Big Ideas: how are social norms disciplined, maintained and transformed over time? How do we balance the relationship between collective political structures and individual desires? What constitutes the human or what Judith Butler might term a “grievable life”? How is a life worth mourning or grieving made intelligible through race, sexuality, ability, gender, nationality? These interdisciplinary fields, and the disciplines they have influenced and transformed have all contributed to the expansion of academic inquiry, and towards making the worlds around us more just and more inhabitable spaces to live, work and wonder.

Diversifying academic institutions and the kinds of knowledge practices that are valued within them remains a fraught process, however. In their text, Power, Race and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower?, editors Shirley Geok-Lim, Maria Herrera-Sobek and Genaro Padilla address the anxious process of integrating the racialized bodies of students, professors and administrators into the academy while simultaneously integrating issues of race, gender and sexuality into larger discussions of academic cultures. In the introduction to that book Geok-Lim and Herrera-Sobek write:

While much has been published concerning pedagogical and curricular matters, relatively little attention has been paid to the social and professional pressures on women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, who are frequently assumed to accomplish the mission of multicultural education with their appointment as faculty members. (1)

Their text opens a space within the academy for more nuanced dialogue on what these changes have meant to faculty who have often had to carry the burden of diversity, and the impact these changes have had on a myriad of issues related to hiring, promotion, tenure, service, retention, teaching, administration and institutional culture. But these conversations also invariably reveal how the particularities of race, sexuality, gender or ability are nuanced by the complexities of other factors such as accent, nationality, age, teaching style, fashion style, class, color, degrees of femininity and masculinity, size, and the subjects we teach. What does it mean, when even our names, have the potential to produce anxiety in others? In their introductory comments, these authors frame the problem of narrating these experiences by posing the following questions; they ask, “What are the challenges, problems, proposed solutions, and transformations that face universities when faculty from traditionally underrepresented groups enter academia? What kinds of things happen when traditional outsiders move or do not move into positions of tenure and/or administrative power” (1)? These are thorny questions that face the organizers of C3.

The mission of C3 is to create pathways of inclusion by increasing the diversity of the faculty at high-ranking liberal arts colleges, and increasing the diversity of graduate students at research institutions like Berkeley and Columbia. When I first arrived at Bryn Mawr College as a newly minted Ph.D., I was the one walking that path, I was that outsider who was now entering the ranks of not just the academic profession, but the privileged world of elite educational institutions. And it wasn’t easy. As is often the case, but certainly not always, there was a certain nebulous alignment between my identity as a queer Latina, and my fields of study. At Bryn Mawr College, I was involved in expanding the curricular offerings of the English Department in uncharted directions, adding new courses in Latina/o literature and queer theory, but also teaching courses in critical legal studies and translation studies, which were still considered somewhat novel approaches in literary studies. The only other faculty of color in my department was an African American woman whose courses in the African American literary canon were quite traditional in disciplinary terms. It was in many respects a deeply alienating and emotionally wrought experience, but also rewarding in ways that I never expected.

Bryn Mawr College, with its tree-lined walkways and stone buildings, a student body of 1,300, and a faculty that could all fit in one auditorium, was unlike any place I had ever even visited. The reception I received there was puzzling at times, and other times seemingly ripped from Stereotype Digest. The chair of my department, once commented that my work was so ‘interesting’ and that I wrote ‘so beautifully’ that perhaps I should consider publishing with a popular press. Another senior colleagues in assumed that if my area of specialization was US Latino and ethnic literature (how many books can that really be?), then I must surely also be an expert in Latin American and peninsular letters, in other words all of the Spanish language tradition from El Cid onward. (His area was 18th century British poetry: one country, one century, one genre). And yes, on more than one occasion, I would hear comments about just how well I spoke English. A frequent response to anecdotes of this sort often attempts to mark these ‘unfortunate incidents’ as isolated occurrences, the result of misunderstandings or oversensitivity. Yet, as people of color, we narrate and interpret these stories within a context in which the specter of other stories of inequity and exclusion haunt our sense of belonging in both the academy and the civic spheres in which we live. If the emotional negotiations involved in these professional exchanges are complicated for faculty, we can imagine that they are all the more perilous for graduate students.

Teaching at Bryn Mawr College was also some of the most rewarding work of my career as a professor. It was luxury teaching, small classes with outstanding students, supported by proactive and resourceful librarians and talented technical teams. If one of my students got a paper accepted at a graduate conference (and many did), I could be assured that the College would make sure she was able to attend. Like many small liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr was about manufactured diversity—generous financial aid packages that created access to a wide range of carefully selected students. This had surprising advantages. In my Latina/o Literature classes, I might have a Chicana from a struggling farm worker family from South Texas sitting next to a young woman from Mexico City who had gone to high school with her own personal bodyguard, an Afro-Dominicana from a housing project in Jackson Heights working alongside a Japanese Brazilian whose family had immigrated to Nebraska. With no common referent in terms of what Latina meant in terms of color, religion, class, language or experience, the classroom immediately began as an energized space where our differences, and how they were reflected in the course materials, proved much more compelling than any constructed sense of sameness.

Bryn Mawr’s president at the time, Nancy Vickers, who had come from the University of Southern California also did several things right. She brought in cluster hires to expand the curriculum—within two years Latino Studies positions were opened up in History, Spanish and my own in the English Department. The College also received Mellon monies to fund a writing and professional support groups for female junior faculty of color within our Tri-College consortium, forging friendships and professional connections that have continued to this day. Bryn Mawr partnered with the Posse Foundation to bring in and provide ongoing support to cohorts of under-represented students in order to increase success rates. Strategies such as horizontal support across cohorts, and vertical mentoring between professional stages all work to make the academy a more hospitable place to teach, work and thrive. But there remains more that small colleges and large institutions can do to send the message that diverse bodies, diverse perspectives, diverse knowledge practices are central to the construction of a robust place of learning. Departments taking on the challenge of expanding their curricula, and their faculty, need to do the work required to educate themselves on the value and importance of the emerging areas in which they wish to hire. A tenure review is not the time to figure out what is meant by digital humanities, Afro-Pessimism or transgender theory. In many cases, not only are the methods and archives these scholars deploy unfamiliar, but the journals, conferences, and professional networks in which their work gets evaluated may also prove unfamiliar, if not threatening to entrenched disciplinary norms and practices. Furthermore, administrators need to do more to make sure that the work of diversifying the academy and the curriculum is not shunted off to an under-resourced corner of the campus, but is instead evident in discipline-specific ways in every department and every research unit in order to transform the very foundations of knowledge production.

We create the path, by walking it. My own tribulations in the academy were quite different than those of the generation that preceded me. The stories you will be recounting as professors and administrators 20 years from now, will no doubt be riddled with new challenges as racialized class divisions widen, as the underlying values of a liberal arts education come under attack, and as the connections between the academy and the worlds in which it functions are re-imagined. Campuses need to provide more than just access; they need to do the difficult institutional and emotional labor of interrogating the academic cultures that adjudicate value. They need to dismantle systemic forms of entrenched prejudice that perpetuate the status quo and respond vigorously to the challenges posed by diversity in creative ways. The deep-rooted inequities and injustices that surround us are daunting, but institutions of learning are ideal places to confront and re-imagine the worlds in which we live. Together we can begin to fulfill the promise of transformative education for all.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life : The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London ; New York: Verso, 2004.

Geok-Lim, Shirley, Maria Herrera-Sobek, and Genaro Padilla, eds. Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower? New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2000.

Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106.8 (1993): 1707-91.

Kantor, Jodi. “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” The New York Times September 7, 2013 2013, sec. Education.