Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community

A conversation with Nimisha Barton, historian, educator, and diversity practitioner.

Nimisha Barton will lead a workshop for NetVUE members on October 27th on Bias, Privilege and Educational Freedom (see below for more details). As we finalized the details about her workshop, Nimisha generously agreed to be interviewed about her work and career trajectory and how her experiences in graduate school have informed her approach to mentoring. At the end, Nimisha suggests texts and other resources for educators who are committed to supporting undergraduates and unlearning the damaging messages into which we have all been socialized.

Describe the work you do now and how you engage with students, either as a consultant, teacher, mentor, etc. 

I consult with colleges and universities helping faculty and staff around the country find ways to improve their relationships with their entire community. This may look like inclusive teaching workshops for faculty or inclusive leadership development trainings for students. At the end of the day, I seek to highlight existing norms and practices and suggest new ways of thinking that might enhance our relationships with one another. Often, this means thinking through how historical and sociopolitical realities have conditioned the ways we currently relate with one another and imagining new ways of being in community. 

I view students from marginalized backgrounds as the primary beneficiaries of these efforts. When faculty design courses, syllabi, and assignments for those at the margins, all students benefit, but especially marginalized students. When student leaders lead from a place of cultural humility as opposed to cultural competency, it similarly benefits all students, but especially marginalized students. DEI practices, broadly construed, represent “the tide that lifts all boats,” because ultimately we will all benefit from learning new skills, new tools, and new ways of being in community with one another.

How did you come to do this work? What do you understand to be your calling? 

My path has been a most unexpected and beautiful surprise, though I admit it didn’t often feel that way. When I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate to have benefited from the mentorship of professors who encouraged me to go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in French history. Ever an obedient student, I took their advice because I wanted to be like them: teachers first, scholars second, mentors always. 

While I was fortunate to have the privilege to complete my PhD at a well-resourced university, I consider the 7 years that I was a graduate student there as a sort of apprenticeship in power, privilege, and hierarchy. While my undergraduate institution (a large public state school in my native California) in many ways fit me like a glove, nothing could have been further from the truth as it pertained to my graduate institution (a small, private east coast Ivy League university). Perhaps as a way to cope, I became involved in university programs that sought to ease the academic and social transition of first-year undergraduates from similarly marginalized backgrounds–that is, who were first-generation college students, like me, and who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly given the history of our country, most–though not all–were also students of color. While working with, mentoring, and teaching these wonderful students, I arrived at a vocabulary and intellectual framework to help me understand my own experiences and found it healing to nurture a like-minded community.

When I completed my PhD, the job market in my field was quite dismal. When I didn’t immediately “land” a tenure-track position, I was faced with a big decision: would I continue to try to be a traditional academic or was it time to find a new dream? As it turns out, it was a watershed moment for me, introducing a definitive break between who I had been and who I would become. For me, larger structural change became the goal because I saw how much talent was excluded from our institutions as a result of the idiosyncrasies (to put it mildly) of the current system. And since then, my views of systemic critique have only deepened and expanded–from leveling my gaze narrowly on institutions of higher education to taking a larger critical view of systems of police violence, health disparities, housing discrimination, and so much more injustice that exists in the world.  

You’ve written incisively about mentoring on your blog, noting some perils and pitfalls in academia. What advice would you give to faculty and staff who are in a position of mentoring undergraduates? 

Overall, I think it’s a useful starting point to simply acknowledge, identify, and then continuously remind ourselves that we do indeed hold a particular worldview. If we do not see that, true mentorship will remain elusive. A good set of questions to ask ourselves, and ones that I wish I had asked myself sooner, are: What norms, beliefs, and values do I take for granted? Where did I get these ideas? Why do they appear so “obvious” and “normal” to me? What blindspots might I have as a result? In practical terms, when it comes to interacting with students, I also find it helpful to frame my advice through the prism of “this is just what I think for ABC reasons.” In this manner, you don’t simply “give” students the answer; rather, you render visible the factors that you take into account when you make decisions, thereby helping students understand the larger framework that shapes the specific contours of our decision-making. In this manner, they may also be able to identify how and why they might make very different decisions.

Moreover, I would remember that students are still formulating their own worldviews. We are all, of course, unfinished beings, but they are very much in the midst of “becoming.” How might we nurture that process with grace, support, and humility? As possible, try to get a sense of what your student values. For instance, center curiosity in your interactions. Ask questions. If they are making a decision that you don’t understand, try to get a sense of what factors, what considerations, influence them. In most cases, it is a good idea to help them connect with other folks–either their peers or your colleagues. Other people, in other words, who may offer different forms of advice, with the understanding that this can only enrich your students’ perspectives and help them make more informed decisions. Above all, those of us in student-facing roles must remember that we play a support role in the lives of our students. It is our job to help students “become” in a way that makes sense with their own cultures, experiences, worldviews, and we stand to learn much from these encounters, too.  

In your blog, you have shared some of your experiences in graduate school, including helpful and less-than-helpful (even harmful) advice that you received. What is some of the best advice you received? The worst? What advice would you give a twenty-something year old? 

Do not let someone else’s values become your own, at least not without careful scrutiny. I think this advice is valuable for several reasons. It is a reminder that you must know yourself, know what you care about in this world, in order to make good decisions rooted in what’s right for you. It also admits the possibility that we will frequently be confronted with individuals and systems that try to persuade us that we don’t know what we know. That’s normal, inevitable, and ok. Indeed, it is life. But most importantly, this piece of advice allows for the possibility of change: what once made sense for us may not any longer, and that’s also ok. Our worldviews will shift, change shape, and grow. That transformation is a reminder that we are learning, that we are gaining a better understanding of the world around us. The point is simply that we want to enter into that process with awareness and intention. Individual transformation can lead to collective transformation, but only if we are clear on, and remain vigilant about, what matters to us. 

You have been a speaker and delivered workshops for students, faculty and staff at colleges and universities around the country. Based on what you have observed and gleaned through those conversations, what makes you hopeful about the state of higher education in the U.S. today? What worries or concerns you? 

After the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery this summer, there was a national outpouring of grief, anger, and a sincere wish on the part of so many Americans, particularly white Americans, to try harder and do better. Some have even come to realize that this will entail a significant amount of discomfort upfront, for example, learning to think and act in ways that do not come naturally to them. That gives me hope. In my opinion what this world needs more of (and I include myself when I say this) is folks who are willing to re-examine what they have been taught and told for all their lives, and ask one simple question: Could it be another way? 

I so want for all of us to learn how to decenter the norm of competency, which implies mastery and dominance, in favor of a predisposition that instead values humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness. That may not sound ground-breaking, but it’s a way of thinking that runs counter to the ways that academia and much of the professional world operate. That is, most of us exist in a world that demands that we demonstrate mastery and expertise and places rather less value on inquiry and a desire to learn. I believe increasingly that we must approach one another in the spirit of curiosity and humility if we hope to build better schools, better communities, and a more just future, and I think now might be the moment that folks are receptive to that message.   

There is so much good material right now (books, blogs, podcasts, etc.) about anti-racism, diversity, inclusion that it is hard to keep up. What are you reading right now? 

For the last few years, I have focused on getting back to the basics. As a trained historian who lives in the United States and cares about social justice, this means I’ve engaged in a fair amount of self re-education, trying to really get to know the history of this country. In recent months, I have found the following works to be quite helpful: Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class; Martha Jones’s Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers; Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America; Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns; and narrative textbooks on Black and indigenous history written by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, respectively. Unsurprisingly, my podcast tastes skew in a similar direction: Codeswitch, Intersectionality Matters!, Uncivil, Good Ancestors, Scene on Radio, Still Processing, and Teaching While White.

Of course, what you know is, in many ways, far less important than how you think, and there has been a significant amount of unlearning and reorienting I’ve had to do in that domain, as well. In this project, the following works have been especially critical to my intellectual journey: Audre Lorde’s collected works in Sister OutsiderBrittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, Kate Manne’s Entitled, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressedbell hooks’s Teaching to Transgressadrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, and, well, anything Angela Davis has ever written or said aloud.

Considering the events of the summer, I’ve also drawn inspiration from the plentiful abolitionist reading lists that have circulated, including this and this.

What are some resources that you would recommend for beleaguered faculty and staff who are committed to supporting undergraduates in thinking carefully about their futures and in discerning their callings? 

Overall, I would say the spirit that guides my learning is un-learning, as in: what do I think I know that requires rethinking? This spirit of humility might lead us towards texts with which we are all probably familiar at this point, including Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ibram Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race. For educators, I would further suggest bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress and the podcast Teaching While White. If you’re really ready to take it to the next level, Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy book and journal offers indispensable tools. What I really like about Saad’s approach is how much she insists on reflective journaling in order to surface our innermost beliefs and values as a first step toward holding them up to the light and examining them. I’ve found similarly inspiring journal prompts throughout Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

As a last thought, I would simply mention that, at this particular moment, there are many anti-racist reading lists floating around out there, and they may indeed prove useful. That said, learning in isolation may not lead to the kind of individual, and eventually collective, transformation that this unjust world requires. Forming or participating in book clubs or, better yet, racial affinity groups can help provide the requisite space where staff and faculty can explore their own identities and how their identities might influence their work with students. I strongly encourage folks to join and/or create these discussion spaces where they might examine themselves and develop tools to create a more just world. Just as this moment calls for learning, so too does it call for a significant amount of unlearning. This is eminently reasonable. Consider for a moment that we have all been socialized into a culture that pedals in powerful and damaging messages. It makes sense that, while we may be able to filter some of it out, we internalize the vast majority of it. As a result, it will take concerted effort to root those ideas out and help us develop an awareness, a mindfulness about them.  

Nimisha Barton will lead a workshop for NetVUE members on October 27th on Bias, Privilege and Educational Freedom. Faculty members and staff at NetVUE institutions can find the registration link by logging into the online community and checking the discussion board (click here). To learn more about Nimisha Barton’s work, see her website (https://www.drnimishabarton.com).

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