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. 

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Fighting the Good Fight

Many students feel called to engage in ongoing struggles for social justice on our campuses, in their communities, and beyond. Recent events have led even more students to recognize that such activism may be part of their vocation. But even the most motivated and energetic student advocates experience frustration and exhaustion to an extent that threatens their well-being and sometimes even the continuation of their studies. How can we best support these students? How can those of us who are committed to helping our students discern and live out their vocations tend to their sometimes acute sense of being embattled? On Tuesday, July 14, NetVUE hosted a webinar with four speakers who addressed this intersection of social justice, activism, and vocation.

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Back to basics: holistic mentoring in times of crisis

In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Eric R. White, associate dean for advising emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and former president of NACADA, called upon his colleagues to begin to re-imagine a new model for academic advising, one that takes into account the realities that higher education will inevitably confront in the coming years. As with the shift to on-line teaching this spring, academic advising also had to pivot to relying upon online communication forms. White argues that such a shift was almost “second nature” to many, given that in recent years “academic advising was one of the first higher education endeavors to embrace technology as a way to supplement its work.”

The sanguine picture White paints may not align with the reality for many advisors this spring. Being comfortable with online technology is one thing but getting students to respond to offers for help and support is another. During a NetVUE-sponsored Zoom gathering in April, people described texting with individual students as an effective way to simply inquire about how they were doing, their family situation, and overall well-being. At another meeting, Student Affairs administrators described the importance of getting in touch with every student over those initial weeks of anxiety, bewilderment, and grief—an “all hands on deck” endeavor. I came away from those Zoom meetings reaffirmed about the passion and commitment of NetVUE colleagues from across the country. Even in a state of exhaustion, they operate from a deep sense of calling; they are “nimble” because they know how to stay connected to fundamentals.

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What an Unjust World Also Needs: Connecting Vocation and Activism

Soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the rising prominence of Black Lives Matter in rallies and marches around the country, students from my institution planned their own protests. Dezi, a non-binary Black US American individual who graduated with Religion and Sociology majors five years ago, led the way. As they planned a “die in” to take place in Augustana’s campus coffee shop, Dezi wisely consulted with a number of faculty members. They conveyed their intention and their list of demands to Augustana, and asked us to help them refine their tactics and messaging. I was both honored and anxious to be among those informal consultants.

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Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross

“Lebenskreuz,” or “Cross of Life,” depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy found in Matthew 25:35-40. Wartburg College campus.

“These are the days of maximum grace.”

This is what I found myself telling my students repeatedly over the past four weeks. As our life together turned upside down and inside out because of the coronavirus pandemic, deadlines faded away, boundaries dissolved, campus became a ghost town, home became school, and we all experienced repeated seismic shocks.

The last day I was in a classroom with students was Friday, March 13. Rather than being unlucky, the day was a gift—to be in a room with them (the last time for how long?!), talking in-person about the online move I anticipated us making. One student came late to class still nursing tears over an injury suffered during what would become the last athletic practice of a college career, freshly stung with the news of cancelled spring sports seasons. Another student in another class wrote a note on the back of a reading quiz, where normally I encourage doodles and puppy cartoons as they wait for others to finish, saying plainly “just let us leave Wartburg please.” These were the days where the situation changed daily, sometimes even hourly. Administrators struggled to keep up with the current best advice from elected officials and public health experts, because what was “best advice” kept changing.

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Letters of recommendation: the need for humility

We are often in a position to tell our students’ stories.

Last year, I wrote a Vocation Matters reflection on telling our students’ stories in recommendation letters. I meditated on the fact that, in order to learn their stories, faculty and staff members have to be authentic cooperators and collaborators with their students. We cooperate with them in developing a narrative even as we faculty members craft a formal one, later, on behalf of our students. This requires one to balance the interests of formation and assessment, early, with promotion later. Our student subjects are dynamic and developing, so updates are needed on their states of mind and future plans. Finally we, as embedded institutional actors, need to understand our own subjectivities. All this comes together in what are very often long-term relationships. We become the keepers of their flames of desire.

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Wrestling with White Supremacy

Second edition published in 2014.

In an essay published in December in The Cresset that is now available online, Richard T. Hughes recounts how he slowly came to see the myth of white supremacy as one of the most significant in forming American history and identity. The author of Myths America Lives By (published by the University of Illinois Press in 2004 and revised in 2014), Richard shares how a comment offered during a panel at the American Academy of Religion initiated a change in his thinking:

I had spent years thinking about the Great American Myths. I had taught classes and written books and articles on that subject. While I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. I understood that avowed white supremacists stalked the American landscape, but I had always viewed them as standing on the margins of American life. To suggest that white supremacy was a defining American myth struck me as preposterous.

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Office Hours and Fear of the Unknown

Faculty Office Hours, or FOH: May become addicting!

A story that aired on NPR back in October about college students and office hours never quite gained the traction I thought it would. The highlight of the story for me was the discussion of a satirical video, produced by Arizona State University, warning students of the dangers of FMOOWMP: Fear of Meeting One on One with my Professor.  “Finally!” I thought, a lighthearted way to break the ice with my students and encourage them to take advantage of those big blue blocks labelled “Office Hours” on my posted schedule.

The story aired on a Wednesday and I decided that the FMOOWMP video was going to be my opening for both of my classes the following morning. As funny as the video is, it certainly needs some qualifiers if the joyful ending it envisions is ever going to be realized. Yes, office hours are good and can make all the difference in the world. But, after giving this a little more thought, I think the whole concept of office hours can benefit from a little unpacking.

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Fighting Foreclosure

When I advised pre-health undergraduates, my office regularly warned students about the problem of “foreclosure.” For you readers with mortgages: no, not that kind. Advisors are not normally in the business of repossessing property when mortgagors got behind on their payments! Rather, because pre-health students are particularly driven and focused, often from an early age, they do not dedicate mature time and energy to exploring other possibilities. They are in a sense “foreclosed” regarding other vocational options because they are committed to one—the field of medicine, for instance.

This issue is prominent enough that advisors designate the problematic group as a type: “foreclosure students.” In a 2011 article often cited by student advisors, Shaffer and Zalewski posit that such students “have prematurely committed themselves to academic majors and future careers, but present themselves to academic advisors as very decided.” They are “confident and committed” to their future plans.

Why might one avoid foreclosure? Is there something wrong with being lucky enough to have an early sense of what you want to do with your life? How can advisors and mentors help this particular constituency of students?

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Help for Undecided Students

I “meandered” through several majors during my college years. Such exploration was encouraged, understood as an important part of the liberal arts commitment to “breadth” and the messy and slow process of “figuring it out.” By the time the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I had completed most of the required courses for the philosophy major, taken here and there as electives. I called home and left a message on my parent’s answering machine (this was in the late 80s), notifying them of my intention to declare a major in philosophy, Beyond having to endure my father’s jokes (Q: “What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major? A: “Do you want fries with that?”), they supported me in both the meandering and the final decision.

Thinking about this now from the perspective of college personnel, I can see why such meandering might be considered a problem, for the student as well as for the institution. A recent article in the Chronicle describes one strategy that some large universities are taking to circumvent these problems: the development of the “meta-major,” requiring students in their first year (and in some cases before they arrive on campus) to commit to a general area. Such interventions appear to be necessary, given the scale of the institutions. In one example cited in the article, the ratio of advisors to undeclared students is 1:275! Readers will not be surprised to hear that the “meta-major” is part of a larger strategy to improve retention and completion, and the article mentions other measures.

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