Centering Erasure: Talking About What We Don’t Talk About
May 19, 2021
by Ruth Friede-Cornell, Adjunct Professor of Communication Studies
I admit that I entered into the Global Gender and Women’s Studies Faculty Learning Community (FLC) with only a vague idea of what I expected to get out of it. I was curious about the guest lecturers and aware of a general desire to challenge myself and improve what I’m offering students. My experience with the FLC certainly met those goals. I enjoyed hearing from experts and I appreciated working with peers. But, if I’m being honest: my favorite thing about my FLC experience was the conversations with students that resulted from it.
When I told the first group of students that I was applying for the FLC they were surprised (and psyched) to hear that such a thing existed. After the FLC began, I was delighted to find that I had a core group of students who routinely stayed after class to ask about what I was learning and share their thoughts. I noticed quickly that there were two major categories of student opinion:
- They felt like our learning about inequity in the world and particularly here, at ACC was long overdue (often with a little bit of anger toward “well-meaning white professors who don’t know anything about the real world”, or
- They were tired of hearing “the liberal agenda” and had no interest in hearing more of “that college BS.”
I realized that neither of these groups would be best served by me (a white, liberal, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied professor) standing at the front of the room telling them “how it is.” So I decided that I’d use my FLC project to try to create an assignment that was:
- An open invitation to talk about the stories of those people that academia often “leaves out” for students who already felt aware, and
- A challenge to begin thinking about the limited scope of data/knowledge/exposure for students who expressed frustration at “being forced to regurgitate some ridiculous Feminist nonsense.”
My idea was simple: to create a weekly assignment that required students to come up with an example of a “voice” we might not have included in the material that week. I wanted to train everyone in the room (myself included) to remember to listen for those who have been silenced and/or overlooked. I wanted to make thinking beyond the included material required and normalize the idea that we are ALWAYS missing something. It became a weekly assignment: a series of questions, graded for meaningful completion, about “who we left out” that week. Each week I’d choose a few from the previous week and share some research (if I could find any) about that group. I’d share what answers I had, and we’d ask more questions. That was all. No paper, no research presentation. Just remembering to ASK the question.
My favorite part of this project was watching the evolution of the questions they asked. At the beginning of the semester, they struggled to notice what we’d neglected: “This week I do not feel we missed out on anyone’s perspective. This chapter included everyone, wasn’t about one specific group and you even brought up the fact that the one study was only over straight couples.” And even when they did try many weren’t able to think beyond generalities: “This week I feel like we really missed all of the non-white cis male perspectives on science and findings.”
Toward the end of the semester, students had grown accustomed to this sort of thinking (and felt safer talking about it). “When we talked about Knapp’s model and development of relationships, I wondered how people in India experience this with arrange[d] marriages…” They began to notice their own limitations: “…I thought particularly about East Asian cultures …. And how gross that I don’t really even know which cultures I think I’m talking about but just lump them under “East Asian”!) And they even felt safe making direct “accusations” of my lack “…We talked a lot about the communication of “environment” you talked about schools, and restaurants, banks, even highways—but you left out prisons! That means you left out almost 30 million Americans!”
“Giving voice to those who have been silent or silenced is paramount in a global society” (Turner and West (2003) p. 182). I’m grateful to the FLC for giving me exposure to new voices and the impetus to create an assignment that evoked this sort of response:
“Ruth! After learning about how words can reflect sexism, racism, and heteronormativity I started to see how this occurred in my day-to-day life… Now I feel hungry to find ways to do something about this kind of language! It feels so ingrained in our culture now and I’m wondering how we could reduce it. Do you have more resources for me? 🤔💭💫”