» read essay: "A Letter From My Students": Transformative Pedagogy, Borderlands Performance, and the Critical Junctures of Whiteness
Making Space for Theories of the Flesh in the Classroom
“A Letter From My Students” is a performance that weaves intertextual narratives drawn from whiteness studies, from personal experiences in the classroom, and from qualitative course evaluation data through four critical junctures of whiteness. Between 2012-2013, this letter was embodied as a one-man staged performance performed at a communication studies regional conference, at black box theaters and open mic nights, and at fundraisers across the U.S. Southwest. Throughout this auto/ethnographic performance report, I weave scholarship on whiteness, borderlands theory, and critical pedagogy from across the disciplines of cultural studies, rhetoric, and performance studies to contribute to scholarship in the sub-disciplines of critical communication pedagogy and critical performance pedagogy on whiteness (Cooks and Simpson, Warren, Zingsheim and Goltz), automethodologies (Calafell, “Mentoring and Love”; Delgado; Fox; Moreman; Moreman and Persona Non Grata), and critical pedagogy in the classroom (Calafell, “When Will We All Matter?”; Fassett and Warren, Critical; Goltz; Moreira and Diversi). By reviewing research on tricksters and nagualismo (shapeshifting), which I consider borderland performances because epistemologically I draw from Chicana/o scholarship that centers this particular mythos within the context of the border regions of the U.S. Southwest, I define transformative pedagogy as an ontology for the classroom and an embodied praxis of ambiguity, liminality, chance, and failure.
To frame this performance and auto/ethnographic report, this work is part of a larger research project that aims to make more space for theories of the flesh in higher education. Theories of the flesh live where “the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longing—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 23). Theories of the flesh are an emerging discourse within the discipline of Latina/o Communication Studies (Calafell, Latina/o; Flores; Holling and Calafell; Moreman; Moreman; Moreman and Persona Non Grata), and this work, which brings together scholarship from multiple disciplines, aims to add more depth and breadth to dialogues on whiteness, performance, pedagogy, and advocacy. By taking a theories of the flesh approach to pedagogy, I engage in an ontology and epistemology that intersects critical (communication/performance) pedagogy with a greater sensitivity to spirituality and historicity. This is a critical intervention that advocates for new metaphors to address higher education spaces, and the aim of this work is to open up conversations on the way(s) power and privilege move through the classroom. If students are able to finally voice their classroom concerns/traumas or teachers are able to make the critical changes needed to their courses/programs because of the discussions that arise out of this performance and auto/ethnographic report, then the vision of an academy that empowers both students and teachers will be that much more achievable. In the end, trickster performances and nagualismo offer an alternative approach to the classroom that embraces failure as a process not a product, which is a necessary tool for transforming the education system towards social justice.
Watch A Letter From My Students
I almost let you tell me what and how to do this assignment, but then, I noticed how you do exactly the opposite of what you teach. For example, you tell us to transform the world, but you teach your class the same way as every other class. Your lecture last week was in smaller doses but you relied on it a lot. We do group work in our other classes and take notes and cram for the written exams. What does whiteness, performance, and advocacy have to do with public speaking anyway? I see your agenda, and if I don’t follow it, then you will give me an “F.” You are just like any other teacher preaching to the world about how I should act and think.
Wait! Some of us felt like you succeeded, but we each had our own reasons for speaking up against you. Some of us made friendships that crossed borders. We know that we are going to be allies to each other forever only because of this class. We enjoyed hearing about other cultures because we don’t really have a culture, but now, we feel guilty for things we didn’t do. You gave us no solutions for our guilt, no space for white folks to voice complaints, and no compliments for helping a Mexican or a Black on our way to class. Do you hate us because of our skin color? We think you are racist.
Some of us reject your “advice” because most of what you taught us was to speak up for ourselves. “The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences. And that is part of what makes that choice one that is not politically neutral” (hooks 203). We feel activated, but we feel like you need to face the consequences of your actions.
Some of us people of color did not want to have anything to with these white people, so we needed our own paragraph. We liked how you talked to us about how “standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear” (hooks 168). However, we thought you would protect us, but when I spoke to you in Spanish, you could barely put a sentence together. English dominates all you teach.
A few of us would only sign onto this letter if we could tell you something directly. (1) “You did not decenter this class just by being in the room. You just moved the center. You still can’t see me.” (2) “You forgot to share anything about yourself. Who are you? What are you?” (3) “You want to claim a shaman perspective, but a nagual always acknowledges the Earth first. You never honored me—not even once. You are just like every other teacher in this building since this university was built on my body. Have you forgotten that your glorious mestizo race colonized and conquered the tribes of this area in the name of Spain! You haven’t learned anything since Guadalupe Hidalgo signed your mixed-raced bodies to the United States after the Mexican-American war. Do I need to shake my belly to remind you of your place in the world?” We almost did what you asked, but we decided to unite to speak up against you.
Robert Gutierrez-Perez is a U.S. Southwest borderlands scholar studying performances of power, resistance, and agency through the lens culture and communication. Utilizing a variety of critical qualitative research methods, Gutierrez-Perez explores how gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or questioning Chicanos/Xicanos in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico resist multiple systems of oppression through their everyday performances of identity, culture, and history. His other research interests include advocacy and civic engagement in higher education, queer intercultural communication, critical performance studies, and queer of color critique.