Essay: “Belonging” and universities

ABCs of PLU: U is for University

I was the co-editor of a Matrix edited volume that, in the fashion of a child’s alphabet book, used a different university/social justice word for each letter of the alphabet as a jumping off point for further reflection. My contribution was “U is for University,” which I have replicated below. You can read the whole volume online here.

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“I think that every student, every faculty member, and every administrator should ask her or himself everyday, ‘what is a university for?’ […]

I always thought what was supposed to happen was something called ‘education,’ which is a kind of transformation and (from educare in Latin) a ‘leading forth’: [your teachers] lead you out of your state, and you leave University different, as someone else, other than theyou who came in. […] We may be shifting to an idea of universities as ‘expressive’ spaces, where students come in and try to discover and express their identity in a supportive environment. […]

I tend to think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a university can, let alone must, be in a free society.”

– Dr. Teresa Bejan, Associate Professor of Politial Theory at the University of Oxford

(Virginia Review of Politics, April 2017)

I have had a few professors laugh at me recently when I mention that Ithink I have changed a lot since starting at PLU. It’s a knowing laugh, a “no shit” laugh, a “thank god” laugh. It’s an acknowledgement that I take longer to think before I speak and that the words come out a little slower, a little quieter. It’s a recognition that some of my impatienceand insecurity was left on the hairdresser’s floor with the faux hawk that accompanied me that first September.

This laugh is also their awareness that I have only reached an early benchmark, foreshadowing much more learning and changing and transformation.

I think it is tempting to think about a college education (following Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos) in a neoliberal way: how much more incomecan I make because I took these four years off from the labor market? Following this line of thought, the growth I found in my four years atPLU only mattered if it resulted in a boost to my lifetime income.

I want to explore a concern I have about this impulse as it intersects with the popular word “belonging” on campus. Surely, it would be easyfor a university simply interested in turning profit and pedigree through students to emphasize belonging as a feeling of comfort — a lack ofunease, a lack of discomfort with the status quo.

But at an institution that cherishes “thoughtful inquiry,” this proves difficult.

Inquiry, especially self-discovery, is incredibly uncomfortable. To echo Molly Munsterman (see “O is for Outing”), self-directed inquiry requires the uncomfortable, active, critical look at what dominant narratives we believe about ourselves and our growth. As I step out of the closet, I pickup a rainbow flag, a pronoun pin from the CGE, and an application to the Lavender wing: my pre-packaged identity can comfortably rest largelyunchallenged by folks who understand similar marginalization. I learnlittle about myself and those around me, satisfied with all the trappings ofmy new identity.

But if we want to stick to that mission statement, our sort of belonging must require the willingness to “know nothing,” critically examining our positionalities and the entire system of identity labels. It requires feeling deeply uneasy because of our awareness about how much more growthwe have yet to find.

This is not to argue that marginalized groups — especially students of color — should be ignored when they seek changes to fight issues of systemic inequality. Instead, the sort of belonging that counters the prejudices of the outside world should help address racism in ways that go beyond simply accommodating any of the racial, gendered, or sexualized codes that enable all the “isms.” That’s why we must be careful that when we say “belonging”: we don’t mean creating an environment where any student can enter and leave without questioning the ideologies they brought with them.

How can we make belonging about feeling accepted, valued, and supported while questioning exactly what one wants acceptance, value, and support to be attributed to? How do we conceptualize a belongingwhere the personal and social qualities required to fit in aren’t tied to whiteness but to questioning the status quo? How can we resist categorization that limits one’s ability to explore their wholeness without invalidating people experimenting with new ways of being?

Let’s make a community where we can all laugh with one another while we transform.

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