By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
This has been a year. Nationally, we have been disgusted by the inhumanity of those in power, and we have consoled each other through several successive natural and unnatural disasters. Locally, we have seen an increase in the number of racist incidents in public schools, and at my own college campus, we have experienced several administrative decisions that seemed antithetical to a welcoming, transparent, and inclusive environment. Through all of these incidents, the young people I work with at my university are a constant reminder to me that the (other)mothering spaces we create for students are absolutely necessary.
Before I outline some characteristics of these spaces, I want to make clear that mothering spaces are not to be confused with mammy-ing spaces, where a Black woman professor agrees with everything her students say and does not challenge their long-held beliefs no matter how problematic they might be; who chooses to avoid difficult conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and class difference and the intersections of these; and who does not highlight how privilege and power work to maintain inequity.
[Some of you unaccustomed to the hardships of working while Black and woman may stop reading at this point because I have dared to suggest that contemporary academic work places sometimes conjure Old South politics of servant-served relationships between Black women and their White colleagues. If so, I’ll miss you. Those who dare to read on, I welcome your fortitude.]
Don’t take my word for it. I respectfully encourage you to ask your Black woman professor friend—wink wink—about her experiences and if she’s honest, she will tell you that when she agrees with the majority, does not ask questions, exposes inconsistencies, or points out potential problems, things go much more easily than when she does not. In a mammy-ing space, Black women professors must lose their agency and become passive players in the educational enterprise.
A mothering space in an educational setting is exactly the opposite. While it will take varied forms, fundamentally it is an empowering and culturally sustaining space that allows our students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, encourages them to be their authentic selves, prepares them with frameworks to help them make sense of interlocking systems of oppression, and supports them to develop their own praxis for change. These are the kinds of educative spaces historically marginalized students need and deserve to have, especially now, and these are the kinds of spaces necessary to the overall health of schools and universities.
Lest I become too reductive, I want to make clear that mothering spaces are not biologically determined as the domain of cis-women. Let my articulation of such spaces be an all-call to the professoriate writ large. Long before I became Nicholas’s biological mother ten years ago, I constructed mothering spaces for my non-biological sons and daughters because the world does not always want students from historically marginalized communities to be fully human. With almost 25 years in teaching, here’s what I prioritize in the design and teaching of my courses and in my mentoring of students:
Priority #1: The self in the context of the collective.
I depend heavily on the use of the autobiographical both in written assignments as well as a mode of analysis of and engagement with readings. I always begin with some form of autobiographical writing connected to course content so that we can introduce ourselves to each other and begin to share our perspectives. In doing so, I hope to create a space where students want to share some of what they have experienced and connect with others. Additionally, I depend on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework to help students understand the context for identity and the role power plays in its construction.
Priority #2: The dialogic.
In my classes, we often meet in a circle so that we can better listen to and engage with each other, so that we are accountable to each other, so that we can dialogue with each other. Dialogue is evident in my selection of readings too. I choose pairs of readings that present different perspectives on a single topic, or I choose a classic text juxtaposed with a contemporary text for comparative study. I often use the dialogic as an approach to teaching, especially when co-teaching is an option. Students benefit from two instructors who are not in the same discipline or who use different frameworks to structure their classes. Through the dialogic, students learn how to evaluate perspectives and draw their own conclusions.
Priority #3: The voices of historically marginalized scholars.
I deliberately choose to center voices that are typically omitted from required reading in other courses. That we take the experiences of historically marginalized students as central to our learning and that we use scholars from historically marginalized communities to analyze those experiences allow students to understand their experiences in new ways. Students also learn that we have a significant intellectual lineage, past and present, of extraordinary thinkers. And that they are next in line.
Priority #4: Action.
Almost every course I teach requires students to take what they’ve learned and apply it in some way in a historically marginalized community. We don’t begin with the belief that our communities are lacking, but we identify community assets and develop projects that build on those in order to make some kind of positive impact. Making a difference in our own communities often has the effect of reducing some of the hopelessness students feel about what’s going on nationally.
Priority #5: Revolutionary love.
This is the most important characteristic of mothering spaces. In our rush to “cover” as much content as possible at the college level, we forget that relationship building is often more important for students from historically marginalized communities. Showing students that I care about them, that their well-being matters to me, that if they’re absent from class, we’ve lost the opportunity to learn from them that day, that I will tell them the truth even though they may not want to hear it, that I support them and hold them to very high standards at the same time, that I ask them to thank a classmate publicly in our last class for something they’ve learned during the semester: these are all acts of revolutionary love for our students, love that just might inspire them to show this kind of care to others and to themselves.
As you head into a new semester, I invite you to think about your classes and what they might become for students if we thought of them as mothering spaces instead of pass/fail, meets/not meets, covering content only kinds of spaces. They just might excel beyond our expectations.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen a new series for WellAcademic, Mothering in Color.