Erika’s Big Think #3: “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was free.”

I don’t usually think of myself as a teacher. I love teaching, but I also knew there was no way I could handle classroom politics, and so, in spite of encouragement from my parents to consider teaching as a career, I went in a different direction with my undergraduate and graduate degrees. What I ended up with is a social work degree which has allowed me to blend my love of teaching with other passions.

It’s no surprise that I would be bitten by the teaching bug. My parents actually met while teaching science in New York City (at the same junior high school) and my family is filled with teachers–teachers and lawyers. I had my first real teaching experience when I got involved with peer education as a high schooler. I loved doing the job and years later, I ended up also teaching and training peer educators and developing curricula for peer education programs.

I’ve done all kinds of teaching–Peer education, summer programs for elementary school kids, Girl Scouts–with both kids and adults, but I never think of myself with the label “teacher.” (It’s strange how my sojourn in the Boiler Room has really adjusted the way I think about my own labels sometimes. Teacher, writer, what’s next?) I don’t think of myself as a scholar either, not when I sit with Andrew or Adam, for example, and enjoy their encyclopedic knowledge and incredible recall of literature. They are scholars and they are teachers, not me. 

Except that I facilitated the discussion in the two-part round-table about mental health in the university. And the following month, I took personal history and blended it with factual content to write the piece about HIV., There was also the piece I wrote about ice cream and bisexuality, which Adam, ever the one to analyze my writing, described as “an info dump disguised as a puff piece.” The message I sent back was “I was trying to make it accessible. Science writing is hard!” It’s hard for me to think about those pieces as the work of a teacher, but what else could they be? What these subjects have in common–mental health, disability, AIDS, bisexuality–is that they are all fields that, for hundreds of years, have been uninteresting to the prevailing scholarly culture. Queerness, mental illness, and disability, are only just beginning to take their rightful place in scholarly discourse; and queer people, mentally ill people, and disabled people, as the experts in those fields, should claim our credentials as scholars and teachers. I’m not your science project; I’m not your anthropology observation. And I’m tired of seeing a panel of ‘experts’ testifying in Congress about pregnancy and the panel consists entirely of cis-gendered men who never have, and could never be, pregnant.

When I first came to the Ivory Tower Boiler Room it wasn’t as a member of the team, producing content, or anything like that. It was through the writing group; I’d been working on my own writing with Adam for a month or so in a much more didactic format than we work now; he messaged me one Sunday and suggested I join the writing group I came to the group as a student, only thinking about what I might learn from the group, and not thinking at all about the things I might share. I found that I’d get into these incredible conversations with Andrew, that led to me asking questions about his work, or about Whitman’s poetry, or drawing connections between things I never would have before (like last month when I brought up Walt Whitman and the movie Mean Girls together to make a point about the power of secrets.) Every once in a while, I’d feel like I said something useful. A Facebook thread about Chaucer one day led me to explain, in the comments, my strategy for reading and understanding Chaucer: I imagined the participants engaging in the kind of collective but competitive storytelling that happens sometimes at slumber parties. The people I was talking toacted like that was a novel approach for understanding that element of the story. I find myself surprised every time I have a valuable contribution to Ivory Tower discussions and every time I bring up things that people don’t know. It happened recently when I explained that hashtags with multiple words should have the first letter of each word capitalized for screen readers.

I tend to forget that “scholarship” and “teaching” don’t have to be formal things. I may have gotten a little excited when my Twitter feed was followed by The American Institute of Bisexuality, who publish an actual journal, which makes them feel “legitimate” to me, but that adherence to traditional definitions of “legitimacy” is really not helpful, and breaking out of that mindset is essential to breaking down other barriers of patriarchy, racism, colonialism, all the things that hold people back and prevent some voices from being heard. I’ve been quiet too many times when I had things to say, and I need to start remembering that I do have a valuable voice, with or without credentials. When I’ve trained new Girl Scout leaders, I talk about the girl-led element of the Girl Scout program, and how “girl-led” needs to be a part of how you run things from the time they’re in kindergarten, with more and more leadership in the hands of the troop as they grow, so that by the time they’re high schoolers, most of what the adults are doing are things that minors aren’t allowed to do themselves. What I do tell them is that the scouts are experts in themselves (and I tell the scouts this too, as I introduce ideas of leadership to them,) and that listening to them and engaging with their ideas is what’s going to lead to the most satisfying programs for everyone. When they tell you they want to build a rocket and go to the moon, you don’t tell them that dream is impossible…you tell them you love their enthusiasm and that it might not be something they can do at 6, but that you can all work together to figure out what steps might be involved in being able to do that, eventually. You can build different kinds of rockets together, and learn about space, astronaut training, and whatever else might be important to know, so that they can build a rocket and go to the moon one day. You can get them ready, and all of that can happen without setting foot in a classroom. And you’re still teaching them. 

I think we forget sometimes that teaching is about passing on ideas. It’s not about the setting or the credentials or anything else. It’s about sharing what you know, encouraging someone else to dig deeper if they’re interested, and helping to connect new dots. It’s about helping people to think, and about collaboration, and sharing and passions. 

I love collaborative learning. I love the exchange of ideas here in the Boiler Room. It’s why our round tables are so much fun and why the Big Think is so interesting…because we’re four unique perspectives giving completely different takes the same themes. I landed in the Boiler Room only approaching the environment as a student, not thinking about what I bring to others. That was a mistake. I have definitely grown as a writer since I found my way here. I’ve also learned about a lot of other things–new perspectives on familiar works of literature, how my own process works, how to give myself permission to claim my credentials and own my place at the table. I’m seeing how my perspective, which comes from an entirely different universe than the rest of the team (who all have literature-related backgrounds) has value to the team…and that sometimes that outsider perspective is really important.Just the other night, we were trying to come up with a response to a piece of mail we received from a listener who was obviously in distress. There were things I could draw on from my social work background that helped us talk about the situation and come to a solution. 

We talk amongst ourselves about the mission and vision of the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, and we’ve begun using the phrase “liberal arts collective.” It’s through this collaborative culture we’re developing that I’m learning more about the value of my own voice. Teaching involves both listening and speaking, and if I undervalue my own voice or my own perspective, or get hung up on titles and credentials, then I’m depriving myself and others of an opportunity to learn something new. My takeaway this month? I have a lot of learning to do…but it starts right at the center, with me. 

We put all of this emphasis on credentials, and we forget that we are experts on our own selves, and you don’t need those degrees and stamps of approval to teach something; you just need to show up. 

2 thoughts on “Erika’s Big Think #3: “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was free.”

  1. As I’m on vacation, (currently staring at the Atlantic Ocean) this was such a pleasure and empowering read. Thank you Erika for sharing how you now claim yourself as a teacher and writer (both are true). Signed, Andrew Rimby

    1. Thanks Andrew. It’s an ongoing process, and I appreciate all of the opportunities to experience both sides here. When you and Adam and I were on the phone last week, hearing the two of you validate my anger and frustration and also cheer on the way I claimed my space and my credentals probably made a bigger impression than I let on at the time.

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