Saturday, October 01, 2011

Lamenting Mediocrity

Gof magof yu' na manunuge' ta'lo Si Desiree gi i blog-na, The Drowning Mermaid.

Ti meggai na blogs para i Chamorro siha. Lao, nangga na'ya, ti mismo magahet este. Meggai na blogs mamfina'tinas ni' Chamorro siha, lao manmafa'tinas ha', ya ti manmasosteteni esta ki pa'go. Aligao gi i internet ya siempre para un fanodda' meggai na Chamorro na blogs, lao pinat manggaiunu ha' na post siha. Halacha managu Si Desiree, pues tumaiguenaihon, lao esta ha tutuhun ta'lo. Maolek i bos-na Si Desiree. Gi fino' Ingles ma alok na "articulate" yan "passionate." Fihu masasangan na kalang taisiente i tinige'-hu siha. Puru ha' fina'tinas tintanos, ya annok na ti mismo ginnen i korason. Si Desiree ha na'danna' maolek i sinienten i korason-na yan i hinallom-na siha i tintanos-na. I humuyonga na an un taitai i tinige'-na, sina pinacha' i korason-mu yan i hinasso-mu achagigu.

In her most recent poem Desiree writes about a program at the University of Guam that I know quite a bit about since I was once in it. She writes about her excitement at the prospect of becoming a part of it, but her disappointment when she talks to people who have taught in it, have taken classes in it or are currently students in it. They all dissuade her from entering the program because of the way it has lost any semblance of what it should be. Desiree does not name the program in her post and so I will not do so either. If you know me however or are familiar with the intellectual landscape of UOG, then it should be obvious which program is being talked about here.

I find it so tragic that of all the programs currently at UOG, this is the one that most people assume would be the least colonial. Yet when you look at the faculty and the scholarship being produced from the program, it is what you could call the most colonial program at UOG, in the sense that it has come to almost completely exclude the scholarship and voices of those who the program might be assumed to serve.

When I read Desiree's post, I could feel so much of my own frustration bubble to the surface. This is my third year teaching at UOG with no permanent contract or job security whatsoever. Part of the reason why I have had difficulty getting hired at UOG (despite applying for three different jobs in three different departments) is the casual mediocrity of so many of the faculty. For one job I applied for, I was told that they were looking for someone who would only teach and nothing more (no community engagement and no scholarship), which was an interesting way of turning what should be positives in my job application into negatives. In another example, I found that my knowledge of the most interesting and unique aspects of an academic discipline, meaning its most critical or radical dimensions, disqualified me since they had never heard of anything I was talking about, and that meant I knew nothing about said discipline. Coming from a newer academic conversation, and also being very active in terms of publishing and working with the community has actually worked against me in terms of getting a job at UOG.

Mediocrity, by its nature is fearful and cowardly. Even though you could call that which is mediocre, common and the norm, since it is somewhat average and garden variety, it is strange how the occupying of that mushy and pointless middle does not induce feelings of comfort, but always anxiety over disappearing. The mediocre person fears falling into un-intelligability or slipping through the cracks of the minimum of what they profess to be. They are at the bottom of something and are constantly afraid that they are going to simply become part of the foundation and no longer exist on their own. At the same, they are also constantly be afraid of being eclipsed, of someone or something better moving up faster and taking over their position. This lack of self-esteem amongst the mediocre means that they tend to surround themselves by those they do not fear and will not be challenged or eclipsed by. They surround themselves with a tapestry of those similarly ineffective, unproductive, unimportant and irrelevant. They are therefore safe and secure. They move nothing forward and nothing falls lower. Everything just remains close to what it was, and those who excel at doing little to nothing are safe for the time being.

The program that Desiree laments in the blog post I've pasted below is one such example.

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Square One
from the Drowning Mermaid

I’m pretty disappointed today. In my last entry, I mentioned a program I was very excited about looking into. (I was considering earning another Master’s degree in something I love and am very passionate about.) I made appointments and e-mailed a few professors to discuss it; then I reached out to students who were considering the program, or who are currently taking courses connected with it. I admit that I was surprised when I discovered that despite the presence of local and Chamorro Ph.Ds, not a single one was listed as a professor within the program. I tried to remain positive and hoped for the best. I reminded myself that it was important to push away assumptions and stereotypes. I was excited about learning about my region, its history, and my people from one of our own. I didn’t anticipate that it wouldn’t be a real option within the program, particularly since it is a program that occurs within our region. Even more so, I didn’t anticipate the absence of a local voice when we have credible (and qualified) ones available to actively participate. I know that I offend some people when I say this, but with all my heart, I do not believe that someone who is not Chamorro (or from somewhere else in our region) understands our attitudes, hearts, and histories better than we do. There is a running joke within academia about the Western male’s tendency to believe he knows more about indigenous people (and other cultures in general) than indigenous people themselves. It isn’t surprising. Within most programs, realities are defined through the Western, white, and male lens. I mean, I have a Master’s in Rhetoric. How Western, white, and male can my background get?

But like I said, I tried to remain positive. I really wanted to do it. I stumbled upon something in my research that raised a rhetorical flag. I found something that I am convinced will be significant within the field of Rhetoric. I wanted to fit this program in, and lay a kind of foundation that would help me mold the discovery into something more. I know that I can research on my own without a program. I can keep moving with it regardless of being enrolled or not. But I truly do love school. I like being in the classroom. I love being a student. There are some very significant Chamorro and local voices available (voices I assumed would be leading a few of the lectures). There are people there who many of us admire and look up to, people that most young locals and Chamorros want to learn from, voices we are eager to hear. We want to learn from the people who live, breathe, and are the subject and its history. Why would we want to learn from others who have merely read, observed, and then fit what they’ve found into a foreign structure that has, from day one, been incompatible with our identity?

I met with other students first. I sought out students who were interested in taking the courses for the same reasons I was. I was surprised when they told me that it wasn’t what they expected. They suggested that I reach out to other individuals before making any big decisions. I was surprised by their reactions. I thought they would be excited. I thought they would immediately begin sharing their fulfilling experiences. I thought they would begin gushing about the gratification they were now receiving from spending time reconnecting with their region. They admitted to gaining access to valuable information, but having to almost “tune out” the rest. They told me it wasn’t as empowering as they thought it would be. They told me that they were occasionally offended by the slant at which information was shared. One student thought for a few minutes, carefully selecting words before speaking. The student paused and said, “Well, you will learn about yourself as others define you.” I understood what they were saying, but didn’t think it was that big a deal. I figured most programs were like that. I pushed further, “But aren’t you at all happy with the information you’re getting? Just because it’s presented from a particular perspective doesn’t mean you aren’t getting anything from it, right?” Another student interrupted, “Desiree, you can get the same foundation and information without formally enrolling. Basically, it’s the most colonial program you’ll ever be part of.” I was (and still am) confused by the responses. “Why are you even doing it then?!” I asked. Some of them said they actually hadn’t enrolled completely. Others said they had already started or wanted a degree in the field anyway. “You already have a Master’s degree. You can get the information you want without dealing with the extra BS. You’ve got the credentials and degree to take the information you want in the direction you want. I’m here because I want a Master’s,” they explained. I asked about a particular professor’s class: “You like that class though, right? That must be really fulfilling. You’re getting what you signed up for there, right?” They explained that if I enrolled, my chances of working with the particular instructor, in the way I had hoped to, was slim.

Even after these discussions, I pushed forward. It took me a long time to get to the point where I was ready to look into it seriously. I reached out to the professor I thought I would get to work with. The students were right; my chances of working with the instructor upon enrolling wouldn’t be good. Things did, in fact, seem to be shifting within the program. Actually, to be more accurate, things seemed to be FAILING to shift. Several voices (from both within and outside of the program) told me that I would be sorely disappointed. I don’t know what to make of any of it. I don’t want to put too much weight into what others say; because I think it’s important to make decision ons your own. But a part of me knows these people understand what I want and are giving me sound advice.

I moved on and spoke to another professor, one who again confirmed that I wouldn’t get what I wanted. One professor told me that I was “too critical a thinker to sit through it.” When I went outside the program, asking more people, I was again warned to stay away from it and learn on my own. “You already know how to conduct research. You already know how to find what you want.” By various people, I was given this message repeatedly. I felt pretty lost. I had this fantasy of sitting in the classroom with other interested Micronesians and learning about my island, my region, and myself. Apparently, even the student demographic wasn’t what I expected.

I called my Aunt, whining and a little dejected. She also asked that I not enter the program. She suggested that I move on by learning and researching on my own. She said I have access to people who can mentor me and help me learn within our own community. She invited me over, provided me with stacks of resources, and sat with me, ready to respond to questions I had about our history. She reminded me that these were some of the same resources used within the program. Later in the morning, I sat with another Chamorro educator, one who took time out of his day to teach our language free of charge to whoever was interested in learning. I was able to pick his brain about migration patterns, various theories about our people and region, and our political history. Again, I was provided with more resources I could take home to learn on my own.

I shared the experience with another aunt this evening. She asked me if I felt like I had access to what I was looking for without the program after today. I guess I did. I was able to sit with three of our most educated, qualified, and respected local historians and professors. “Yes. I actually did,” I responded thoughtfully. “But Auntie, I still feel like I want to be in the classroom. Does that sound dumb?” I asked. “No. But I think it’s odd that you feel it has to be a classroom at a particular place. We can have our own ‘classrooms,’ Desiree. You, of all people, should know that you can get what you want and what you need on your own terms. You, of all people, should know that you don’t need to have others define you.” she said.

She is right. I know she is. But I guess I’m just still disappointed. I’m even more confused. In that last entry, I said I wasn’t going to let anyone else tell me what I should want or do. But after today, I feel like I’m back at square one. I went online to mindlessly escape into the world of pointless social networking and ended up having salt rubbed into the wound. I went to a group’s facebook page, looking for information that the members of the organization (people from here) share with us. I was frustrated to see that instead of the voices of our people, the forum was covered in posts by white males who were, again, telling the island what was best for it, what the people of Guam “want,” why we are wrong, and what we “need.” All day, every where I turn, men from somewhere else are telling Guam what it needs, what it should do, what it wants, and why we’re “confused.” Always, someone else is imparting their wisdom on us while marginalizing the knowledge we have. All day, every day... I see our people working around a system and culture that is not our own, not created with us in mind. Always, we are trying to fit into something foreign. Always, we are listening to something foreign. The loudest voices discussing us and our future are the voices of OTHERS.

Things are pretty cloudy for me right now. I don’t know if it’s just been a rough week or what. All I know is that I’ve had it up to my ears with other people telling me who I am, where I am from, what I should want, and what WE should do. All I know is that when it has been quiet enough for me to hear myself, when the voices of others can be pushed away, I tend to find what I’m looking for. All I know is that today, I found some of what I was looking for from OUR OWN; and it wasn’t hard for me to find. I found some of the answers to the questions I had from our people. I found it within forums created and designed by us. I found that what I was most hungry for was best supplied by people who needed the same things for the same reasons. They were there and willing to share with me, understanding with their entire hearts why I wanted it, understanding with their entire being why it was important for me not to wander too far if I was simply trying to find myself

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