I entered college with two passions. One was a deep love of literature and writing and the other was a deep commitment to social justice and social change. I majored in English because I was told to choose one. Two years after graduation I entered graduate school in social work and began my career working with children and families where tools I learned as an English major –recognizing themes, patterns, metaphors, symbols and points of view were critical for understanding the rhythms of human suffering. For ten years I listened to stories of desperation and helped create opportunities for change.
I then pursued a doctorate in anthropology, a profession devoted to understanding, through ethnography, the ways in which individual and collective stories create cultural tableaus upon which human lives are enacted. Frustrated by the Draconian policies impacting the lives of poor women and children I wanted to understand how social policies were a series of cultural identity stories that created the “Other” and then scripted the endings by precluding access to resources. I taught social workers educating them to work at the cultural level.
Working primarily with poor and minority students, I saw too often the ways in which people were denied access to an education, or in which their own stories about who they were and where they were going were stifled in an educational system designed for those who taught– not for those who learned. I moved into administration in the hope of increasing students’ access to an educational system that was responsive to their needs. In all of my years of education and practice I have been true to my two passions.
Shifting the Focus from Disciplines to Experiences Most academics introduce themselves or are introduced by their academic degrees, the jobs they have held, the committees they have chaired, and articles and books they have written as ways of legitimating and situating their perspectives and views. There is consistency and order to these introductions. The history of one’s work in an academic area is equal to their expertise. But these introductions could be part of our current problem.
When I am introduced, I am not surprised when there is a commentary that accompanies it: “…a scholar who has — um, really been all over the place,” or “…someone who has tasted quite a number of academic disciplines, let’s welcome Dean Wozniak.” I come to the microphone trying to hide my crest fallen face. But in truth I am impugned.
I want to shout, “Why can’t you understand the semiotic code?” or “Why focus on the academic disciplines?” From the perspective of social justice work, my journey makes sense. My expertise is in how to listen to and understand individual and collective stories as guideposts for facilitating change.
We focus on the wrong semiotic code when academic disciplines are the center of our story. We indoctrinate new students to ask each other, “what is your major” as though delimited knowledge tells the story about who someone is, what they know, or what they can do.
Third-wave feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins challenged us to shift our gaze from the experiences of white middle class feminists as definitional of women’s struggles and put the life experiences of Black women at the center of discourse. She asked, what pictures of life and truth emerge about women and struggle?
Her question is relevant to our work in higher education. What pictures of life and truth emerge in 21st century education when we shift our focus on to students and what they should know; when we encourage and enable students to weave knowledge from disparate disciplines in and around their passions, interests and ambitions rather than choose a major and work on collecting credits? How might our academy change if we shifted the center of discourse away from the academic subject and the expert who imparts knowledge, and focus instead on the knowledge, skills and capacity for knowledge synthesis students must have to be a 21st century employable and agentive citizens? What would happen if, instead of telling students to choose a major, we asked what are your passions and how can we help you explore them?
We are on the cusp of amazing changes in higher education even as we grapple with powerful pressures for stasis. Join me as we listen to our own stories and consider the possibilities.