December 2020

Activist Adjuncts: Reimagining Power and Privilege Through Antiracist Pedagogy

A coalition of adjuncts shares lessons from revolutionary campus work.

by Alexia Buono, Cas Burns, Janet Schroeder, & Mariko Yamada

Antiracist pedagogy is an active practice that requires a persistent commitment to social, cultural change. To practice antiracist pedagogy, you learn about racism and injustice, and how to dismantle and fight them. You critically analyze your positionality within society, and work to repair any harm that you perpetrate. You meaningfully participate in external actions of opposing oppression while supporting and uplifting BIPOC and other marginalized folx. In the classroom, you strategically and intentionally design educational processes and learning activities that are revolutionary. You enact teaching practices that empower and liberate students. And you do these non-linearly, over and over again. And you don’t do them alone. 

We—Alexia Buono, Cas Burns, Janet Schroeder, and Mariko Yamada—are a coalition of four adjunct faculty in dance who are reimaging power and privilege in higher education through antiracist pedagogy. 

We are all non-Black dance academics. We all hold graduate degrees, are able-bodied/status, are living as guests on stolen land that is not ours, speak English, and were financially able to access private dance education in our childhoods. None of us practiced any religions that were marginalized in our home countries. Some of us have unearned white privilege; some of us are cisgender; some of us are straight or straight-passing; and some of us are U.S.-born citizens. All of us were AFAB and some of us are women; one of us is nonbinary; and some of us are queer. Some of us speak languages other than English, with English being a second language for one of us; one of us is a Mixed Latina; and one of us is a non-white permanent resident in the U.S. We are all adjuncts. (Please see our “bios” for our individual positionalities.)

As adjuncts, we participate in a network of power and privilege-structures that shape all that we do and our relationships with others. Our status as part-time adjunct faculty means we often make poverty-level wages, don’t always have access to health insurance or any other benefits, don’t have job security, and often have to teach across multiple institutions and/or work additional jobs outside of academia in order to make ends meet (Flaherty, 2020). Relative to our full-time colleagues, we hold minimal institutional power, and our voices for transformative change are muted—ignored at best, reprimanded at worst. Relative to our students, we hold maximal institutional power, even when we work to redistribute that power. 

By interrogating our positionalities, we better understand how our identities impact our work as educators, how our knowledge and our view of “knowledge” has been shaped, and the actionable steps we must and can do to engage in the work of antiracism (Scorza, 2020). 

We’re invested in redistributing power among various stakeholders in higher education (e.g., students, faculty, and staff), particularly to those with less institutional power and who experience systemic oppressions. In what follows, we describe a process of negotiating academic hierarchies in order to engage antiracism in our relationships with students and colleagues.

Wildcat Strikers at UCSC demand a living wage and just working conditions in fall 2019. Their struggle and imagination helped show how we might transform higher education. Photo by UCSC Wildcat Strikers.

Systemic Power Dynamics

Our action started spring semester 2020, when students protested the firing of, resignation by, and EEOC-complaint-turned-discrimination-lawsuit from various Black employees—including upper level EDI-administrative staff members—within our institution. These tensions were exacerbated at the department level as students and alumni demanded transformative action through both public Facebook posts and organized letters addressed to the faculty following the murder of George Floyd. In collaboration with a small group of full-time junior colleagues, we attempted to organize a department-wide coalition for antiracism, hosting meetings and pushing for the sustainable, substantive change within our department that students and alumni called for. We sought to establish community agreements and horizontal power structures in our departmental meetings toward enacting antiracist change.

Despite our initial efforts, our actions were met with silence, fear, and degradation because we were transgressing the vertical power structures we sought to abolish. We found ourselves in an unsafe and non-transformative departmental environment. In order to continue our work toward making actionable and tangible antiracist change, we decided to re-organize as an adjunct coalition “outside” our department. 

Antiracist Pedagogy: Co-Designing Horizontality

Our adjunct coalition is committed to collectively dismantling the oppressive neoliberal, white supremacist, patriarchal structures within higher education through antiracist pedagogy.

Antiracism is “the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably” (NAC International Perspective: Women and Global Solidarity). When applied to teaching, antiracist pedagogy centers the empowerment and liberation of BIPOC and other marginalized students and perspectives, and decenters and dismantles whiteness and other dominant perspectives and practices (Kailin, 2002). Antiracist pedagogy reconstructs knowledge through “a revamping of the curriculum to make it culturally and politically relevant to the needs of youth from oppressed backgrounds […] and to make use of the lived experiences of these students as part of the living curriculum in the schools” (Kailin, 2002, p. 56). An antiracist educator is a change agent who humanistically redistributes agency and power to and with students and the community (Toldson, 2020). As antiracist, activist adjuncts, we’re proactively working towards “transformation by challenging the individual as well as the structural system that perpetuates racism” (Blakeney, 2005, p. 120).

We meet weekly to discuss antiracist literature, brainstorm course projects, take actions demanding accountability from our department, and reflect on our pedagogical actions. We engage horizontal power structures and enact group agreements to ensure everyone shares and is heard. No one is aggressive or disrespectful. Differences in race, gender, sexuality, education, age, and experience are celebrated as new sources of information rather than used to establish a hierarchy. We are vulnerable with one another, candidly sharing our own pedagogical dilemmas and asking for honest feedback and suggestions. This praxis continues to take place within a departmental and university environment ripe with hierarchical and oppressive power dynamics that minimize, disregard, and shame our work and identities as adjuncts. 

Putting antiracist pedagogy into practice, we’ve developed antiracist assignments and processes to engage our students, which we describe in detail in the following section. Our antiracist pedagogical actions include positioning, decolonizing, decentering, rehumanizing, and empowering ourselves and our students. 

Putting Antiracist Pedagogy into Practice

A vital element of antiracist pedagogy and practice lives in its design and enactment. For each idea below, we offer just one example, but we acknowledge that many other possibilities exist, and meaningful adjustments can be made to fit the needs of different courses and students.  

Positioning ourselves and our students.

Establishing positionality names membership in marginalized and privileged groups and directly addresses positions of power. As educators, we name our positionality to dismantle vertical power structures of higher education and to decenter ourselves as the supposed all-knowing authority in the room. The more information we provide our students about our “personal position as it relates to [our] life experiences and preferences, the clearer biases and assumptions become for those who receive the observer’s analytical findings” (Davis, 2018, p. 122).

In addition to positioning ourselves, we call upon our students to reflect upon their own positionalities as they too have important lived experiences that they are bringing into the classroom. We’ve guided students through a process of drafting their own positionality statements, which included reflecting upon their own position(s) of privilege and marginalization through an intersectional lens (Crenshaw, 1991). Throughout the semester, we continually revisit our positionality statements in relation to course content, asking our students to consider how their positionalities affect their ideas, their work, how they collaborate, and their understanding of various content sources. Doing so demonstrates that this isn’t an assignment given to check a box or to get a grade but an ongoing practice of active reflection.

Decolonizing systematic practices in higher ed classrooms, beginning with land acknowledgements. 

We value land acknowledgments as a way of recognizing Indigenous histories that have been systematically erased in the U.S. We ask students to research the land they occupy using this Indigenous-created web resource and to name the original peoples of that land. We also ask students to engage in further research to connect with the histories and cultures of these peoples. As a coalition, we continue to investigate the potential impact of land acknowledgements in and out of the classroom. Our next steps include identifying ways to extend attention to Indigenous peoples, land, aesthetics, and practices that foster deeper engagement than this initial statement of land acknowledgment.

Decentering our power through community agreements.

We strive to decenter our power and redistribute it to everybody in our classroom. One such strategy is to create community agreements with our students. In addition to a statement of purpose and definitions of key terms, these agreements list expectations for engagement—e.g. maintaining attention to speaking and brevity, staying on task, sitting with discomfort, and considering the impact of our words. Group agreements require the commitment of all participants to upholding the rules of engagement, and they can be continually revised as necessary during the semester. This process decenters power from a single leader and instead distributes responsibility to all. With everyone’s commitment, group agreements could actively provide shared responsibility for maintaining safer spaces for BIPOC and braver spaces for white participants. In this context, all participants can enter with their whole selves and trust that their presence, words, and actions will be held with dignity and integrity. 

Rehumanizing expectations of priority to self in the classroom.

We understand that antiracism must be sustainable. Nourishing and tending to our own selves as educators and encouraging the same for our students rehumanizes the relationships that we grow in justice-oriented work in the classroom. One strategy for rehumanizing the self in education is an assignment called “Nourishing My Self Guidelines.” Just like community agreements, students craft personal guidelines for tending to themselves throughout the semester. A lived reminder that the health and needs of our students are the number one priority, even above course content, these guidelines serve as procedures for upholding personal boundaries and self-accountability to ensure sustainablity in their learning. They can be edited through the semester if students choose to do so. As students nourish themselves through guidelines they create, we shape communities of belonging where we build capacities to sit with the discomfort of developing a critical consciousness needed to dismantle white supremacy. 

Empowering students to learn and demonstrate knowledge through choice.

We committed to offering students multiple modes for submitting assignments. Rather than centering academic writing as the primary mode of demonstrating their understanding of new knowledge, students can utilize interdisciplinary approaches such as spoken-word podcasts, movement-based responses, and different kinds of creative writing, to name a few. When students demonstrate knowledge through such alternatives, we disrupt accepted conventions of what constitutes a “scholarly” source. Further, allowing students to choose their preferred form of response impacts their engagement and success, and in the process, we learn more about them as individuals (Vellanki, 2019). 

Conclusion: Practicing Reimagining Power and Privilege in our Department

Antiracist design requires the participation of everyone, of communities working together (Saad, 2020). As part of our work, we submitted a letter to our department, sharing our experiences and pointing out the harmful behaviors enabled by the academic hierarchy. While no substantial response has been made by senior faculty members, some of the junior full-time faculty/staff and additional adjuncts have joined our conversations and actionwork.  

Our collaborative design process needs to become a norm in academia. A community of educators needs to form—inclusive of adjunct, contingent, pre-tenure, and tenured faculty—all embarking on this work together. To ensure antiracist pedagogy doesn’t turn into another empty promise of the academic system, everyone working in higher education needs to liberate the system from the depths of capitalism and white supremacy, and fully embody that liberation. The four of us started this activist initiative while working for the same department. Today, we’re living in four different states, working for multiple employers and even in other fields. Yet, we remain connected in this work of antiracist pedagogy. 

Join us. Be brave. Examine your institution, and then examine yourself within that institution. We are all complicit in the oppressive system of higher education, but we also all collectively have the power to combat that oppression from within. We invite those full- and part-time faculty and staff who are ready for change in their programs, institutions, and beyond to coalesce into a real community that commits to social and political change through antiracist pedagogy.

Let’s commit to doing the work necessary to make tangible change together.

Photo by Jim Bush.

Alexia Buono is a daughter and descendant of both colonizers and colonized peoples, living as an uninvited guest on the unceded land of the Abenaki. She experiences unearned privileges and oppression as a cis, abled, white, and Latina dancer, scholar, and educator. Her participation in earning a PhD places her among those with privileged access to “the ivory tower.” She works to redistribute equitable access of this privilege back to communities. Alexia has served as adjunct faculty in universities that continue to disenfranchise contingent faculty. Her positionality informs how she takes responsibility for the harms she perpetuates working within higher education.

Cas Burns is a member of both privileged and marginalized groups as a queer, white, abled, AFAB nonbinary person who is currently living on land stolen from the Abenaki. After nine years in the world of higher education—first as an undergraduate student, then as a graduate student, and now as an adjunct faculty member—they have spent almost a decade upholding these institutions and the systems of oppression upon which they are built. Cas’s positionality guides how they are addressing their past and current complicity in these systems while actively working to undo the harms they have perpetuated as a result.

Janet Schroeder is a straight, white, cis, abled woman who grew up in a rural, (predominantly) white, working-class town in the Midwest on land of the Miami, Peoria, and Kickapoo. Janet acknowledges multiple layers of privilege in her upbringing, which further enabled her to accumulate bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees in the performing arts. She recognizes her complicity in upholding structural racism within the academy—particularly having held both full- and part-time contingent faculty positions—and within the field of dance. Through education and action, Janet is working to undo the harms she has perpetrated in the past.

Mariko Yamada is a straight, abled, mother of a biracial young child, navigating multiple identities. She is “part of majority” in her native home Japan, which she feels is diluting daily; a non-naturalized immigrant; speaker of English as a foreign language; and a not-quite-brown or light-skinned WOC living on the land of Onöndowa’ga (Haudenosaunee). Mariko’s positionality recognizes the complex nature and effects of the white supremacist culture. She acknowledges her “assimilation process” both in academia and the US culture at large included modeling and complicity in white supremacy and is in an ongoing process of undoing her internalized racism due to Eurocentric ideals, complicated international relationships, and globalism. 

Further Reading

Blakeney, A. M. (2005) Antiracist pedagogy: Definition, theory, and professional development. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 2(1), 119-132. Doi: 10.1080/15505170.2005.10411532 

Calgary Anti-Racism Education (n.d.). Anti-Racism Defined. Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre. Retrieved from http://www.aclrc.com/antiracism-defined.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1300.

Davis, C. U. (2018). Laying new ground: Uprooting white privilege and planting seeds of equity and inclusivity. Journal of Dance Education, 18(3), 120-125. doi: 10.1080/15290824.2018.1481965

Flaherty, Colleen. (2020, April 20). Barely Getting By. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/20/new-report-says-many-adjuncts-make-less-3500-course-and-25000-year

Kailin, J. (2002). Antiracist education: From theory to practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Love, B. L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Moore, J. T., Ricaldi, J., N., Rose, C. E., et al. (2020, August 14). Disparities in Incidence of  COVID-19 Among Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic Groups in Counties Identified as Hotspots During June 5–18, 2020 — 22 States, February–June 2020. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm.

Saad, L. F. (2020) Me and white supremacy: Combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

Scorza, D. (2020, August 12). Becoming an anti-racist educator.  Presentation at the Anti-Black racism training: Confronting anti-Black racism on college campuses, a 2-Day professional development training for educators.  

TEDxTalks (2013, August 18). Christopher Emdin at TEDxTeachersCollege [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFNB4cEkPqs.

Temprano, V. G. (2015). Our home on native land. Native Land Digital. https://native-land.ca/.

Toldson, I. A. (2020, August 13). Promoting racial justice & equity. Presentation at the Anti-Black racism training: Confronting anti-Black racism on college campuses, a 2-Day professional development training for educators.  

Vellanki, V. (2019, April). Enacting ontological and epistemological plurality in the teacher education classroom. In D. Carter Andrews (Chair), Thinking beyond damage-centered teaching: Enacting a humanizing pedagogy in teacher education. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Toronto, ON.

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