The good, the bad, the ugly

I don’t keep a lot of books. In college, I sold back almost all my books for all the reasons students do that. I kept maybe ten books. One of them was Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It changed me in many ways, but I am most struck by a kind of prescience that I had in keeping it, since it’s a book I’ve come back to so many times in my professional life. Now is one of those times. Anzaldúa writes,

The new mestiza has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode– nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.

Later Anzaldúa refers to this plurality as a “massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness.” There is so much here that foreshadows bell hooks’ piece on margins as a space of radical openness, published two years after Borderlands. What’s most interesting to me is the refusal to resolve ambiguity, the call to sustain contradiction.

Over the years, I’ve challenged my Type A personality with this call many times. And in higher education now, I feel myself constantly torn between my skill at resolving contradiction in ways that score a win for my students or programs and my suspicion that these resolutions and wins ultimately damage the ecosystem for learning that I imagine a university should be cultivating.


Of course, for hooks and Anzaldúa, the call to honor and explore contradiction has everything to do with race, culture, and power. I don’t want to erase that as I apply their work to questions about educational restructuring. Instead, I want to talk about what universities would look like if scholars of color who have worked for years to theorize these relationships were relied on as much or more than we rely on people like Carnegie, Dewey, Montessori, Maslow, Siemans, a million others when we think about how educational institutions should be designed to serve learners. Would our institutions look different? Would they admit students differently? Would they cost what they cost today? Who would work at them? Who would lead them? How would curriculum look? How about assessment? Accreditation? Graduation? The student experience?

To favor pluralism, acknowledge ugliness, demand inclusion, and mine paradox for its transformative potential…this is not how I feel when I:

  • argue for “best” practice;
  • establish learning outcomes before my courses even begin;
  • celebrate selectivity in my institution’s admission process;
  • write program reviews or promotion files that obscure failure;
  • refuse late assignments from students;
  • use critical mass and market demand as an argument for program development;
  • design marketing campaigns or discounts to nab other public institutions’ enrollments;
  • design a new course using a credit model system that is pre-mapped onto the course structure;
  • grade an assignment or grade a student;
  • participate in diversity initiatives that focus on events, artifacts, or visibility.

To be clear, the things I just listed aren’t travesties. They’re daily life inside a college or university. Lots of those things make sense in some contexts. But so many of them are focused on, well focusing. On taking something messy and political and painful and unexpected (learning!) and turning it into something easily quantified, unambiguous, overly simplistic, and easily tied to tangible metrics for value (money, credits, grades, quotas, etc). And I understand from hooks and Anzaldúa that when we erase the ambiguity and treat the margins as something to be overcome rather than inhabited, we lose the opportunity to turn the energy of uncertainty, cacophony, and conflict into “something else.” And I don’t think that “something else” is something specific. It is actually, something else, the thing not named or expected, the thing that isn’t one thing, the horizon of possibility but not the arrival. It is, maybe, learning.

When we think about unfocusing and living inside ambiguity, I want to understand how that relates to social justice, which is at the core of Anzaldúa’s text. But she doesn’t start from the question of how to make the dominant shape of the world more equitable. She starts with the lived experience and the identity of the Mexican-Indian-Anglo mestiza on the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. She talks about how to expand the borderlands–sites of conflict and colonization as they are– and amplify the voices of those who identify those sites not only as sites of struggle, but as home.

What are the borderlands of an American college or university? And for AMICAL, what are the borderlands of an American college or university that is not in America?

The wall that cuts through a borderland does more than separate two regions. It works to shrink the border to a razor’s edge. To make it an uninhabitable space where mixing can’t happen, where humans can’t live inside multiple identities, touch across cultural contradiction, or mine the energy of ambiguity to imagine something else.

This is why interdisciplinary innovations inside of universities are exciting to me. They ask us to think about borderlands as spaces wide enough for doing things. But it’s also why interdisciplinary innovations inside of universities irritate me. They often ask us to package the knowledge borders as “new markets,” as “efficiencies,” or as “solutions.” And these things are not compatible with the vision of Anzaldúa’s borderland that has so affected my development. Her borderlands were spaces for the collective as opposed to the correct, for the plural rather than the product. What is the cost to learners at the margins? To knowledge and its potential? To diversity? To our humanity?

What would a pluralistic structure look like for higher education? What are its risks? Who would it serve? What would it mean to design institutions to sustain contradiction in learning? What does knowledge look like if we uproot dualistic thinking, and who stands to benefit?

And if our university mission statements co-opt and whitewash the language of the borderland while our universities build structures to surveil, control, and bisect, we enact the worse and most ironic kind of violence on our own humanity, on others, on ourselves.


Does your university use the language of pluralism, inclusion, opening, mixing to describe its ecosystem or learning processes? If so, do the structures of your university seem to enable or prevent that kind of experience or community or work? Can you give an example?