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Food for Thought: “Safety” on Campus and in the Writing Center

What does “safe space” actually mean? This contested term has been relentlessly thrown around in the media, sensationalizing American college students as being “coddled” in the classroom. Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about a week ago, and she defined a safe space as a place that “allows people to feel welcome without being unsafe because of the identities they inhabit. A safe space is a haven from the harsh realities people face in their everyday lives.” In fact, Gay attributes the introduction of “safe space” –as a means of fostering open, productive dialogue—into our cultural vernacular to feminist theory. So where is the line between “safety” and “coddling”? In my own experience, I have yet to meet a Barnard student who is uninterested in being intellectually challenged in the classroom. But at the same time, students appreciate being treated as a whole person in the classroom—someone who is more than just a body to be lectured at, but a nuanced and complex human being. How can we create the kind of productive and safe intellectual discomfort in the classroom that comes from tackling challenging, weighty, and convoluted issues?


Determining how to do this is our job, not just as students in our own courses, but also in our role as Fellows. When fellowing, how can we create a hospitable, safe space that simultaneously challenges and pushes students? This question has no easy answer, but it is worth paying mind to. I suspect these issues, which challenge the pedagogical core of higher education, will continue to be talked about for the remainder of our college experiences.


For more on this topic, check out Roxanne Gay’s full article, “The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond”:





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The word of the year is…



Thank you, Monica. My words of disbelief can’t really get on this word’s level, because it isn’t a word. I decided therefore, to rely on a gif. (How do you pronounce gif anyway? Does it matter? Clearly words don’t need to actually be pronounced anyway anymore!)

The community of those of us who still occasionally communicate in full sentences (punctuation, capitalization and all!) has erupted at the idea that this year’s Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is, in fact, not a word. Instead the emoji officially named “Face with Tears of Joy” has been “chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

Oxford Dictionaries’ justification for doing so seems to be based on the fact that 2015 saw the use of emojis increase. Why wasn’t the word of the year the word emoji, you might ask? I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t even want to get into the choice of emoji. Why does the face that’s laughing so hard it cries sum up the ethos of a world now coming to terms with hate crimes, nuclear deals, annexations and refugee crises? Words that made the shortlist were: sharing economy, on fleek, Brexil, Dark Web, lumbersexual, they, refugee, ad blocker.

See definitions of these words and a funny(ish) video by Oxford Dictionaries about what communication would look like if we actually communicated in real life using emojis on this site:

To sum up, here’s a little light reading for your afternoon:

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Darcy: 😍

Elizabeth: 😂

Darcy: 😩

Elizabeth: 😳

Darcy: 💍

Elizabeth: 😍

Darcy & Elizabeth: 💏

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Diversity means we all “belong”

Ava DuVernay’s works include ‘Selma’ (2014), ‘Middle of Nowhere’ (2012) and ‘I Will Follow’ (2010). (Morales, 2015)

On October 19, Ava DuVernay, a black woman filmmaker and distributor of independent films, was honored at the 22nd Annual ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards. There, among of population of people underrepresented in the film industry, she outlined a solution to the lack of diversity in Hollywood, in front of and behind the camera.

Her narrative begins with an anecdote her uncle told her about a black village deemed valueless by its country. Though considered subordinate, the villagers continued existing as everyday citizens—cutting each other’s hair, teaching, preaching, baking, performing works that help a community function as a people.

Despite that, the village lived in a state of coerced segregation. When confronted with situations that denied their existence they “fought…for recognition of their humanity and dignity.” DuVernay’s anecdote illustrates a community’s desire to exist beyond external perspectives. They live as themselves, not consuming or allowing sources that devalue them to control their existence.

To live like such people we should focus on supporting our neighbor and developing the community. “We value us. We build or village. ….We focus on her—the woman sitting next to us. We focus on us.” DuVernay emphasizes the community by perpetually stating “we.” Contrasting the isolation experienced by the villagers, she believes that a solution to overcome a system of segregation exists by redefining our understanding of “us,” so that “we” extends to the villagers rather than the comforts of the country, the self.

Dwelling within the comfortability of the self, only inhabiting spaces congruent to one’s social identity, and, therefore, prolonging segregation,  creates a social impediment that perpetuates issues like racism, sexism—every “-ism” within the patriarchy. The conflict of the self, which leads to the creation of “-ism” terms, distracts us and “keeps [one] explaining [their] reason for being.” This conflict embodies a problem with the term “diversity.”

Diversity focuses on how the self looks and appeals to external sources. It does not support, celebrate, or attempt to create a village. It, rather, simulates the relationship the country has with the village. When populations exist in a space, like the villagers, they must learn to live beyond external perceptions, defined by the country, or within it. Either decision marginalizes them and prevents them from belonging within the space of the country.

Less metaphorically, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in an awkward position in class as someone felt obliged to announce my blackness. Needless to say, I was the only black student. The comment derived from a need to justify my reading of a black character, while signifying that such action did not mean I was to act on behalf of black people. The person made such concept into a joke. Out of confusion and discomfort, I laughed in response.

After speaking with a professor about the moment, she explained that these types of classes typically lack “diversity”, and cases like mine are nuanced but frequent. As the only black student in a class lacking racial variability, I exist as an outlier because my presence and actions needs to be justified—comically or otherwise.

My state of being, however, rests in the hands of someone (the country) who traditionally exists in the place I inhabit. In representing the villagers, the moment forces me, as I did, to overlook the situation or address the discomfort. Either decision forces me into a role of separation, where I must confront another’s distress with my being in the class.

The conflict rests in the need for my presence to justified or presented as a disclaimer when I perform a task in the classroom. Having “diversity” within a class, then, creates a varied population that does not know how to exist comfortably with each other.

DuVernay’s conclusion articulates my sentiments, which “diversity” fails to address. “I really hate the word ‘diversity’,” she says, “It feels like medicine. Diversity is like, ‘Ugh. I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me, is a disconnect. There’s an emotional disconnect.”

The “disconnect” refers to how the term merely seeks to acknowledge difference in a singular space. Diversity has no transformative action. As determined by its definition, diversity represents a state of being diverse—having variety. The term embodies an inactive noun that allows one to evade social issues by, for example, acknowledging variability (or the lack thereof) within a population and not doing anything with it.

In my example, the professor uses the lack of diversity to distract from the belief that I do not belong in the class. The burden of comfort rests in my need to adjust to the others rather than each student in the class adjusting collectively. Diversity falsifies the experience of a united community; it recognizes the village in the space, but does not address the relationship it has to the country.

DuVernay suggests we replace “diversity” with “belong.” She states, “… We all belong to film. We all belong to television. We all belong to what this is…So I just want us to think about belonging. Think about who belongs. And welcoming people into that belonging.” Again, she requires the audience to adjust for the sake of the group. We need to think about who belongs. We need to welcome those people. We need to broaden and extend our power to best practice this liberal delusion of diversity.

Chernikoff, Leah. “Why Ava DuVernay Hates the Word Diversity.” ELLE. 21 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015

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Public Speaking Tips from Adele

By now, many of you have probably viewed Adele’s new music video for “Hello.” If you haven’t, you must! Many of you might be wondering how you could draw public speaking lessons from Adele. Bear with me…

Content Matters

  • If you watch Adele’s music video for “Hello,” there are no pyrotechnics whatsoever. She doesn’t require backup dancers. She relies purely on her talent. This is the first tip we can take from her. Rely more on what you have to say instead of being flashy and showing off you Power Point and Prezi skills. As much as a compelling visual enhances your presentation, a visual is intended to ENHANCE and not REPLACE your presentation. Your content matters. Stylistically, we see Adele making some eye contact with the camera throughout the video. These might seem like small actions, but eye contact really draws an audience in, so make sure to make eye contact with people in the room throughout your presentation. This is also helpful during interviews. Last but not least, we have Adele’s powerful and beautiful voice throughout the video, which is what has really caused it to go viral. Yet another tip we can draw from Adele is the power of your voice. As speaking fellows, we discuss the importance of stylistic elements. Projecting your voice and making sure you are heard, while using your natural gestures, is also a crucial element that can “make it or break it” for your everyday speech or that presentation you have to deliver in class.

Be “Natural”

  • Overall, the biggest lesson we can draw from Adele is this idea of being yourself and being natural. One of the reasons why Adele is so popular is because she relies on her raw talent rather than the pyrotechnics and special effects we see with so many other artists. Allow your personality to show in a setting where you have to speak. Feel free to use humor or present interesting facts. If something isn’t in your script but you feel that it adds to what you have to say, go ahead and say it. While practice is important, there is a fine line between being prepared and sounding rehearsed. Impromptu elements are just as helpful as prepared ones.

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6 Rules for Great Storytelling from a Moth Storyteller

by Alex Horn, Speaking Fellow ’16

Check out the below article outlining best storytelling practices from Margot Leitman, a champion storyteller at The Moth.

“Lesson 2: Have a Few Go-To Stories at the Ready
You should have a polished story or two in your repertoire. You never know when it’ll come in handy, says Leitman, pointing to a moment in Steve Jobs’s original iPhone keynote when the slide deck failed, and he sprung gracefully into a story he had at the ready. “I think it was a story he told socially a million times,” says Leitman. “Probably it worked socially, so he decided to tell it in front of the crowd. To me, it’s the most memorable part of that speech. Rather than talking about the components of the iPhone, he’s taking a moment that makes him human.””

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The Language We Know And The Language We’re Taught

Earlier this year, a group of students from Zanzibar, Tanzania created a video to examine why the language they’re required to speak at school is different from the one they speak at home. This video raises a lot of interesting issues, but for the sake of this blog focus on these two when watching: how some languages are taken as more valid than others and what the politics are of that happening in an academic space. What languages–or rules of language–are more valid at Barnard (or at whatever school you attend) and how are those rules political and/or restrictive?

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On Trigger Warnings and Literature

As I walked into the Diana last week, a few CAP (Collective Advocacy Project) members recruited me to share my thoughts on trigger warnings. What purpose do they serve? What purpose are they supposed to serve? Do they belong in literature? Why is there such a disconnect between our understanding of what they should do and what they actually do in practice? Although I was in a rush to secure a table upstairs for a writing fellows conference and wanted to grab coffee first, the topic was too good to resist. I grabbed an index card and began to write down my thoughts; which are as follows:

I think we should include trigger warnings in our syllabi. No one wants to be caught by surprise when an upsetting issue arises out of the blue in a core text. By including trigger warnings, students can be aware of what they face and prepare accordingly. The danger, however, is when we cease to read texts because they can be triggering.

Literature is meant to trigger a response. Great writers make us think, make us question, and make us peer inside ourselves and confront the uncomfortable facts that lie at the core of human existence. This can be scary and upsetting, I know—but it is not an oppressive act. Discomfort does not equal oppression. Triggering literature does not equal disrespect for difficult individual experiences. I worry that with the growing emphases on trigger warnings, the list of things that we can’t read (and say and bring up in class) will grow longer and longer. What do you guys think? Let’s discuss.

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