Island to Island
A Statement on Diversity
My awareness of historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups is fundamentally informed by my Hawai'i upbringing. When at university, I came to realize that my rural, outer-island community of Portuguese and Filipino farmers had not prepared me for Chicago's stark racial divide. In light of these experiences, as both teacher and scholar I feel an ethical responsibility to underscore cultural plurality and emphasize that dialogue between people of different perspectives, values, and backgrounds enriches intellectual inquiry.
Having taught and tutored a range of students, I find incorporating activities into instruction that enable them to develop a vocabulary of cultural competency sponsors the process of learning core course content. While at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), my students have been predominantly white, hailing from wealthy suburbs around Chicago or from rural communities in central and southern Illinois. There is a significant population of international students from China and Korea, but few African American, out-of-state, and historically underrepresented students. In first-year writing courses, students frequently group together along these categories and, for the locals, by high school. In order for them to recognize and explore the distinct perspectives in the room, early in the semester I run a discussion activity where these self-selected groups consider the question: to whom is the state university responsible? The groups posit different kinds of answers, from free education for its tax payers to educating the world. They routinely come to the consensus that a diverse university make for an ideal learning environment, regardless of one's background. In so doing, the students have developed a model dialogue to which they can refer when defining the rhetorical trivium (ethos, pathos, logos). The terms stay with them because the initial debate was exigent to them. Additionally, this activity enables students to reflect upon the social structures that provide them access to high education.
Such freshman class demographics predispose the cross-section of students in composition courses to debates about class disparity; introductory film courses likewise lend themselves to incorporating primary texts that engage with Feminist critique. For example, despite the cultural disparity at UIUC, classes are generally balanced in terms of gender. This enables me to follow a brief lecture on the three waves of Feminism with an analysis of framing and mise-en-scéne in Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987). The artwork, mirrors, and hidden cameras scattered throughout the film provide opportunities for students to identify how the male gaze operates on Polly by practicing their close-reading and analytical skills. Placing Polly's interior monologues alongside that of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), from which the title of the film is taken, enables students to identify ways in which homosexual coupling resists and reinforces a masculine hegemony. Students are also able to identify the evolution of female identity and critique across the twentieth century while women's reproductive rights, the glass ceiling, and non-cisgender equality continue to be debated today.
Teaching the English Renaissance also gives me purchase on contemporary debates surrounding gender and race. Biological knowledge of the period presumed that women were essentially warm, soft, and under-baked men. Therefore, homosexual and heterosexual categories were simply non-operative: for these early Protestants, unacceptable sexual activity was merely any activity that did not result in offspring. Yet men cross-dressed as women on early modern stages, as underscored by beard jokes in Twelfth Night (1602), and women moved about London as men, like that in The Roaring Girl (1611). One may not immediately assume British literature to afford unique opportunities for exploring diversity—in terms of cultural, ability, gendered, and classed distinctions—considering the field's colonial cachet. Yet my students find Aemelia Lanier's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) to posit an association between female freedom and homoerotic friendship; excerpts from Martin Frobisher's arctic voyages to reveal the newly credit-driven economy of England that bankrolled early colonial endeavors while at the same time fueled the burgeoning Scientific Revolution; and speeches by Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth Tudor to enliven voices of female governance while situated within the confines of their elite male Privy Councils. Aware that students of color go underrepresented in UIUC classrooms, I make a point of Othello's performance history, done in blackface up through the nineteenth century, and its implications. Because our belatedness is a constant reminder that the politics of identity are a priori historically contingent, the past is a powerful place where students can practice mutual respect while considering diverse perspectives in civil environs.
My commitment to diversity likewise extends to my research. My current project underscores in three ways the regionality within and between the early modern British Isles. First, I emphasize the cultural history and memories that marked regions as distinct, such as those of the soldiers—Cornish and Welsh—who criticize the disguised English king in Henry V (1599). Second, I separate rural and urban consumers of theatre as distinct audiences with different ideological and economic priorities conditioned, in part, by the primacy of touring for players, bearwards, and musicians alike. Third, in my dissertation and a recent publication I problematize categorizes of "blackness" by tracing the socio-economic factors that produced a fad for Mediterranean plays upon which the Lord Strange's Men capitalized. The company was engaging with growing communities of peoples of color in England—ninety percent of whom lived in the playhouse neighborhoods—as well as playgoers' desires to negotiate their sense of England's place within a global history and its changing relationship to their Mediterranean neighbors. Theatre as a cultural product requires us to consider both is producers and receivers, and so provides a powerful lens through which to consider critical race theory and cultural studies, among others.
As my praxis encourages students to rethink white-washed narratives of culture in England, so too does my presence as a woman in the classroom. The New York Times recently reported that not only do many more men than women teach Shakespeare courses at the college level, but they are also far more likely to be described in student evaluations as confident and brilliant for the same qualities that in a woman are described as bossy and disorganized. As a multiracial, bisexual scholar and teacher, acknowledging diversity in part means modeling professionalism, poise, and preparedness for all of my students; that someone of my background excels in this vocation invites students to engage rigorously and compassionately in a multicultural society.
My awareness of cross-cultural understanding continues to grow, of course, and never more so than when I volunteer at the Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estates. Over the last five years, I have given lectures on open- and closed-form poetry for their AP English courses. Both as Native Hawaiians and as students of literatures, they uncover for me the dynamic regional diversity, political complexity, and aesthetic outpouring of which a small island nation is capable.
Updated October 2015.