“Mentoring Future Faculty of Color: A Brief Conversation with Chris Eng and Melissa Phruksachart” appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Graduate Center Advocate. Please note that there is a misprint in the interview: where it says “not inseparable,” I meant to say “not separable.” To access the printable, pdf version of this interview and the issue’s editorial: MFFCAdvocateInterviewSpring2014.
In its previous issue, which also inaugurated a new editorial staff, The Advocate began with an open letter to the Graduate Center community for contributions from diverse perspectives. “Diversity in the abstract,” they wrote, “as a bureaucratic checkbox is a fiction that must be superseded by diversity as an actual social and political linkage between the academy and society.” Indeed. This sentiment is shared by many in the Graduate Center student community and the following conversation—between me and two other doctoral students Chris Eng and Melissa Phruksachart—responds to the editors’ call and reiterates the value of a critical consciousness that bridges academic work with social realities.
This conversation serves as a reflection on a particular initiative on critical diversity work at the CUNY Graduate Center: the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color Project. Now in its second year, largely run by a collective of students and their mentors, MFFC set into motion vibrant discussions about the professional and political lives of students of color, and discussions about current academic work in U.S. universities. Professors who have been a part of this lecture series include Daphne Brooks (Princeton), Nicole Fleetwood (Rutgers), Tavia Nyong’o (NYU), Nikhil Pal Singh (NYU), and, most recently, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman (Brandeis). On Friday, May 2nd, at 2pm in room 5409, Tina Campt (Barnard) will be giving the concluding lecture of this semester.
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Kristina Huang (KH): Both of you are among the collective of students who helped in spearheading the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color initiative a year ago. Can you provide a bit of background for this initiative? How did it get started?
Chris Eng (CE): Well, basically the Diversity Project Development Fund was being offered and advertised two years ago, in the fall. Kandice Chuh, one of our mentors, suggested that this (MFFC) might be a good project to put forth. Her recommendation stemmed out of previous informal meetings, one of which Kandice invited several students of color from the English Program to a dinner to chat about the experiences and challenges in navigating the English Program particularly and academia more generally. It was a space for us to discuss the different programs and structures of support that we found helpful for really starting a conversation about race and diversity on multiple types of level. We also reflected on the various formal and informal relations that we’ve built in our graduate careers thus far. Collectively, we seemed to identify mentoring as a desirable and desired practice that we wanted to further foster, particularly in relation to questions of race and diversity. After applying for and receiving the fund last year, a group of students talked about moving forward and outlined what the initiative would eventually become.
Melissa Phruksachart (MP): We decided we’d invite three to four scholars per semester to have lunch with a small group of students to talk about their experiences navigating academia as a scholar of color. Afterward, they give a public lecture about their current work.
KH: Can you talk about some highlights of what MFFC has done so far?
MP: One of the highlights has been getting to know scholars in an informal setting and hearing about their own struggles in getting through graduate school, the job market, and the early career stages. Most people did not have it easy, and no one could predict that they’d end up in a fabulous position at such-and-such school. I appreciate how frank people have been and how they let us know how difficult it can be for anyone to pursue work in academia.
KH: Yeah, what I’ve found super interesting too is the idea that one’s personal, graduate student journey is part of an institutional history. Our lunches with Daphne Brooks and Nikhil Pal Singh come to mind. I’m thinking, specifically, about how they noted that their politics came out of an intersection of their scholarship, graduate experience, and personal experiences.
CE: To build off of what Melissa and you have been talking about, the reason for inviting these scholars who are amazing and produce all this cutting edge work is to get a chance to sit and talk with them about questions around race and diversity. Doing so is immensely helpful because it gives you an understanding about the struggles they have and continue to experience in their academic careers. This is just to say that after you become a professor, after you “make it,” there are still challenges that you continue to be a part of. The structures and institutional conditions that inhibit critical diversity do not disappear with tenure. And this isn’t something you talk about at conferences and events, right? You usually just talk about research, but the institutional diversity work isn’t something that’s always talked about.
KH: I know you from Hunter College, Chris, when we were undergraduates, and I want to ask you to talk about your work there.
CE: I was involved in CRAASH, the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter College, and it was a colleague who tapped me into the status of the Asian American Studies program and that nothing was happening. Based on her suggestion, a few of us collaborated and coordinated a series of campaigns and events to raise awareness about the Asian American Studies Program to get more funding and support. That experience was great and in directly diving into these issues, I became aware of the university and the discipline as an important site of struggle for questions relating to social justice, in terms of where and what we get to learn.
KH: I think of CUNY as being a particular and very interesting site for these conversations. And I was wondering, Melissa, if you could talk a little about your experience thus far. Chris and I have both gone through the undergraduate program here, and that has shaped how we approach our work here at CUNY. Can you speak about your experience at CUNY, diversity, and people of color in higher education?
MP: So you’re asking me how this particular location helped me think about those kinds of questions?
KH: Yes, and maybe reflect on teaching at CUNY and the kinds of courses they offer here.
MP: I definitely see the university and higher education as a site of social production and reproduction, in terms of all types of capital. To my mind, that is why students come to college—to gain certain kinds of capital, whether they know it or not. And so, teaching the students of NYC, it was important to me to know where they were located in relationship to social, cultural, and economic capital and to try to think about how I could help them walk the fine line of gaining different forms of capital but also help them to be critical in what it means to be reaching for that. Understanding the diverse contexts of CUNY undergraduate students is really important to me, even on a personal level because I am also a child of immigrants. I feel that I have some sort of kinship with our students on that level, and a responsibility to them.
KH: Relatedly, I’m of the school of thinking that politics and scholarship are not separable. I wonder if you can talk about your own scholarship in relation to what you do; if there is any overlap between what you study and your involvement in MFFC.
MP: I’m not sure if MFFC has informed my scholarship as much as it’s influenced the way I see the potential roles of an academic — not to only produce scholarship but in other administrative and community functions. I think that’s where this project helped me grow in terms of my work: in terms of understanding how else scholars create spaces for critical discourse in the academy. It’s not just about what you publish.
CE: For me, I think of critical diversity work as labor that operates on multiple levels. And, reflecting upon MFFC and the scholarship that Melissa and I do, it’s very much about the types of conditions or structures that don’t allow for certain questions to be asked or certain bodies to become legitimate or enter certain types of spaces. It seems then that our work on MFFC and scholarship are thus animated by the following question: what are the conditions of possibility, or impossibility for certain questions around racial difference to be discussed, asked, and probed–within the university, either in actual programming but also in terms of the scholarship we produce. Questions of race are so embedded within everything we do in the university, and our work strategizes about and labors toward shifting the current conditions to allow for the flourishing of students of color within and beyond the university.
Photo credit: Emilio Guerra, Flickr