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Guest Blog Post: Seeing a Theme Come to Life by Chrystal A. George Mwangi (UMass Amherst)

By Shanna Saubert posted 02-21-2019 10:58 AM

This guest blog post was written by Chrystal A. George Mwangi, PhD (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Seeing a Theme Come to Life

Are conference themes important? I attend a number of education conferences each year and often find that a conference’s theme is not always integrated into the vision and program for the event. However, while not a necessity, a well-integrated theme can bring coherence to a conference and strengthen its message and outcomes. More often than not, while I see a theme mentioned in the call for proposals for a conference, by the time the conference itself rolls around, I have little memory of that theme and don’t see it emphasized strongly. Yet, this was not the case for the 2018 theme of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) annual meeting, held in Tampa, Florida last November. Developed by ASHE President, Dr. Lori Patton Davis, and Program Chair, Dr. D-L Stewart, the theme Envisioning the “Woke” Academy, emphasized the importance of being woke, a concept that “is meant to encourage a heightened level of consciousness both locally and transnationally regarding societal ills and the need to unabashedly name and dismantle inequitable power structures and their disproportionately negative effects on minoritized peoples” (ASHE Call for Proposals 2018, p.1). This theme was used to provide synergy for the ASHE community that occurred even before the conference began, through professional development opportunities including an Institute for Community Engaged Research event co-sponsored by the Lumina Foundation that I attended in October and a “Woke” research methodology webinar series that can continue to be accessed here:

The conference theme, Envisioning the “Woke” Academy, was fully realized at the ASHE annual meeting, where I witnessed numerous examples of how higher education scholarship could foster equity and social transformation. The conference showcased a new section on community-engaged research that reflected sessions focused on collaborative, participatory, and action-oriented scholarship to meet the needs of local and global communities. Each of the presidential sessions I attended also clearly integrated the conference theme, including “A Woke Academy Teach-In: Towards More Critically Conscious Teaching and Curricula in Higher Education Programs,” “Equitable Policies and Practices for Underserved Populations: A Critical Imperative,” and “Identity, History, Geography, and Policy: Complicating Monolithic Narratives of Undocumented Immigrants in Higher Education.” I witnessed the conference host 400 high school students who were provided with free college counseling and information about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Additionally, conference attendees had the opportunity to attend an offsite town hall to discuss college barriers and opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Women and Girls of Color. A culminating moment of the conference was ASHE President, Dr. Lori Patton Davis’ address in which she called on the ASHE community to remember that the conference theme “is about rethinking what it means to go to an academic conference, rethinking community engagement, rethinking what it means to do scholarship in a more expansive way…At the heart of our work, there should be a desire to do better.”

Although the conference theme resonated with me, there were a number of naysayers who thought that the theme would dissuade some scholars from attending. I will even admit that while I thought the theme was brilliant from the start, I also worried about how the theme might translate to its audience. As a member of the ASHE annual meeting program committee, I was charged with intentionally integrating the conference theme into the program from drafting the call for proposals to selecting sessions to be highlighted as presidential sessions. The program committee was also asked to consider the nuanced ways in which the theme could be incorporated into the nine sections used to organize the ASHE program. I co-chaired the International Higher Education section along with Dr. Saran Stewart and Dr. Raquel Wright-Mair. As we considered how we might integrate the conference theme into our section, we also wondered whether and how the concept “woke” might translate to scholars outside of the United States. Yet, we realized that while the contemporary use of the term “woke” is predominantly used in the United States, there are many ways in which its meaning is found in other country and cultural contexts. Therefore, we developed a call for proposals in our section that “acknowledged that ‘Envisioning the Woke Academy’ is not limited to a U.S.-centric understanding of the rise in activism and consciousness about societal inequities and power structures” (ASHE Call for Proposals 2018, p.10). We provided a number of examples of how the theme is present internationally by highlighting that,

Across the globe, student activism has historically led to revolutionary changes such as the Cuban Revolution at the University of Havana and the Anti-Communist Revolutions in 1989 originating at Charles University in Prague. The term “woke” can be connected to concepts found in other languages such as:

  • Conscientização (Portuguese - consciousness)
  • Uhuru (Kiswahili - freedom)
  • Ubuntu (Derived from African Bantu languages - humanity towards others)
  • Livity (Jamaican Creole [Patois] - Rastafarian concept for Righteousness)
  • Tallawah (Jamaican Creole [Patois] - fearless or strong)
  • Konsyans (Haitian Kreyol - consciousness)
  • Concientizacion (Spanish - raising consciousness)
  • chʼínádzííd (Navajo - woke) (ASHE Call for Proposals 2018, p.10)

As program co-chairs, our fears that scholars outside the United States might not connect with the theme later seemed unfounded as we received theme-related proposals about higher education research based in Rwanda, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Russia, Azerbaijan, England, Costa Rica, Columbia, Ghana, South Korea, China, Mongolia, Finland, Hungary, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Kazakhstan, and more.

In addition to the global scholarship showcased at the ASHE general conference, there was a pre-conference on international higher education led by Dr. Blanca Torres-Olave (Council on International Higher Education Chair) and Dr. Hugo Garcia (Council on International Higher Education Member-At-Large), that also offered a number of learning opportunities. For example, there was a mentoring session provided for graduate students and early career scholars focused on publishing and sharing international scholarship, building international networks, and developing one’s research agenda. There was also a dialogue session that focused on the challenges international higher education scholars face when developing and disseminating their scholarship, as well as best practices for working in a global environment. The international-focused research presented during the ASHE conference was also predominantly centered on issues of power, equity, and transformation in educational spaces. For example, I attended a session called “Critical Studies of Power, Inequality, and Unintended Consequences: The Hidden Side of Internationalization in the Academy” that presented research on the disparities in internationalization efforts in access-oriented institutions, inattention to the ethics of international engagement in internationalization efforts broadly, and how international students can be tokenized by universities. I also learned more about methodological practices in a session titled, “Decolonizing Qualitative Methodologies For and By the Caribbean and South America: Implications for Woke Researchers,” which discussed how researchers can often reify power and privilege in their scholarship and how communities in the Caribbean and South America are impacted when this occurs. Additionally, I had the opportunity to present in a session that was co-sponsored with the Council on Ethnic Participation called “Interrogating Transnational Anti-Blackness in Higher Education” that highlighted the transnational nature of Blackness, anti-blackness, and Black Diaspora in higher education given the global movement of people and higher education institutions across borders.

I left the 2018 ASHE annual meeting feeling invigorated by the diverse ways in which individuals from around the world are working to improve higher education research, practice, and policy. In April, I will be speaking at the NAFSA Research Symposium in Chicago[1] (followed by a presentation at the NAFSA 2019 Annual Conference[2] in May) and am excited to encourage us all to stay “woke” as we move forward in our work. While, I am sure the symposium will provide numerous opportunities to learn and share about frameworks, methodologies, and methods that can best inform international education research, it will also be an important time to reflect on how our research might be used to affect positive social change.

[1] Dr. George Mwangi will be delivering the Opening Remarks at the Spring 2019 NAFSA Research Symposium on Friday, April 26, 2019. The Research Symposium is being held at Loyola University Chicago and registration is open until April 10, 2019.

[2] Examining Equality and Mutuality in International Academic PartnershipsThursday, May 30, 2019: 1:00 PM-2:00 PM