Thoughts

Two Letters, to Where I have Been and Where I am Going

Dear CUNY,

I’ve been holding my breath, holding myself back from writing this letter because I know that it can never encompass all I want to say about what being in and of you has meant. And/but I am taking the advice that a CUNY mentor once gave me when I was floundering during the dissertation process, to start writing before you are ready, because I know this letter is one that I’ll never be fully ready to write.

In many ways, it was growing up in and with you that helped me find community, direction, purpose, a voice, myself. So, there is much I want and need to say:

The first is thank you. Thank you for giving me opportunities that I know I haven’t always appreciated. Thank you for the people you brought into my life–friends, teachers, mentors, allies, leaders, students, strangers–people who have been variously kind, strong, loving, hurtful, generous, difficult, inspirational. Thank you for the way you forced me to get to know this city, to move out of the sheltered corner of Little Neck, Queens where I grew up to traverse its sprawling landscape, to walk across bridges, to find other sites of belonging. You taught me how to feel at home in this city. Thank you for the skills you helped me develop while I was learning and working as a CUNY student and teacher: the ability to read, write, and grade papers standing on public buses and trains, a dexterity honed during long commutes and all-too-frequent MTA delays; a knack for finding windows in stuffy, claustrophobic buildings, to look for spaces to let light in when the weight of the work feels especially heavy; a know-how for tracking down resources, opportunities, and pockets of funding, which you haven’t always made easy to find, but it’s because of that that I learned to ask questions and to make demands, to realize the sound and worth of my own voice; an eye for recognizing people who are similarly lost and out of place, who are also driven by questions, ideas, and a refusal to accept things as they are; an intuition for making community out of commuter campuses, to find people and causes worth showing up and fighting for. This list could go on and on.

But let me move to the second thing, which is please, remember. Remember that you are the people that make you run and the publics that you serve- the countless staff members, faculty, administrators, students, contingent workers, community members, and more. Not forgetting this is to realize the burden you carry in the struggle to remake public higher education into a site of potentiality for peoples of all backgrounds, who bring with them varied experiences, a host of different languages and cultural traditions, fresh eyes and perspectives, new voices and sharp critiques. You’ll notice, I hope, that I say remake rather than “maintain” because there are parts of you that are broken, that desperately need to be rethought, revitalized, and dreamt up anew. It is a laundry list of things that include: the scarce (and diminishing) resources and support for students from under-represented communities; that staggering dependency on adjunct, contingent, and graduate student labor; the devaluation of the largely invisible labor force that ensures your day-to-day operations; the ever-increasing tuition prices that continue to shut certain bodies out of the academy; ongoing accessibility challenges in a system whose mission is and must be open access. You’ve heard it all before (and these issues are not at all unique to you) but I am writing it here as a reminder that your work is far from over.

You helped me through those trying, awkward, uncertain years as I was finding myself and struggling to figure out how I want to be in the world. And, yes, you can claim me as one of yours. But I hope that it won’t be in the frame of a CUNY success story. It frustrates and angers me how those narratives privilege a limited notion of success, one that sustains racial stereotypes (like that of the model minority) and defines certain pathways and outcomes as “failure,” while covering over the bumps and cracks in the road. Because the truth is that our journey together hasn’t been smooth or neat or easy. I have variously loved and hated you, sang you praises and blamed you for not doing and giving more. And so, while you helped me land that tenure-track job, a great one (which is what the second letter is about), securing that prized objective after graduate school doesn’t erase all of those times when I wanted to give up and let go and was lucky enough to have people in my corner who gave me their time and encouragement and support. And my road, as rocky as it’s been, I know, has been and is smoother than most. This is all to say that I hope that my story and the handful of other purported success stories aren’t just reasons to celebrate (though we have to take those opportunities as they come too), but reasons for you to return to the drawing table, to question and probe how and where you can do more, do better for students, always, but broader than that, for the publics you assemble, in cafeterias and offices, classrooms and auditoriums, on city streets and sidewalks, in pockets of green space, and through the ideas, music, hopes, and aspirations we bring to you.

This brings me to the last thing I want to say, which is not goodbye but rather, I take you with me. Holding on to this, the knowledge that you helped make me, that you are part of how I inhabit the world has made it easier for me to face the uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement that lies ahead. You took me in and created a space for me to ask questions and to do a project that I couldn’t imagine beginning anywhere else; and now, as I move soon into a new city and on to the next stage of my life, I take you with me to find new grounds, a different shape for my research and teaching, other sources of friendship, community, support, and solidarity; in short, a new center of gravity for thinking and doing the work that I will always trace back to you.

So, this is not and never goodbye because even though I am stopping here, I know I haven’t said enough and I know that this letter is one I will return to and rewrite again and again and again.

For now,

Frances


Dear FSU,

I’ve been holding my breath, waiting to write this letter too because in some ways I still can’t believe that this–that you–happened to me. It still feels unreal to think that I won’t have to go on to the academic job market again next year, to imagine what I could do with the time, energy, and emotional brain-space that you have saved me.

I am still in awe of the warmth with which you’ve welcomed me into your community, a warmth that exuded at every stage of the process and especially during those uncertain weeks in between when I was wondering if I would be brave enough to uproot my life and move away from the only place I’ve ever called home. It was your understanding, generosity, and enthusiasm for me and my work that made all of the difference, and so, there are things I want and need to say to you too:

The first echoes how I began that other letter, which is thank you. Thank you for making what was a stressful, anxiety-ridden, and daunting process not only bearable but exciting, challenging, and fun in all of the right ways. Thank you especially to the faculty, students, and staff members who gave me their time both during and after my visit to express interest in my research and teaching, to ask tough questions and share ideas, to join me for more meals, coffee, and doughnuts than I could count, to lend support, contacts, and resources when I needed them most; you all helped me envision the possibility of making Tallahassee home. Thank you, in short, for seeing and treating me as a whole person.

The second thing is I look forward to learning in and with you. So much of my experience as a scholar and teacher has been shaped by growing up in and around New York City, studying and working at CUNY, and briefly Rutgers and Fordham too. If I’m honest, I never thought that I would leave this place because it’s been my anchor for so long but now that the opportunity of you has become real, I’m surprised at how ready I feel for the changes that you will bring into my life. I have told my students time and time again to resist the pull of the comfortable and the familiar, to open themselves to new ways of seeing, knowing, and being in the world; in many ways this is what my research calls for too. Yet, what I haven’t confronted is how settled I’ve been, in New York City and CUNY, with my reliable network of friends and family, and trusted spaces of comfort and belonging. I will always have them at my back as my anchors regardless of where I go, but what you’ve given me is the chance to find new beginnings for my thinking, research, and teaching, a different orientation, an opening out of myself to new encounters, relationships, and potentialities. And so, I look forward to getting to know you and the publics you assemble and serve, to learn your eccentricities, to hear and feel your unique music and rhythms in the slow gradual practice of dwelling in and on that it takes to make a place a home.

The last thing I’ll say for the time being is I will change you. I will change you by virtue of bringing myself to you, another transplanted New Yorker in Tallahassee. I will change you because of the ideas, questions, perspectives, texts, objects, bodies, and histories I take with me. I know, in turn, that you will change me too. And I can’t help but think how fitting it is that the work I began at CUNY has taken me to you, another public university that will inevitably shift, expand, and transform my understanding of public higher education and the publics I engage and which my work necessarily serves.

And so, I’ll stop here because I am still learning how to talk to you but suffice to say that I’m looking forward to the ride ahead with more anticipation, nerves, and excitement than you can imagine.

For now,

Frances


Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Two Letters, to Where I have Been and Where I am Going”

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