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  • “Hopping on the Tips of a Trident”: Two Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Teaching Critical Content at Predominantly White Institutions
  • Chandra D. L. Waring (bio) and Samit Dipon Bordoloi (bio)

A growing body of feminist and critical pedagogy literature positions teaching as transformative, for both teachers and students, as the classroom has the potential to become a site of exploration, liberation, and empowerment (hooks 16). The classroom is indeed a powerful social tool that can serve as a catalyst for personal development and social change on many levels. Scholarship, however, has also documented the noteworthy power dynamic between privileged students and professors of underprivileged backgrounds. When such faculty employ critical and/or feminist pedagogical practices, students can begin to question the professor’s credentials rather than the unequal institutional arrangements of society (Rodriguez 485).

We intend to acknowledge the precarious position of graduate instructors from underprivileged backgrounds who teach about power and privilege to students who embody varying levels of privilege through race, gender, class, nationality, and linguistic ability—in other words, students who benefit from the existing power structure. In this article, we capture the complexity of being a marginalized individual with institutional authority who encourages students to question all levels of power; simultaneously, we are acutely aware of the social implications of students challenging our authority, our intellectual aptitude, and our critical orientation. We also outline techniques that we have developed through trial and error that we hope to impart on fellow critical educators from marginalized backgrounds, with particular attention paid to graduate instructors. Our title, “hopping on the tips of a trident” refers to our attempt to conceptualize the unique experience of facing three concurrent challenges: teaching critical content, being minorities, and being graduate instructors. We seek to characterize the distinct reality that these co-existing challenges create and hope to contribute to the race, gender, and pedagogy scholarship. As academia becomes more diverse, understanding the unique experiences of women, racial minorities, and graduate students will improve the academic environment and, ultimately, enrich everyone’s experience in higher education. [End Page 108]

Women and Faculty of Color in the Academy

The undeniable history of racism and sexism in the United States has been extensively documented in education scholarship. In fact, nonwhite undergraduates and graduate students experience a type of adversity during their experiences in institutions of higher learning that is exclusive to them (Feagin and Sikes 91). Notably, this trend does not decline as one climbs the educational ladder; faculty members of color report high levels of stress, isolation, and additional pressures to succeed as a consequence of colleagues’ racist assumptions and institutional practices that formally and informally promote racist agendas (Allen-Brown 169). Women have also endured institutional barriers in the academy. Female professors and professors of color (and female professors of color) have described a lack of community and sense of belonging (Patton 190), lack of networking opportunities and/or professional development, and lack of political capital in their university due to their research agendas (Fenelon 90). Furthermore, women and individuals of racially oppressed backgrounds report disproportionally high service requests (Beutel and Nelson 122) and difficulties receiving tenure when compared to their white male counterparts (Few, Piercy, and Stremmel 57). Being socialized in this type of demanding and sometimes demeaning environment inevitably impacts one’s ability to teach. This is perhaps most notable when teaching in the humanities or social sciences, as issues of racism and sexism are often embedded in the curriculum; thus, teaching has the potential to become an emotional endeavor for professors who have had personal experiences with racism and sexism (Moore et al. 191).

It is important to acknowledge how an instructor’s multitude of backgrounds intersect with the material she or he teaches and creates a dynamic that fundamentally shapes students’ perceptions of the instructor and, ultimately, the instructor’s ability to connect with students and facilitate intellectual growth.

Graduate Instructors in the Academy

A number of scholars have noted that graduate instructors (GIs) make a significant contribution to undergraduate education in many departments (Lowman and Mathie 84). Chris Park argues that the GI is not merely an advanced student who teaches, but “a recognized post, with a respected...


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