WHO AM I?
Just about every college student asks themselves this question, but they don’t all get to answer it in the same way. For college students of color, who are poor, queer, trans, have a disability, or have some combination of these experiences and more, this question often sounds more like “who can I be, despite the barriers I face?” We know that students of color, who come from under-resourced schools and families, whose orientations and genders are increasingly under attack, or whose bodies don’t appear or operate in typical ways face discrimination in their everyday lives. Whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, we know that this discrimination produces barriers that show up in the classroom, even when we do our utmost to prevent its entry.
I know some of these barriers from experience. I am a professor who uses a wheelchair to get around. When appropriate, I let students know that they, too, should ask for and use the tools, resources, and services available to them to make their lives livable, whatever their circumstances. Because of my wheelchair, several of the buildings on campus are inaccessible to me, require me to use an unlabeled backdoor, or leave me waiting for elevators that sometimes make me late for class. Once I do arrive to class and apologize for my tardiness, I use these events as not just examples of what happens when infrastructure is not universally accessible, but also as opportunities to encourage my students to constructively point out where and when institutional systems are putting them at a disadvantage. For me, this is lived experience turned pedagogy.
I was also once a college student coming out as transgender without the support of family. My college faculty and mentors were vital to my survival in those days. I am now an openly trans professor, and I do what I can to let students know that my door is open if they need a mentor, even if I haven’t lived exactly their experience. I tell my students that they will always face barriers of one sort or another but my job is to support them, to dismantle barriers when I can, and to teach students to find ways around barriers when I can’t. This is my heart’s work.
IN THE CLASSROOM
I teach my students to see art as a tool for critically analyzing the socially constructed nature of race, class, gender, ability, nationality, and other forms of identity and for mitigating the impacts of identity-based oppression. For instance, students in my American Art (ART 245) are asked to illustrate, make collages of, or produce written descriptions of the people, places, and things in their own hometowns, compare what they produced to Google Earth images, and discuss what they included and excluded (consciously and unconsciously) as a way of introducing the problem of bias within visual depictions of place. Following this exercise, we compare John White’s 1585 rendering of the Algonquian village of Secotan to medieval maps of London to consider the colonial biases produced by White’s images and how those biases shaped colonial ideas about indigenous cultures in North America. Exercises like these encourage students to complicate and challenge how their experiences shape how they see the world.
In advance of our session on gay and Chinese American artist Martin Wong, I asked students in Queer Art History (ART 380) to make material self-portraits that linked multiple elements of their own identities before reading an excerpt from Sara Ahmed’s chapter “The Orient and Other Others” (2006). After completing these assignments and following our discussion of intersectional identity in Wong’s work, one student came to me and said that this was the first time she had seen her own sexual and cultural identities come together in a way that was celebrated rather than shamed. This motivated her to produce a final paper that generativity addressed how the symbolism in Martin Wong’s Chinese New Year’s Parade (1992-1994) might also speak to Wong’s experience during the AIDS epidemic.
Students in my newly developed Museum Studies Minor grapple with how these biases relate to the history of museums. Students learn that museum history is steeped in legacies of colonialism and empire, collecting and displaying objects from around the word often perpetuate cultural biases and identity-based oppression, and that a new generation of curators, artists, and visitors to museums—from local institutions like the Peoria Riverfront Museum to globally recognized collections like the Art institute of Chicago—can create new paradigms for these spaces. Students in this minor learn that they have the power to create exhibitions and collections that lift and center people whose voices, histories, and cultures have been framed as distant others to mainstream narratives of Western history or been excluded altogether for so long.
Students consistently praise my enthusiasm for the course material, the inclusivity of the objects and texts I teach, and the creativity of my methods. They also express appreciation for the detailed information about what will be expected of them through the entire semester, links to wider campus resources, and the learning guides that I included in the course syllabus because they allowed them to study more efficiently and organize their study time around other courses, work schedules, and family obligations.
I have promoted equity through administrative service and gallery programming at Bradley University. My many service roles across campus include Title IX Investigator, Bias Incident Reporting Team, and the IDEAS Team (which brings DEI oriented speakers and resources to campus) because I feel it is important to have a transgender person available on these taskforces to look for and speak to the specific, and frequently lesser known, needs of transgender students and faculty.
Upon arrival at Bradley, I also forged a partnership with the Peoria Guild of Black Artists (PGOBA) and produced two exhibitions featuring PGOBA artists and two public events with artists and scholars of art history and the African diaspora that addressed histories Black artist communities locally, regionally, throughout the US, and internationally. This discussion provided an important moment for audiences to hear from local Black artists about the importance of Black representation and storytelling in building a sustainable and rich arts community on Bradley’s campus and within Peoria.
IN THE COMMUNITY
My work with PGOBA at Bradley led to an invitation to join the board of directors for the organization. I have since been working in an advisory capacity, editing grant proposals, and helping to build a national network of Guilds of Black Artists in whatever capacity I am asked. I have also recently been working with the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Bradley to create an LGBTQ+ hub on Bradley’s campus that fosters stronger communication between coordinators of existing programming and resources on campus as well as building connections to the newly established LGBTQ+ Center in Peoria and other LGBTQ+ organizations in the area to make Peoria a hub for LGBTQ+ people currently fleeing legislative violence in other states around the country.
IN MY RESEARCH
In a predominantly sighted society, identity tends to describe how one sees oneself and how one is seen by others. Visual art not only records and produces those identities, but it also pictures hierarchies of power between them. My research investigates how marginalized identities—especially those of transgender and disabled people—have been made to appear (or disappear) in Western art. Art history that follows binary logics of male/female and able/disabled have made many of these figures difficult to see. Thus, I rely heavily on interdisciplinary methods of transgender, intersex, and disability studies to generate greater nuance within discussions of sex, gender, and ability in art history. My specific focus on transgender and disability history in art is rooted in my lived experience of gender transition and disability. However, I am also invested in using interdisciplinary research to center objects that constitute an array of racial and class-based identities that have been rendered invisible by traditional art historical methodologies. After all, no identity can be fully understood through visual information alone.