The Teacher as Campus Change Agent
By Rick Olguin
When I first started graduate school I wanted to be a college teacher. I wanted to develop curricula; I wanted to have coffee hours with students about great books; I wanted to advise Chicano student organizations. I viewed these commitments as part of my generation's hazy, intermittant desire to make social change. A child of the sixties, I viewed the academy as an important locus of social struggle.
Then I went to Stanford for a Ph.D. I received a fine professional training at Stanford and obtained a position in a major public research institution. I'm glad for both experiences, even though neither Stanford nor the university for which I first worked were particularly fond of my motives, nor supportive of my activities. At both institutions I was trained to become, and expected to be, a researcher in ethnic studies.
Now don't misunderstand me. I respect research. Without it, I could teach only unsubstantiated opinions. I even enjoy archival research as an activity. But I have come to realize that a full-time career as a published researcher and a full-time vocation as a college educator are difficult to reconcile in the current climate. This is especially true if one is committed to effectively educating a truly diverse cohort of students. I could not, by myself, conjoin these two activities successfully. Push finally came to shove at the university where I worked over student demands for an ethnic studies requirement. As a faculty member, students found me accessible. They came to me for advice, guidance, and support. I gladly gave it, and am intellectually richer for the experience. But as I said, push came to shove and I am no longer at that public research university.
What I've learned from that time in my life is fairly simple. First, it is best to be at an institution that shares one's major values. What I can do in my class, let alone to change society, is constrained by the behaviors prevalent in the institution as a whole. Second, the process of changing an institution to be more like what I'd like it to be requires collective action. Students and junior faculty cannot by themselves make institutional change happen: We need to work with senior faculty, staff, administrators, and outside actors. Third, the process of change is always political.
I have also learned something about the relationship between what I teach and how I see my vocation as a college teacher. I teach about unions, civil rights movements, protest organizations, and other political phenomena. The lessons of these groups are no longer something I simply try to impart to students. I am much more conscious about applying the political lessons embedded in my syllabi to my work as a tenured faculty and recognized leader in my college.
So now I am much closer to what I set out to be: a college teacher. But in order to be an effective teacher, at a community college with a very diverse student body, I've had to become much more.
I'm an active committee member. I pay attention to what administrators say and do. I actively reach out to those constituencies external to my college which support my values and vision.
As a consultant to other colleges working on issues of diversity, I have learned that in order for committed teachers--who may also be effective and influential researchers--to help change institutions so they can effectivelyeducate increasingly diverse student bodies, they must look beyond the confines of their own classroom walls. They must be much more conscious of the ways in which their work as teachers fits into the larger structures and missions of their institutions.
The divisions of labor in higher education--those that so firmly divide teachers from researchers from student affairs specialists--must be broken down. Only then will we be able to create communities where diverse groups of people can learn and grow together.