Spanning and Unsettling the Borders of Higher Education

Written by ASHE 2021 President D-L Stewart

In 2006, ASHE President Dra. Estela Mara Bensimon offered the conference theme, “Borderlands/lines in Higher Education.” In 2021, I find myself also captivated and unsettled by thoughts of borders in higher education--how they are both solid and porous, as well as how they operate to marginalize, exclude, and delude the adherents of the liberatory possibilities of higher education. 
Today’s ASHE must become ready to span its borders of containment. In a paper presented by Dr. Kaiwipuni Lipe and Kawehi Goto during the 2020 conference, they discussed ‘ohana, a Native Hawaiian version of family that functions to “expand and cross the boundaries of campus and community.” What might we learn from thinking of our scholarship as spanning and unsettling ideas of the campus and community as separated by borders? 
We must also reckon with our location in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Considering the role of settler colonialism and African enslavement in Puerto Rico, I am prompted to engage what Saidiya Hartman (2007) has named the “afterlife” of these axes of subjection. Puerto Rico inhabits a particular space where colonization, nationalism, and perpetual foreignness and exoticism flourish. At once part of the United States and thus subjected to it—1,000 miles from Miami, Florida—it is yet situated as far out, “an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.” The juxtaposition of these multiple relationalities of belongingness and alienation with regard to Puerto Rico begs an intentional “place-consciousness” and “place-based sensibilities,” as enunciated by John Garland, Charlotte Davidson, and Melvin Monette-Barajas, that center geographic place as well as virtual and conceptual space.
With this in mind, we situate ourselves as relations 1) to honor the land resisting anthropocentric narratives and assumptions; 2) to recognize the place(s) and space(s) higher education institutions occupy among their local communities; and, 3) to engage in spanning the boundaries of the multiple places and spaces in which higher education and its participants exist and function. In this moment, we center scholars as teachers who craft narratives of place(s) and space(s) through posted and hidden curricula; scholars as learners who participate in place(s) and space(s) that engage with such narratives; and, scholars as communities who certify and resist certain place(s) and space(s). 
We must situate our work as specifically place-based, discussed by Davidson-Hunt & O’Flaherty (2007), in spaces where our institutions sit as heirs and beneficiaries of the extractive industries of settler colonialism and white supremacy. It is to question our research as places of “consent” and spaces to “recognize” the experiences, labors, and identities of the communities we engage in the research enterprise, thinking of Simpson (2017). A place-conscious framework also extends to the ways that white normativity, misogyny, and misogynoir take up physical and virtual space, bucking against what Brittney Cooper called the “place-taking” of decolonial, BIPOC-affirming, as well as queer- and trans-affirming community building and organizing work. 
Place-consciousness invites consideration of what Simpson (2017) and Galvez and Muñoz (2020) discuss as participants’ “refusals” of our recognition, consent, and “protection” might mean for reconceiving our scholarship as a place and space for what Crawley (2015) called an “otherwise movement.” This is a critical relation(ship) that seeks not to own or plant flags in the intellectual, experiential, and affective knowledges of participant communities. Rather, we would seek to enter into right relationship (à la Smith, 2012) with their foundational praxes. 
Finally, considering la paperson (2017), seeing the university as a world-making enterprise enables considerations of its past and current projects, its sustainability, and its futurity. Further extending la paperson, I invite us to engage with the critical consciousness (one might say the “wokeness”) of ethnic, gender, and queer studies as the grounding philosophies and epistemologies directing a scavenger hunt within the dominant normativity of the first-world university. The result of this scavenger hunt may be the tools with which to surreptitiously decolonize the university and produce an organizationally just association. 
Crawley, A. (2015, January 19). Otherwise movements. The New Inquiry.  
Davidson-Hunt, I. J., & O’Flaherty, R. M. (2007). Researchers, Indigenous peoples, and place-based learning communities. Society and Natural Resources, 20(4), 291-305. DOI:
Galvez, E., & Muñoz, S. M. (2020). (Re)Imagining anti-colonial notions of ethics in research and practice. Journal of College Student Development, 61(6), 781-796. DOI: 
Hartman, S. (2007). Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 
la paperson. (2017). A third university is possible. University of Minnesota Press. 
Simpson, A. (2017). The ruse of consent and the anatomy of “refusal”: Cases from Indigenous North American and Australia. Postcolonial Studies, 20(1): 18-33. DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2017.1334283 
Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples (2nd ed.). ZED Books.