Keywords in the Classroom

I loved college. For most of my life before college, I stood out as a person who was overly prepared for class, too engaged and persistently asking the teachers “why?” “why?” “why?” I went to Catholic school my whole life. I say this because half of the time the answer to my question “why” was “Because that’s what we believe” or “Because that’s the way things are supposed to be.” Neither of these answers satisfied me. I became a fiercely independent thinker. It is why I loved college so much. In the humanities classes I was drawn to, I learned that the most important issues of the day — from reproductive justice to LGBTQ rights to racial equity to freedom of speech — had rich, complicated histories.

I found a home in the campus women’s center and the LGBTQ center. In those spaces, I learned from women and queer people of color about racism as an individual experience and a structural force. I found my lifelong friends who continue to support and challenge me to this day. I also found a home in the history department, with faculty who would “out-why” me at my “why” game. There was often a synergy between my activism and coursework that pushed me to do better or to be more thoughtful about both. In campus activism, I was compelled by my personal experiences and vision for a more just world. There was an urgency and an intimacy to this work, which led many of us to put it ahead of coursework. “The reading can wait!” we told ourselves.

While activism kept me engaged with college, my coursework deepened and grounded my politics. I learned about the complex history of the United States, including the anti-war, civil rights, women’s and LGBTQ rights movements. I read extensively on the history of race and racism in America and wrote papers on the strategies and conflicts within these movements. This research gave me the opportunity to explore — from a distance — questions that lingered from my own activism about strategy, alliances and hierarchies of oppression. I took risks in these research papers, arguing things that would have been unpopular in other circles. I believed it was my duty to learn about and think things through for myself rather than adopting a view that someone said was correct because I fought so hard as a child to maintain independence of thought in the face of Catholicism. I maintain it today, even if it sometimes puts me at odds with communities or groups with whom I generally agree.

I write this to invite Amherst students to see the opportunities available in the classroom to deepen your engagement with the history of social change movements and categories of identity and difference. There is a powerful synergy between the life of the mind and the work of those seeking to end injustice. My own research aims to understand the historic roots of mass incarceration in the creation of the penitentiary system. I examine how categories and concepts of difference were defined and leveraged to justify the human rights of some and the oppression of others. I am now writing a book on the history of transgender people, expressions and representations from the mid-18th to the early 20th century. Each of the many terms pertaining to gender and sexuality in the Common Language Document (CLD) has a rich and contentious history. I hope the conversations that the CLD has ignited are just beginnings of serious inquiry, reflection and study on the many important terms raised within. Courses and the faculty who teach them are an amazing resource for everyone, regardless of your identity or view point, to deeply and critically study the most important concepts that mark our lives and our histories.