Lessons of the Body
By Imagining America | September 14, 2016
By Christofer Rodelo, a Ph.D. student in American Studies at Harvard University and a 2016–2017 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 6-8, 2016, in Milwaukee, WI.
As a scholar of performance and culture, I am deeply invested in the body– its enactments, movements, rhythms—as an agent of political and social change. Upon arriving to Harvard, I quickly realized how its decentralized nature kept scholars of race and ethnicity largely isolated from each other. We were the few, or maybe the only ones in our respective departments asking these questions, and there was no established space for us to be together. Within a month, I co-founded the first Harvard Race and Ethnicity working group, bringing together over 40 graduate students from across the university to discuss our research interests and voice frustrations with the institution. Our main goal: to know each other, to visualize our collective presence at Harvard if we ever want to change the academy. At our first meeting, we filled the room to capacity, a variety of students unmistakably present.
It took me a while to recognize the importance of the body. When I first went to college, I never felt more uncomfortable with my skin. Everywhere I looked, people looked different. They walked with a brisk pace, wore expensive-looking clothing, and raised their hands effortlessly during classroom discussion. As a first-generation, low-income queer Latinx, I felt mismatched with Yale’s picturesque landscape. It was only until I noticed the other students who, like me, sat in the courtyards calling home in Spanish, and put too much hot sauce on dining hall food, did I feel at home. Our physical presence, I realized, opened up new worlds.
We eventually found each other, in cultural centers, off-campus houses, and late-night dance parties. In these gatherings, I observed how my classmates moved. Much like the performances I study, their bodies, when coming together, reworked racialized and gendered assumptions of their significance. Their bodies archived where they came from and moved towards what they hoped to achieve, actions that inspire my investment in community-driven pedagogy.
As I have developed into an educator and mentor, the body continues to be a crucial part of my work. For the past two summers, I facilitated a summer transitions retreat for incoming college students through PAYS, or the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success. A program for getting first-gen, low-income students of color into top colleges and universities, PAYS offers the retreat as its final piece of programming. During this week-long event, I led workshops on topics ranging from financial literary, academic success, mental and physical wellness, and community building. Throughout these sessions, I emphasized self-recognition of the value of our bodies on campus, that we simply existing in these elite spaces made them more inclusive. Appreciating and mobilizing the diversity of our bodies within the academy is a crucial tenant of my teaching philosophy.
Standing in front of the group at Harvard, I thought about these experiences, about bodies that did not belong but were still adamantly present. “This,” I told them, “is what it’s all about. We need to be with each other. See each other. Our presence makes transformation happen.” I see my future role as as a queer, first-gen Latinx professor and educator an an embodied one, using my experiences as a platform to create inclusive classroom spaces. I strive to make visible the racial and queer subjects of my work in academic discourse. I want my future students to be comfortable with themselves sooner than it took me, to appreciate the power they enact as they move through space and time. These “lessons of the body” undergird my practice as a scholar and teacher, guiding my gestures towards more diverse institutions of higher learning.