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Dear Kasama:

I feel bad that I spent the better part of our reunion railing about white liberal feminists and other scholars who frustrate the hell out of me. And that when you asked what it was about their work that bothered me, and what was I was looking for from them, I could not muster a coherent response.

So after a few days of thinking about your questions, this is what I’ve come up with.

Some specific things that bother me include:

  • that many Asian and Southeast Asian Studies departments are organized along Area Studies lines, focusing on regional security and economic development.
  • that my university’s department is still predominantly composed of white males, something that seems true of most Asian studies departments, based on conference attendance.
  • that readings lists in introductory classes are largely organized around the works of white scholars. Works by “natives” like Reynaldo Ileto get relegated to optional or recommended reading, much in the same way many Intro to Women’s Studies classes tokenize Audre Lorde and bell hooks.

My issue is not that these scholars and activists are assholes.  It’s that Western schools of thought on history and development studies (or worse, “Oriental Studies”) have an extremely poor track record of interpellating their former colonies. And our narratives still end up shoring their legacies of liberalism, neoliberalism, and colonialism.

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My first full-time teaching job was as a sociology instructor at Career U. Unlike other career schools, this one actually gave me freedom to design my own Intro to Sociology courses—certainly not the norm at most career schools. I met some pretty cool students in those classes, and we did good work. My job helped to promote critical thinking among the students.

Hooray for me!

So this week’s class reading, Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Teaching for the Times,” was quite jarring. In this essay, Spivak writes:

Proctor and Gamble, a large U.S. multinational corporation, sends students specializing in business administration abroad to learn language and culture. Already in 1990, the National Governors’ Association report queried: “How are we to sell our products in a global economy when we are yet to learn the language of the customers” . . . We are caught in a larger struggle where one side devises newer ways to exploit transnationality through a distorting culturalism and the other knows rather what transnational script drives, writes, and operates it. [emphasis hers]

I’ve been reflecting on my role in this transnational script, on how the classes I taught over those past three years at Career U were actually in service of this “distorting culturalism.” How many students eventually went on to use their knowledge in service of the various Proctor and Gambles?

Towards making globalization palatable to people in the Third World, the very people who would also be made to shoulder the resulting devastation?

* * *

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Iskolar

When I was young(er), I wanted to grow up to be Jamie Robinson. When that proved difficult, my ambition changed to something slightly less fanciful—transnational feminist scholar activist.

No, I didn’t use that term until years later, when I needed to name it for the grad school application. And now, it’s the end of the year, and I’m in a reflective mood. Transnational feminist scholar activist? It sounded good enough to get me back into school, but I’m struggling to get my bearings.

From Servetus via Professor Zero, being a scholar:

* is about having a question or questions you need to answer. Not want, need to answer. For you or for the world. Not for your tenure committee or to fill out your vita. To inform the world. To change the world. To find the truth. Your truth, whether continent or eternal.

* is about watchfulness, about seeing the detail that changes the meaning of the picture.

* is about seeing the big picture. Your big picture, no one else’s.

* is about telling people who need to know. They might not be the people who “matter,” but they still need to know.

* is about integrity, about craft, about fashioning a perfect thing.

* is about joy, about the delight in watching the mind work, about delight in watching the minds of our interlocutors work, about delight in the process of seeing students’ synapses–or our own–connect and lightbulbs go on.

* is about power. Power to determine what is real, what is important. Power to tell our OWN stories as we see fit.

I’ve been thinking about this for the past week, especially in the context of combining teaching and research here in the US when my heart is with Filipina women back home. I’ve been thinking of all this in light of the growing corporatization of the University of the Philippines, my alma mater—a corporatization that, despite key challenges, many others are uncritically welcoming.

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The discussions on feminism and capitalism have been intense and somewhat discouraging (if you’re following the feminist blogs, you know where to look). So I need good news, and am thankful for this.

I shared a letter earlier this week from a young Filipina teacher who was teaching music theory and guitar performance to students from a lower-income community in the Philippines. Just a small problem, they could not afford guitars.

Problem solved. People responded to her internet plea (unlike the company that promised to donate instruments. hmph). The students have their guitars! Maybe there’s hope for all of us.

Did you see the students’ faces? I could almost hear the beautiful music.

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This is for readers in the Philippines. Or maybe you’re not in the Philippines but can think of a way to help. Excerpts from a letter from a young teacher and community activist:

Dear Readers,

I am currently teaching a guitar class at the U.P College of music as part of my thesis. My students are members of the Gawad Kalinga Project Laura in Commonwealth, an underprivileged community. I have 11 students in one class, their ages range from 6 to 57 years old. Quite the challenge I know. But the bigger challenge is, not a single one of them owns a guitar.

We hold our classes 2 hours a day, once a week. The first part would be for music theory, the second part would be it’s application on the instrument, which we do by taking turns and passing around my guitar. We’ve been doing this for 7 weeks now since we started last July 3.

We sent out a letter as early as June 19, 2008 to an identified sponsor, requesting their company to lend us guitars. We promised to take care of them and return them after our classes were done. It took weeks before they actually responded. They mentioned they will “release funds” and they will send us 8 guitars, (tsss.. 11 nga yung studyante ko eh, grr..) but they didn’t give us an exact date. Maghintay lang daw kami, my adviser said.

So that’s what we’ve been doing, waiting. The first few weeks, I thought it would be okay to do without the guitar because I’d be introducing the elements of music. But now that we’ve reached our 7th week, with still no sign of the guitars. . .

My students are good students. They are very receptive to the musical concepts I’ve been teaching them. But shempre lahat naman ng klase ng learning hindi complete unless you are able to apply it.

Last Thursday I felt as if someone ran a knife across my chest. when one of my students said she’s been practicing the strumming and chord positions at home. I asked if she knows someone with a guitar, and she said “nag-drawing lang po kame sa papel mam.” [“I just drew the frets on paper, mam](argh! I felt so bad)

But I had to be optimistic for them so I said, “That’s good! Natutuwa ako at nakakahanap kayo ng iba’t-ibang paraan para matuto, hayaan niyo dadating na yung gitara niyo, antay lang tayo.” [I’m happy that you are finding different ways to learn. Just wait, the guitars will come.] I say that every meeting, and I don’t think I can keep showing up empty-handed. . .

So this is where I am humbly asking your help. I need to borrow 8 nylon-stringed guitars from anyone willing to help–anyone with a big heart and ready to receive lots of good karma from the universe. Out of the 11 students 3 of them are already covered so I only need 8 more. Please, it’s for a very good cause. Don’t worry, I assure you, they are good people and they will take care of your guitars. I would make sure that each one of your guitars will be returned to you unharmed by Sept. 30, or even earlier, as soon as my students get their guitars from our sponsor.

The main objective of my thesis is to help their community by uplifting their self-esteem and instill confidence in them through music and performance. Because learning and performing music provides opportunities for students to let down their inhibitions and be able to express themselves freely.

By helping them realize their musical potential and perform together as a group, they would develop a sense of unity, foster cooperative spirit and strengthen their relationship as a community.

With your help, they could very much achieve this and so much more. Please. . .

Sincerely, Thea Tolentino

Maybe you have a nylon string lying around that you can share for a few weeks? E-mail me directly and I can send you Thea’s info.

Building community through music. Sounds like a beautiful project.

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About a year ago, a heated exchange broke out between two of my students. This was a community college, where most of the attendees were first-generation college students. The discussion topic touched on career goals, and a shy nursing student, I’ll call her Cam, spoke for the first time.

Cam did not really want to be in nursing. She was the eldest of several children, and her Cambodian American family came to the US as refugees in the 1970s. Nursing was a guaranteed money-earner, and she needed to help support her large extended family. But what she really wanted was to be a fashion designer. (This was the year Chloe Dao won Project Runway.)

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