‘Where Do You Know From?’: An Exercise in Placing Ourselves Together in the Classroom

by: , January 14, 2020

© Photo by Alexis Brown

Introduction

I developed the following exercise in the summer of 2018 for a particular graduate seminar I was assigned to teach for the first time that fall: ‘Foundations in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory’, a mandatory core seminar for students in McMaster University’s Cultural Studies and Critical Theory (CSCT) MA program. Since then, I have shared the exercise informally online and heard from numerous instructors that it facilitated helpful and illuminating introductory conversations in their courses as well. As the exercise seeks new readers and practitioners through this publication in MAI, I thought it would be appropriate to offer a slightly fuller account of where this document itself ‘knows from’. I frame the exercise this way not simply to fill out the story of my putting it together, but also to illustrate the importance of attending conscientiously to the ways we relate to one another in the classroom as part of our pedagogical and political responsibilities as instructors. Finally, and most importantly, I wish to acknowledge the vital intellectual work being done in the fields of Black studies and Indigenous studies, particularly by feminists and 2SLGBTQ+ thinkers in those fields, without whose labours I would not have known how crucial it is to make the university classroom a space that overtly and persistently recognises multiple ways of knowing and sites of learning if we intend to use it as a site to counter histories of misogyny, heteronormativity, racism, classism, and colonialism. I am especially indebted to Katherine McKittrick, whose words are central to the learning I narrate here, and whose work on Black feminist citation practices—which she shared in a talk here at McMaster in fall of 2018—has helped me continue to think about the work of accounting (for) where we know from.

As I mention in the exercise, the idea initially came to me during a panel discussion at a one-day Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students held at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in early 2018, which I attended as a member of the audience. One of the broad recommendations reiterated throughout the day was that settler scholars give serious thought to the ways in which even the most seemingly mundane academic structures and conventions can reproduce colonialist hierarchies of power and alienate Indigenous students in ways that make the university a place in which they cannot learn—a place that is hostile to their learning because it disregards their ways of knowing and being. Minelle Mahtani, discussing her strategies for more inclusive classroom introductions, described how McKittrick taught her to replace the question ‘Where are you from?’ with ‘Where do you know from?’ or ‘Where do you learn from?’ This suggestion struck me powerfully. As a mixed-race person of Chinese, Polish, and Italian descent, I have been subjected my entire life to the question ‘Where are you from?’ This is a question that people tend to ask in a vein of earnest curiosity, without malice, but that nevertheless articulates particular histories of anti-immigrant xenophobia, anti-Asian racism, and the fraught status of mixed-race people in a racist society, histories that land on me each time regardless of the inquisitor’s intentions. And yet I had defaulted to also being one of these inquisitors, asking ‘Where are you from?’ as a way of making my way through first-day introductions, because that’s how I learned to do it. Sitting in the Summit, I also reflected on the perfunctory quality of those round-the-room exercises, and how I always tended to rush through them because I was eager to get to the ‘learning’ part of the class meeting. Another academic convention I had learned along the way was to separate the question of who we are from the question of what we know and what we are here to learn. Not to declare identity irrelevant to knowledge—I had learned enough from feminism and ethnic studies not to fall entirely into that fallacy—but, still, to hold those stories I might have described as ‘personal’ at bay in order to privilege ideas that lent themselves to the course I had designed. In fact, as I reflected on this habit of mine, I became aware of the anxiety in it. I actually love meeting people and hearing their stories, but as a woman scholar of colour I was determined to demonstrate professional rigour in the classroom and not give students any leeway to doubt my intellectual authority.

Academic intellectual authority—what we think it looks, sounds, and feels like; where we think it comes from—is precisely the problem, the structure that perpetuates imperialism in our spaces of learning and intellectual engagement. In writing up this exercise, I attempted to craft a document that insisted on the real, unquestionable presence of knowledge and intellectual agency in every person in the room, but allowed space for individuals to identify themselves as intellectual subjects in whatever terms they wished. In lieu of my past habit of tacitly and carelessly indicating to them what kinds of knowing are relevant in the classroom, I use this exercise to give my students the opportunity to tell me and each other what kinds of knowing are present, so we are in a position to learn from one another.

***

The following text is the handout I distribute to my seminar students on the first day of class. I invite them to take 5–10 minutes to read through it and reflect on the prompts, and then to spend the next 10 minutes introducing themselves to the person sitting next to them at the table in terms of ‘where they know from’. We then go around the table and introduce ourselves to the entire group. I do not ask them to submit anything in writing, though some students write notes for themselves. I emphasize that they are not obligated to answer all of the questions, or to ‘cover’ any information in particular; that there are no right or wrong answers and that there is no mark attached to this exercise. We usually take a full hour (of a three-hour class) to complete the introductions.

Where Do You Know From?: A Guide to Personal Introductions in the Seminar Room

At the Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students held at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in February 2018, Dr. Minelle Mahtani, citing Dr. Katherine McKittrick, proposed replacing the typical ‘icebreaker’ question ‘Where are you from?’ with the question ‘Where do you know from?’ As someone who has been asked where I ‘am from’ more times than I could possibly count, I know from experience how inadequate that framework is for situating me as a participant in intellectual communities. The question of how I would trace the genealogy of my knowledge and my intellectual commitments strikes me as a more effective way of placing myself in the room, in the group, and in the conversation.

This document offers some guiding questions for considering how your knowledge is situated, and for introducing ourselves at the beginning of a discussion-based course in ways that help us come to recognise each other as interlocutors. Please note that these questions are meant only as prompts to help you craft an introduction. This is not a test, and you are not obligated to answer all questions, or any questions in particular. I ask only that you consider what you want to tell others in the room, and not prioritise what you think others want or expect from you.

  1. What is your name? What would you like us to call you?
  2. Which pronouns would you like us to use in reference to you? For some people, the question of pronouns is a recurring one; others may be unaccustomed to thinking about it with regard to themselves. Either way, I encourage everyone to sit with this question, and to answer however you wish, which may be not at all.
  3. What are your intellectual interests? What do you think about a lot? What have you learned about, and what would you like to learn more about? Do you have a particular research topic you are working on now? Are you involved in personal, family, or community work that has immersed you in certain ideas and questions? Have you read or watched or heard something lately that has lodged itself in your thoughts? We recognise the myriad ways that thinking is inspired and sustained as equally ‘intellectual’ in status.
  4. How did your interests come to you? Intellectual preoccupations come from a variety of paths. Given only a few minutes, how would you narrate what brought you to your ideas, or your ideas to you? Was it something you read, witnessed, confronted? Was it something someone taught you, in a class or not in a class? Was it somewhere you lived or went, someone you met or knew, something you laboured at, something you enjoyed? To whom, or what, are your ideas indebted? Tell us one of the many potential stories of where your knowledge and research questions come from.
  5. What is your intellectual work for? This is a question both about your motivations for enrolling in this degree program and taking this course, and about your broader commitments as a thinker, researcher, and member of intellectual communities. What are you hoping to accomplish in the course of completing your degree? What are you hoping to learn and practice in this class in particular? What do you want to do with the knowledge you cultivate here?
  6. What else would you like us to remember and recognise about you when we engage in conversation with you? Is there anything you haven’t yet mentioned, or that you have but would like to emphasise, that you would like people to recognise in or about you when they engage you and your ideas in conversation?

Especially because this is an interdisciplinary degree program, it is important that we recognise that we bring different experiences and different sets of learning into the classroom. Coming to know each other will be an ongoing process, of course, but we will take the time in our initial meeting to hear how each member of the class invites us to address them, and to listen to the various kinds of knowledge, curiosity, and objectives that the group has brought to the table. This diversity will give shape to the intellectual work we pursue collectively over the course of the semester.

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the organisers of the OISE Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students (Toronto, 2018) for hosting the conversation that spurred me to think about my pedagogical practice along these lines, especially Eve Tuck, who asked us to think specifically about how we would carry what we learned that day forward in our practice; to Katherine McKittrick and Minelle Mahtani for sharing the idea that prompted this exercise; and to Sadie Graham and Grace Lavery for their suggestions about phrasing, which I have incorporated in this version.

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