Telling a Different Story
For New York State's professor of the year, education is about finding a voice and making it heard
By Donald Challenger
She calls it catching fire. It's that instant when a student makes the connection between lived life and that once-alien world in books, the world of the mind. A moment of focus, the right teacher, the right text, and a spark leaps the gap. Everything is somehow different; there is no going back.
Vivyan Adair is proud of how many of her students catch fire -- sometimes, it seems, entire classes at once, sucking the oxygen from the room with the sheer burning force of their collective need to know. It is why she teaches. "Education is such a powerful, powerful experience," she says. "It changes lives." She understands that. It changed hers.
As the Elihu Root Peace Fund Associate Professor of Women's Studies and the 2004 New York State Professor of the Year -- honored in November by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) -- Adair is a natural draw on campus, a magnet for even the uninitiated. On this frigid January day, the opening session of her Introduction to Women's Studies course is standing room only. At least half a dozen students tell the group they are there at the urging of a friend or roommate but know little about women's studies.
That's OK, Adair assures them. Psychology major? Government? Anthropology? They're going to make connections that they can carry back to their own interests and disciplines. Unsure about a major? She tells the story of a former student who ended up concentrating in women's studies and then went, of all places, to Wall Street -- where he recently landed an account with the National Organization for Women.
When Adair passes out the course syllabus, though, several students peel away to slip quietly out the door. And no wonder. It's a formidable blueprint for a 100-level course, seven pages of rigorous reading and writing assignments: Who writes history? Who defines work? Are gender and sexuality biological or cultural? How is gender commodified? Four major papers, two exams, weekly assignments, full commitment. Adair pulls no punches as she describes what is to come.
"The course is not easy, because it requires that you be very fluid as we move among law and literature, politics and economics and psychology," she tells the class. "We won't just be examining a single topic from a neutral point of view. You're being asked to shift your center - to reconceive the way things work." A few bodies stir, and another student makes a furtive exit as Adair begins to lead the class from the land of received, comfortable wisdom to a new and more demanding place -- a place where, she believes, they will catch fire.
"Women's studies is a misnomer -- it's not exclusively about women," she says. "When we talk about gender, we are talking about what is masculine as well as what is feminine. In fact, we are going to look at all such codes -- including class and race and age -- and examine the way they are constructed."
The challenge delivered, Adair smiles, and her musical voice turns playful. "If this doesn't make complete sense at this point, that's good. Do you know the five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talks about? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance? Well, I was reading about those not long ago" -- she pauses for a beat, with a comedian's sense of timing -- "and I realized that people in this course go through exactly the same thing." A contagion of relieved laughter ripples through the room.
"You're part of a community"
In little more than an hour's time, Adair outlines the course, introduces a host of new concepts, prepares the class for some healthy disorientation, hears individually from every student, and forges a sense of belonging. "Your own experience is a text crucial to this course," she tells the class. "You don't have to agree with everything we read. I don't. But it's crucial that you're here as part of a community -- not just in attendance, but participating."
It is a remarkable performance, one that suggests how high Hamilton faculty members set the bar for themselves as a group. Adair is the third Hamilton professor in seven years to be honored by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE, a standard matched by only 23 other campuses in the nation. Professor of Chinese Hong Gang Jin was the National Baccalaureate Professor of the Year in 1998, and Barbara Tewksbury, the William R. Kenan Professor of Geology, was the New York Professor of the Year in 1997. Adair sees that standard as the rule rather than the exception.
"I think that's why students come to Hamilton," Adair says in an interview. "To make that connection with teachers and knowledge and each other -- not to sit in a room with 900 other students taking a test."
Tiffany Titus '06 agrees such connections are crucial, but she notes that Adair also has a special ability to simultaneously nurture and pressure. "She makes it so easy, but she challenges you at the same time to go beyond yourself and what you know," Titus says. She took Adair's Seminar on Theory and Politics in Education as a sophomore; now she's on board for Feminist Perspectives on Class. A women's studies major and education minor, she's particularly interested in how gender and class issues shape knowledge and play out in classrooms.
"She's a very powerful teacher. She really appeals to your passion," Titus says of Adair. "She had me from the start."
When students mention Adair, the same words tend to turn up over and over: passion and compassion, commitment, engagement, respect. But classroom dialogue doesn't achieve such lofty ends by magic, especially when the topics are gender, class and race -- all minefields of taboo and bias. Adair the nurturer must also be Adair the authority.
David Paris '71, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, recalls heated student exchanges in a recent Sophomore Seminar he team-taught with Adair. Rather than pitching platitudes or detouring around raw topics, she pushed through them by linking students' personal feelings to larger cultural and political patterns. "Her rules for classroom discussion seem to me to be a model of how to make students more self-conscious about class participation and, more important, how to disagree in respectful and productive ways," Paris says.
Adair believes her attitude sets a tone. "When I come into class, I'm excited, I've done the reading, and we're going to elevate the conversation," she says. We cannot veer off into the personal unless the personal is used to explain what we're doing. I tell students that I will always be respectful of anything they say as long as they come to the table with commitment, sincerity and having done the work. But you can never mock or ridicule or close down the conversation."
Adair also routinely warns students about a couple of other breaches of protocol. "Silence and stares offend me personally. Say anything you want, but say something," she says. And then there's the hat thing.
"That sort of Hamilton cool where students sit back and have their caps down over their eyes? That just cannot happen in my class." She laughs, but the laugh has an edge. "I will go lift up those caps and have them stand up and tell me what they're thinking."
Excellence beyond ACCESS
Adair is best known for her work as director of the ACCESS Project, an innovative welfare-to-work program for nontraditional students that she founded in 1999. Unlike programs that emphasize bare-bones vocational training, ACCESS has provided scores of low-income students with a broad, intensive liberal arts education coupled with student jobs, child care and other crucial support services. Paris sees ACCESS as the kind of bridge between theory and practice at which Adair, as a "true public intellectual," is adroit: "It is both a test of a hypothesis about the transition from welfare to work as well as an attempt to promote real social reform."
Adair herself grew up in poverty and was reliant upon welfare's safety net when she entered college as a single mother. She is an impassioned advocate for the overhaul of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which she says curtailed such opportunities in the name of a "work first" imperative that moved low-income adults from welfare rolls to low-paying jobs but did little to help them climb past the poverty line.
"Everyone is looking for cheap labor, taking advantage of you," says Emin Hodzic '04, who entered the ACCESS Project several years after coming to Upstate New York as a refugee from his native Bosnia. "Only a person who has suffered as [Professor Adair] has can identify with the problems that people in the program face." Simultaneously studying, learning English and working to provide for a wife and son, Hodzic graduated with a degree in chemistry and is now in medical school at Nova University in Florida. Although he took only one course with Adair, he credits her with much of his transformation. "She listened," he says. "It was the first time someone had really listened to me. I owe her so much."
Between ACCESS and activism, though, what can go unremarked -- even among Adair's most ardent supporters -- is the heft of her scholarship and the dynamism of her teaching in the traditional classroom. Since 2000 she has authored one book, From Good Ma to Welfare Queen, that traces the evolution of representations of poor women in American arts and culture, and co-edited a second, Reclaiming Class, that explores and documents the obstacles and opportunities poor women encounter in higher education. Both earned enthusiastic responses; reviewer Carolyn Law lauded Reclaiming Class as "a moving demonstration of the best kind of social justice scholarship." A third book, Epistemologies of Poverty, is in progress; a fourth, on the ACCESS Project, is taking shape. Over the same period, Adair has published 18 book chapters and articles, including several in such high-profile journals as Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Harvard Educational Review, Feminist Studies and History of Labor Studies.
Along the way, Adair got up from the word processor long enough to win the College's John R. Hatch Class of 1925 Excellence in Teaching Award in 2000, after just her second year at Hamilton.
The secret of her productivity? "I have no life," she laughs. "But of course, I have the richest life in the world. There are absolutely no borders for me between my life as a human being and my life as a writer, researcher, teacher. So the fact is, I never take a break. I'm in such a privileged position, and I love what I do. My work is my oxygen."
The power of the text
Much of Adair's scholarly work and teaching build on the critical theory she studied a decade ago at the University of Washington. It is complex, demanding territory staked out by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, refashioned by European feminist critics such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, and more recently given a firmer grounding in multicultural studies by Satya Mohanty of Cornell University. This rarified realm of concepts such as alterity, the Other, différence and Mohanty's post-positivist realism might be thought of as a sort of meta-skepticism, building on Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger to challenge what we know and how we think we know it.
Adair affectionately describes much of the language of critical theory as "garbledy-goop." The mindbending stuff of graduate seminars and dissertations, it is not known for its handy utilitarian value in the undergraduate classroom.
For one thing, much of it is counter-intuitive. Surface meaning -- what a page purports to say -- is so much lipstick. Deeper meanings tend to disguise themselves as "silence" or "absence," and meaning itself is much more slippery than the dictionary would have you believe. Confusing as it is, though, we can't escape this maze of language. In Derrida's phrase, "There is nothing outside the text." Power and ideology, likewise, aren't just headquartered in Washington or Baghdad or Buttrick Hall; they also pulse along cultural isobars that shape and mark our own bodies as well as our thoughts.
So far, so theoretical. Even many proponents of such concepts have wondered aloud about their practical applications.
Not Adair. Once the garbledy-goop is burned away, she sees critical theory not as academic chitchat but as a perfect operator's manual for students, especially for poor women whose usual role in the civic conversation is one of silence and invisibility.
"At a very practical level, they come to understand that texts are sites of contestation," places where different viewpoints compete, she says. "So that in the real, material world, when they face ideologies or rhetoric that would frame or manipulate them in a certain way, they learn that they can push back." If everything is a text -- not just books and computer screens, but the very sea of symbols in which we drift daily -- then literary skills become survival skills. Close, tough, skeptical reading and writing become ways to stand up and rock the boat.
"It can seem very esoteric and difficult," Adair says, "but I love going there with my classes, showing them that the way we think impacts how we live."
The realization that the world is a kind of text can empower many students, but it can also take the form of a wrenching epiphany: The body itself becomes a document, inscribed by experience. The more brutal that experience is, the deeper the world carves its words into one.
"Poverty physically writes on the bodies of poor women in a way that allows their bodies to become signs," Adair says. When others "read" those women as poor -- and by broken logic as dirty or dangerous or lazy -- "that whole cycle of inscription is reinforced."
To point out an example, Adair reaches not for a book but for her own face.
A story within a story
"I got out of a shelter at age 32 and had to deal with the effects of battery and poverty written on my very body," Adair says. "And it was a very telling experience for me, because people assumed I was stupid. My class was literally written on my face. So I began to see the ways that poor women's bodies are written or marked as different."
It is part of a larger story Adair has told many times, in print and in the classroom. One of four children of a poor single mother in Washington state, she grew up haunted by hunger, deprivation, illness and a pervasive sense that there was no way out. As a teenager she dropped out of school and found herself trapped in a spiral of abusive relationships and menial jobs. "I was a really good halibut cleaner in Alaska," she recalls.
Then, at 32, with her daughter Heather an infant, Adair departed from the script and began, slowly and painfully, to write her own. Taking advantage of more liberal pre-1996 welfare benefits, she returned to school, graduating from North Seattle Community College and entering the University of Washington as she struggled to balance motherhood, work and education. By 1997 she held a Ph.D. and returned to North Seattle, this time as a teacher; a year later she was appointed assistant professor of women's studies at Hamilton.
"I was a very nontraditional student," Adair says wryly.
It's the kind of inspiring, up-by-the-bootstraps tale that finds a ready home in political speeches, campus lore and media profiles: Welfare mother studies way out of poverty! "Going to school completely transformed my life," she says. "And I'm more grateful for that experience than anything else I've ever done." But Adair is frustrated by what happens to the story when it slips away from her. A text plucked from its context, it gives voice to a more vindictive subtext: Why can't all those other welfare mothers do it, too? What's wrong with them?
"I hear it all the time," she says. "I was in Hillary Clinton's office recently, and her legislative aide said, 'Oh, your story is so fantastic!' But it's not fantastic, and it's not my story. It's the story of literally hundreds of thousands of people across the nation who are trying to gain economic security.
"It's a fine line for me to walk, because I myself talk about my past as a way of making political claims for supporting low-income parents -- women in particular -- in going to school. But when I use it, I use it purposefully and for political reasons. Other people -- and I'm not just singling out people at Hamilton -- often use it in ways that reinforce the very narrative that I'm trying to critique. It's my responsibility to mitigate that."
Although ACCESS students take specially designed preparatory courses before being admitted to Hamilton or other area schools, Adair will not permit a double standard to sneak into the program. High expectations come with the territory, she tells ACCESS applicants. Emin Hodzic recalls that in his first ACCESS course, Adair "taught us writing and English, but she was really teaching us how to take a class, how to learn and participate. She even showed us how to sit and maintain eye contact."
In addition to coursework and grades, such students must manage heavy work hours, family life and a legion of obstacles unknown to, and often invisible to, traditional students. Adair knows those obstacles; she faced them for decades. To Adair and the ACCESS students who must negotiate the passage out of poverty, the transit is never easy and never complete. The program's 70 percent on-time college graduation rate -- well above the national average -- testifies not only to the success of the program, but to the will and desire of the students it serves.
"They are often dealing with abusive partners or parents who are angry at the fact that they are choosing to go to school rather than what the parents see as caring for their families," she says. "They go back to their homes and their communities and they are told, 'You are no longer one of us. Your language has changed, your goals have changed.'"
The entry into campus culture can be just as painful. Traditional students "have their teeth," Adair says. "They hadn't sold their blood that afternoon to get money to pay for their books. They didn't have to go to a food bank that night. Poor students never truly fit. Even if people want to welcome them, there are material differences that simply won't allow them to feel that they are ever really a part of campus life."
To succeed, she observes, such students must build "liminal bridges" between worlds: between past and future, between street and campus, between the personal and the political. One such point of connection for Adair herself came when she packed up her literary and critical skills and moved them to women's studies. As the first winner of the Carnegie/CASE Professor of the Year award from that discipline, Adair exemplifies the growing reach and authority of what some academics once considered a suspect field.
"The joy for me was that it wasn't just isolated intellectual thought; it was rigorous thought that had a connection to praxis," she says. "In women's studies, the central idea is that the personal is political. You don't just learn about the world, you learn about the world in ways that allow you to impact the world."
Adair is careful, though, not to simply preach to the converted. Raising political awareness need not mean hewing to a party line. "And I have to add that this happens a lot," she concedes. "A lot of students feel shut out of women's studies because they don't necessarily share the politics. But you don't have to have a political affiliation to come to my classes. You only have to do the reading, consider the text, have respect, and show complete focus and engagement."
The loyalty Adair inspires in many of her ACCESS students is fierce. They credit her and the program with nothing less than transforming their lives. Shannon Stanfield '07, a single mother of two who completed ACCESS last year and is now a full-time student with a major in theatre and a minor in creative writing, says Adair and ACCESS helped her replace the "shame and self-hatred" she once felt as a welfare recipient with a sense of focus and value. Stanfield intends to earn a Ph.D. and teach; Adair, with her "kindness, generosity and compassion," is her role model.
"Before I met Professor Adair, I only dreamed of becoming a teacher," Stanfield says. "Now I am becoming a teacher. And I feel bound by nothing."
The power of telling
On a desolate January day between semesters, the horizon between gray snow and gray sky is a vague smear, and campus is nearly deserted. Adair, though, has been in her Couper Hall office since before dawn. "I couldn't wait to get to a book that I wanted to start taking notes on," she says.
She is an incessant note-taker, a keeper of stories as well as a storyteller. It is a source of her strength as teacher, scholar and ACCESS mentor. Her work often teems with data sets and demographics, but she never fully entrusts narrative to numbers. Stories belong to people; they give voice to the voiceless. Her books are woven with stories of despair and growth and acts of sheer endurance by women in poverty. The following week, the first words she will write on the blackboard in her Introduction to Women's Studies class are: Tell a different story.
But today Adair points out that stories can also be used to devalue others and to justify punitive policies. "It's part of the larger question: How do we know what we know? And the answer is that we can only know through competing narratives," she says. "So part of what we need to do is to present different stories as a way of countering that power and authority."
One story that needs to be countered, she believes, is the pervasive cultural myth that equates poverty with pathology. Poverty does create misery and privation as it shapes an entire, nearly invisible, economic class. But poverty does not erase the experience of community, of love, of discovery. To counter that story, Adair tells a last story of her own.
"When we were kids, we didn't really have anything. My mother was a seamstress, and she would collect the little cards she used for receipts," she says.
"I remember coming in one morning when I was 6 or 7. She had taken a dictionary from the library and had written the Latin and Greek alphabets on the backs of these cards. She was so eager for us to get up and sit at the table so she could show us alpha, beta, delta and so forth.
"She never had any exposure to higher education, but she read and learned all of the time. She would read things in the back of a dictionary -- Latin, Greek, prefixes, suffixes, stories of heroes and legends. We had nothing, and yet she loved knowledge. Knowledge not for power or money, but just for the pure joy of understanding.
"And I think that was probably an early model for me of the kinds of engagement we need to create for our students and for ourselves."
One imagines a young Vivyan Adair, adrift in poverty but suddenly enthralled by letters, words, stories, the possibilities of what might be said and written. It would take decades longer to fully find that voice. But already she must have been catching fire.
Donald Challenger is a frequent contributor to the Hamilton Alumni Review. He wrote "Alexander Hamilton The Writer" in the Fall 2004 issue.
Providing educational ACCESS
In 1990 more than half a million welfare recipients were enrolled in college programs; by 2003, that number had been cut by more than 90 percent, to about 48,000. Where did they go?
Vivyan Adair, director of the ACCESS Project, and Sharon Gormley '98, its coordinator, point to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- better known as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 -- through which then-President Clinton and Congress imposed a "work first" standard on states and welfare recipients.
As intended, the legislation lightened welfare rolls. It also effectively rerouted bright, motivated students below the poverty line into minimum-wage jobs and vocational training programs rather than higher education. The result, Adair says, has often been to reinforce the cycle of low pay for menial work, rather than to provide a way out of poverty.
ACCESS aimed to break that cycle by supporting and assisting low-income parents as they pursued college degrees. Supported by $2.5 million in state funds over five years, the program has been a remarkable success by any measure. It has enabled nearly 100 nontraditional students living in poverty to build the skills they need to graduate, leave welfare rolls and replace minimum-wage jobs with meaningful careers.
Gormley, herself a nontraditional Horizon student and cum laude graduate in women's studies, was working in the office of the dean of the faculty when Adair arrived at Hamilton in 1998. They worked with Erol Balkan, the James L. Ferguson Professor of Economics, to arrange a 1999 conference on poverty and education; Balkan also played a crucial role in designing the ACCESS Project in the wake of the conference.
"Basically, Vivyan does the academic side, and I take care of the nuts and bolts of running the day-to-day program, but we very often blur those lines," Gormley says. "We are both really ‘hands-on' administrators."
Gormley believes the same qualities that make Adair an exceptional teacher have served her as an administrator. "Not only did she have this tremendous vision for what we should be doing; she has the most energy of any person I know," Gormley says. "She is a great director for many reasons, but mainly because she is a compassionate and brilliant academic who has not forgotten how she got where she is."
ACCESS is not itself a curriculum, but a transition; it provides initial college courses and support services such as child care and job arrangements while preparing students to matriculate at Hamilton or another area college. ACCESS requires that applicants have a high school diploma or GED, that they meet certain low-income financial criteria and that they have at least one dependent child at home. Prospective students must fill out a detailed application, including a long personal essay, and must submit to a series of interviews.
The project has recruited students through social service programs, day care centers and organizations such as Catholic Charities. But Gormley says ACCESS' most effective recruiting tool "has been to send fliers home with every elementary school child at every public school in the county" -- the means by which ACCESS reached Shannon Stanfield '07, a working mother of two and now a theatre major who plans to attend graduate school and become a college professor. "My experience in the ACCESS Project and with higher education has given me the tools I need to lift myself and my children out of poverty," Stanfield says.
The selection process is often a matter of "gut instinct," Gormley says, especially when offering opportunities to "risky" students who would stand little chance of admission elsewhere: "It's an odd system, I know, but so far it has worked."
The numbers bear that out: retention rates are above 90 percent for most ACCESS years; grade-point averages are typically above 80. Three-quarters of ACCESS students achieve their success while working at least 20 hours a week. All have children; most are single parents. Nine in 10 eliminate or reduce their reliance on social services while in ACCESS. The project has given Hamilton several cum laude graduates, a current medical school student and several alumni who have either been accepted by or are applying to graduate schools.
ACCESS, however, is now being downsized into a smaller, permanent program that will assist two or three students each year rather than 20. Conceived as a pilot project that would "demonstrate to the state and federal governments, social service providers and educators what could be done," Adair says, the project must also demonstrate what cannot be done. She and Gormley will spend the 2005-06 year writing ACCESS assessments.
"Since it's a pilot program, part of what we want to assess is why it can't survive given the current legislation," Adair says. "And we hope to use that to change the legislation."