"Out of Place: On Leaving and Coming Home to FIU" speech by Dr. Bianca Premo for Faculty Convocation

Out of Place: On Leaving and Coming Home to FIU
Bianca Premo
Associate Professor of History
Steven J Green School of International and Public Affairs
Florida International University

Watch the full speech here

Image

Image

I was naturally really humbled to be asked to address the faculty and stand alongside these amazing awardees today. I’ve never held any position of prominence in the administration. I’m not the most accomplished scholar in my Department—that would be tough in a unit teeming with people who get prestigious grants, write compelling books and regularly publish in the flagship journals in our field. I am pretty much an ordinary humanities faculty member. I spend a lot of time grading student writing and fending off the temptation to resort to Scantrons. These days, I spend an increasing amount of time arguing about and reporting on why history matters. I also struggle to find grants and fellowships that support humanities and social science work and, when I’m lucky, figuring out how to take them, since they require me to be away from FIU. This is because my labs are archives strewn through Mexico, Peru and Spain, and humanities fellowships often require year-long residency at institutes and other universities. I know many of you also traverse the world for research, leaving this place from time to time, so even in that respect I am not particularly unique.

It is this that I want to talk about: how through my scholarship and sojourns I’ve come to see the radical power of commonality—of recognizing how similar I am to other faculty and we are to other universities and communities. We live in world of entrepreneurship, invention, and patents, all of which force us to make our work original, innovative and immediately meaningful to our students and our community. But today I want to pause and consider what it means to go beyond this drive toward the singular, the unique. I want to consider how a search for similarities rather than differences can be healthy, even groundbreaking, intellectually as well as institutionally. This is a lesson that I have learned from my own research. The point I hope to make is that FIU’s uniqueness is not an inalterable condition but a choice we have been making. It is a way of narrating who we are that we select every day. Being conscious of this frees us to truly innovate, individually as faculty, and as a collective.

*

Much of my research on the history of Latin America aims to argue that the region is not wholly unique. Or, perhaps better said, that it is uniquely exemplary. In a book I just finished writing, I argue that in the 1700s ordinary, often illiterate slaves, indigenous commoners and women in the Spanish colonies produced the Enlightenment when they went to court to sue their social superiors, including masters, noble chiefs, and husbands. The Enlightenment here means new modern ideas of law, rights, and freedom. Critically, these eighteenth century litigants produced Enlightenment ideas not subsequent to but at the same that the invisible hand touched Adam Smith, that Thomas Paine published his Rights of Man, and that Antoine Lavoisier advanced his theory of combustion foundational to modern chemistry. And at the same time that Georg Wilhelm Hegel came up with his concept of world historical time in which Latin America was cast as geologically young and perpetually behind in the march of history.

Historians of Latin America, of course, long attempted to argue that this was not so. But beginning in the middle of the last century, historians in Peru and Mexico rejected Western philosophies of history altogether. They instead insisted that their past could not be pressed into the standard linear periodizations that one might find in a textbook on so-called “Western” civilization. Their unique ethnic compositions and dependent status in the world economy gave their countries an altogether different rhythm and timeline. Nowhere was this more evident than among leftist intellectuals, who cast aside watersheds such as “the industrial revolution,” “the Enlightenment” and “Romanticism,” and “industrialization,” in favor of bottom-up timelines more meaningful to the community, the nation, the people or el pueblo.

Among the pueblo, concepts of history as a neat sequence, of time as an arrow shooting toward progress and modernity, disappeared into the colorful warp of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism. Or it swirled away in the cosmological circles of Latin America’s indigenous peoples, who wanted to force a return to ruling themselves, free from imperial domination.

These are no archeological relics. Such maneuvers were tightly connected to the politics of the moment. Sympathizers with the Shining Path in Peru and Zapatistas in Southern Mexico desired—indeed, fought and killed —to exit their subordinate place in Western history. In such a context, they identified as problems the false promises of foreign Western ideas themselves—classical Liberalism, Jeffersonian democracy, imperialist science that ignored folkways, capitalism. Such ideas would always be, as one Brazilian cultural critic announced, “foro do lugar,” out of place, and the hope was to return communities to what made them unique. This made uniqueness subversive, new and laudable, not a condition to be surmounted but a state to be celebrated.

In this context, it made sense when iconic Peruvian historian Alberto Flores Galindo boldly announced in the early 80s that for ordinary people living in Lima, there was no Enlightenment. But it also means that my argument that not only did Latin America have an Enlightenment, but it had one produced by and among the pueblo, strikes at the heart of histories of regional and national difference. It flies in the face of what appears to be evident: Latin American is different from the US and Western Europe—demographically, culturally, essentially.

I’ve wrestled with this problem for over a decade, and it has deeply affected how attuned I am to narratives of difference and uniqueness: whom they serve, what they accomplish, and what they hinder. Of course, this is not my journey alone. Most political debates in the US, and certainly debates in and about the humanities center on whether it is possible to identify difference, to recognize diversity, without placing it into a hierarchy. A related question is how to characterize that difference, and whether categorization itself—labeling people as women, as black, as Latino, as Christian, as racist,—is a neutral act of language or a necessary precondition for making claims to power over them.

*

Unique is one such label. Our FIU, like our Miami, is demonstrably unique. You know this from teaching the students, so many of whom are like the main character Rebecca in Juliette Capó Crucet’s 2010 novel How to Leave Hialeah. When she goes to college in the Midwest and tells people she is from Miami, they respond, “Yeah, but where are you really from?” Miami, in larger sense, is not considered an origin point. If being from somewhere means being born in another country, they often don’t fit it. And if it means the fitting stereotype of white, American upper middle-class university students, they don’t fit it either. And even our more stereotypical Anglo students are not really from here. You’ve all probably heard Dave Barry joke that he immigrated to Miami from the US 30 years ago.

I won’t try to convince you that we, as faculty, do not face unique challenges that our neighbors in Coral Gables don’t, or even ones that other public institution in our state, do not. We must build with our own hands programs that elsewhere are venerable, even sclerotic. When we are asked to Ignite, there is a reason: we have amassed through blood, sweat and tears a 231 million dollar endowment; one of the public universities I attended as an undergrad, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, has 1.6 billion. We must find research funds in an age when federal grants are no longer the bedrock they once were (though I think the death of the federal grant has been greatly exaggerated.) Nonetheless, we do not have the luxury of simply paying lip service to entrepreneurialism from leather-bound chaired positions in academies of ivy. Here in our Coral Tower, we have to be entrepreneurs just to get our work done every day.

Obviously, it's paid off. Our official video on the history of FIU displays the words “young and dynamic” and backs them up with images. We were nowhere just 52 years ago—an abandoned airfield—and today, we are here. Tireless efforts by all of us have made this a place to be from, a place with a history. We are a community. A pueblo.

But, perhaps as in Latin American history, there comes a moment when celebrating, reveling and luxuriating in our uniqueness reach their limit. Identifying commonalities can be liberating just as liberating, and can subvert prejudices and obstacles that otherwise hold us back. In my remaining time, I want to point to just two of many areas where much is to be gained by looking from a wider perspective, in competing nationally, in holding ourselves accountable to the standards of the best research institutions in the country—not only peer institutions in the state of Florida or even similar urban research institutions. The University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor. The University of Texas. At Austin. Harvard University. I believe that only by insisting that we are on the same mission as they are can we learn from their best practices and offer them our innovative new practices, fostering what is unique in our students and in ourselves.

*

In leaving home to do work in an archive in Oaxaca, a library in Chicago or a history department in Austin, it has been eye opening to talk with and watch faculty from around the country and from other countries as they face the much-vaunted crisis in higher education. I see it placing the same pressures on them as it does on us to quantify and justify our work according to the criteria of deliverables and job creation; I see them sway under the pull toward interdisciplinarity that can, at its worst, simply force the humanities to be a handmaiden to STEM. There is, however, at least one notable difference between us and many of them. Their philosophy programs have been around a lot longer than their departments of Biomedical Engineering. So while the pressures of the 21st- century are new to philosophy or political science--- while they watch their enrollments decline with streamlined majors that abandon the old notion of liberal arts core education-- I don't get the sense that they really believe they are under an existential threat. Somehow they know that they will not be left behind.

In the end, they know that they possess, in their own disciplines, solutions to the crisis. For that reason, most take for granted that their research should explore the topics meaningful to their discipline. Many of our peers subconsciously work from the premise that every discipline is, in the end, working on the present, is shaped by the moment, and that each is offering solutions that, although formed in a unique tongue, are gifts to the common cause of the community.

We, as a young, dynamic twenty-first century institution, can be innovative not only by promoting interdisciplinarity and skills-orientation, like everyone else does, but also by recognizing such things are not necessarily valuable in themselves but because someone says so, for a reason. The exigencies of the marketplace are, ultimately, not just a structural demand on us to produce a certain kind of student. They are a way of telling us who are students should be and what is important in our world right now.

And narratives change.

We can be truly cutting edge by consciously supporting discipline-centered research and through teaching that, among other things, sensitizes us to how the demand for skills-based university education is not some primordial good that we have just discovered. Instead, it is a narrative grounded in the politics of now and shaped by the economic interests of a few. Such a recognition will help us ensure that our students and community are not just perennially playing catch up. It arms them with the tools that never become obsolete, tools to shape the job-and-skills narrative to their advantage, assured that they are not, and will never be, behind.

The second area in which leaving FIU and comparing it to other places is illuminating is in grappling with what is and is not special about or students as a diverse body. In an age where non-white, non0hetero students from Columbia, Missouri to New Haven—however jejune, strident or idealistic their political tactics might appear—have tears streaming down their faces telling us that the well meaning diversity programs of the last half-decade have left them hurt, I feel I must look at myself. The unique diversity we celebrate here at FIU should not lull me into believing that we do not face similar challenges.

We have a chance to understand these challenges, however, informed not only by the history of racial and gender oppression in the United States but also by knowledge of the traditions elsewhere, in our students’ countries of origin and in those of their parents. Put boldly, one of the craftiest tricks in the history of Latin America has been devised by the small white elite minority. Their celebration of national racial diversity serves to silence any attempts to call out the real and glaring disparities and persistent inequalities in those countries, since to talk about racism in a mestizo or multicultural nation is tantamount to sedition.

By seeing the trouble in Missouri or Connecticut as our own, we can disarm such trickery, creating new dialogs about race and place in the 21st century that better account for the diverse histories of our nation’s growing populace and, I would argue, for the diversity among the Hispanic, Latino, Caribbean, indigenous, and African descent peoples that are too often lumped together. We know that soon our students will not defy but rather embody the face of the average college student. But now, after decades of moving bricks to build this institution, we can straighten our backs and wipe the dirt from our faces; we can look around at one another, confident that we are a place with a history, that we are a pueblo. With this conviction, we can get to work exposing the hierarchies working under the cloak of diversity, to upturn them without fear that doing so will uproot us.

I want to close by again drawing from Capó Crucet’s novel How to Leave Hialeah.

It is impossible to leave without an excuse— something must push you out, at least at first. You won’t go otherwise ; you are happy, the weather is bright, and you have a car…. After fifteen years of trial and error, you have finally arranged your bedroom furniture in a way that you and your father can agree on. You have a locker you can reach at Miami High. With so much going right, it is only when you’re driven out … waved through a window that you’ll be outside long enough to realize that, barring the occasional hurricane, you won’t die.

Let’s force ourselves, our students, our community, out of stultifying uniqueness, confident that there nothing we can import to and nothing we can contribute from our FIU that will ever really be out of place.