Power, Access, and Representation: a Conversation with Eva Boodman

STONY BROOK, NY -- Eva Boodman, a PhD candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of Philosophy, will discuss her work teaching at Rikers Island on Tuesday, February 28, 2017. The talk, which is open to the public, begins at 4:00 pm in Humanities Building 1008. Boodman’s lecture is titled “Wrestling with Knowledge and Power on Rikers Island.”

Eva BoodmanBoodman is a 2016-2017 recipient of the Humanities Institute Public Humanities Fellowship; her project explores how structural racism has operated in educational institutions, including the women’s jail on Rikers Island where she teaches philosophy as part of the People’s Education Initiative. Boodman is also completing her dissertation, Structural Ignorance, about the issues of ethical and political responsibility for group forms of ignorance.

In the following interview she discusses her work and research with Francisco Delgado, a PhD candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of English.

Delgado: Let’s begin with your Public Humanities project. What inspired you to come up with your idea?

Boodman: I first started teaching at the women’s jail on Rikers Island about three years ago, both because I wanted more teaching experience, and because I had started to do political work with some activists who are formerly incarcerated, including Mujahid Farid from Release Aging People in Prison.

The experiences they shared with me about the immense challenges of life on the inside and the barriers to getting out – in addition to the fact that incarcerated women have much less access to higher education than men do – gave me another reason to work with women who have contact with the system. Because of my simultaneous teaching commitments in a women’s jail and at Stony Brook, I was thinking a lot about race, gender, and class in the classroom.

Developing responsive curricula for the students at the women’s facility grew out of that set of interests. I see it as a way to re-distribute academic resources outward to people who want to learn but who have limited access to higher education for structural reasons.

Delgado: What was your process in writing the proposal? Was this your first experience applying for a fellowship? If not, what did you learn from your previous experiences?

Boodman: Well, because I was applying to expand a project that was already underway, the “deepest” work that went into the proposal was finding a way to articulate the connection between my dissertation research and my Rikers Island teaching that was as concrete as possible. In my proposal, I tried to find the common motivations to my dissertation research and my project, and found that what it really came down to was the structural dimensions of knowledge and ignorance: the way axises of power affect who has access and who gets represented.

And no, this was not my first time applying for a fellowship. As an international student with work limitations, I started applying to fellowships early on in my degree. Also, in another pre-grad school life, I actually had a job applying for grants for a migrant and immigrant rights non-profit. So yes, I think I did benefit from having some practice at writing proposals, and learning from the (many) earlier rejections. The most important thing I learned was to be as clear as possible about the project itself, including the rationale and goals – not to use any jargon or abstract language, which can be challenging for a philosophy PhD theory head like myself!

Delgado: How have your skills developed at Stony Brook – as a graduate student, as an in-class instructor, etc. – helped you during this publicly engaged project? What, for instance, do you think has been your biggest strength as a scholar with working with the public? What, if anything, has been your biggest obstacle?

Boodman: My years of teaching undergraduate classes at Stony Brook have been huge skill-developers for me. In our department, we have a lot of freedom to develop our own syllabi and to experiment with participatory, engaged pedagogical techniques, and I have really seen my time at Stony Brook as an opportunity to experiment and grow as a teacher. Because my Public Humanities project is teaching and curriculum development, those skills have definitely been useful. But that learning and skill use has gone both ways: teaching the students at Rikers has also helped me be a more creative teacher at Stony Brook, especially since I was doing both concurrently.

As far as using my strengths as a scholar, I see myself more as a facilitator than as a scholar in my work at Rikers, and in my other political or socially engaged work. I can’t deny, though, that being a researcher in philosophy as really taught me how to ask big hard questions. Even more than my scholarly research in particular, though, my time as an instructor has helped know how to facilitate conversations about difficult or controversial questions, and how to create an environment where students who have no background in philosophy can talk about ethical and political issues.

[M]y time as an instructor has helped know how to facilitate conversations about difficult or controversial questions, and how to create an environment where students who have no background in philosophy can talk about ethical and political issues.

Doing a PhD, too, is good training in seeing a big, seemingly endless project through to the end – and most projects that aim for social change or transformation are like that. With the difference, of course, that political work is with others at every stage, whereas dissertation writing is more solitary.

My biggest obstacle as a PhD candidate working on a Public Humanities project is time. If only there were more of it! Going to Rikers Island is a trek (it can take almost 3 hours to get there!), and being in your last year of your PhD is like running a marathon. It’s worth it, though, because the students at the women’s facility are amazing, and I find that my non-academic, community-engaged work really motivates my research.

Delgado: Switching gears, slightly: could you tell us more about how your work with inmates at Rykers Island relates to your dissertation? How have you managed to juggle these two concurrent projects?

Boodman: My dissertation is on responsibility for forms of ignorance that are structurally produced, and that aren’t just a matter of individuals’ lack of information. I use the example of “white ignorance” to show that these kinds of ignorance are actually sets of historical knowledge habits that have structural, political causes. So, what kind of responsibility do people have for problematic kinds of ignorance they didn’t cause or intend? What kinds of responses just make things worse? I argue for a kind of responsibility that understands itself to be “complicit” with political structures, and that works “from the inside” to address structural racism. This is related to my work at Rikers, because it is a deeper theoretical reflection on the norms at work in knowledge-production, including the knowledge production and knowledge habits at work in higher education. My dissertation also looks at the racialization of guilt and innocence, and how those norms play out both in the classroom and in the criminal punishment system, so in that sense my research is directly related to doing work with people who are incarcerated. In my research, I’m very interested in how our knowledge norms and habits reinforce ideas of guilt, innocence, punishment and safety that have direct negative effects on communities of color in the United States.

As for juggling the two projects, yes, it is challenging, mainly for time reasons. The writing takes a particular and intense focus. But the content is related, which I find makes it easier to be doing both at the same time. The group I teach with, the People’s Education Initiative, works in eight-week sessions, and when I need to focus on writing I’ll take a session off to focus on other non-teaching work to support the group’s activities, like interviewing new teachers.

Delgado: Stony Brook University, as you know, is predominantly considered a STEM school. Based on your experiences, could you talk about some of the university’s strengths in regards to its humanities programs? Also, looking back now as a PhD candidate nearing graduation and as a HISB Public Humanities Fellowship recipient, what do you think the role of humanities studies is more generally? What good does it serve?

Boodman: As a certificate student in Women’s and Gender Studies and a Public Humanities Fellow, I have had much more exposure to what’s happening in the humanities at Stony Brook outside of the philosophy department than I otherwise would have. I think that Stony Brook is a great place to do interdisciplinary work in the humanities, and I would encourage any grad student in the humanities to find ways to benefit from what the different humanities departments have to offer – even if it’s just interlocutors from different programs.

Disciplines in the humanities have the important role of asking hard questions about how meanings and values operate in social life. The humanities can serve to identify and articulate those kinds of issues, and to frame them so that they can be discussed, debated.

Disciplines in the humanities have the important role of asking hard questions about how meanings and values operate in social life. The humanities can serve to identify and articulate those kinds of issues, and to frame them so that they can be discussed, debated. I also think that the humanities can help reveal the assumptions, principles and ideas behind political movements, parties and decisions, as well as some kinds of collective thinking and behavior. So, in short, I think the humanities have a role both in helping us understand social reality, and in finding approaches and responses to that reality.

For more information about the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook University, please visit http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/humanities/. The Public Humanities fellowship is provided in partnership with Humanities New York, whose website is accessible at http://humanitiesny.org/our-work/partnerships/humanities-fellowship/.

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.