Q&A with Stephanie Troutman Robbins on Academic Diversity: "Dream a Better Dream"

Feb. 12, 2021
Stephanie Troutman Robbins

Stephanie Troutman Robbins

In recognition of Black History Month, John Paul Jones III, dean of the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, interviewed Stephanie Troutman Robbins, the new head of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and chair of the University of Arizona Faculty Senate’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.

Troutman Robbins – who is also an associate professor in the Department of English – studies literacies focused on social justice, feminist pedagogy, critical race theory, film studies, Black feminist theory, schooling, identity/ies, and education. A former high school and middle grades public school teacher, Troutman Robbins has been recognized for her mentorship, student advocacy, and social justice leadership.

In the Q&A, Troutman Robbins reflects on the need to support Black students, infuse the General Education curriculum with diversity, integrate outreach into research and teaching, and look outside academia to build a diversity program that is “radically hopeful and inclusive.”

Q. You went into college as a first-generation, African American woman. Based on your experience in mentoring students with similar profiles today, what do think have been the biggest changes? 

In reflecting on my own experience as an African American, first-gen student, I realize how alone I was. There really weren’t a lot of resources at the schools I attended. It was hard to access faculty, staff and even other Black students in my areas of study. Maybe part of it was the courses I selected or the majors I was in.

Now, I think the challenges students face are similar in terms of representation: lack of Black professors, difficulty finding other Black students in certain courses and majors, and so on. One difference is that there are a few more resources now – multiracial first-generation student groups and initiatives exist, as do Black student clubs and organizations, Black culture centers – but often these spaces are under-resourced in terms of funding and staff. Black students need better quality support, access and visibility, STILL. Lack of financial support is another driving factor in the experiences of Black students in higher education. Black undergraduate enrollments have been declining…defunding of TRIO and Bridge programs has been part of the problem. Greater investments are needed to close the opportunity gap.

Q. DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – is, for good reasons, now diffusing to all corners of university administration. Are there resources from Black feminist thought and/or radical social justice movements that can ensure that the movement keeps its critical edge and resists a kind of perfunctory normalization?

I think on the one hand, many of us want DEI to be a standard, a norm in institutional life. Not an “add-on” or shallow version of intermittent multicultural recognition. But a critically informed, prioritized, and sustained movement and mechanism for institutional change and a cornerstone for building something more radically hopeful and inclusive. There are amazing thinkers like Dr. bell hooks, Dr. Hortense Spillers, Dr. H. Samy Alim, Dr. Django Paris – and too many people to name, really— doing amazing critical work on issues of race and education. There’s also a new generation of young, public scholars outside of the academy, like Charlene Carruthers (the founding national director of Black Youth Project 100) and Alicia Garza (co-founder of Black Lives Matter) along with other activists like Bree Newsome and Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who are using social media and different platforms to do work on race and racial justice.

I think university administrations need a collection of resources ranging from scholarship to art – television, film, music, visual media – to activism to pedagogy – teaching and training, in order to really engage meaningfully with DEI concepts and implementation in an impactful and ongoing way. We cannot just be checking a box or discussing for the one-millionth time what the research tells us about the awful racist, sexist, ableist experiences of underrepresented (LGBTQ, POC +) students, staff and faculty in academic spaces – particularly in predominantly white institutions. The well-worn stories and inadequate administrative responses must evolve.

I encourage folks in academic administration to look outside of the academy for youth leaders, public thinkers, radical artists and LGBTQ activists to inspire and inform their notions of what is possible. Look at what Ava Duvernay is accomplishing in film and television…go back and read James Baldwin…check out the artwork of Zanele Muholi. DEI is not an afterthought or an empty statement following local incidents or national tragedies. Dream a better dream.

Q. The UA is in the process of revamping its GenEd curriculum and the result is likely to be in place for some time. What do you think this curriculum should stress? What sorts of courses, content and learning outcomes should be foundational for our students?

I’d like to see a General Education curriculum infused with diversity throughout. So…not just a credit-hour requirement or a mandatory course on “diverse perspectives.” But a revolutionary cluster of courses distributed throughout the focus areas that has the power to transform students, no matter what major and/or minor they eventually choose. The foundations provided in general education courses should establish solid, critical awareness of privilege, power and difference – along with actionable projects that extend student capacity to become change agents.

For me, an ideal general education curriculum is one that creates opportunities for students to apply new learning, intersectional thinking and skills to projects of community building and social movement that “bend the [long] arc of the universe toward justice.” I hope that even within required courses like Math, for example, there is an emphasis on indigenous knowledges, Black mathematicians, women’s contributions, and moreover attention to how differences in opportunity, identity(ies) and history shape that field.  
Q. You’ve been heavily involved in public outreach during your time at the UA, including the Southern Arizona Writing Project and Wildcat Writers Outreach. What advice do you have for younger faculty who want to get involved in public outreach but have to negotiate that with their academic research programs?

Well, I think a lot of younger faculty are interested in community engagement and public outreach…some older faculty members too. I think that while older (tenured) faculty may have more freedom to focus on such projects, younger faculty members are encouraged to pour the majority of their energy into research and publication. I believe that a radical redistribution of effort, and differentiation in distributions of effort, are the best ways institutions (departments, programs, etc.) can make outreach a more equitable and feasible endeavor for (untenured) faculty. But until that is possible, individual faculty members must find creative ways to streamline efforts: organizing and aligning projects in such a way that connects the outreach to what they are teaching and writing grants for and publishing on...getting students involved. That way, the community work isn’t peripheral or secondary. Also, institutions need to implement metrics that allow community work to be viewed as central to the mission— especially at land grant institutions; this way the outreach is not seen as a non-academic activity or mistaken as a hobby or volunteerism or service.