In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Schuyler Esprit, Founding Director, Create Caribbean and Program Officer, University of West Indies, Open Campus, about her ideas for the future of higher education. We talk with Schuyler about her academic journey, the role of digital humanities in her work, the importance of working with high school students, and the trade-offs that come with administrative work. Schuyler sees hope for a different future of higher ed and the world through the her work with students in Dominica and throughout the Caribbean. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @schuyleresprit
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Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.
Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts, Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam, bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so, they rock the academy.
Roopika Risam: [00:00:26] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we chat with Schuyler Esprit, who is the Program Officer of the Open Campus at the University of the West Indies in Antigua and Barbuda. Previously, she served as Registrar and Dean of Academic Affairs at Dominica State College in Dominica, where she worked as the university's chief academic officer. She also worked as the college's Director of Institutional Research and Academic instruction. Schuyler is the founder of Create Caribbean, the first digital humanities center in the English-speaking Caribbean, and is currently completing her book, West Indian Readers: A Social History, a historical exploration of reading cultures in the Caribbean.
Schuyler, welcome to Rocking the Academy. I think of you as someone who wears many hats and you wear these hats really well. Can you tell our listeners about your journey into your professional career?
Schuyler Esprit: [00:01:27] I'm happy to be here while I'm juggling -- I feel like I'm wearing five hats today -- and I'm trying to keep them all on my head at the same time. So that's a little bit of a metaphor for the journey I've had. I started my degree, my PhD in English literature at the University of Maryland, and when I started that program, I was the uber scholar. I wanted to study postcolonial theory and Caribbean studies, and I did, and I was very invested in research, primarily a research career. But the longer I spent doing that, the more I got displaced, in terms of my own personal identity. And the closer I got to writing my dissertation and finishing, the more I started having questions about my place, not just in the academy, but in the United States.
Right around the time I was finishing, I was facing other kinds of issues in my personal life, in terms of where I would work, how I would get to work at those institutions that I was very passionate about, whether they were able to accommodate me and my status -- and all of those questions that had nothing to do with studying, writing a dissertation on reading, right, but had everything to do with the body of work that I was studying. Everything to do with empire, everything to do with postcolonial studies. And I was one of the students doing that in this generation of graduate students coming out of post-9/11, Patriot Act. And all of these things have changed the way that foreign students could live in the U.S.
I got my first job at Trinity Washington University in DC, in the same area. And I remember my mentor saying to me, “You know, Trinity is not our peer,” talking about Research 1 schools. And I was very happy at Trinity at the time because I was teaching predominantly black and Latina women. And so I was kind of taken aback by that comment, but still insisted that 1) higher education is changing and I have a job and 2) I'm not guaranteed to always be able to get a job in this market. So I chose this job and was really happy there. But it was while I was at Trinity that my feelings for wanting to be back with something familiar and wanting to be back home got stronger and stronger.
And then, really, it happened like that. I decided, you know what, I'm going to just go home. I ended up back in Dominica in 2013 and then the story ends with me founding Create Caribbean probably a year after I moved there. And then I ended up working at Dominica State College once I had planted roots back at home.
Mary Churchill: [00:03:45] Oh, that's a fantastic story. So, my question is around Create Caribbean. Your work in digital humanities, particularly this project, is one of the few examples of making connections between universities and high schools. What inspired you to start Create Caribbean and how have you seen the work pay off for students and their communities?
Schuyler Esprit: [00:04:06] I have an uncle who was a member of the Dominica Liberation Movement. He was connected to some of the regional movements for anti-colonialism and independence in the 1960s and ‘70s and very actively involved. He was connected in the network of people with Maurice Bishop of Grenada and other revolutionaries of that time, and my family was pretty well connected to those progressive environments in the region. And when I got home, I remember him telling me because I had attended THATCamp in Puerto Rico -- the first THATCamp was held in Puerto Rico in November 2012 and he knew that I was attending it -- and we had spoken about it that summer before. So, when I got home in 2013, he told me, “I know you do this digital thing. I don't know what it is, but here's a box of stuff I have, and I want you to do something with them. I want people to know they exist, and I want you to preserve them for me. So just take care of it.”
And I go through this box and it's all of this stuff that's such a rich history of not just Dominica, but the Caribbean, the smaller islands of the Caribbean, that I've never heard about before in my life. And I said to myself, “You know what? How cool would it be if I do exactly what he's asking me and get other people to know this stuff exists?” And so, when I founded Create Caribbean, I went to the college -- I wasn't working there at the time -- I just went to them and I said, “I have this idea, I think it will be good for students. Let me pitch it to you.” And then one of them who was a member of that initial meeting said, “I have some students, I'll bring them to you.” They got together and that was Create Caribbean. And then we started doing things and we started hanging out. I started talking to them about what we did, teaching them basic things about what types of software we use and the work we do. And everything else is now on the website because the rest is history.
Everything that we were creating from the time we started Create Caribbean, we were presenting to high school students. So, our audience was always high school students because one of our taglines is that we create history, we create content, for students by students. So, when we are creating our digital projects it’s really with our local students in mind, that they will have a place that is friendly and accessible to them, that they can learn about their history. In all of these programs, what they don't know is they're doing a lot digital humanities -- they just think it's just coding, but all the content they make are fitting these the same goals, fitting the mission where we're learning something about Caribbean history, Dominica's history, Dominica's culture.
Roopika Risam: [00:06:26] That's amazing. Schuyler, you know I've worked with teachers, in terms of helping them learn how to integrate digital humanities into their teaching -- high school teachers, middle school teachers -- and your work has really inspired how I set that up.
Schuyler Esprit: [00:06:39] Thank you. I'm hoping it's useful because I think, sometimes, that there's a certain abstraction to what I do down here. I say that because, like I said, I'm coming from a background where I'm used to a very insular kind of academic community. And I still say “I am,” because it's that unlearning about how the academy used to be. And choosing to build something else is really a matter of unlearning some of the expectations I had as a graduate student, as a young faculty member, as a person with a certain type of academic goal.
So a lot of it has been isolating in a lot of ways and very lonely work doing it down here, and especially, having to introduce doing it in a way that is not even traditionally part of Caribbean higher education. So, it's good to hear when people reach out and say, “I'm trying to use this stuff in my classes all over the world.” I have people writing to me from Eastern Europe and all parts of the world saying, “I really found your work useful.” That's been really one of the most rewarding parts of it, that it translates very well, the impact. The students are telling me, “Yes, it's working. It's working in my life, it's working in these ways that I am a better employee, a better student, a better citizen as a result.”
Roopika Risam: [00:07:52] You really have this amazing perspective since you've been a student in and worked in institutions in multiple countries. We're curious about what are some of the similarities and maybe some of the differences in the challenges that higher ed is facing in the different contexts in which you've worked?
Schuyler Esprit: [00:08:11] Globalization, as a haunting entity, has made the students we interact with around the world more on edge than I remember it. Maybe we were on edge when we were students and I just don't recall it being the same. But this is a really interesting time to be making this international shift because I can really tell you that the impacts of the big countries like the United States are not just in the big countries. We're feeling it in the region in higher education. Funding issues are very, very similar. Corporatization of higher education is a big. I'm hearing words, a lot of buzzwords, that are going around like “sustainable” and “entrepreneurial” university. Buzzwords that, you know, we get confronted with in all of these publications. Words that can tell us that the value system is being more overtly mechanized towards profit or towards a certain kind of distillation of the academic experience to utilitarianism, right?
In a lot of ways, the Caribbean higher education system is still catching up to some of the advances of U.S. higher education, for obvious reasons. We are a very young, independent region. Dominica is celebrating 41 years of independence this year. Antigua is celebrating 38. So it's a young region. Because of this youth we're also adopting late problems. Problems that were probably issues in higher education in the ‘80s and ‘90s are now part of the context that we're dealing with.
So, I just think identity politics look very different in higher education in the Caribbean and have a different impact. For me, I was a black woman in the academy at all times when I was in the United States. I am still a black woman, but now I talk less about that in my life and my work. I'm still a woman, I will say that. And I find matters around gender are particularly troublesome. But I certainly understand and appreciate to a great extent what it's like to be working in a context where you don't have to grapple with the invisible, emotional labor of your body in your workspace. We have our issues, but this is something that has really made my life feel that I can focus on my work. This was always part of my work when I was doing it in the U.S.
I have to be honest, and this is in response to that question about the challenges, I am reluctant and sort of conflicted. I'm reluctant and conflicted about this role in administration. One of the reasons I started Create Caribbean was so that I could be more immersed in digital humanities work, going where I'm needed. Building Create Caribbean, as an entity, as an institution in itself, has meant that I can't. I'm one person and I can't be everywhere. I can't do everything. What it has meant is that I have had to give up the fun stuff. No matter how much I have to do it, and I am good at doing it, and I enjoy it, I am always very upset at the end of the day -- I didn't do any fun things. I want to go play with the toys and make the maps and be with my students all the time.
But that's the unlearning. If I am in that room with them, I'm also not building another room for someone else or for them to grow. The hopeful side is this is what it should look like for all of us, right? This is what the academy should look like if we're making space for people from all backgrounds, who have access to quality higher education and to learn and use these tools.
Mary Churchill: [00:11:45] That's beautiful. You know, I think about the loneliness of the scholar's life, but also the loneliness of the administrator's life. And I often struggle with how do I stay inspired, right? How do I refill my well of inspiration? What is it that you do to refill that well?
Schuyler Esprit: [00:12:06] There's one conference that I attend every year: the Caribbean Digital conference. I try to attend as much as possible because it brings together the two things that mean the most to me: the digital humanities work and Caribbean studies, which is my area of training. So, digital humanities brought me to administration and Caribbean studies is my professional work. And I have been saying no to more conferences and presentations than before but trying more to say yes to this. I stay inspired by spending more time with people who are about what they talk about. One of the reasons I come to that conference is because it's not only collaborative, but it's regenerative.
I don't have time for social media like I used to. I don't have time to sit all day and talk to my colleagues and friends on the internet. I would really like to spend more time there because, for me, I have the ocean between us. It's harder for me to get together with colleagues. So, I do try to commit more to being deliberate about using social media and being part of conversations. But that has gotten harder the more administration work I've done.
And, then on the other things that I do, I really try to connect with my students. For the past year, I haven't been teaching, which has been a really interesting change. I've gone all-the-way-administrator now. So I try to schedule meetings and Zoom meetings and conversations with my students. We have WhatsApp groups for the Create Caribbean interns. I do things like send them voice notes so that they can stay connected, they can hear me, that I'm a real person.
And there’s the promise and hope of talking to young people who feel so daunted by a future that I feel just happened to me yesterday. They're going to get over this part and they're still so excited. The world is really, really messy right now, and they're still managing to show up and be interested in something and be learning -- invested enough to be worried about something. And that always gives me a little bit of hope.
It beats the alternative of sitting there and letting the “system” turn us into jaded people and forget about why we came to our scholarship in the first place. The ideas matter. I want Caribbean people to be free. I want black people to be free. I want everybody to have nice things, and ultimately it always comes back to that. I want Caribbean people to feel free at home. I want students to be able to come back home if they want and be able to feel like they can work and make a living and make a life here -- an option that I didn't always feel I had. So, I always remember that and say, “I'm home now. I'm going to make sure more people want to come home and stay home.”
Roopika Risam: [00:14:30] You have been listening to Rocking the Academy where Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Catch more episodes at simplecast.com.