Open Mic Night: Campus Programs That Champion College Student Voice and Engagement
reviewed by Susan Weinstein - November 19, 2018
Title: Open Mic Night: Campus Programs That Champion College Student Voice and Engagement
Author(s): Toby S. Jenkins, Crystal Leigh Endsley, Marla L. Jaksch, & Anthony R. Keith (Eds.)
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 162036512X, Pages: 170, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com
"Space is only transformed when it is disrupted" (p. 55), Toby Jenkins writes in Open Mic Night. Jenkins notes that this truth is one she understands because of her identity as an African American woman scholar, and it is this combination of identity and the development of critical spaces that is at the heart of Open Mic Night's project. For readers working in the field of student affairs, the collection is surely validating. For those outside the field, like this reviewer, it is an eye-opener, revealing that "student affairs professionals are educators outside of the classroom" (p. 54) whose efforts are informed by pedagogical theory and clear objectives for student development. The focus on a critical pedagogy that centers student voices and experiences makes this collection relevant to educators across contexts and institutions, as it reminds us how much our own identities and commitments inform our decisions as practitioners. Open Mic Night positions student affairs administrators as central sources of creative and intellectual potential on campus, and makes clear that those of us in the privileged, visible position of tenure-track faculty would benefit from reaching outside our disciplinary departments to make common cause with colleagues in student affairs for the benefit of the students we are all engaged in educating.
If there's one word that orients this collection, it is love. Almost every essay mentions love as a necessary element of the work described, as student activities administrators seek to create spaces where students feel welcomed and supported and as students describe their experiences in such spaces. "Cultural leaders," Jenkins writes, function out of "deep connection, commitment, and loyalty to a community" that is "rooted in love. Cultural leaders are driven by an ethic of love" (p. 57). It is cultural leaders that student affairs professionals in this collection aim to develop, and, I would argue, it is also cultural leaders that these professionals aim to be themselves. The reader cannot help but see how the identities and experiences of the people in these administrative roles matter, and how the same conversations occurring around teaching and mentoring in other institutional situations are relevant to this sometimes invisible field. I come away from Open Mic Night convinced that representation is critical to the field of student activities. The contributors' passion for their work comes through clearly, based as it is in their own lived experiences of alienation and belonging.
The way the collection is organized allows us to become familiar with the voices of the four contributing editors as they explore diverse facets of the topic through multiple brief, focused chapters. Each chapter is written by one of the editors and is followed by a poem reflecting its themes. These poems are introduced by their authors, in each case a current or former participant in college spoken word poetry. While spoken word poems do not always translate well to the page, and some of these pieces struggle to carry their weight without the artist's presence, their content reveals much about who the students are who participate in campus-based poetry events and how powerfully such students are affected by these opportunities.
There is one distracting moment in this collection that I would be remiss not to note, as it reflects a point of tension within contemporary spoken word poetry. The author of the introduction, Robb Ryan Q. Thibault, was an organizer of the first College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) in 2001. CUPSI has become a major site for poets at the juncture between youth and adult scenes; between the 19-and-under context of the Brave New Voices festival and the adult context of the National Poetry Slam, as it were. While Open Mic Night as a whole is primarily concerned with non-competitive poetry activities, Thibault's essay is about poetry slam, the competitive format for spoken word poetry. It opens with an epigraph from Marc Smith, the Chicago poet often credited with creating slam. The epigraph describes slam as a place where participants celebrate "their differences" and "difference" while remaining "a part of the family" (p. 1). The introduction ends on the same note, with Thibault citing a statistic from a survey of CUPSI participants in which "55% of students felt respect for differences of political views at our campus poetry slam" (p. 5). This would be troubling to any student activities administrator, surely, and it causes Thibault to ask, "Can freedom of expression truly coexist with inclusion as we pursue building community?" (p. 5). This is an open question, of course, and not just for college campuses. Thibault's solution is civility: "Educators must facilitate learning that helps students to rediscover civility in order to resolve conflict" so we might get back to the goal Smith named at the introduction's start, and which Thibault summarizes thusly: "to celebrate and understand our differences" (p. 5).
Open Mic Night was published in 2017, the same year that saw a protest against the feature poet on the stage of CUPSI finals. The feature poet? Marc Smith, who performed a poem critical of the identitarian turn he feels slam has taken. Thibault believes in Smith's view of the slam, however, it is exactly this view that is being challenged at the moment this book appears, which makes his essay, and the collection as a whole, critical to the current moment. The fact is, the whole country is wrestling with the limitations of an ideology that privileges "civility" over uncomfortable truth-telling and historical reckoning. We cannot celebrate a diversity we do not fully understand, and coming to the deep, complicated understanding that is required is painful. As Endsley notes:
Spoken word poetry and performance have political potential as tools for social activism because of the power of language and cultural representation, and because of the direct link that poetry culture has with youth who are otherwise not engaged seriously as political actors. (p. 68)
Civility and celebration are the wrong goals for such a process, especially when they suggest a nostalgia for a time before more diverse bodies and voices were part of the discourse (watch the 1998 documentary SlamNation for a quick reminder of how white, straight, and male poetry slam was 20 years ago). Fortunately, Open Mic Night's overarching concerns are about justice, not civility, about honest communication, not celebration, and it is, therefore, a book that is necessary and timely.