Intellectual freedom and joining the pie-eating contest
As Assistant Professor of English Michelle Chihara enters her sixth and final year of tenure track, she takes comfort in an observation her friend made about academia, namely that it is a lot like a pie-eating contest — when you win, you get more pie.
The purpose of tenure is to guarantee academic freedom. With tenure track lines diminishing in recent years and more academics being hired in contingent ways, Chihara expressed that, for her, the potential stability and intellectual freedom tenure provides would “feel like an enormous privilege in today’s world.” Chihara’s hope to see tenure track opportunities increase in the future stems from her firm belief that higher education and academic freedom are vital components of a healthy democracy.
A native of Berkeley, Calif., Chihara’s ancestral roots stretch across the globe, from Japan to Romania and Russia. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English at Yale University, Chihara decided to sell everything she owned and move to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she spent a year studying Capoeira, stringing for American newspapers, and teaching English to Brazilian executives. After returning to the U.S., Chihara received both her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and her Ph.D. in English at the University of California Irvine.
Chihara was always bound for a life in the world of letters. Starved of television as a child, she developed a fierce hunger for cultural education. Prior to the debasement and corporatization of the Internet, Chihara also pioneered online journalism, inspired by the “democratic promise of that new medium.” Her passion for media, popular culture, and story-telling has always been there. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in those things,” said Chihara. “It’s just been a process of figuring out how to survive financially while also writing the things that I want to write.”
That process landed her here. Chihara’s home, life, and family are deeply rooted in Los Angeles. “That was true when I was finishing grad school,” she said, “and having difficult conversations with my husband about where we would consider moving.” Chihara was wrapping up her dissertation when she came across an advertisement for a postdoctoral position at a liberal arts college in Whittier, commuting distance from her home, seeking someone with an MFA who had published fiction and could teach creative writing, journalism, and Latinx/Chicanx literature (which she studied at UC Irvine and considers a major part of the contemporary American canon). Naturally, she thought, ‘they are looking for me! How many of us can there be?’
The first class Chihara taught at Whittier was on Guillermo Gómez-Peña, an influential Chicano performance artist from the ‘90s. “He was a really important writer in my personal history,” she said, “and I taught my sample class about his work — it all felt very destined to be.” Chihara’s stars were definitely aligned. Though, that is not to say that the opportunity to teach here did not come without its share of challenges. “Two kids, multiple writing projects, and teaching — it’s hard to balance it all,” said Chihara, “but it’s what I want. People spend long periods of their lives looking for work that feels meaningful and rewarding to them, and getting to work with the people here has been that.”
While the writing and editing she does “keeps [her] alive and sustains [her] soul,” what Chihara has come to love most about Whittier is its students. When President Oubré first started here and invited faculty to come meet with her, Chihara initially thought to bring her resume. Instead, she decided, “I’m going to bring a PowerPoint with pictures of my students, and I’m just going to tell stories about them and see if I can make her cry — and I think I basically got there.” Chihara told Oubré about things students have said to her over the years — when they graduate, when they get into grad school, when they do things they never thought they could.
Chihara has also shared her Whittier experience with colleagues from more prestigious institutions, and oftentimes they’re jealous. Many of the students they encounter tend to view their education as a commodity, a pay-for-play experience. On balance, Chihara has found that her students approach theirs very differently. She appreciates the humanities for their tendency to view their endeavors as more than boxes to check in pursuit of a diploma. “We want to make money and survive,” she said, “but we are not doing this just to make money and survive.” Remarkably, this seems to extend to virtually all disciplines offered at Whittier, which Chihara believes is what makes this institution a special one.
Chief among Chihara’s aspirations as an educator is to bring to the fore communities long confined to the peripheries of academia and society at large. “This world is getting increasingly difficult for everyone but the top 0.1 percent,” said Chihara, “and I don’t have the solutions to all of that, but to the extent that I feel like I’m able to open the world of letters and intellectual life — even if just for a few people — it’s an honor and a privilege. It’s the whole reason to be here.”
The students occupying Chihara’s classrooms are often first-generation, female, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and people from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds. “Showing those people that they are part of this conversation, that they should feel entitled to have a voice,” said Chihara, “and then to see some of them out there in the world being able to live that — it makes it all worthwhile.”
Chihara recognizes that the academy is a tough place, particularly for women of color, and admits she has certainly faced her share of nonsense. However, she underscored the fact that “it is also the place where I’ve found the writers, theorists, and colleagues who share my values and intellectual commitments.” Never one to shy away from injecting critical theory into a conversation, Chihara said she shares Pierre Bourdieu’s view of higher education as a place of social distinction. She also made clear, though, that that takes nothing away from her belief in the vision of higher education Paulo Freire outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “It’s always been a place of radical thinking and social change,” said Chihara. “It’s very important to me that you and other people feel that way.”
At Whittier, the tenure process is based on a file written by the candidate, which narrates what they have done and what they are working on in regards to teaching, research, and service. A committee reviews the file after three and five years, and then the sixth year the candidate goes up for tenure. At that point, Chihara explained, “the committee reviews everything you’ve done and then either pats you on the back and says, ‘welcome to job security’ or tells you it’s insufficient.”
Reflecting on her own experience throughout this process, Chihara expressed that, on the one hand, “trying to manage the different demands of what the major wants, what the institution wants, what I want — that’s all been challenging.” On the other hand, Whittier is a teaching-focused institution, which means there is less pressure to publish than there would be at a research-focused one. “That has been freeing in some ways,” said Chihara, “because I get to teach a lot of what I want to teach, and I can use whatever research time I find to do what I think is important. So, I feel very lucky.”
In addition to teaching, advising, serving on the Faculty Affairs Committee of the College, and serving as the Economics & Finance section editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Chihara recently co-edited The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics, which was published last year. She also recently returned from Sydney, Australia, where she attended an interdisciplinary workshop on the emergence of the “asset economy” and presented on material she covers in her forthcoming book, the working title of which is: Behave! The Cultural Turn to Behavioral Economics in American Popular Media.
“This is where I want to be. This is what I want to be doing,” said Chihara. “For a long time I felt like I was outside the pie-eating contest. Now, I’m definitely in. I have lots of pie.”