Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

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Diversity Statement

My research and teaching are each informed by my commitment to helping to build a more just and inclusive world. One of the questions that animates my scholarship has to do with the ways in which the formal features of texts can either express or occlude social differences. In my current book project, for instance, I am interested in how novels register certain groups as disposable or superfluous, not only through depictions of characters but also through the formal operations of narrative. Meanwhile, my courses aim to help students think critically about seemingly neutral categories—especially categories like nature, property, and personhood. I want students to learn that these concepts are neither static nor neutral but intersect with issues of race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality. For instance, in my course on literature and the environment, we analyze the concept of the American wilderness through the critical lens of race. Through readings of both fiction and criticism, students come to understand how the idea of an untouched natural world is linked to a white supremacist imaginary that has cast indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans as environmental contaminants. I also incorporate contemporary events and media into my lessons to help students see how what we are learning in class connects with their present lives. In a recent class session on environmental racism, I began by showing news footage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Although the story broke in early 2016, the Flint community is still feeling the effects of this infrastructural disaster. In the remainder of class, we looked at the artist Pope.L’s Flint Water Project. For this installation and performance, Pope.L bottled contaminated water from the Flint River in expensive artistic editions and then sold them to consumers as a way to raise money for local non-profits. The Flint Water Project also disseminated the psychological stress of living under toxic conditions—conditions that are felt disproportionately by poor and minority communities. Over the course of our discussion, students came to understand how factors like race and class mediate access to basic resources like clean drinking water. They also learned to appreciate the ways in which artists draw attention to these infrastructural inequities by deploying objects and materials in unconventional ways.

As a teacher, I am committed to finding ways to mentor a diverse student population—to help students recognize and realize their intellectual and professional goals, especially when they face structural barriers. At the University of Chicago, I worked for two years as a preceptor with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Program, an initiative that aims to increase diversity in higher education institutions by offering academic resources to students of color and other underrepresented groups. In this role, I had the privilege of working with students from liberal arts colleges and research universities across the country. I met with the students in Chicago and, over the course of a ten-week program, led intensive weekly tutorials that helped them develop and carry out an independent research project. I also provided sustained mentorship in weekly individual meetings. My students’ projects treated a range of topics—from the representation of race in digital self-portraiture, to the critique of globalization in contemporary Arab art, to the legacies of colonial violence in contemporary Latina/o/x literature. Working with Mellon Mays has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life: it gave me the opportunity to advise a diverse group of students on projects that mattered deeply to them, and it allowed me to form lasting mentoring relationships in the process.

Because I recognize that my own perspective is and always will be limited, I am committed to remaining engaged in the ongoing project of listening to and learning from others. At the University of Chicago, I attended programs and workshops on topics such as anti-racist pedagogy, gender in the classroom, and teaching race in canonical Western texts. At Rice, I sought out additional training in teaching and mentoring first-generation and low-income college students. Through events and programs like these—and through dialogue with students and colleagues—I have learned the importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of those who have been silenced. As someone who identifies as gender nonbinary and experiences misgendering with some frequency, I know what it is like to feel illegible or out of place in an institutional setting. Whether I am leading a class discussion or mentoring students individually, my priority is to create a space in which all of my students will feel both welcome and heard.