When Harvard University denied tenure to renowned Latinx scholar Dr. Lorgia García Peña, the decision sparked outrage across the academy. Ethnic studies students held protests. Faculty signed petitions. Her case became a rallying cry for those who saw ethnic studies as undervalued or undermined at their institutions, despite university leaders’ promises to invest in inclusion.
During this moment of upheaval, a small group of faculty took García Peña’s plight to perhaps the largest academic forum of them all — academic Twitter.
In a social media movement they called “Ethnic Studies Rise,” the three professors — Dr. Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann, Dr. Raj Chetty and Dr. Alex Gil — organized an online roundtable to discuss the problems facing ethnic studies and a Twitter campaign called #LorgiaFest, where academics tweeted parts of García Peña’s work to engage with her scholarship. In support, Duke University Press made the online version of García Peña’s book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, available for free online for a limited time.
“We really wanted to express solidarity with García Peña, with other people like her, who in almost every case are facing challenges for who they are in addition to the work they do — in García Peña’s case, a Black Latina working on things that challenge a common and dominant understanding of what counts as knowledge, what counts as work, what counts as meaningful contributions to scholarship,” says Chetty, an assistant professor of Black literature and culture at San Diego State University.
García Peña, Harvard University’s Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor of Romance, taught courses on Latinx studies, Hispanic Caribbean literature and culture; performance studies, race and ethnicity; transnational feminism; migration and human rights; and Dominican and Dominican diaspora studies, according to her faculty bio. She also co-founded Freedom University in Georgia, which prepares undocumented students for higher education. Her tenure denial shocked colleagues who knew her for her strong credentials and well-respected, research-heavy work.
The public fight for García Peña’s tenure started as early as last spring with a student letter-writing campaign in favor of her case. Students held a sit-in at University Hall on Dec. 2 and a silent protest at a faculty meeting the next day where students held up signs with messages like “Want diversity? Teach our histories.” They also sent an open letter, which 200 students and 30 student groups signed, according to the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, alongside a separate letter from other Harvard affiliates.
On Dec. 9, a faculty letter followed, signed by 200 scholars across the U.S. and beyond, including famed authors like Angela Davis and bell hooks.
The letter called García Peña an “internationally-recognized leader in Latinx Studies and Dominican Studies” and critiqued the university for neglecting these fields. It also described her tenure rejection as a setback to attracting “top talent” in Latinx scholarship, counter to Harvard University’s diversity goals.
Inspired by Harvard student activism, Gonzalez Seligmann — an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean literature and history at Emerson College — called together her colleagues to create Ethnic Studies Rise.
When the two-month project concluded at the end of January, the roundtable consisted of eight online discussions, featuring eighteen scholars. Meanwhile, 52 posts used the #LorgiaFest hashtag with an estimated social media reach of 27,527 people. The print copy of García Peña’s book, offered at 30% off, sold out because of high demand.
“It exceeded our expectations,” she said. The group was “awed” by the response.
The goals of the social media campaign were “humble,” Gonzalez Seligmann says. She didn’t expect Harvard to change its tenure decision, which, in fact, it didn’t. But to some extent, she wanted to shift the conversation away from Harvard, focusing instead on García Peña’s work.
García Peña’s book — The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction — won several prizes: the 2017 National Women’s Studies Association Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, the 2016 LASA Latino/a Studies Book Award and the 2016 Isis Duarte Book Prize in Haiti and Dominican Studies. Her current research project, “Translating Blackness: Migrations and Detours of Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspectives,” studies how Black Latin American migrants engage with race.
While a tenure decision has “material and symbolic power,” Gonzalez Seligmann hoped to convey that tenure isn’t the only way to judge the rigor, standing and impact of an academic’s scholarship.
“I was one of many who held her up as a role model,” she says. The Twitter campaign was an opportunity for people to assert that “she still holds that place for so many of us.”
She also felt like the “collective crisis moment” called for a platform for ethnic studies scholars to show solidarity with one another and to talk about how universities’ “purported commitments to diversity, inclusion and equity line up with the state of fields like ethnic studies, Black studies, Latinx studies and
Before Ethnic Studies Rise, Gonzalez Seligmann didn’t even have a Twitter account. Chetty had one, but he was a notorious “retweeter,” he says. It was Gil who helped them navigate this unfamiliar world. But the group soon found the platform to be a powerful tool for organizing the ethnic studies community.
In a way, ethnic studies and social media seem like a natural fit, Chetty notes, because ethnic studies is all about breaking down barriers and hierarchies, a mission made easier by mediums like Twitter.
Faculty of color often feel isolated as minorities in their departments and institutions, but social media “can create a place to sort of find community,” he says. “Not that that would erase all the challenges of being in predominantly White spaces, where your scholarship and your person may be challenged, but it can create some kind of outlet.”
Ethnic studies also inherently involves an interdisciplinary approach, he adds, so a far-reaching medium like Twitter — where Black studies scholars, Latinx studies scholars and others can interact — just furthers what ethnic studies scholars have been doing all along, engaging in dialogue with each other.
“It’s not that we had to reinvent the wheel,” Chetty says. “The wheel was already there. It was already rolling.”
Social media is a public-facing platform, as well, which is a good match for a discipline invested in public scholarship, Gonzalez Seligmann notes. Many ethnic studies scholars want their work to include “a look to the public and engagement outside of the academy.” With Twitter, it’s not just that academics can more easily tune into each other’s work — in theory, anybody can.
After Ethnic Studies Rise, Gonzalez Seligmann doesn’t know how she lived without academic Twitter, she jokes. She and her colleagues are excited to see the ripple effects of the online conversations scholars are continuing to have in the aftermath of García Peña’s tenure case.
While Gonzalez Seligmann recognizes social media is far from perfect, as an ethnic studies scholar, sometimes “it’s hard to remember that you’re part of an intellectual community that is broader,” she says. “And I think what academic Twitter does is remind you of that every day.”
This article appeared in the Feb. 20, 2020 edition of Diverse.