Theresa Tensuan ’89 has spent much of her career at Haverford College. After graduating from Haverford in 1989 and attending an English PhD program at the University of California, Berkley, she joined the Haverford faculty as an assistant professor of English in 2002 and became Dean of Multicultural Affairs in 2011. Among other responsibilities as Dean, Theresa is responsible for supporting the Ambassadors of Multicultural Awareness, the Chesick Scholars program, the Rufus Jones Leadership Institute, and other such programs, while developing programming for the Ira Reid House/Black Cultural Center and engaging with affinity groups on campus.
I’m Stephen Profeta, a senior majoring in English. A few days ago, I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Theresa to chat about her sophomore year in college and the intellectual transformations she underwent.
Stephen Profeta: Just a minute ago, before we turned on the recorder, you were making a point about reflecting.
Dean Theresa Tensuan: This is a really interesting moment to have to think back to sophomore year because I just found the journal I was keeping at the time – really illuminating to see the kinds of issues that came up for me for the first time in sophomore year that became important points of orientation for me as I moved forward in life. As a sophomore in late 80s this was a moment for me coming to an understanding and awareness of structural oppression focused on gender differences and divisions. This moment of political awakening was around feminism and finding in feminism a kind of language and set of frameworks that help me name certain things that were happening in the world that I experienced but didn’t have a framework for understanding in that particular moment. A real intellectual risk I took was in taking a feminist theory course. That was terrifying to me because I was one of two sophomores in a class primarily composed of seniors, in which it was clear other people had thought a lot more about these experiences than I had. What started off as a terrifying experience ended up as one of the most robust intellectual experiences that I was able to have as a college student so that was a good point of orientation.
I was beginning to grapple with how an issue might play out in someone’s lived reality. So for example there was an exhibition in the sunken lounge put together by the Women*s Center looking at images in pornography. The exhibition tried to make sense of the interrelationship between how we see highly stylized violent images and violence against women more generally. It was my first entrance into what became a more activist and scholarly question of how we understand pornography as a representation and production of our culture. Thinking back and looking at the journal, sophomore year was a time in which I contended with the fact that my way of looking at the world was only one way of looking at the world.
SP: Sounds like sophomore year became a period where, more than developing a certain viewpoint, you developed a way of engaging with ideas. Was there something about that period of time or the setting you were in that made that transformation possible?
TT: That’s a really good question. I think there is something about being at a small, liberal arts college that enables one to develop a 360º perspective on an idea or question or issue because those questions of free speech and civil discourse come up in interesting ways. For example, when you have students advocating for trigger warnings to mark material that might catalyze an emotive response while at the same time listening to faculty in Gender/Sexuality concentrations who were talking about how the space for open exchange might be constricted by the concerns being raised. As someone who teaches material that might often be considered obscene it is something I am really aware of. Also to think about black out boards: how do we understand civil discourse in terms of how we understand the language we use?; how might we attend to how people’s responses are motivated by histories of structural oppression?
There are ways in which these questions play out in a seminar classroom as opposed to where I was living sophomore year – Barclay Hall in a double. These are questions that as a student you have the opportunity and pressure to actively engage with because you are surrounded this by 24 hours a day (well, hopefully you are getting some sleep). Hopefully this is really generative because you are thinking about this outside the classroom but in situations where you are engaging with people in the library, on the field, and in the drop spot space.
SP: To contextualize that conversation, what kind of activities were you doing and in what kinds of places were these conversations happening?
TT: I’m going to try and get this right. As a sophomore, I was no longer writing for the bi-co news.
SP: That ended within a year?
TT: I had a good freshman run, but I stopped that [laughs]. I started becoming involved in the Asian Student Association. It was a time at which there was a national conversation on reparations for Japanese interned Americans. I was learning about a history that was never conveyed to me in my small town in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, where we never got beyond the Civil War in history class. Involvement [in ASA] gave me an understanding of how issues around racialized identities were playing out. I was also working in the admissions office, located at that point in Hilles Hall. Asian students association.
I was also volunteering at the Women’s Law Project as a hotline coordinator. I hung around a lot in the Woman*s Center. I never got elevated to the position of intern but I soaked up a lot of time there [laughs]. That was the year the Women*s Center brought the Indigo Girls, a nationally recognized female folk duo. I met them in basement of dc, a cave like place with the smell of dishwater next door and acme brand soda. Haverford was full of those opportunities: of course you can go to reception with visiting artist and hang out with them with broken down couch. It was also the first year I was taking classes over at Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr and students were very key part of my experience.
SP: It sounds like campus opened up for you in a new way that year. when did you start picking a major?
TT: I had entered school invested in English, but on a pre-med track. Sophomore year was a year of recalibration. I had taken chemistry first semester of freshman year, then organic chemistry second semester if you can imagine that. Strangely, in my tiny rural school, we had a great chemistry teacher, so I had great preparation to do science. But I found I had very little interest in it so the vision of the pre-med track developed into being fully invested in English. The initial course in feminist theory became a concentration in feminist and women’s studies. First year I just replicated my high school schedule: a science, a math, a language, and a humanities. Sophomore year was a year of exploring different disciplines. For example, I took a Bryn Mawr east asian studies course and took courses in disciplines I had only the faintest understanding of. One of the projects in a sociology class was putting together a survey to asses perspective on education from students from different socio-economic backgrounds. It wasn’t until I got to school [that] I realized what a privilege it was to be at such an institution. I have not thought about that course [since, but] we had to draft the questionnaire and final on typewriters. When you did a draft you rewrote the entire thing.
SP: Must have taken a lot of time.
TT: It did, it did [laughs]. There were probably months of my life that I will never get back because I had to retype these but there was something there in terms of reliving those words again. Production of knowledge was really labor intensive and I think there was something to that.
SP: It’s so interesting that you were a Haverford student – the campus of your sophomore year and of today sound like similar but different places.
TT: There have been fundamental transformations, but I also feel that there are certain things which are the same. Marilou Allen was a huge part of my landscape and was an incredibly important role model for me for learning how to live my life with honor and integrity. There were people who I could go to – including Steve Watter – for advice. And I wouldn’t always follow it [laughs] but I always knew the advice was coming from their best sense of what was right. They were advisors who I wouldn’t think twice about knocking on the door of. In fact, I don’t think I ever made an appointment that whole year. I would drop by unexpectedly all the time just to share [what I was going through].
SP: You’ve mentioned a number of intersections between activities and classes – was that intentional, or did it just come up over the course of the year?
TT: I don’t know if I was conscious of that at that point, and being at Haverford helped me see what those interrelationships were. An experience in which seeing ‘wow, that conversation we had about ways in which women are socialized to take on particular roles’ is happening in this committee meeting helped me be able to see how what I was learning in the classroom could be animated, realizing that ‘wow this is actual useful knowledge to have.’ Understanding how a college campus like Haverford is a place where you can work through and challenge your perception of the world, that was a critical dynamic: I learned to name and understand that that was happening.
SP: In terms of living on campus, was there a transition moving to a new living space?
TT: I had applied to be a customs team and we got turned down, so we were kind of scrambling. Looking back on it I think the customs committee made the right choice. [laughs] Looking back at my diary, they made the right choice. I came into school as a 16 year old – I had my 17th birthday during customs week my freshman year; I was really, really young. My roommate Kim and I got a really low room draw. Room draw my freshmen year was one of the most stressful experiences I had at school. We finally drew a double in Barclay [on a Freshman hall] and had the wonderful experience of being on the hall and off the hall. It was interesting because sophomore year it was really about contending with how I’m not going to be a physician and need to think more intentionally about my education. The guy I was dating at the time was thinking of transferring, raising the issue of what was my role here. There were a lot of really fundamental life things happening during that year, so I was choosing a path that didn’t necessarily have a clear outcome. There was something lively and comforting about being in a first year hall, and was also nice to be around people going through that period of discovery themselves.
SP: A period of letting go of certainties and accepting the uncertainty?
TT: Sure, absolutely. I’m not a person who does very well with uncertainty – I like to know whats on the itinerary. It was good for me, because it was very much about taking risks.
SP: One last question: do you have any advice you would like to give, looking back on your time as a sophomore?
TT: I should have thought of this ahead of time. Oh gosh, everything is sounding so cliched like ‘enjoy the moment.’ I would like to have said to myself that things aren’t going to turn out the way you would expect, and thats going to be a really good thing. it was really that sense of understanding that this is going to be such a transformative year and maybe its just about being open to change. Let go of the desire to hold onto something safe and secure and be open to change, because it will be a time of difficult but beautifully unexpected change…
[after some brainstorming]
Sophomore year like this year of ongoing chiropractic adjustments: all the components are there, you are just trying to align them in a way that gives you the equilibrium you need; so much is there, but very little has been realized. Trim things back in order to let others grow. The thing which you thought was the weed might actually be the thing that sustains you.
SP: And chemistry might actually turn out to be the weed.
TT: [laughs] Right, right!