Erica Rand, Whitehouse Professor

Established by David Whitehouse, Class of 1936, and his wife Constance Whitehouse, in honor of their family, this professorship recognizes qualities of “the Bates character”: freedom of enterprise, religion and expression; educational and ethical excellence; and respect for the dignity of all people. The Whitehouse Professor may teach in any discipline.

From remarks by Emily W. Kane, professor of sociology and immediate past holder of the Whitehouse Professorship at a March 8, 2012, reception honoring six Bates faculty members appointed to named professorships. (Read about the event.)

I asked myself, how could I capture just briefly the range of teaching, scholarship, activism, and campus and community contribution that has characterized Erica’s 20-plus years as a faculty member here at Bates?

Sure, she’s a respected expert on race, gender, and sexuality in contemporary culture–with particular focus on queer and transsexualities and genders. But how could I briefly capture what that means?  Here’s what feels like a crucial underlying thread to me:

  •  Erica homes in on the neatly and even slickly packaged commodities, ideas, narratives and outcomes she sees around her, the things that are spun and obscured by powerful interests, and challenges us all to look at them in new ways.
  •  Many of you probably know one of the earlier objects of this kind of queer reading on Erica’s part was none other than Barbie, and her wonderfully transgressive book Barbie’s Queer Accessories is still in print, cited and used often, even more than 15 years after it was first published.
  •  Her next book took a totally new kind of queer look at the narrative, and the kitsch, surrounding Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and U.S. immigration policy; and the title The Ellis Island Snow Globe, gives you a hint of the way she uses the kitsch to anchor a complex argument about what’s slickly hidden in the way the U.S. immigration story is told.
  •  Soon to appear is her third book, and again, we get a practice surrounded by a neat, pretty discursive package that she forces us to see in a whole new way: figure skating. That new book, coming out this spring, is called Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash and Pleasure on and off the Ice. (And I should note that this work includes much gleaned from Erica’s own achievements as an adult figure skater, including competing at the Gay Games!)
  •  Erica’s queer readings in these books aren’t just an amusing new way of seeing something familiar; they are deeply challenging readings that dig past complacent privilege and legitimizing narratives to reveal inequalities, vested interests; and problematic structures, but also to reveal the pleasures and transgressive agency of marginalized identities.

And that approach is what Erica brings not just to her books, but to the many other contributions she makes:

  •  as chair of our program in Women and Gender Studies (currently serving her second term);
  •  as an editorial board member at journals like Radical Teacher, Criticism, and the queer, feminist anti-racist sex magazine Salacious;
  •  as a teacher of courses like “Visualizing Race; Sexuality and the Study of Visual Culture”; or her first-year seminar on “Sex and Sexualities”;
  •  as an activist and advocate for people of all genders and sexualities here at Bates and in our broader communities, through OUTFront here on campus and Outright Lewiston-Auburn; and through her commitment, as chair of the Athletics Committee, to working with our Athletics Department to create one of the first transgender inclusion policies in college athletics;
  •  and as a campus community member who is always ready to unwrap what’s too neatly packaged in the story we tell about ourselves here at Bates, to ask the hard questions and offer a new reading that challenges the rest of us to live up to our own institutional rhetoric and aspirations.

For all these reasons, Erica, I’m so glad to be here to congratulate you and tell everyone a bit about what you do. But I also encourage everyone to come back next year for the full-blown event in her honor, where you’ll get to hear Erica do it more fully in her own words, because that’s when things will get really interesting!