The People Who Teach Us: Professor Rachel Cantave

Back in February, Voices interviewed Professor Cantave primarily on her research, her path to professorship, and her reflections on her first semester at Swarthmore. Later, Voices interviews  Professor Cantave again, about her full reflections after a year at Swarthmore and her new position at Skidmore College. Our first professor  profile was released in February.

Professor Rachel Cantave is a professor in Latin American and Latino Studies, and sometimes has courses cross-listed with Black Studies and Anthropology. Her research interests include Afro-Brazilian religion and religious traditions, but she has also produced films and documentaries about other topics such as immigration. Last semester, she taught a course on contemporary Brazil, and this semester, she taught a course on colorism primarily in Latin-America and the Caribbean.

As a Haitian-American woman from West Chester county, right outside of the Bronx, she reflects on her upbringing, being the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She told Voices, “While my mom finished up her Associate’s degree, I stayed with my grandmother [in Haiti] a year and did sorta pre-K there. And then I used to go back with my cousins every summer and we would spend the summer there with my grandmother ‘cause it’s cheaper than paying for camp, right?” These experiences were super influential for her, though she had to stop visiting as frequently, due to violence and political tensions in the 90s. She continues to return about every two years, often to visit family, but at times for more “touristy” operations such as filming a documentary or attending a conference. As such, she identifies heavily with Haiti, and this shows in her academic work.

One of her most recent projects is a documentary about two Haitian immigrants who went to Mexico and were trying to get into the United States. The film is getting a lot of attention, but she is sad about the ongoing relevance of the documentary,“because a few years ago [Trump] called Haiti a ‘shithole’ country.” She takes pride in the documentary, and how it deviates from the dominant norms of portraying Haiti or Haitians.  “I think it does a good job of showing two Haitian men as regular people, like regular people. Like they’re in an unfortunate circumstance… but it’s not despair. It’s not glossing over Haitians—thousands of dark bodies just trying to get through the wall. You know it’s really just about two people who share a really impactful experience.”

Cantave also emphasizes shared experiences with Swarthmore students. While in school, she says, “I was a nerd. I liked to read. I loved school. I think it depended on my teachers.” She had some that she really enjoyed, but as she got older, she had some that she really hated, though she continued to enjoy school as a whole. At the time, she wasn’t able to really process the reasons behind that, but has reflected on these reasons now, in her adulthood. “So my parents bought a home when I was entering middle school in a working class black community of West Chester, and that district is sort of cut up between two different schools: a school that’s primarily black, and then a school that’s primarily white,” she explains. She got bussed into the white school because that school didn’t have a lot of diversity, and was then surrounded by people who didn’t look like her, coming from communities that also didn’t have a lot of diversity.

“It was a really weird experience,” she begins. “And I felt all the microaggressions all the time, but didn’t really have the language for it. But it made me angry because school was my happy place, and I felt like people were taking that away from me.” This was a huge catalyst for her decision to pursue professorship, a reaction to her ambivalent high school experiences, wherein she wasn’t taught the kind of history she wanted, nor did she always have positive interactions with faculty and staff.

“For example, I remember my guidance counselor telling me not to bother applying to Columbia or NYU, and I ended up going to NYU. But if my parents weren’t the type of people to be like ‘I don’t care what he says. You’re going to apply to all the schools!’ What would’ve happened to me?”

Cantave really loved her college experience at NYU, and was part of a pre-college program for low-income students of color. A lot of the students were coming from under-resourced schools, and though she doesn’t know if the program itself was successful for providing tools towards being prepared for the university, it was socially successful. The students in the program became her best friends throughout her entire time at NYU. At that time the campus was about 7% African-American, and so she and her friends naturally stuck together. When other Black people came to the school, they became a part of their friend group as well, and “that was the support system I needed to get through NYU.”

“And at that point in my life, I started taking courses to understand my identity and try to understand all the things that were frustrating for me about being a young, Haitian black woman in this white space, and also just in this American space where people were always like ‘Oh, Haiti’s poor’ and like ‘Oh, Haiti’s violent’ and like ‘Oh, voodoo’s evil.’” The courses, often in Anthropology and about the histories of Latin-America and the Caribbean, helped her process all of that. These courses also helped her feel more confident, and grow “intellectually, personally, spiritually.”

Her teaching experience is broad and goes beyond the traditional classroom model. She began tutoring at NYU to help make money towards living expenses. She said, “I knew I liked learning things in the classroom and I kinda wanted to imitate that.” She was also involved in a program where she taught English for business professionals and other professionals. Additionally, she worked for an organization that paired Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs with African-American mentors in the U.S. on how to create their own business, then gave them grants to aid their businesses back in Brazil. Cantave remembers having one Black professor at NYU, an artist who taught a course on Black and African spirituality. This was the first time her specific interest in professorship was sparked, as she didn’t know many professors in her family or prior to college.

After leaving the program in Brazil, Cantave reached out to a mentor at NYU who informed her that she would need a PhD to pursue professorship, so she began looking for PhD programs. She completed her graduate studies at American University while also being a teaching assistant (TA) to a number of courses. The courses she TA’ed for included anthropology courses on poverty and the difference between gender and sexuality. “Some of those were great, and some less great. Sometimes I was given a lot of autonomy to devise my own teaching plan and like teach the course, and sometimes I would just grade papers for the professor. It just depended on who I was working with.” These were her first real college teaching experiences. One of the lessons she learned and continues to expand upon is how to take students’ comments and questions and link them to the experiences they have had themselves. “Students are not afraid to share their thoughts on how I can make my courses better which is great. And the students’ interest in learning as much as they can encouraged me to be more creative pedagogically. The fact that it is customary at Swarthmore for students to frequent office hours and not specifically to go over a grade or exam has meant that I’ve gotten a lot of experience mentoring which is something I love to do,” she expressed.

One thing Cantave thinks is important to mention for other folks interested in acquiring their PhD is  the issue of funding. “While I was writing my dissertation, I wasn’t receiving my stipend anymore. We were only funded through coursework, then you had to find your own funding to do fieldwork -- which I did, I got a Fulbright to do research in Brazil—and then when I came back to DC to write my dissertation, I had no more funding.”

After a full educational trajectory, Professor Cantave has spent a year teaching here at Swarthmore; through that she has learned that she really enjoys working in a small, liberal arts college environment. Her previous experience was at two big universities—NYU and American University—so this was a nice change of scenery for her. She said,  “This was my first experience with a small liberal arts college... I like the smaller classrooms. I enjoy the collegiality between faculty. Although my time here has been limited, I feel like I was able to learn a lot more  in this environment about how colleges work than I would have at a large research institution.”

She has recently accepted a professor position at Skidmore College, and lists her experience at Swarthmore as a reason for why she looked for another small liberal arts environment.  At Skidmore, she’ll teach the courses she taught here at Swarthmore, as well as “a cultural studies course in the international affairs program that looks at how culture interacts with politics, economies, and conflicts around the world.”

Additionally, as a reflection on her time at Swarthmore, Cantave really appreciates that “students are not afraid to share their thoughts on how [she] can make the courses better.” A lot of the benefits of teaching here also challenged her as a professor and as a researcher, as she had to manage her time while mentoring and speaking with students. “As a junior faculty member looking to publish my own research… I can’t forget about my own research and creative and personal endeavors as well.” She’ll miss a lot of the faculty in her program, such as Professor Christopher Fraga, as well as other faculty friends in Religion, Modern Languages, and Black Studies.

Her time at Swarthmore taught her that “I truly believe in what I do.” She understands that “Students are sometimes skeptical of academia, and as a woman of color, I get it!” Her desire to mentor students was a large part of why she became a professor. She remains dedicated to showing, often through her syllabi and her courses, a diversity of scholars and experiences, in part, as a form of inspiration for marginalized students interested in academic. She continues to provide more advice for future educators of color, and particularly Black educators and professors on her blog, and says,   If you’re interested in going to grad school to get a PhD check out my blog theebonytower.com. All my advice is either on the website or definitely on our podcast!

Cantave added, “And also, not that I agree with this, but if professors symbolize for society the people who hold and create knowledge, how important is it for us to see, within that supposed class of people who create and expound knowledge, that it looks like me?”