Hailing from New Mexico, Karen Roybal is a professor in the Colorado College Southwest Studies Department. This week, The Catalyst sat down with Professor Roybal to learn about the department, some of her experiences, a few hopes she has, and her life outside of CC.
The Catalyst: What is unique about the Colorado College Department of Southwest Studies?
Karen Roybal: I think what’s unique about it is that we provide a pretty holistic understanding of the Southwest through a critical regional approach. For instance, I am coming out of an American studies program, my colleague Santiago comes out of an anthropology program, and my colleague Eric comes out of a geography program. So we each bring a pretty unique perspective in terms of the interdisciplinarity of the program. But I also think that it helps us to create this holistic sort of understanding for our students, from the humanities and social science perspective, right? And then we do a lot of place-based learning, which is also pretty unique. And, especially since the college is located in the Rocky Mountain West, it allows us to actually show our students what we’re attempting to theorize in class.
TC: Where are you from and what drew you from there to here?
KR: So I’m from New Mexico, which is not too far away. I grew up in a really small town just outside of Santa Fe. And I was most recently at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But what drew me to Colorado College was one like many of the students; the block plan I thought was pretty unique. And I thought that, especially since the Southwest studies program did so much field-based work, the block plan would be a great scenario for being able to do that with my students. That’s not something that I was able to do so much at a larger research institution. So that was one of the things that drew me here. But I also really liked the fact that our program was pretty small. And some people might see that as a detriment, but I actually see that as a benefit because we have a really close working relationship as faculty and also with our students. We really get to know the students, and our staff is amazing as well. So I think those are all the things that drew me to the college. The location, the opportunities that existed with the block plan, and then getting to know my colleagues in Southwest studies really sort of solidified that I wanted to come here.
TC: What inspired you to go into academia?
KR: I actually didn’t go straight through into academia. So I actually worked for a number of years for corporations. And I think maybe that sort of inspired me to get back into academia. When I was working on my master’s degree I was a T.A., but I actually got to teach classes on my own in my graduate program. And so that kind of always remained in the back of my mind as something that I really enjoyed, interacting with students. And so after a career in marketing and then doing technical writing for a number of years, I wanted a change. And I thought that academia would give me the opportunity to study and work on the types of things that I was interested in at that point in my life. And so I went back to graduate school, and then once I started teaching in my Ph.D. program I thought this is exactly what I want to be doing.
TC: If you had one day completely free, with no responsibilities, what would you do?
KR: Oh that’s a good question. I think I would probably start out my day with a run along the creek. I don’t get to do that often enough, and so I would probably start my day out doing that. I’d probably go have a coffee by myself. I also have a four-year-old, so the time alone is really nice. And then, if the day was nice, I’d probably sit outside under a tree and read a novel. And then, most likely, I’d have to pick up my daughter from school, so then I’d spend time with her and we’d do something fun outside if it was nice. If not, I’d take her somewhere where she could jump around and we could have a good time.
TC: What inequalities does your work center around?
KR: A number of inequalities. So a lot of the coursework in Southwest studies does focus on populations, like minority populations. My work, in particular, focuses on women and minority women in particular. So communities that have been most impacted by social and environmental injustices, for instance. I write about Mexican-American women in particular and the issues that they had. I write about the 19th century, so the change that they experienced going from a Mexican legal system to a U.S. legal system was pretty detrimental in terms of issues like land loss. So those are the types of issues that I deal with in my research. And then in my teaching it’s a whole slew of issues, right? Because I do teach a course on environmental justice, for instance, where we think about issues like pollution; we think about the impacts of dispossession, and the residual effects of those long-standing issues. And then we focus a lot on gender; how do those issues impact women in particular, right? Especially as people who are the ones who work in factories, the ones who have to drink the water, and the ones who are also producing new life, right? So how does that impact generational issues and women’s bodies.
TC: Do you know any fascinating history about the land that CC occupies?
KR: Ah that’s a good question. Not so much about the land that we occupy. I mean, it is indigenous land. And I do appreciate that we have made an effort to acknowledge that in all of our events. And I think that’s important to underscore. That the land that we occupy is not really ours; it doesn’t belong to us.
TC: If you could have a meal with any historical figure, who would you pick and why?
KR: I would want to have a meal with a woman named María Ruiz de Burton. She’s considered the first Mexican-American female author to have a novel published in the 19th century. I write about her and find her to be such a fascinating character. Because of her gender, she was struggling with some issues getting published. But she was also very independent. And so she was able to traverse the nation because of her husband’s status. But she was also very bold. And so I would want to ask her questions about what her life was like in navigating these multiple borders that she had to traverse.
TC: What is one discovery that you are most proud of?
KR: I guess I would have to say that I could be a good mother. I never wanted kids necessarily until, you know, later on in life, so it’s been an interesting journey. And so, even though it’s sometimes hard — parenthood is hard — I feel like it’s been nice to realize that, ‘Oh, okay I can do this.’
TC: Which animal do you identify most with and why?
KR: So I’m not a cat person, but I do identify with cats. This is because I feel like they’re super independent. They know what they like and they don’t like. They enjoy the sun and like napping in the sun, and I can totally appreciate that about them.
TC: What is your hope for CC students in southwest studies classes?
KR: My hope is that they get a well-rounded education on the Southwest, in terms of thinking about the history of the region, the peoples of the region, the cultures, and the traditions, and that they can apply that to the contemporary moment, right? And think about that longer history in terms of actions that they’re taking. A lot of our students go on to embark on careers that are related to the environment or to policymaking, for instance. So I hope that they keep what they learned in Southwest studies in the back of their minds as they’re making these larger decisions and moving into these bigger positions in which they can enact change.