A Conversation with Dr. Adrian Pantoja, Professor of Political Studies/Chicano/a Studies

Adrian Pantoja with MuralA member of the Pitzer community since 2006, Dr. Pantoja is a professor in the Political Studies and Chicano/a Studies field groups. In a candid interview, Dr. Pantoja discusses the benefits of a liberal arts environment, the unique Pitzer community, and lessons learned surfing around the world!

Tell me a little about yourself.

I did my undergraduate work at the University of San Francisco, and I earned my PhD at Claremont Graduate University. I debated between doing something in government/foreign affairs, or going into academia. Ultimately, I picked academia, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I enjoy so much about what I do!


What brought you to Pitzer?

I wanted to be at a liberal arts college. In academia, if you are the top scholar in your field, you are recruited to work and teach at research universities, not liberal arts colleges. I was considered a rising star in the field of Latino politics, and I was working as a professor at Arizona State University. I also won a prestigious two-year fellowship to the University of Michigan, where they would pay me to do research, but not teach. When the position at Pitzer opened up, I was anxious to be back to Southern California, but I also loved what the Claremont Colleges were about.


Why a liberal arts college?

I really saw myself being a professor who focuses on teaching, rather than being a top scholar. I chose being at a liberal arts college because I wanted to be a professor not for the prestige that comes from writing and publishing, but from working with students in the classroom and getting to know them. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my life. Interacting with my students outside of the classroom is what I’ve enjoyed the most.


How have you interacted with students outside the classroom?

For seven years, the Latino Student Union and I have organized the largest Latino festival in the Claremont Colleges, the Rockabilly Festival, with classic cars, music, vendors and food. I organize the festival every spring with a group of Latino students on Pitzer’s campus. Some of my closest students, those with whom I’m friends on Facebook and communicate with post-graduation, are students who never took a class from me, but who developed the festival with me.


Have you had the opportunity to go abroad with your students? What was that experience like?

Over winter break, three Pitzer students and I traveled to Brazil to study the favela surf schools in Rio de Janeiro. We were there for two weeks, surfing and studying how these schools are providing a positive outlet for young kids growing up in the poorest sections of Rio. Over spring break, along with the Institute for Global-Local Action and Study (IGLAS), I traveled with a group of five faculty members and 20 students to Costa Rica, where we studied ecology at the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology. Near the Firestone Center is the town of Dominical, and Dominical has world-class surfing and beautiful beaches. We spent a day surfing in Costa Rica, and we had a blast! It was one of the best spring breaks I’ve ever had. Here I am, a professor, having fun and doing research with college students, spending spring break in an academically rigorous program that was a lot of fun. At Pitzer, we have alternative spring breaks, and this is an example of faculty doing research in a unique location, but also having a good time.


What courses do you teach at Pitzer?

I teach course on Latino politics, including one called Immigration and Race in America. Years ago, I taught a freshman seminar called American Car Culture. I recently created an independent study course called Surfing for Social Justice, where we study the history and culture of surfing. Every weekend, I go out and hit the waves in SoCal with 10 or so students. That’s the highlight of my weekend, spending time surfing, having a good time and reading books about the history and culture of surfing. It’s all about mixing the academic world with the world of surfing.


What misconceptions does the general public have about surfing?

One, people fail to recognize the contributions of minority surfers. The origins of surfing come from Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures, what we would today call minorities. Its origins did not start with Europeans; some of the greatest early surfers were persons from Hawaii and the third-world, a fact that is largely ignored. And two, surfing is truly a global phenomenon. There are surfers in Japan, Brazil, Africa, all over the world…but they’re largely ignored because of the way surfing is popularized through the media and Hollywood. Hollywood is the center of media production, and since it’s in California, lots of surfing stories revolve around California and Americans, and we don’t know about the great surfers all over the world.


What do you enjoy the most about surfing?

For me personally, I find a great deal of spirituality in the sport. I like being out there in the morning and seeing dolphins in the wild, just a few feet away from me. I like seeing the world from the ocean – being in a spot where very few people have been is very spiritual and relaxing. I’ve done different sports, and surfing in particular is one where you think about the environment, the oceans and protecting the coastlands, even more so than in camping.


How would you describe Pitzer to people who have never encountered the College?

Pitzer is California! California was born in the post-war era – that’s when it blossomed, with the space age, the atomic age, and architecture that reflects mid-century modern design. Pitzer was born at the height of this new frontier, the birth of California and California culture. When colleges try to re-make themselves, they look to the East Coast for its architecture and intellectual influence. East Coast colleges look to the old country, to Europe. Pitzer didn’t look east, or to Europe – it looked to California. We didn’t follow a road map, we made our own. That’s the California experience – it was new, and we carved an identity that’s distinctly California and distinctly Pitzer. We weren’t trying to be like another institution, and in the process, other institutions are now trying to be more like Pitzer.


What separates Pitzer’s academic departments from departments at other colleges?

At Pitzer, there is a sense of community, but more importantly, there’s a sense of partnership between faculty, students and staff. We’re in this together, and this is why students sit on key committees that hire faculty and determine tenure. Pitzer gives its students a tremendous amount of power, and within the departments, we take faculty governance very seriously. We are collectively determining the direction of the college. That doesn’t exist anywhere else…you don’t fine students determining the future direction of the college elsewhere.


What do you enjoy most about teaching Pitzer students?

I enjoy giving them the tools to critically analyze society, and giving them the guidance to begin questioning why things are the way they are. Once they’re armed with these tools, once they’re armed with that questioning, it’s up to them to decide the direction of society and their communities. The 21st century is theirs, it’s not mine. The next generation will determine where they would like to see America moving.


How would you describe the typical Pitzer student?

They are very intelligent, motivated and compassionate. These students genuinely care about improving society. And they’re smart.


What’s one thing that every prospective Pitzer student should know about the College?

This is a place that takes learning seriously. Look at our mission statement – this is one of the first institutions I’ve been at where the faculty and students know what the mission statement is and actively work towards implementing it. I never read the mission statements at my other institutions because there was no reason to do so. Our mission statement is not for public relations – it’s something we follow and seek to implement. Students, faculty and administration work towards these goals – it’s not just rhetoric. Other places will give you rhetoric; at Pitzer, you’ll get the substance.


Where is your favorite place on campus?

My favorite place on campus is the Mounds, because of the Rockabilly Festival. I enjoy walking through the Mounds and knowing there’s a lot of history there, including music, protests and rallies. A lot of students have walked on the Mounds, laid down on the Mounds…it’s probably one of the most sacred places at the College. The Mounds are the heart of Pitzer!


For students interested in the intersection between history, politics and culture, where’s a good place to start?

Students should start with their own communities. Where they live, their neighbors, the schools they attend…this is not the result of an accident. All of these communities have been conscientiously designed. Why does your community look the way it does? Why do people across the tracks live in different houses, or go to different schools? Students should start asking these questions, and go beyond the superficial answers. That’s key, because superficial answers are wrong. They’re wrong because complex questions or problems require complex answers and explanations. Students should always be skeptical of simple answers. If you dig deeper, you’ll discover there isn’t consensus between scholars. Instead, there is intense debate, and there is no one right answer out there.


What do you want your students to remember about you?

That’s a tough question. Faculty members are sometimes overly concerned with legacies, contributions or what they leave behind. I’m enjoying what I’m doing…I like challenging students. At the end of the day, I want students to look back from whatever it is they’re doing, and if my name comes up, I want them to say, “I had a blast with that professor.”


Learn more about Dr. Adrian Pantoja at http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/pantoja/index.asp.