How Amherst College students used activism to keep their beloved professor

‘If our bodies do not stand with our words, then our words are not worth it’

Courtesy+of+Manuela+Picq+

Courtesy of Manuela Picq

By Sophia Gardner, News Editor

Manuela Picq goes to great lengths to get to know her students: class tea parties, smores-making sessions and one-on-one lunches. For Picq, an Amherst College professor, it is vital that her students don’t feel that she’s above them.

“She’s like a normal human, as well as an activist and an academic,” said Lisa Zheutlin, a senior sexuality, women and gender studies major. “She does a really good job of making the classroom into a community and trying to get us to all know each other and work together.”

Picq has been with Amherst off and on since 2008, first as a visiting scholar from Ecuador in SWAGS and then as a Loinstein Fellow and visiting assistant professor in both political science and SWAGS. For the past few years, she’s been alternating semesters: one at Amherst and one in Ecuador, teaching at Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Picq centers her classes around activism. She herself is an activist, being jailed and expelled from Ecuador in 2015 during the March of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. Her activism centers around human rights and feminism, and she tries to ingrain these values in her students by speaking about her own experiences and bringing in other activists to speak to her classes.

“Just hearing about that personal experience was really important,” Zheutlin said. “Because I think a lot of times in academia, we can be learning a lot of theory that’s very important but isn’t actually put into practice.”

During her time at Amherst, she’s had a meaningful impact on many students — so much so that they would dedicate their time and efforts to fight for her to stay at the College.

In November, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Picq received an email from Amherst administration, “saying it was great to have me, but they are not renewing the contract.” According to Picq, the email was only one sentence, and offered no explanation of why she was being let go.

Picq was in shock when she first read the email. “The Sunday after Thanksgiving, it’s the last week of class, literally,” she said. “I didn’t even respond to the Chair, because I wasn’t sure what to respond.”

Picq had to scramble, finding out that she potentially wouldn’t be returning to Amherst so close to the end of the semester. “I just tried to pack my life and sell my car,” she said. “I felt like, after everything, it was humiliating to be treated like that.”

During a class the Tuesday after she received the email, Picq let her students know that she wouldn’t be returning to Amherst. She told her students, “You guys are going to be the last ones to see me here, so you know, thank you for everything.”

Originally, when her students suggested protesting, Picq was not optimistic. “I said ‘No, it’s the last week of classes, we don’t have time for that with your exams in two weeks. Let it be.’”

Picq’s students did not let it be.

“It kind of derailed the class but I think in the best way possible,” said Jonathan Paul, a senior mathematics and psychology major. “The things we were talking about in class are very much connected to what it means to be an international woman teaching at an elite institution.”

The students got to work on a petition, first circulated around the class as a shared google document. Eventually, it would become a full-fledged letter with tens of student testimonials.

“Right after class, that’s when myself and few other students put our heads together,” said ​​Libertad Aguilar, a senior law, jurisprudence and social thought and political science major.

“They decided to write a letter, and I wasn’t part of it,” Picq said. “They just wrote to me asking, ‘Since when are you here’ and ‘What is the department,’ you know, the correct affiliation. But they did everything on their own.”

Picq cried when she first read the letter and all the student testimonials. “I was so touched because I never expected to have such an impact on them,” Picq said. “I felt very good about my work. I felt appreciated, unlike by the administration.”

Picq was also proud.

“I think, if our bodies do not stand with our words, then our words are not worth it,” she said. “To see them do this, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe they actually did activism in this space, and very successfully.’”

After a version of the letter was published in the Amherst Student, faculty and staff began writing to the administration talking about Picq’s work. Even people from the surrounding Five Colleges wrote letters.

“It came out of this desire to say something and to be like, this is f—ed up,” Aguilar said.

Within two weeks, Picq got an email from the administration asking to talk. They told her that they were looking for a way to keep her and that the reason they originally decided not to renew her contract was because she had been a visiting professor for too long, and they can only keep visiting professors for a finite period.

The administration offered Picq a position as senior lecturer, allowing her to continue alternating semesters: one at Amherst and one in Ecuador.

A month before Amherst decided not to renew Picq’s contract, she had met with the administration to talk about inequities in the pay of visiting scholars and they adjusted her salary.

“I felt like, if you’re adjusting my salary, it’s because you realize that there is an inequity,” Picq said.

Picq feels that visiting professors are often put in difficult situations, especially people of color, or Latinx people, like herself.

“There’s this very common problem in academia nowadays, which is visiting professors becoming cheap, disposable labor,” she added.

Amherst College told the Collegian, “Amherst College’s long-standing policy is that we do not comment on personnel matters.”

Senior Political Science Major Diana Daniel’s favorite moment in Picq’s class was watching Picq interact with other activists who came to speak to the students.

“I aspire to be that sort of academic and that sort of leader who has all these connections, but also knows people personally and them as people first, not as a resource or a means of networking, which I think is very normalized,” she said. “The way that she lights up when she sees a friend, and she’s introducing them to the class, I think that’s one of my favorite memories.”

“She’s one of the few professors that actually makes us think about the way that we’re seeing ourselves and the world,” said Cynthia Henry, a senior mathematics major.

Sophia Gardner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @sophieegardnerr.