Inside USD

Getting to Know Your Professors: Esteban del Rio

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Esteban del Rio, PhD, is an associate professor of Communication Studies. He also serves as associate provost for inclusion and diversity and is director of the Center of Inclusion and Diversity. His connection to USD and the Linda Vista area is strong. He attended kindergarten through college (at USD) in a one-mile radius. He met his wife, USD alumna Alicia, on campus and they were married at Founders Chapel. Del Rio answered questions from Inside USD on several topics.

How does your longtime USD connection, including as a History alumnus, shape your approach as a professor of students, CID director and associate provost for inclusion and diversity?

First of all, I believe in this place. I want to do what I can to help USD live out its mission and build its potential to lift people up, broaden perspectives, and grow learning and development in San Diego and beyond. Second, I know what its like to be a community member, a student, and a professor in relation to this place. I try to use that empathy in my current administrative role to always advance inclusion.

Difference and unity are topics you’ve focused a lot of energy on at USD, in your research, and expressed it through multiple lenses. What tangible results have emerged to your satisfaction? Does it remain a work in progress and thus, satisfaction seems elusive?

My work attempts to confront how difference operates at the cultural and structural level, to break down assumptions and guarantees about difference, and to understand under what conditions and for what purposes differences and unity are constructed. Without this, its really hard to move forward and mitigate harm, recognize the limiting and enabling conditions of social structures, and build a community in the direction of love and empathy. If you skip the step of confrontation, then the ideological dimensions of difference go on unabated.

Communication is important, but now, in a landscape seemingly less about in-person discussion and more so via social media, blogs, video, marketing, texting, etc., do you feel the impact of a message, a cause or raising of an issue is easier to be seen and heard for action to be taken? How do communication tools affect civility?

Indeed, media technology makes it easier for people to be authors of messages with wide audiences. Of course, there’s an art to it — many of our graduates working in strategic communication can speak to that. Some scholars note that networked communication creates broad messaging, but ideologically thin connections. The project is to add depth to networked activism. Inertia works against this, but it’s possible.

What are USD’s strengths in the areas of diversity and inclusion? What’s a specific need for improvement that is being addressed?

Our strength is that diversity and inclusion are at the heart of our mission statement and the Catholic tradition. Other schools try to patch in a rationale for confronting difference, building social justice, and expanding the diversity of a campus community. We have it as a centering lever. Isn’t this the whole point of higher education — to expand knowledge, grow through difference, rise up communities, and grow the public good through empathy, compassion, and justice? What we need is a strategic plan that provides sustaining infrastructure of the good work being done around campus and a space to institutionally catalyze innovation. We’re working on that this year.

You are a popular teacher, a role model in ways such as riding your bike to school, participating in the SSS Summer Bridge program and making others keenly aware of opportunities to better themselves. What’s the best advice or something that resonates to better you?

Stuart Hall, a cultural studies scholar who recently passed away, asked this question which resonates for me and vibrates with the urgency of cultural inquiry. He writes: “What does it mean to take seriously, in our present conjuncture, the thought that cultural politics and questions of culture, of discourse, and of metaphor are absolutely deadly political questions?” For me, never lose sight of the stakes — inquiry is about freedom and emancipation, both material and symbolic.

What research or projects are you working on in 2014?

I’m working on a theory-building piece on Latina/o representation for an edited volume this year. With my current duties, I have to take research a step at a time given my time commitments. I am also beginning a manuscript on how cultural studies and communication can intervene in institutional discourses of equity and diversity, which are dominated by organizational psychology and leadership. I think my discipline has much to contribute to the project in both a generative and critical manner.

What’s your definition of a well-spent weekend in San Diego?

That’s easy. Start in my home neighborhood of Linda Vista, head to coffee at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, a nice bike ride across the city, from Hillcrest through City Heights, to La Mesa and points east, then into Alpine and a stop at the Alpine Brewery for a Nelson IPA. Come downhill through Jamul to check out the backcountry. I’d probably head home to spend the afternoon with my kids and work on the yard, but for others I’d recommend a hike in Anza Borrego State Park, a tour of significant mid-century modern architecture in town, some bodysurfing at Tower 2 in Ocean Beach, a house burrito at El Zarape, and some pit stops along 30th Street and its famed brewpubs.

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