When Karen Jaime graduated from Cornell in 1997, she never thought she’d be back. But now she’s an assistant professor with a joint appointment in performing and media arts and Latino studies, and her former adviser and mentors are colleagues and friends.
“It’s been an incredible bonus for me to be an alum,” says Jaime. “I understand worrying about a prelim; I understand thinking about fall break. It’s heartwarming, because I’m able to invest in students whom I can very much relate to. It’s like a return home.”
One of Jaime’s main academic interests, spoken word and performance poetry, was born while she was at Cornell. She began writing poetry as an undergraduate during a difficult time that included a Day Hall takeover in 1993 in protest of the underrepresentation and underserving of Latinos at Cornell. She participated in many of the protests, and poetry became an outlet to express her feelings – but it also served as a form of political action and consciousness raising, she says.
“Spoken word poetry has a history of being able to incite change, to give voice to those who are disenfranchised and feel that they’re not being heard,” says Jaime. “I think that’s what fascinates me, to make visible that which is always rendered invisible.”
She’s now sharing that history and fascination with students in a new class, Spoken Word, Hip-Hop Theater and the Politics of Performance. The class examines the artistic “arm” of different social justice movements, beginning with the politics of second-wave feminism.
Her other class this semester is also new to Cornell: Introduction to Latino Studies. The course examines different debates in the field and how particular histories of different migratory groups and their migratory patterns can be applied to contemporary issues.
In the spring she’ll be teaching the second section of Global Stages, which covers artistic practices beyond the U.S. and Western theatrical practices.
Jaime says one of her goals in all her classes is to allow the students to be creative, such as creating a mini-performance alongside a written, critical assessment of what they’ve done.
“My work is very much about bringing theory into conversation with practice,” she explains. “I want to see students perform, but I’m also really interested in unpacking what all of it means and what does it do.”
Jaime’s path to her current position followed an unusual trajectory. She was trained as a classical cellist and considered attending Ithaca College for music. But after a campus visit to Cornell, she opted to attend Cornell instead. She double majored in history and Spanish literature, then moved to New York City to work as a corporate legal assistant before applying to graduate school at New York University, where she received a master's in 2003 and a doctorate in 2013, both in performance studies.
Jaime worked as a bouncer throughout graduate school for different queer bars and clubs in New York City, where she met people like Martina Navratilova and Wanda Sykes. She performed poetry at places such as the WOW Café, Dixon Place Experimental Theater and the Public Theater.
She also served three years as the host of the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café, an experience that inspired her current book project, “The Queer Loisaida: Language and Performance at the Nuyorican Poets Café,” in which she looks at the queer poly-racial history of the Nuyorican Poets Café.
This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.