Not Much Has Changed

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I was reading Breeze Harper’s piece on racist and misogynist trolling of her website Sistah Vegan a few days ago and thinking how little has changed for black intellectuals in North America. Breeze mentions how she has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, honors, and awards that should make her word hold some weight. However, as a post-colonial reading of Merleau-Ponty quickly points out the imagined black Other supersedes that of any disconfirming information. So we are always ignorant until proven smart. Always race baiting haters until we allow racism to run rampant on our sites or bow down to the know it all white expert who is likely reading an uncited bastardization of our own text back to us incorrectly. And so on.

What struck me most reading Breeze’s article was not just the long list of educational credentials that amount to nothing in the face of whiteness, but also the fact that she has been harassed by so-called Buddhists for daring to participate in decolonizing wellness practices. Not only does this seem decidedly anti-Buddhist, but it touches very close to home. You see, I have a white male Buddhist in my life, through no fault of my own, who is consistently harassing me about my intersectional politics and my desire for equal treatment at the university. He denies that there is any sign of discrimination in the classrooms he oversees and yet there are multiple complaints about racism, sexism, and homophobia overheard in the halls, claimed to be written on the evals, and most importantly several students and one faculty member have threatened to sue over oppressive behavior or pedagogical choices. He calls me unstable when I advocate for myself or others, and has literally told people to stay away from me if they want to succeed in our profession. Once, he even maligned my family and allegedly physically threatened a gay male colleague. But when anyone who he cannot menace asks him about the rumors about his behavior, he laughs and falls back on his Buddhism as proof that he would never harass students and faculty of color, queer students and faculty, women, or differently-abled people. He talks about his spirituality and its call for authenticity that he takes seriously and even publishes about. When backed into a corner, he even beats his chest and talks about his own experiences of being bullied in school and all the poor black families he worked with when he was young.  He, like the Buddhist in Breeze’s post, is accessing whiteness through the lens of “good person”, i.e. the idea that because he practices benevolent spirituality he has already conquered oppression not only in his own mind but in any arena in which he enters or controls. As such, he has the right to silence and deny evidence of oppression and the need to heal from it coming from the people most likely to know what it looks like: the oppressed. Unlike the spectres in Breeze’s article however, he is not a pimple faced kid hiding at an internet cafe or in the back room of the Women’s Studies class he hopes will get him dates all the while resenting nothing else was open in this time slot. He is a tenured department chair. A real live, living breathing man, with the power to shape minds and marginalize and oppress those he does not see as fit to complain.

This is why I started with the image above. You see, it was not too long ago that schools were segregated and people had to fight to get access to good educations. It was not too long ago that students had to walk out to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. And in fact, despite these huge gains often met with unspeakable emotional and physical violence from the “good people” brigade, the reality is that very little has changed. Key historical figures in the history of social justice in this country are slowly being removed from history books. Important people of color, queer people, and women are being slowly erased and their contributions being usurped by the assumption that the men in the books did it first. Differently-abled and trans folks have very seldom if ever seen themselves in the textbooks and when they do, it is often with their identities completely washed away. The demographics of schools are also showing a rise in re-segregation and the middle and high school level which leads to even more “Real World encounters” at the university level. Just last year I had a student tell me that she had never had to be in a class with a black person before meeting me and another tell me that she lived in a neighborhood where the police would escort me out if I ever visited. But the Chair swears this is a safe place for students of color to learn and faculty of color to teach, all though there are no faculty of color to speak of in his department if you do not count us fellow cross-listing faculty, none.

So, what does it all mean? Ultimately, while Breeze’s piece resonated with me on so many levels from shared experience in and outside of the blogosphere to the myths I internalized about education and meritocracy without even realizing it, I have to disagree with the premise. I do not believe that trolls are the stuff of the internet. I work with trolls every day and in this climate they are empowered to troll me with the goal of making me break without any consequences. Like the girl pictured above, I sit in classrooms with students who literally point and say snide things about the way I smell, how I do my hair, the things I find important and meaningful, etc. and when I discuss it with other faculty, I often see folks who are lead by the likes of Dr. Crackhead or worse Mr. Buddhist-light, whose capacity for emotional sadism rivals any white supremacist in the history books or outside of it. (Material added 4/27/13) To be clear, the N word, “black bitch”, and the like have all been said to my face or the face of my colleagues at one time or another in our careers; one can only wonder what these “colleagues” and instructors call us behind closed doors or with the not-so-invisible veil of the internet. (End of added material)

Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation when we have already fought the battle of equal education and seen its toll, only to let it slip through our fingers. Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a people when we have looked on lynching images and read about how group think works, and we let our classrooms slip back into seethingly invalidating environments egged on by the person in the front of the room or their boss. I write this, with no answers, as one person trying to change it, speaking to all of you readers who I hope are doing the same. Let’s join our thoughts and our voices and our strength because otherwise it will be too late.

On Collaboration

Dear Pompous Professor XY

When you are assigned to collaborate with another faculty member, expressing your disgust about it to any other faculty members in on the decision to randomly connect professors across the curriculum to make up for the budget related firings and early retirements increase intersectionality on campus is probably a bad idea. When you are neither famous nor the author of a well-read book, or any book for that matter, you’d especially want to refrain from insulting an esteemed colleague who has two well-read books and name recognition in the field in which they work. Please also keep in mind that prefacing your disparaging comments about working with others with “I mean Dr. B is lovely but …” or “Of course I am thrilled but …” is fooling no one on the committee.

Many of us find the recent course loads with which we have been burdened untenable this term. You are not alone in your frustration nor unique in your workload. Nor are you or your research so important to the university that you should be exempt from that with which the rest of us have been left to contend. More than that you should be grateful that while you are making all kinds of transparent backhanded compliments to Dr. B, Dr. B has been professional enough to simply smile when your name is mentioned. Instead of complaining about working with you, Dr. B has simply offered the best niceties available and tactifully moved the subject elsewhere. With which of you do you think faculty will sympathize under these circumstances? Public behavior matters as much as public scholarship in academe.

So here are some helpful hints on collaboration that I think you and others might need:

  1. When working with other colleagues, whether you respect their work, their discipline, their gender, or any other aspect of their identity, it is important to remember that even at a large state funded institution, the university is small and we all talk. When you insult someone else based on the assumption that everyone else in the room agrees with you because you are so wondrous and brilliant, you are working with false logic. Instead of assuming your perspective is universal, recognize that there are always likely to be people who like and enjoy working with the colleagues you disparage and that they will be insulted by your behavior. Also assume that there are people in the room who disdain both conflict and public displays of unfounded pomposity especially when related to disparaging other colleagues. When those colleagues are more famous or more accomplished than you, it is also very likely that many people in the room will assume your insecurities are showing and that you are simply preening to hide your own inadequacies. Bottom line: when you use public space to insult people you work with in front of other people with whom you may or may not work directly, you do more damage to your own reputation than to anyone you are insulting.
  2. If you are working with another person, whether they are your Junior or you Senior, you have an obligation to tow your end of the line. This means that when the university sets basic standards about syllabi production, book orders and pdf packets deadlines for the library, course related field studies or film series, the minimum expectation is that you will meet them. Do not saddle your colleague with the tasks you find tedious or beneath you, especially when these tasks are expected of everyone who works here. Admin talk too and when it becomes a pattern, Admin talk loudly in front of Chairs and Deans so that you become as known as you think you are but for completely different reasons than you might want. It also means that when the whole thing blows up later, your reputation will be part of what any review is based on. Bottom line: understand, that setting up a colleague by not doing your end until the last minute in the hopes that your incompetence will be foisted onto others, may work with students but not the rest of us.
  3. When working with others it is impossible to continue your work schedule as if you are working alone. Just because your brain works best at 12:01 am on Saturday does not mean that your colleagues’ brains do. Especially if your colleague has children, a spouse/partner who isn’t an academic, or … a life, it is unlikely that they will appreciate late night Friday emails informing them you are now ready to do the job they have been trying to get you to do all week. And while it is standard for students to show up 10 minutes before or after class to get their needs met, you showing up 10 minutes before or after class to do the planning work for the session that should have been done prior to the session is neither appreciated nor helpful. Being upset about the fact your colleagues let you know this is not proof that they are anal but it does make the rest of us think of an anal related metaphor about you and your head. Bottom Line: collaboration means finding an equilibrium between your natural work cycle and that of the other people with whom you are working.
  4. Everyone gets upset about certain involuntary activities or large work loads at the university. Many at pov u engage in the time honored tradition of work stoppage to make a point to the administration. Most of us recognize this tactic. However, when you are working with someone else, your work stoppage is no longer about calling attention to tedium at the uni and instead jeopardizes the work of others and very seldom reaches the ears of the department or uni in the ways you intend. You always have choiceschoices at the beginning of collaborative work projects that can mediated your involvement or extradited you from it all together. If your ego was too huge to let go of the collaborative project then you needed to find a way to make it small enough to actually be able to accomplish one. Bottom Line: The fact that you were unwilling to do whatever you needed to do is not the problem of your faculty partner or the administration. You are now part of the process and everyone is paying attention to your level of engagement and any work that others are saddled with to make up the difference.
  5. Everyone employed at the university as a professor has written a dissertation and engaged in independent research. Many have engaged in some form of interdisciplinary research during that process or since then. Unless you invented something totally unique, you are no better than the rest of us in this regard. Many of us also had to write a book or at least do three heavily researched and cited articles plus bring in 2 nationally or internationally recognized funding sources to get tenure. Having accomplished either of these things would also not make you unique to other scholars working here. As a result, you should not assume nor expect to be worshiped for doing the basic requirements for employment at pov u. Nor should you resent assume that participation in the collaborative projects means you are here to enlighten the rest of us. Bottom Line: Collaborating with colleagues should start from a place of respect for the fact we have all done what is required and that we are now working across the disciplines in order to enhance each other’s work.
  6. While women, people of color, and all of the other marginalized identities at the university remain marginalized as faculty, potential Deans, and Presidents of the college, etc. that does not mean that you get to work out your particular brand marginalization fantasies on your faculty partners in this project. In other words, just because you do not want to tow your end of the line does not mean that because you are paired with women and/or people of color they should be obligated, or even, grateful to do it for you. Waxing poetic in front of them or others about white male privilege will not mask the ways you are engaging in it on the collaborative projects either. Your ability to discuss privilege all the while expecting to be mothered or mammied does not make you enlightened or endearing. Bottom Line: while academia is riddled with oppression, your willingness to engage in oppression to avoid working with other or at all, is duly noted by people engaged in anti-oppressions work at the university and will reflect on their willingness to work with you in the future, including validating your sense of yourself as a good person and their votes on those merit raises you want/will want.

While pomposity is common in the profession and can even be enigmatic in some, when you are working with others your primary goal should be to actually WORK WITH them not demean or abuse them. In these hard times, everyone needs to pull their weight and even the most liked among us are under scrutiny about doing our fair share. While some of us will always be saddled with more service and more care work than others on the basis of marginality and oppression, we are all expected to do some. While you are clearly famous in your own mind, one of the only ways to become famous in the real world is to do your research well and to expand your ideas beyond the cloud of me upon which you currently float. To do both, requires the help of others. Research requires funding and funding is often procured through a vote of your peers at the departmental, university, or national and/or international level. While you may think treating your peers poorly has no impact on your national or international funding chances, you forget how small academe is and how much those of us who sit on those decision making bodies talk. In your pomposity you may have even failed to notice some of us work with you at pov u.

Though the life of the mind seems like a solitary and insular one, to do it well you should think of it as the life of the minds. Ideas are not formed in a vacuum but in conversation and COLLABORATION with other scholars. Truly inquisitive minds reach outside of themselves for confirmation, expansion, and helpful critique or even challenge, of their ideas. While you can get some of that by cold calling scholars you admire and then moving on when they figure out you are only interested in taking from them and being validated in your sense of self-importance and uniqueness, sooner or later you will run through the list of people to talk to and/or people willing to talk back. Burning bridges can be something that happens in a powerful intentional blaze or a slow burn fueled by the helium floating your unchecked ego, but either way all the paths eventually burn to the ground and you find yourself alone, pontificating to students who could not find a different class or procrastinated too long to transfer out of yours because your colleagues have all turned away. Don’t let it get that far and don’t help the process along by failing to provide the people with whom you work the basic courtesy of assuming (1) they also did research and writing to get their jobs, (2) their schedules are also hectic and do not revolve around you, (3) they have something to contribute to any collaboration you are engaged in and you can learn from them, and (4) that they are not your mother, your wife, your vixen, your maid, or your groupie they are your intellectual equal. Do your work and say please and thank you when you are asking for something or looking to be accommodated and I think you will find that you might one day be half the scholar you thing you are now and twice as well liked or esteemed when other projects arise.

Sincerely

the wary and watchful Chair

What is the Purpose of Grad School Anyway?

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

Image via Wikipedia

There is an interesting conversation about the role of faculty in the demise of academic jobs and commitment to graduate education going on at Historiann’s. The comment section in particular asks some pretty critical questions about the point of graduate school and the exploitation of labor that may supersede the needs of students. You can guess what my comments are but basically they go something like this: for most students who study diversity issues or come from marginalized communities academe has never really been a place they can count on for jobs or tenure. Most departments after all only have 1 woman, 1 person of color, 1 queer person (usually non-trans), and if they can get all three for the price of 1 they will. At the same time, these questions are relevant to all types of students because in this economy no one is really fairing well in the academic job search and some disciplines, including 2 of mine, are practically closed up when it comes to hiring. What does that mean for women and people of color who are entering the university at much higher numbers than others? What does it mean for the intellectual diversity of the university as a whole if everyone who cannot afford to spend 5-9 years on an advanced degree and go home happy they are smarter but unemployed stop attending or stop getting help from the faculty? These are huge issues and I think you all should wade into the water and see what washes clean. Read the post and especially the comment thread here.

What I am working On

I am working on a post about women of color in graduate school based on an intervention we did with an old friend at our house this weekend. Unfortunately, it is taking longer to write than I imagined because

  1. I want to make sure the information does not glare like a neon sign pointing to her – though her experiences are so similar to most woc in school I doubt it will
  2. I want to include a list of helpful survival tips in the post for those of you struggling with similar issues

So what this means is that my quick post today has turned into a long and time consuming one.

SCEED/asu

Interestingly, it comes at the same time that a new study has come out showing that schools that have equitable graduation rates between white students and students of color have aggressive programs to recruit and support students of color.  In other words, instead of just claiming they “support diversity” or making inconsistent recruitment efforts when the diversity bug bites too hard to ignore, these schools have ongoing recruitment efforts that ensure that every class has a critical mass of people of color to support each other throughout their time in college. They also have programming that goes beyond “diversity week” or February, May, and August-September. Instead most of these schools have theme houses, regular events throughout the year like film series, symposiums, lectures, etc., that address intellectual contributions, new and hot research, and intersectional study rather than just “doing diversity” or “inclusivity”. This sends the message to ALL scholars that race is part of intellectual work and not just a PC endeavor. Both numerical significance of students and faculty of color and an overall focus on integrated knowledge or study makes these schools places where, at least in the aggregate, students of color and white students succeed at the same or similar levels.

This seems like information we should all already know. Yet the racial disparities in educational attainment speak to the fact that even if we do not it, we are not doing anything about making lasting change. While there are many factors that lead into limited representation and subsequent graduation of students of color in higher education that are beyond the purview of the university, the policies in the study certainly are within our ability to enact. And speaking as someone who went to an undergraduate institution that use to operate like those referenced above and then decided to focus on “increasing donors and funding”, aka moving away from diversity toward a model of courting white male old money as if somehow those students were not already at my institution, I can attest to how well they work and why some schools avoid them despite their success. Perceptions about import, exclusive education, etc are still very much tied into visible race and class differences and elitism is still the cache of many SLACs and Tier Is.

So what does this all mean for scholars of color, especially those from working class backgrounds? I suppose that depends on the willingness of those of us on this side of tenure to read the study and try even harder, now that we have national data to back us up, to make it happen and the willingness of those who say they “support diversity” or are “tired of diversity/victim stance” to look at the national data and finally cut the crap.