Presumed Incompetent

I’ve been reading the essays in the amazing edited collection, Presumed Incompetent.

The official description: Presumed Incompetent is a pathbreaking account of the intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color. Through personal narratives and qualitative empirical studies, more than 40 authors expose the daunting challenges faced by academic women of color as they navigate the often hostile terrain of higher education, including hiring, promotion, tenure, and relations with students, colleagues, and administrators. The narratives are filled with wit, wisdom, and concrete recommendations, and provide a window into the struggles of professional women in a racially stratified but increasingly multicultural America.

I find myself agreeing with Mari Matsuda’s comment on the back of the the book saying, “This book felt so painfully familiar I almost could not read it.”

The power of the book is not what it says about women of color in academia, it is what it says about academia itself, and all social spaces structured by competition and hierarchy, rooted in historical legacies of racism, sexism, elitism and other forms of inequity.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to claim a false universality or undermine the argument that women of color face a particularly harsh experience of inequalities in academia.  I want to agree with the authors who show that the dehumanization that is rampant in the more elite segments of the academy, and structures the larger inequalities we see in America’s educational system from pre-school all the way up to the top of the Ivy League.   The power of this book is that it reinforces the truth that just because we are critical of inequalities doesn’t mean we are not implicated in them.  One is never outside of systems of oppression, one negotiates their way through them, for better or for worse.

Sociology on the Margins

The reason I title my blog Sociology on the Margins is because I teach sociology in a marginal space in higher education, and I have found it a productive place in which to relearn the sociology I was taught in the Center of academia.  One of the essays in this book was written by one of my dissertation advisers and is in part based on experiences at the institution from which I was graduated.  It prompted me to write a letter to my former adviser to thank her for writing the piece, and to explain why she has barely heard from me in the 10 years since I finished.  It is reproduced in part here:

It took me about 10 years to recover from graduate school.  I am saddened by the thought that you and I might have talked about how abusive academic culture was back then, but we never did.  I wonder how we talked so much about feminism and racism without talking about what academia was doing to us every day?  I’m not really looking for an answer to that question, I guess I already know.  That’s the point isn’t it?  Its how power works.  It is so incredibly brave of you to write and publish the article.  The whole book is incredibly brave.

So maybe you have a better idea of why I fell off the face of the earth now.  I was one of those who wasn’t able to stand up to any of competitive and judgmental culture of academia although I faked it pretty well.  I pretended to be research focused and academically driven just long enough to graduate and begin looking for a teaching job.  I realized I had to change the way I presented myself on the job market to focus on teaching instead of research, and I took time to study pedagogy during my 2 year visiting lectureship at another research university.  Once I did that, I was blessed (and probably privileged given how white the faculty are) to get a job at a tiny liberal arts college where the focus is on student learning and not self-promotion.

After starting my teaching job it took me about 4 years to realize how different a space I was in and to let go of the elitism that was drilled into me in graduate school.  Once I did that I was able to see my students for who they really were, and ever since then my entire life has changed.  They really healed me.  My students are the students who could never dream of getting into the schools I went to.  Many of them couldn’t even make it in less-elite community colleges or state schools because those schools are just too big and too bureaucratic.  My students struggle to read at a very basic level.  They are lower income and lower middle class, public school (mis)educated, white, black and Latino.  Many of them were funneled into trade high schools.  I have students who were valedictorians or salutatorians of their high school classes but they can’t write a coherent paragraph.  Some students come to us with such pride at making it to college, being the first person in their families to get this far.  And then we have to figure out how to break the news to them that they are no where near ready for actual college work.  We have to somehow convince them to take 10 steps back and learn all over again how to learn without breaking their confidence.  Other students know they are unprepared.  They never did well in school, but just slipped silently from class to class.  Confronted with the challenge of college work the more frustrated ones come to me saying, “But Professor, you don’t understand, I’m stupid, I can’t do this.”  But most of them just say, “I don’t know why I don’t do better, I’m just lazy I guess.”   They are resigned to the magic 1.9 GPA they need to graduate.

It was the number of students who came to me telling me how lazy they were that finally broke through the socialization of graduate school and made me see that I had it all wrong.  I was wrong about them and I was wrong about me.  None of us were lazy, we were all just beaten down.  The only difference between us was my privilege.  My white, middle-class schools and access to books and language got me all the way to the graduate school before I faced a level of competition and a power-driven social scene that I could not handle, that left me unable to produce at an an acceptable level.  The 13 years it took me to finish grad school attest to my failure at negotiating that system.  My privilege gave me access to just enough work and financial support to get me to the end.

So now I find myself a fallen academic, a fact that was reinforced when I ran into the Chair of my old graduate school department about a year after I got my job.  I told her that I was so happy to have found a teaching job at a liberal arts college where I really get to know my students because of the small classes, etc.  She half-smiled and said to me, “Oh, it sounds like you have a nice life.”  As if I had traded in the real deal for something small and comfortable.

And she was right, I did.  But what I have learned while at my comfortable little college is that I am 10 times the sociologist she will ever be.  She can write all about social stratification and wield large data sets like a comic book superhero, but I live sociology everyday.  Every time I sit down with a student and help them see that they are not stupid or lazy or incompetent I am shaping the data sets she analyzes.  At the beginning of this summer I talked a Latina graduate out of taking a job in food service at an elderly care facility where she applied to be a day counselor.  I convinced her that her degree meant more than having to take the first job offered by some racist company that doesn’t see her as anything more than a servant.  I had an African American student who I helped get a summer internship at a union.  The job was to reach out to the very community she had grown up in to increase political involvement.  She saw right away that this was a top down effort and was frustrated at the inability of the union to see that they were in fact NOT grassroots organizers when they came into a neighborhood and told people what to do.  She tried to express some of this to her supervisor who then told her she was unprofessional and had a bad attitude (read:  angry black woman).  She was ready to quit, so I went into the supervisor and we talked about cultural capital and the fact that this student WAS the community they were trying to reach and that if they couldn’t accept a critique from members of the community, they would ultimately not be successful.  I don’t know if the institution is going to change, but I know they immediately started treating my student better.

Anyway,  I want to say thank you for having the guts to write your essay, and to all of the authors and editors of the book.  I hope we can change the culture of academia to make it more accessible to all of us.  But I am not sure if it is possible.  The system is based in stratification, it is built on keeping people like me and my students out of it, or at least in our own segregated corner.  Might I have been more productive if the culture of academia didn’t make it so painful for me to produce research?  I don’t know.  Would I ever be able to teach at a Research One School based on the fact that I am willing to spend time so much one-on-one time with students teaching them to read and write, or the fact that I am out in the community advocating for them?  Definitely not.  But I am heartened to know people like you all are in the struggle, maybe together we can be more powerful than we know.



  1. Beth

    Thank you, Karen, for putting into words what I have so often felt. I loved my students at my university too. But my institution was clawing itself into Carnegie I, and I found myself seduced by the illusion of prestige. I knew my department was designated as the “dumping ground” to keep our enrollment numbers up, but my ego could not take it. I wanted to be in a department that was “respected.” I see what a mistake that was.

    1. Karen

      I don’t think it was a mistake, I think you were tired of being disrespected and you did what you could under the same circumstances that produced the essays in Presumed Incompetent, and that shaped my own decisions. You have also been working hard to bring sociology into spaces outside of academia where it has been marginal. And that is also important work.

  2. Robert Bourgeois

    This blog post was evidently written by a person of empathy and compassion, who, with a great heart, is a fierce champion of her students.

    The viewpoint of the “Margins” caused me to self-interrogate a bit and discover that I simultaneously am an elitist and a democrat. I find BOTH Robert Hutchins AND John Dewey compelling. Those of us fortunate enough to have received a classical Old World education should be humbled by the works of genius to which we have been introduced and work to find the level at which the students described in the blog post can apprehend them. This blog post persuasively argues that students in the U.S. deserve access to both practical training and the great traditions which have flowed into democracy.

    Three interpersonal attitudes or habits of the heart which are alien to the culture of high-powered scholarly academia are nevertheless urgently required in college teaching: humility, respect, and compassion. Your blog post demonstrates how integral these virtues are to the are of teaching.


  3. Karen

    Thank you so much for your post. I completely agree that the different spaces in academia have a lot to learn from each other — I hope we all can work across the boundaries to make this happen.

  4. Allen

    Considering the professors at my elite school barely have time for their grad students, let alone us undergrads, I better not catch any of them on here. Although honestly I will be amazed if any of them deign to associate with academics at non R1 schools.

  5. Sydney Hart

    I’ve yet to buy “Presumed Incompetent,” but it’s on my list. Thank you for this blog! I teach in an urban community college and what you wrote about your students and the power of teaching really resonate with me. I love the idea of a cross-hierarchy discussion about teaching sociology.

  6. Karen

    I do have a friend or two up there Allen, Let’s hope you’re wrong.

    But you raise the time issue, and it is a real one. The corporatization of the University means that faculty are judged not by their teaching and mentoring, but by their publications and grant money. When people are struggling with everything they have just to stay afloat, they don’t have time for social change. Or students.

  7. CM

    Thank you for your courage, Karen, and your eloquent description of what you gained and lost by training at an ‘elite’ institution. I too find inspiration and shared experience from women of color writing in/about the academy although I’m white. My lower middle class background and idealistic views of education clashed dramatically with the amount of cultural capital and entitlement I saw among my faculty and fellow grad students at the elite institution I attended. Looking back, I realize I didn’t understand the cultural norms of success and now I too am a ‘fallen academic’ . I also took a long time to finish (compounded by reproductive choices) and had difficulty generating solo authored publications to even get an academic job. Although I’m now at an elite institution, I’m working in various capacities (project manager; researcher; evaluation). All my publications have co-authors. I am in a non-sociological environment where I “do” sociology every day but here my colleagues understand that best work comes from teams, not individuals. It’s not perfect, there are egos among some, but I am unlearning some of the most insidious lessons from elite academia: that the best work comes from individuals working in isolation; that caring for/about others is a sign of weakness or lack of commitment to one’s career; and that only the most narrow vision of “good” sociology is all that counts. I look forward to future blog posts on any/all of these topics!

  8. japansociology

    Great post. Thanks for writing it, and for creating the blog. I’ve found blogging to be a useful way for me and my students to get our ideas out there, beyond the limiting confines of peer-reviewed journals. My blog is at

    I also really appreciate your thoughts on the many ways we get derailed, conned into believing that our merit as scholars comes from writing for only a select few journals, getting grants, and having our value measured by citation statistics. It’s the opposite of what we try to instill in our students, unfortunately.

    So thanks again!

  9. Karen

    Thanks so much for all your responses and interest in the blog. I am heartened to know how many of us are working on these issues and willing to figure out new ways through them.

    CM mentioned the reality that academic work is created in teams, and I do think there is a increasing understanding of that fact even if we are still mired in the notion of “first authors” and “lead researchers.” I think the internet as a collective space has really opened us up to validating the productivity of working together. Great idea for another post.

  10. Garrett

    Karen, thank you so much for the blog and for sharing your voice with everyone. It seems to me that the topic you discuss is a powder keg of sorts. It’s so important, so timely, and in this era of rapid change, so undeniable. I enjoy the message of the medium as well; technology underpins much of what’s brought up in this blog. Way to go!

    I am interested in how to “get there.” Threaded through the hierarchy is an abundance of misunderstanding and illusion about other human beings. How do we even get to the point in human communication to be able to rectify an issue? I think Rawls had it right with his interpretation of the “veil of ignorance.” We have to go into conversation with others having shuffled off all prior doctrines, beliefs, class level, etc. We have to let go of our way being the right way. (It’s so selfish, right?) Having donned the veil, one enters into a fruitful contract with others.

    1. Karen

      I love your comment Garrett! I completely agree about how much we think we know about each other that turns out to be so wrong. Its interesting, the concept of “veil of ignorance.” Its like DuBois’ notions of the veil that separates black and white Americans, except that he also makes the point that Black folks (and probably all devalued groups) have to deal with internalizing the ideas that devalue them (us).

      I’ve been dealing with this lately around the fact that the local grocery store is closing down. I’m going to make it the topic of my next post, so check back!

  11. Pingback: Sociology on the Margins | Online Sociological Imaginations

  12. Sophie

    Thanks so much for writing this. I have just finished my PhD at age 40 after what was a titanic struggle, only to find that I can’t get a job at all because ‘you don’t fit our profile’. All of the things you talk about, such as power, elitism and context control resonate with me. To me, the job in the community college really IS my dream job, and I have also seen those rolling eyes when I tell people that my strengths are in working one on one and in small groups with students who may not be the ‘best’ but are still doing whatever they can to improve.

    Thanks for the blog though, at least I don’t feel so alone. If you have any suggestions for helping me get into such kinds of work I’m all ears.

    Incidentally, the best description of academic power is Foucault’s diffusion of psychiatric power. …basically that academia has had grafted onto it the structure and practice of the asylum.

    That’s how I feel about it anyway.

    1. Karen

      Hi Sophie! I love your point about Foucault. I agree with you that his analysis of power is well suited to understanding the structure of academia — its not a coincidence that we call areas of study “disciplines.”

      As for specific advice about the job market, the Chronicle of Higher Education has a great website full of tips for applying for and getting jobs of different kinds. They have even developed sections devoted to figuring out how to turn your PhD into a non-academic job. I would also suggest the website Conditionally Accepted which I link to on my front page.

      I think the academic job market varies tremendously based on geography. The East Coast has tons of smaller liberal arts colleges that welcome a teaching focused professor. Community colleges do too, as do many Midwestern and Mountain region public colleges. For me the most important part to getting my job was to tailor my application materials to teaching instead of research. My committee had recommended using the same materials for both R-1 and teaching schools under the false assumption that every school wanted R-1 type professors. They were wrong. Once I reconfigured my CV to focus on teaching, read up in pedagogy to write a much more specific statement of teaching philosophy, and learned to tailor my cover letters to the mission statements of particular schools I got my job. The most important question in my job interview was “How do you define critical thinking?” The fact that I actually had a thoughtful answer to that clearly shocked my interviewers — its one of those things we talk about all the time and never really define. I am convinced that having an answer to that question is what got me the job.

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