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.