On The Burden Of Having To Recruit “Your Own Kind”

Note: this was originally published on Inside Higher Ed columnLauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago.

Program Recruitment From the Margins

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

lauren-m-jackson

Lauren Michele Jackson

Graduate students are hardly privy to ins and outs of application season, even from the other side of the curtain, but we feel the tremors nonetheless. Even before the acceptances roll out, faculty members and administrators depend on current students to recruit the prospective students they want most. As walking representatives of our programs’ successes and intellectual culture, it’s an implicit agreement upon matriculation that we fortify the reputation of our academic homes to the best of our ability, admissions efforts included.

Even if not for this arrangement, the fact that potential students would reach out to us and we divulge in turn just makes sense. Senior and midcareer faculty members toiled over their studies in an era so different as to be unintelligible. Meanwhile, junior faculty, although perhaps close in spirit, are removed by departmental philosophy — they most likely didn’t even go here.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

So, now it is routine. Between summer and spring the question is expected. A little less vague, maybe, filled with consequential details like the college’s name and area specialty. Unwritten is anything that might, on its face, appeal to what many people around here would snidely call identity politics. I am never given the rhyming cute-ism assumed by Dear White People about faces and places. I am never asked what it is like to be a student who is — only one who does, and how that doing looks in the light of day to a campus like this. Prospective students never ask me what it’s like to be academic while black and a woman.

And yet I can feel another thing, the more pressing question that simmers underneath the labyrinthian negotiations and exchanges and codes of respectability that haunt the entire process of even getting to the point of daring to declare interest in something like formalized higher learning — while black. That question does not care that I am an Americanist, maybe does not even know that I work with black texts — “African-American literature” does not appear anywhere on my department profile. My photo is enough: I am merely and not so merely evidence that existence is possible. I am a touchstone.

The visible question “how do you do” is genuine, but so are the ones unspoken: How are you breathing?

Will I be able to breathe?

For its uncomfortable relationship with the public and the state, the academy is pretty content to mirror the enmities of the “real world” when it comes to people. It does not take an insider or an expert to see the diversity of ways academe is openly hostile to individuals it calls “diverse,” the humanities (god bless ’em) included. The instructors are white. The committees are white. The faculty is white. The history is white. The theory is white. The administration is white. The students are white — mostly. Some might say it is a little more complicated than that, but time for nuance is a fantastic luxury afforded if you are, well, white. If undergraduate education belongs to the order Lagomorpha, and M.F.A.s practice eugenics, a literature Ph.D. is like skipping dinner for a party that only serves hors d’oeuvres.

The sympathetic portrait for the overworked, undercompensated grad-student-cum-employee-but-kinda-still-not is a sallow thing: the owl-eyed pixie sustained by JSTOR and carrot sticks or the reedy, inert genius whose underappreciation manifests in depressive episodes soothed by Hemingway plus a Hemingway-approved beverage. Whiteness is the hypervisible champion of grad school apathy, the image implied when the subject is someone whose chosen career includes thinking for money. And as academe revels in its own romanticism, real students are drowning.

From where I sit: grad life is OK. Incredible people doing incredible things who are enthusiastic about blackness — or at very least, enthusiastic about my enthusiasm — surround me in personal and professional networks curated in real time over the course of my time here. There are colleagues who make me feel loved and necessary in an atmosphere that drives even the most privileged into isolation. Even greater is the virtual nucleus of smart-as-hell folks whose tweets and messages sustain me. I am all right. I am breathing. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some more black folks in this bitch, just sayin’.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

That question rubs. As I walk on campus and see blocks brimming with private police, guns holstered, that question rubs. When fraternities and sororities — coalitions for white supremacy — do what they do best, the friction is almost too much to bear. When they are shielded further by administrative dialect, I am white-hot.

The academy is a pyramid scheme, as the old joke goes. Aging scholars coax bright young minds to work tirelessly for jobs they never intended on abdicating anyway. Pro-diversity campaigns in higher education look pyramid scheme-y in their own way: the already marginalized, further minorized in their respective departments, are responsible for recruiting “their own.” We are the one rainbow welcome wagon for the place that already demonstrates a lack of welcome for having to initiate such a campaign at all. More insidious, the directive is seductive and, shucking notwithstanding, feels mutually beneficial. They — the administration and affiliates — get brownie points, we get allies.

What is our responsibility to undermine our responsibility?

If we choose selfishness, the desire to see (more) “black faces in white spaces” outweighs concern for what happens when they get there. Selfishness hoses down the nitty-gritty and makes way for glowing reports on the institutions that would rather we did not exist. If we choose selfish, we do not have to look for allies in the abstract. But who am I to recruit the student with a bull’s-eye on their back from day one.

I continue to believe that nobody looks out for us like we look out for us. If not inborn, endangerment since birth draws black folks — black femmes especially — tighter together. Whiteness pushes out, but we (can) extend a hand, give a heads-up, keep folks in the know. For example, I think about the cumulonimbus-headed brotha who pulled me aside during a campus visit to a choice university years ago. He warned me of the friction between the two departments I would have dearly needed to work in tandem to complete my studies.

No (wo)man, person of color should be an island, nor can we lure our family under false pretenses. The negotiation is not easy. We cannot hide the dirt, we cannot unwrite the damages, but we can still extend the invitation. Honestly. There is work to do here, a lot of it. I will be here for you, but I cannot do it alone.