Do Students’ Racist And Sexist Stereotypes Affect Your Teaching?

Note: this blog post was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae (here)Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Do Their Stereotypes Affect Your Teaching?

“Stereotype threat” is a well-known social psychological construct in which people live down or up to the expectations others have of them based their gender, race, age, or other such characteristics. As professors we are careful — or we should be — not to translate our personal beliefs about students’ capabilities into our expectations of how they will perform academically, but we rarely think about how students’ expectations of us affect our performance.

In particular, faculty who are women and/or members of racial minority groups run the risk of becoming stereotype threatened: feeling anxiety about whether they will either confirm or disprove students’ stereotypical beliefs.

If you don’t think students — or all people — have ideas about what a professor looks and sounds like, try this exercise: Ask a few people who don’t know you’re an academic to describe the “average” professor. Undoubtedly they will paint a picture of an older white male who may or may not be wearing a tweed jacket.

That description is true for only some of the 58 percent of full-time faculty who are white males. And it’s utterly false for the remaining 42 percent of us, who must do our jobs knowing that at least some of our students are surprised to see someone who looks like us standing in front of them. We are always competing with students’ expectations of what we should be teaching, saying, doing, and assigning. And when we don’t perform according to their (usually) unspoken expectations, we pay the price in our course evaluations.

To complicate matters, students have different expectations for faculty of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Asian professors, for example, are supposed to be meek but very intelligent while Black professors are expected to be loud and aggressive. Males and females also face far different challenges in the classroom. Men are stereotyped as smarter than women so it’s no wonder that students often challenge women about their qualifications, and evaluate them more harshly than men.

Faculty of color, female faculty, and especially female faculty of color often choose to respond in one of two ways:

  • Confirm students’ stereotypes. Most professors want to build strong relationships with students and it’s much simpler to do that within existing frameworks than to start anew. Challenging students’ beliefs can create tension, and sometimes that tension can cause students to disengage. Consequently, some faculty perform a certain “act” that aligns with what students expect of them. I’ve seen this most often in Black female colleagues who embrace the stereotype of the loud, sexualized Black woman who is always ready to argue. These women leverage the archetypes of Jezebel and Sapphire as a point of entry into the white imagination. From there, they can construct relationships with non-Black students from a position of familiarity.
  • Disprove their beliefs. This response is more common, albeit less intentional. I don’t think female and nonwhite faculty are enumerating all the expectations students have of them and then trying to do the exact opposite. Marginalized professors usually are just vigilantly being themselves. In other words, they aren’t actively trying to disprove stereotypes, but they are aware of how they counter students’ expectations. Women who are stereotyped as less intelligent might begin class by citing their pedigree. Black men who are stereotyped as aggressive or hostile avoid standing too close, speaking too loudly, or using harsh language. Asian faculty who are stereotyped as “naturally smart” might make self-deprecating jokes.

I find both approaches troubling but understandable. Students will perceive you the way you present yourself. Your style of dress, your language, your gender, your height, your skin color — all contribute to students’ perceptions of you. People evaluate others based upon their proximity to their own in-group. The more you are like me, the more I understand you, and the more I like you. The less you are like me, the less I understand you, and the more I have to rely on heuristics to make sense of you.

I advocate a third option. Instead of confirming or disapproving their stereotypes, I just present my real self. I acknowledge that I am Black, young, female, Southern, and a football fan. I tell my outdoor-enthusiast students that I don’t like going outside and have no interest in skiing, climbing, hiking, or anything else of the sort. I am honest in expressing my feelings about living in a very white, very conservative city. Importantly, I don’t recite that autobiography on the first day of class, but weave it into my pedagogy throughout the course. I share pieces of myself as they are relevant.

Students tend to take the pieces they want and leave the rest — which is fine by me. They take the pieces to which they can relate, and that connection becomes the foundation of our relationship. Those points of overlap allow me to comfortably say things like, “Just because I’m Southern doesn’t mean …,” or, more commonly, “Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean …”

Those introductory clauses are my attempts to clarify who I am, likely in response to a student comment or question about urban families and contexts (I teach about social and political issues in education). I use myself as a model of contradiction to their stereotypical beliefs about Southerners, Black people, and women. That approach has two benefits: First, it allows me to personalize what students sometimes view as impersonal issues. Second, it allows me to negate stereotypes without explicitly making students feel bad for having stereotypical beliefs (I do my best to avoid the rabbit hole of white guilt).

That is not to say that I avoid conversations about difference. It’s actually quite the contrary. Soft entries like these facilitate in-depth discussions of the intersection of self-identity, cognitive processing, and life experiences. Students aren’t horrified that I’ve acknowledged I’m Black and presented an alternate form of Blackness from what they expected. They are willing and excited to step up and ask themselves why they thought I’d be something I’m not.

While they engage in self-analysis, I engage in self-regulation. I must be careful not to express my anger, hurt, or incredulity when they reveal their stereotypical beliefs. Most of the time, those beliefs are the result of a lack of exposure rather than willful ignorance. It is my responsibility to provide both exposure and opportunities for reflection.

Bias is always present, and nothing I can do will erase the racialized, gendered, and classist structures in which we exist, but I can work toward erasing the racialized, gendered, and classist beliefs that bolster such structures.

By not engaging in a war on stereotypes and instead focusing my energy on cultivating genuine teacher-student relationships, I do indeed force students to confront themselves. When I don’t adhere to their notions of femininity or Blackness, I am prepared to push back against their pushback. When I do happen to confirm their expectations of Black womanhood, I am quick to ask them why that might be the case. In offering students my whole self without cautionary tape restricting our interactions, students begin to understand me beyond my social markers, and thus, begin to understand themselves in relation to their social contexts.

It is not my job to tell students what to believe; it is my job to challenge their beliefs. I’ve found that the best way to enhance their thinking is to complicate it with real-life evidence. I am that evidence.

Nondisclosure Agreements Silence Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches classes on American literature, theory and media history. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Silencing of Sexual Violence Survivors

Back when I was a freshman in college many years ago, something happened. This something involved someone who was a member of my college’s faculty and me, and it resulted in my filing a complaint relating to allegations of sexual assault. But now, 15 years later, I am compelled to rely on those kinds of ambiguous nouns — something and someone — in lieu of specifics. At the behest of college administrators and representatives, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from sharing anything more specific about that something and that someone.

At the time, I understood my silence to be a necessary cost levied in exchange for protection and support. I brought my complaint to a trusted faculty member who, in turn, forwarded it to the appropriate administrator. That administrator then told me that I had two options. I could take my complaint to the police, thereby exposing myself to a public trial, newspaper reporters’ inquiries and the scrutiny of our entire college-town community. Or I could let the college handle the investigation, as long as I was willing to aid that investigation by keeping contractually quiet.

I was 18 years old, living more than 1,000 miles from home. Save for that one trusted faculty member, I had not told anyone about the something, not even my roommate or my parents. So I agreed to a private, internal investigation and signed the nondisclosure agreement — before speaking to a lawyer, before receiving any impartial advice and before having the opportunity to tell my story to anyone who might have been in a position to offer me support.

What Are NDAs?

Nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are legal agreements that are employed with the aim of protecting sensitive information. In business, “sensitive information” may amount to trade secrets or specific details about a product. In higher education, colleges and universities have historically turned to NDAs when investigating allegations of sexual violence or misconduct.

NDAs typically mandate that both parties involved in the complaint remain silent so as to avoid impeding a college’s investigation (which sometimes includes the gathering of witness testimony). And in order to further discourage those involved from speaking, NDAs often specify that financial penalties and personal liability are likely to result if either party breaks the agreement. (See, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of the subject in the context of former presidential candidate Herman Cain.)

But in recent years, critics of the practice have pointed out that such confidentiality agreements stifle student speech and prevent victims — be they the accusers or the accused — from speaking out and sharing their sides of the story. What’s more, as a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article explains, NDAs place comprehensive bans on speech that extend beyond investigative proceedings and remain in effect long after the details of a case have gone public.

That means that victims of sexual violence are unable to shape the narrative that gets told and retold about them — instead, they are held hostage by the whims of gossip and hearsay. This situation has prompted some people to ask whether there might be such a thing as too much confidentiality, since, as one expert explains in the Inside Higher Ed article, “Colleges and universities rarely if ever intervene to correct the public record — even if they were to obtain the consent of both parties.”

Citing those same concerns, in addition to mounting public pressure, some colleges and universities have recently moved to discontinue the practice of requiring NDAs for those people wishing to file complaints of sexual violence or misconduct. American University, for instance, announced last year that it would no longer require students to sign them when filing complaints of misconduct against other students.

But as a more recent series of articles in The Guardian points out, NDAs are particularly common — and thus particularly pernicious — where student complaints against faculty or staff members are concerned. In such cases, NDAs “allow alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again,” thus “masking” the very prevalence of issues of harassment, violence or misconduct — all in the name of confidentiality.

What to Know and What to Do

What all higher education professionals must understand, then, is that such practices governing confidentiality are still very much the norm today. Most institutions still rely on them, which is why it is important that faculty and staff members read and acquaint themselves with institutional policies regarding confidentiality and voluntary disclosure. But, even more important, they need to take an active role in communicating their understandings of those policies to students.

I am not saying that folks in higher education need to memorize their campus’s policies and approach all interactions armed with chapter and verse. Rather, now a faculty member myself, I am arguing in favor of a heightened awareness that may permit university professionals to engage candidly and responsibly with student victims. If a student approaches you with the expectation of confidentiality, you need to inform that person of your ability to listen and, perhaps, act in confidence.

For example, if you hail from one of the many professional disciplines that make you subject to mandatory reporting laws (like law, medicine or social work), or if you serve in the capacity of a campus security authority — which, under Title IX, may also require you to report — you need to be honest in explaining that you may be unable to comply with a student’s wishes regarding confidentiality. A colleague at my institution’s law school recently told me that she was thinking of putting a sign on her door to declare her status as a mandatory reporter so that students would be able to consider their options before approaching her. Similarly, if you know that official student complaints on your campus are likely to be met with secrecy in the form of compulsory nondisclosure agreements, you must be up front and explain as much to a student beforehand.

Here’s why a willingness to be both honest and informed matters: what followed my decision to sign that NDA some 15 years ago were, frankly, the worst four months of my life. I was removed from the course that I was taking with the faculty member in question and instead enrolled in an independent study course, conducted by another faculty adviser who had no experience in the topic and little direct interest in overseeing my studies anyway.

Meanwhile, my absence in the class had not gone unnoticed, and rumors proliferated — rumors that I was contractually bound to accept with good grace since I was not allowed to talk about what had happened. The administrator who had dealt with my case had warned me that my violating the NDA “could compromise the investigation or could violate someone’s privacy and expose me and the college to liability.” Those were not my college administrator’s exact words, but they are the words of confidentiality agreements used by higher education institutions today.

There are alternatives, though. American University, for instance, now favors a confidentiality agreement that includes a First Amendment rights statement. The statement is designed to assure victims that confidentiality is the responsibility of their university but not necessarily required by them.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct on college campuses requires a sincere commitment to acknowledging that sexual violence and misconduct do indeed happen — that they have been happening for some time now, that they are happening right now. Nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements have historically helped to keep us, as university professionals, from acknowledging that. Yet in order to imagine better, fairer alternatives to NDAs, we must start by facing the facts concerning their ubiquity and prevalence on our own campuses.

Why Your Students Don’t Believe That Trump Is A Rapist

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Jamie L. Small is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. She studies the intersection of law, crime and gender, with a particular focus on adult male sexual victimization. She approaches sexual violence education and prevention from a sex-positive perspective.

Teaching About Sexuality, Violence and Power

Here is a fascinating paradox: in the abstract, most people believe that sexual violence is a bad thing. We largely agree that victim trauma is severe, that perpetrators should be punished and that our communities would be better places if we could somehow eliminate this evil. Yet, when we examine specific cases, that consensus unravels.

Adjudication is comparatively straightforward when the alleged perpetrator is a stranger. If the “bad guy” is an outsider, literal or figurative, we have no trouble bringing down the hammer and the full weight of the criminal justice system. But when the alleged perpetrator is an insider, or a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, it becomes difficult to label him as someone who would do such a thing. We start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience.

I regularly observe such mental gymnastics with my undergraduate students. Last fall, I taught a sophomore-level course on sexual violence. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when the students demonstrated clear concern about sexual violence. Many of them were moved by the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, and they were curious about hot-topic issues like child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Starting with what I thought was a degree of fluency regarding sexual violence, we moved on to more subtle points about how we address it (or not) collectively. Why are victims reluctant to report sexual violence? How do race, ethnicity and social class matter for criminal prosecutions? Why do some offending men go unpunished, even as others are targeted disproportionately? My students seemed to get it.

But the 2016 presidential campaign season offered some unanticipated teachable moments. After the election, I asked the students how it felt to have a president-elect who, among other allegations, was in fact caught on tape making lewd, sexually aggressive remarks. It did not seem to bother them.

I was shocked. We had just spent three months learning about sexual violence. How could the sexual allegations against their new president not matter to them? But when the bogeyman is familiar, and when politics are involved, the waters become murky.

I pressed them further. Can we ever actually believe sexual allegations against a high-status man, especially if they come from a comparatively lower-status woman? One student brought up the Bill Cosby case and noted that it took dozens of victims before people really started to believe. With a straight face, I asked whether it takes 50 victims to come forward to counter the denials of a high-status man. They did not pick up on this horrific joke.

During recent sociological fieldwork, I interviewed 75 prosecutors and defense attorneys who work on sexual assault cases. I found that while they largely take sexual assault allegations seriously, they also tend to conflate sex offenders with lower-class men. They stereotype sex offenders as “creeps,” “mopes” and “hillbillies.” In essence, they focus on the man’s identity rather than his behavior. A defendant’s social status becomes a proxy for assessing the veracity of the victim’s allegations.

So when the accused looks like a “creep,” it is much easier to believe the victim, especially if her social identity aligns with dominant groups. But when the accused is a high-status man, we have our doubts. We start to do those mental gymnastics to explain away his alleged indiscretions. Now we are doing those mental gymnastics for the president.

I anticipate that teaching about sexual violence will become more complicated during the Trump presidency. We are likely to see a decrease in federal funding, which will affect college students’ baseline knowledge of the issue. Indeed, the symbolism of a sexually aggressive president may increase young people’s tolerance of similar behavior among their peers.

Action Steps

We must continue to engage college students in these difficult conversations about sexuality, violence and power. Regardless of how anticipated decreases in federal funding and prioritization of the issue play out in the coming years, we must maintain the grassroots momentum that has developed since the U.S. Department of Education issued the Dear Colleague letter in 2011. Here are some ideas.

My course is unusual because we devote the entire semester to sexual violence. But briefer units can be easily incorporated into a range of social science and humanities courses. Instructors might start with sensational issues like sex trafficking, which often captivate students’ attention but can then be used to generate critical analyses of power by focusing on dynamics of labor, immigration and transnational feminism. Frontline has several excellent documentaries on sexual violence that chart institutional responses: for instance, how sexual harassment cases among undocumented agricultural workers move through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. My students also enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Notably, I do not shy away from the students’ tough questions. (For example, they always want to know how consent is determined in cases where both parties are intoxicated.) In the sexual violence prevention field, there is a tendency toward teaching young people incontrovertible facts about the issue. It makes sense when trainers have one hour with a group to drill down to a couple of key anti-rape lessons. But if we want to provide young people with a comprehensive education about sexual violence, then we need to develop their critical-thinking skills. Complex social problems have no easy answers.

We also need to mobilize key networks of campus actors to achieve this comprehensive education. Student learning is not a linear process, and so they need multiple opportunities during their college years to engage with these ideas, both inside and outside the classroom. Those campus networks also need to be in place to ensure that lines of communication and mobilization are open, should there be funding cuts or programming shifts.

This pedagogical work is about much more than sexual violence prevention. It compels us to examine a range of structural inequalities, including those of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, nationality and sexuality. Ultimately, it is about guiding young people to be critical and engaged citizens.

These are important first steps among many acts of resistance.

Teaching Rape Culture

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) is a fat studies scholar at Massey University in New Zealand. She hosted Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections in New Zealand in 2012 and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment in 2016, and her fat-positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn, is traveling the world this year.

Across the world, institutions of higher education are being forced to examine whether their policies and procedures reinforce a rape culture. As noted by Marshall University, “rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” Faculty members can push back against rape culture on their campus by lobbying the institution to ensure transparency in reporting statistics about rape on campus, developing orientation material on consent and advocating for student survivors of sexual violence. They can also push back in their classrooms by teaching about rape culture.

My students balk at the suggestion that rape is normalized, but I have found that asking them to recount the plot of the movie Superbad — young men hunt to secure alcohol so they can get young women drunk enough to have sex with them — is effective in demonstrating how normal rape is, especially among young people. I explain that part of rape culture is our reliance on victim blaming and how we teach people not to get raped rather than teaching people not to rape. These problematic efforts suggest that victims need to take steps to protect themselves from assault and says nothing to or about potential perpetrators.

Image credit: Tumblinfeminist

Rape Culture Activity

I have developed a classroom activity that I have found useful for teaching the concept of rape culture.

I begin by presenting my students with the following scenario, which I borrow from my days working as an undergraduate peer educator for a group now called Healthycats at Texas State University.

Mary and Bob know each other from class, and they decide to go out together one evening. They go to a bar, and each consumes several drinks. Mary goes to the bathroom, and when she comes out she has her shirt untucked and her bra is off. She suggests they go back to her room and order dinner in. They eat dinner and lie next to each other on the floor. Bob caresses her face and kisses her. Mary enjoys it and kisses him back. Bob then carries Mary to the bed and kisses her again. Mary realizes what is happening and says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Bob removes all of her clothes. Mary mumbles, “No,” very softly and then realizes that she will probably have to give in.

Then I instruct the students to work in small groups to rank this scenario using a Likert scale that ranges from 1 (meaning “not rape”) to 5 (meaning “rape”).

When we reconvene as a class, I ask each group to report their ranking of the scenario with Mary and Bob, and I record them on the whiteboard. The rankings usually range from 2 to 5, with most numbers falling between 3.5 and 4.5. (Oh yeah, students always seem to want a 0.5.)

Next, I ask the groups that ranked the scenario with a score of 3.5 or below to explain why they gave the score that they did, to offer what about the scenario led to that score. As these groups share their decision making with the rest of the class, I take notes on the board. After we have exhausted their comments, I then ask those groups who offered a score of 4 or 4.5 what they would like to add to the list. And then, finally, I invite the groups that gave a 5 to share their reasons for this ranking.

The students who label the scenario as rape usually note that Mary said no (more than once) and explain that giving in does not sound like something she wants to be doing. Those groups prioritize what Mary has said when they gave a score of 5 (meaning rape).

Without fail, the responses given by those groups who offered a score below 5 include references to what Mary has done, what her behavior signifies regardless of what she actually says. Mary took off her bra; Mary invited Bob up to her room; Mary did not physically fight back. Sometimes a student will even suggest that Mary was “asking for it” or question what Mary expected when she acted in such ways.

With those rationales articulated, I then take time to unpack the students’ explanations by asking a few key questions. First I ask, “How many times does someone have to say no before it is rape?” The response is always once, but then I point out that Mary said no twice, yet most of the class fails to label this scenario as rape. The students usually push back, insisting that Mary’s nos were not very forceful or were part of larger mixed messages being sent.

Second, I ask, “Are there different levels of sexual engagement — kissing, fondling, oral sex, vaginal sex — etc.? Does giving consent to one activity, like oral sex, mean consent has been given for all sexual activities?” And always, “Does there have to be physical force for it to be rape?”

Highlighting Rape Culture

I have been running this scenario in my classes for 15 years, across two continents, and the experience has not changed much. Students’ rankings of the scenario between Mary and Bob are largely the same today as they were in the past, as are the justifications. What is different now, however, is my ability to bring the exercise back to the topic of rape culture.

Toward the end of the class activity, after we have spent a great deal of time parsing out whether Mary consented or was forced, I point out that a definite pattern can be found in their explanations for the rankings they gave. I suggest that they review what is on the board and identify the pattern that emerges. Sometimes they see it. Just as often they do not, and I have to point out to them that none of their feedback had anything to do with Bob. What Bob did or did not do. What Bob’s responsibility is in this situation.

As a class, we reflect on how this pattern is an example in and of itself of rape culture. While considering the scenario, and how to rate it, students paid the role and responsibility of Bob no mind and focused solely on Mary and what she did to bring this upon herself. Once this pattern is brought to the surface, we then discuss the responsibility that Bob has in the situation, but it often feels perfunctory on the part of the students.

For the most part, students do not want to hold Bob responsible for anything in the scenario. He was not the one who initiated the launch sequence, as they seem to view it. Mary initiated the events in question — inviting him out, taking off her bra, inviting him to her place, kissing him back — although they disagree about what exactly started the sequence. Once she started it, it apparently could not be stopped. Sometimes students even express pity for Bob, that he did not realize that Mary was not interested (if that is the case). “Poor guy,” they seem to lament, “she should have given him better cues than saying no twice.”

Every semester, I am reminded that more work needs to be done, but the value of rape culture as a schema, a way to organize various pieces of information and the relationship among them, cannot be overstated. Being able to bring back students’ responses to the elements of rape culture allows for connections to be made between a “real-life” scenario and the political and ideological intersections within rape culture.

While it is disheartening that the responses have not shifted much since the 1990s, I am glad that more of my students are familiar with the concept of rape culture. And I find real value in the exercise itself as it provides an opportunity for students to recognize their own values and beliefs in action — which I imagine they find quite different from their values and beliefs in theory.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

From March to November 2017, we will be featuring a series of weekly blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  We are especially pleased to note that this series is intersectional to its core, offering narratives that reflect on sexual violence as a manifestation not just of sexism, but also racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and fatphobia.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Failures of Title IX Policy and Programming

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia:

How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.

Birthing Both A Baby And Ph.D. As A Woman Of Color

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle (@thePhDandMe) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

I freaked out when I learned that I was pregnant during my second year of graduate school. My reaction was not abnormal; neurologists link the flood of hormones to a women’s brain as the reason for increased anxiety among expectant mothers. And while I was indeed overwhelmed by the typical things pregnant moms worry about — Would I be a good mother? Was I eating the right foods? Could my body endure childbirth? — the majority of my concerns centered around graduate school.

How was I going to tell my adviser? When do I have to tell the department? What will they think of me? How was I going to finish my master’s thesis at the same time that my baby was due? Was my graduate stipend enough to support a family?

I did not really have any one to turn to in my program. No current students had children (though one black mother had recently left), and the only two mothers on the department’s faculty had waited until they earned tenure to have their children. No one discussed parenthood, so I wasn’t sure how to do it or even if it could be done.

In desperation, I reached out to my undergrad mentor, who did not have children but always had sound advice. Her words almost became a mantra to me: women are fully capable of birthing babies and Ph.D.s — you got this.

I cut down on my coffee intake, became the queen of catnaps, asked for a few extensions on assignments when needed and raided my partner’s closet for loose sweatshirts. Aside from my adviser and one confidant, I did not announce the pregnancy until I almost five months pregnant. I thought I was on the right track.

What I naïvely did not expect, however, were the additional layers of burden that I faced as a woman of color. You see, I was only 23 and unmarried to my partner at the time I gave birth to my first son. That meant I was young, black, unwed, relatively broke and a new mother. And I found that shaped some people’s perception of me in my graduate school program.

It did not seem to matter much that I had a loving partner with a good job. Or that my mother relocated just to help me out. Many people seemed to ignore or were unaware of my background — of being raised by a young single mother myself — and that I was used to jumping through hoops to find academic success. Despite my persistence, I began to feel left out.

For instance, that year after my son was born, I was not asked to rejoin research projects that I had previously been involved with. I did not receive additional incentives to travel to conferences as I had before. I could not attend department happy hours as often and began to be left out of the grad student social scene, as well. By the end of my third year, I felt more alienated, stressed and unsure of my path than I did in my first year of the program.

The neglect could have been the result of positive intentions: to give me fewer responsibilities and allow for more time to give to my son. But, it seemed that many people assumed that my choosing motherhood meant I was not as serious about my profession. Not unlike Trump’s comments that motherhood is an inconvenience to businesses, if felt as though motherhood was an inconvenience to the Ph.D.

Research shows this is something that mothers have to deal with more than fathers. For instance, Mary Ann Mason and colleagues investigated whether babies matter for academic success. They found that mothers with young children are 21 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children, as well as that mothers are 16 percent less likely to end up on the tenure track than fathers. Women scholars’ online discussions further illustrate their findings.

Not only did I face preconceptions about parenthood as a woman, but I also believe implicit biases about black mothers created additional burdens. In itself, graduate school can be a source of trauma for students of color. And Patricia Hill Collins has written about the damaging Eurocentric views of black motherhood that moms inside and outside of academe have to combat. My position as a black mother and student intersected to pattern my experiences.

My differential treatment became even more obvious when two other students had children after me. One white woman opted to defer her dissertation fellowship for a year so that she could focus on raising her child. Rather than pushing her out (when she had asked to be temporarily “out”), she was actually offered a part-time administrative position during that time. Another white man student became the primary childcare provider after his wife returned to work. Despite his constant working from home, he was suggested to me as a model for being serious about publishing. I do not fault either of those white students for making the right choices for their family, but I did find it troubling that I was treated as less serious, despite my decision to remain embedded in the department and my work.

After one honest conversation that I initiated, a professor actually admitted to me: “I thought you would have dropped out and had more babies by now.” I was shocked. What about me suggested that? I had never mentioned a desire to drop out or to have more children. I had not taken any time off from academe. I had met appropriate deadlines. I showed up on the campus nearly every day. Really, nothing I did suggested that; rather, I believe their perceptions of black women incorrectly painted their assumptions about me.

This was bias, implicit or not, and it was wrong. I attempted to correct their perceptions by delving into my work and confronting misconceptions head-on when I could muster up the courage. I would be remiss not to share my gratitude for the supportive peers and faculty who encouraged my success and bravery — like the grad students who stepped in as babysitters or the professors who invited me over their houses for dinner. I would not have made it through that sometimes toxic space without allies that served as positive antidotes. But even so, it was a struggle to get out of grad school with my Ph.D. and my baby.

Mothers of color should not have to battle in the trenches just to save their babies and degrees. More work needs to be done, and at a larger scale, to create safe space for babies and parents in academe. I share my experiences to shed light on the mistreatment I experienced so students can recognize they are not alone and so that faculty members might reflect on their roles. To this end, I will offer advice and policy solutions in my next post.