A Xicana Scholar Pays Tribute To Her Academic Mama

Note: this blog post was originally published on Xicana, PhD and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, a mama, an educator and a writer based in Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education.

A Letter to My “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after I finished my Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times, for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title but a lived reality. And I thought about how, when I met you, you helped me set down my worries and my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academe — a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person. Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing in faster Puerto Rican Spanish. I soon caught on, just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn.

With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most, however, is how, after five minutes sitting with you, things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears, and I would leave feeling as though I, a Xicana from a community college who became a single mother in graduate school and who survived so much, could finish a Ph.D. under what felt like impossible circumstances. I felt not only that I could finish but also that this feeling would last until the next time, because there was always a next time when I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel as though I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask, “How are you?” every time I saw you, since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class — a course that saved me and many others. You would ask this question of all of us. You asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it is a question that no one seems to care about asking or is concerned with in academe, where they teach you that the personal has no place. But for us, the personal is political. It is everything, and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be here to begin with. “Como estas?” I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know, this became the first line of my dissertation and led to my own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place where I never imagined I would be. I know you remember, because that last year, before I finished my Ph.D., you made sure that — no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform — I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “women’s studies” or “testimonios,” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you fought for me and explained that, as a student of education, I was also a woman of color and a student in feminist studies, and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all of the time in my writing, that I refused to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower. And I still live by that belief, though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me, and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, conducting my research affirmed that I am here. I made it to this place after everyone else told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents’ home at 18 knowing that I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple of states away to pursue this far-fetched dream, I got a Ph.D. — even when the statistics and people told me every day that I couldn’t.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days when I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety, to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother, who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult, two weeks before she passed, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was farther. Your home is an island that cannot be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me but also for many people who walked through the doors of your office and sat in your classroom. Because as women of color in academe, we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected us. You gave strength. You built us up to believe in our own voices and words when so many other people diminish and silence us every single day.

And as we sat in my favorite cafe one week — after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple of days before I left town to move back to California with my toddler son as a single mama — you said no goodbye. But you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said, “We built this ship strong and not to sink, and Irene, you will not sink.” Then, you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and how turbulent these waters have been post-Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent), I make sure I remember I can’t sink, because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here.

You are here. We are here. And there are other women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.

3 Teaching Tips For Marginalized Faculty Members

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Chavella T. Pittman is the owner of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a company that works with faculty members and higher education institutions across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive college classrooms and efficient teaching, and for documenting teaching effectiveness for tenure and promotion reviews. (Contact her at chavella@effectivefaculty.org.)

As a faculty development coach, I get to meet and talk with professors across the United States. Recently, I noticed a theme in those conversations, especially from faculty members with marginalized statuses (race, gender, language of origin, sexual orientation, religion and so on). Folks typically dread returning to the classroom in the fall.

Who can blame them? Their teaching experiences have been marred by challenges that are unfortunately more likely to occur to and impact marginalized faculty, including:

  • Teaching overload (formally or informally) with little time for much else.
  • Inappropriate student challenges to their scholarship, legitimacy or authority.
  • Student rating/evaluation scores and comments that are uneven, negative or biased.

While I usually help faculty members with the above issues through coaching or in campus workshops, the suggestions below should go a long way toward setting faculty up for more success and less stress for their next round of teaching.

Teach efficiently by reducing course topics. Inequality in higher education poses several challenges to the efficient teaching of faculty members with marginalized statuses: lack of mentoring for efficient teaching; colleague and student challenges to their academic legitimacy leading to overpreparation for teaching; and teaching assignments with higher loads, larger classes, more new preparations and more service courses. For those reasons, it is essential that marginalized faculty practice efficient teaching to ensure they have the time and energy for other academic or personal goals.

The starting point for teaching efficiently is an examination of the course topics. In my coaching work to help people streamline their courses, I find that many faculty members attempt to teach too much material. Instead of an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, you should focus course material using these brainstorm prompts for student learning goals:

  • Key concepts?
  • Theories/theorists?
  • Classic or contemporary works?
  • Necessary skill competencies?
  • Controversies in the field?

The results of this quick brainstorm are the essential topics in the course.

Teaching too much material does a disservice to both students and faculty members. Students can only learn a reasonable amount of information. Similarly, faculty can only prepare, teach and assess a reasonable amount of information. Using this perspective, faculty members are not shortchanging students when they enhance their ability to learn the core and essential disciplinary material by reducing the course content.

Want to scale back a little at a time? Leave the material cut via the brainstorm in the syllabus as supplementary readings, an extra-credit assignment, options for a course unit whose topic is decided by students or a possible research/project/paper topic. Faculty members can also use the additional course topics to pitch or design a new “advanced” version of the original course.

Establish and use a classroom behavior policy. Increasingly, some students behave in the classroom in ways that disrupt both the learning environment for students and a healthy workplace environment for faculty members. Unfortunately, faculty members with marginalized statuses are more frequently the targets of such behavior. Thus, it is even more important for them to enact strategies for dealing with the student incivilities that would otherwise detract from their time and energy.

To prevent and respond to student incivilities, a classroom behavior policy should include at least: 1) an illustrative list of behaviors that are encouraged and discouraged, and 2) a statement of possible levels of response (from a faculty member, department chair, dean of students) and outcomes (such as a warning, a document in the student’s file, dismissal from the course or university). In addition, faculty members have to use the policy via a beginning-of-term introduction of its purpose (i.e., to support a learning environment that is beneficial for everyone) and by regularly referring to and enacting it if student disruptions occur. Here are some ideas and examples.

Faculty should clearly communicate expectations for student behavior, as it is a best practice for classroom management. A faculty member’s policy can use the tone and naming (e.g., guidelines, ground rules, expectations) that fit their teaching style and/or institutional context. By establishing a policy that is reified through modeling, reminders and enactment, faculty members aid students in understanding the behaviors that are conducive to and that detract from their learning. They also remove ambiguity for students who may be new to a college environment and provide boundaries for students who mistakenly perceive the college classroom as a place for free-for-all sorts of behaviors.

Feeling resistant to the idea of a classroom behavior policy? Which sounds better: a classroom where both student learning and academic freedom are protected through a proactive strategy for responding to potential student disruptions and incivilities, or a classroom where faculty are stressed and unprepared for inappropriate student challenges, especially those that target faculty members with marginalized statuses?

Collect and analyze data on student learning. Faculty members often use my coaching services to help make sense of their student teaching evaluations. The student evaluations of my clients with marginalized statuses, in particular, provide contradictory student perspectives in the same class, present seemingly biased comments and often do not reflect reality. Their comments are in line with the research that suggests patterns of negative student bias against these faculty members. Without engaging in the lively debate about their usefulness (see here and here), I instead highlight that student evaluations should not be equated with student learning or teaching effectiveness.

We should use multiple measures to assess teaching effectiveness. One place where faculty might begin is collecting and summarizing qualitative and quantitative data about student learning in their courses. This could be simply accomplished through the use of a short pre- and post-test quiz to measure student learning after a class session or two on a specific concept. Or it could be a single item (with quantitative and/or qualitative response options) that asks students to fill in the blank: “I have learned new facts/theories/concepts about (insert specific theory, course topic, discipline, etc.).” Here are additional ideas for student learning evaluation items. Alternatively, faculty members can summarize student learning evidenced by changes between the first and final drafts of student submissions for assignments that already exist in the course.

Faculty members frequently give feedback to and assess students’ work to aid their learning. They should similarly analyze existing assignments or collect additional student learning data to reflect upon and improve their teaching quality. Indeed, doing so is a core component of the teaching portfolio, which serves primarily to help faculty members reflect upon, improve and document their teaching. You should be proactive and assemble that data to ensure student learning goals are being achieved by the course. Such data can also be useful if something is off with the student teaching evaluations.

The practice of summarizing or collecting data on student learning is in line with best practices. As Nancy Van Note Chism writes in Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook, the evaluation of teaching for personnel decision should be multidimensional: it should include evidence from multiple sources and of various kinds (e.g., student learning data). And while teaching effectiveness is conceptualized in myriad ways, faculty members should be able to talk concisely about the evidence of student learning in their courses.

The above suggestions are quick best practices for common teaching issues that marginalized faculty are likely to face. My clients have used them to teach more efficiently, allowing more time to engage in research or leisure, create classrooms with less student incivility and stress, and gather teaching quality evidence used in successful tenure reviews. I hope that faculty members with marginalized statuses are able to similarly and easily enact and reap the benefits of these suggestions.

 

How College Administrators Can End Transphobia On Their Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a writer and translator. She writes from the perspective of a queer transfeminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* individual without disabilities. She is currently pursuing a M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and lives in Ohio with her partner.

Eradicating Transphobia On Campuses

In a previous essay, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques to create a trans* inclusive environment in their classrooms. In a second one, I offered additional advice for instructors to develop curricula that are inclusive of trans* individuals.

In this third piece, I offer advice to campus administrators on changing campus culture and institutional policies to better include and support transgender and non-binary students. I draw from personal experiences as a non-binary trans* person, as well the writing of others who challenge transphobia on college campuses.

Personal Experience

My college environment felt toxic, claustrophobic and, at times utterly suffocating. Every day, I felt pressured to hide my identity, and when I did dress affirmatively, other students harassed me, and faculty members did not acknowledge me. Most days I would contemplate skipping class to avoid the stress. Oftentimes, I would have to leave classes when they felt unendurable, when conversations led to probing questions about my body, gender or sexuality.

I attended the college that I did partly out of circumstance — location, price, transferability — and partly because it was home to a renowned program in my field. And my major professors were hearteningly supportive. I came out to them in my final year. We developed close ties, and they still inspire and propel me today.

However, the safety and comfort of one academic department only goes so far. A college’s culture permeates every facet of campus life. Every square inch of campus was a reminder that I, through my tuition dollars, inadvertently supported a negative, sport-centered, party-centered, oppressively traditional macho culture. I am not alone in this feeling.

The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report found that 31 percent of the respondents suffered from harassment on their campus, with over half of the respondents stating they did not disclose their LGBT identity at the institution. Other surveys found that trans* students reported more instances of harassment and discrimination and a lower sense of belonging on campus. In addition, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011) revealed that 90 percent of two- and four-year institutions have implemented no programs towards trans* inclusion and remain inaccessible and inhospitable to trans* students. These studies show that transphobic campus culture is a real and widespread issue that effects trans* students’ ability to succeed in college. This has to change.

Statistics on the number of trans* students at university are low because reporting remains tricky. Higher education administrators may not want to use funds to support for what seems like a very small student population. But they are in the best position to change campus culture and institutional barriers to trans* student inclusion. They can tie this to their missions and values and make achieving diversity centered on promoting the self-efficacy and inclusion of their most marginalized students.

Social and Institutional Barriers to Higher Education

The first step in the process of making change at the administration level is to recognize the social obstacles trans* individuals face even in accessing higher education. Trans* people experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare and transportation, and families that are often unsupportive and harassing. College often doesn’t seem like a possibility.

Because of this instability, trans* individuals are also more likely to engage in sex work and survival crimes to support themselves. This can lead to trans* individuals to become enmeshed in the prison industrial complex and with criminal charges that bar them from eligibility for federal financial aid. Furthermore, federal financial aid for dependents is reliant upon parental support that is often unavailable to trans* youth. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for trans* students wanting to go to college to get in. These same disadvantages carry into the university setting, making it harder for trans* students enrolled in classes to thrive.

Trans* Oppression on Campuses

In hir book, Trans* in College, Z Nicolazzo has identified two main forms of trans* oppression on college campuses — what ze calls gender binary discourse and compulsory heterogenderism. The gender binary discourse refers to the ways in which what are considered appropriate gender identities and embodiments are regulated. Certain forms of gender expression are privileged above others. Heteronormative masculinity is prized highest, thus becoming the taken-for-granted norm or default while femininity is the most scrutinized. Thus, students who deviate from the gender binary (male or female, masculine or feminine) are punished. Compulsory heterogenderism is how non-trans* (i.e., cisgender) students misperceive trans* gender identities, recognizing them only through negative sexuality stereotypes that conflate gender identity and sexuality.

These two forces cause trans* students to feel invisible, invalidated and unwelcome on their campus. Students feel forced to cover and to hide their sexuality. Students have their gender identities erased and are often forced into sexuality categories to which they do not ascribe. The emotional toll this takes is high.

In light of these negative forces, however, trans* students practice resilience or pursue strategies to move toward a self-defined success. Campus administration needs to support these efforts, to recognize trans* students’ agency, and to draw from the myriad lived experiences and expertise on campus to uplift trans* lives.

Advice to Administrators

I want to give basic guidelines to begin this work. I do not intend this list to be a best-practices framework or a one-time application. I offer it, and these three essays, not as an end goal but as a starting point — a place to inspire deeper conversations in hopes that others will expand and strengthen it. In that spirit, I recommend that administrators:

  • establish and enforce specific policies that protect trans* students from harassment and discrimination;
  • provide specific financial aid, food and housing assistance for trans* students;
  • allow students to change name and gender markers on all college forms without legal documentation. The legal name can be retained for records;
  • change gender-segregated co-curricular activities, intramural athletics and multi-gendered fraternities and sororities to include trans* students. Abolish all forms of student segregation;
  • offer specific spaces for trans* students to engage with one another;
  • create spaces on campus for trans* students. Students will be able to maximize their time in a safe environment to de-stress, meet other trans* students, and recover from both macro and micro-aggressions;
  • offer non-gendered health services and have insurance cover the cost of hormones and surgeries needed to medically transition;
  • center trans* students in sex education outreach and sexual violence prevention programs;
  • implement mandatory sex and gender education for incoming students, staff and faculty members;
  • make all campus housing and restrooms non-gendered;
  • partner with community organizations to keep trans* youth in high school and offer support to get them through the college admissions process; and
  • offer post-graduation support for trans* alumni to help them through discriminatory hiring practices.

Conclusion

This type of approach is not an arrival, but a journey — a constant practice. Hard work has to be done to get more trans* individuals into college and to support the efforts for which trans* college students have already been fighting. We deserve more than to be seen as problems to be solved or ignored until it goes away. Some work to challenge transphobia and cissexism on campuses is already under way. It is due time for university administrators use their positions of power to support us in creating wide-reaching changes in campus culture and climate.

Academic Blackballing – Censoring Scholars Who Critique Inequality

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Sandy Grande is a professor of education at Connecticut College, where she is also director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ever since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during a pregame national anthem last year as a form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he’s been the target of boycotts, death threats and fan backlash. Consequently, despite his talent and performance, he remains conspicuously unemployed, even while less accomplished quarterbacks have been signed. The situation has led many to speculate that Kaepernick is being blackballed and possibly even colluded against by the NFL.

Kaepernick’s story resonates with faculty members, particularly faculty of color, who have also suffered backlash for speaking out against injustices within and outside the academy. Some have similarly become the subject of national media storms, death threats and intimidation and found themselves suddenly unemployed.

While such severe cases capture the spotlight of media attention, I focus here on the more quotidian forms of backlash, or what I term academic blackballing: everyday acts of silencing, gaslighting, bullying and “mansplaining” that not only serve to marginalize and exclude but also limit or outright deny opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

As a professor who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I have been both witness to and target of academic blackballing, the experience of which, as detailed below, shares things in common with Colin Kaepernick’s.

Tone Policing and Victim Blaming

Just as Kaepernick has endured criticisms that he brought the blackballing on himself by choosing the “wrong” form of protest, professors who speak out are also often subjected to this form of victim blaming. The justifications sound something like this: “If only you had spoken in a more reasoned tone” or understood that “there is a time and place for everything,” because in the university “we” value “civil discourse and debate” and not “emotional” diatribes.

Such tone policing functions as a means of redirecting attention away from the injustice itself to the method of protest, a form of silencing that suggests emotion or expressed anger is what is intolerable, not the inequity, prejudice or bias that is being named. But what exactly is the “right” tone for expressing frustration over the fact that, in 2017, the professoriate remains more than 75 percent white and 60 percent male? That the college graduation gap for students of color is still growing? That ethnic studies still struggles for legitimacy in the academy? That (hetero)sexism remains rampant?

Lest we forget, Kaepernick chose a silent mode of protest and, in the month immediately following, 15 more black people died in encounters with police. What kind of measured tone should we, as a society, strike to raise questions about the nearly 600 Americans killed by police in 2017, particularly when the combined total of such deaths in England and Wales across a nearly 30-year span is 67?

History bears witness to the violence that nonviolent protest has generally garnered. Similarly, within college and university settings, it does not seem to matter whether one chooses a direct form of protest or plays the role of good university citizen — you still pay a price for speaking truth to power.

The Distraction

Kaepernick has also been labeled a “distraction,” meaning his politics distract from the teams’ focus on the primary work at hand: football. Some well-meaning “supporters” have even suggested that perhaps Kaepernick prefers his activist work to his day job. Outspoken academics, often perceived as “activists,” receive similar messages from their colleagues, and grad students from their advisers; they are told either tacitly or explicitly to concentrate on their work and leave their political activities for a more appropriate space and time.

The problem with such advice is that it fails to understand that we are women, people of color and otherwise minoritized faculty all the time, not just between the hours of nine and five. And whether we speak out while on the job or not, there are still consequences for just being who we are. The struggle to be perceived as rational, reasonable, collaborative and nonthreatening in environments where even the mere utterance of the words “racism” or “sexism” is experienced as injurious is constant. And the dilatory effects of carrying the weight of this struggle are well documented.

Conditional Acceptance

At the same time Kaepernick’s blackballing carries on, so does its denial, explained away through arguments that it is his lackluster performance and not his politics that is in question — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, his blackballing is justified because it isn’t blackballing at all; it’s just what happens when (suddenly) your skills are found to be subpar.

Academics who speak out similarly experience the questioning of their qualifications and performance either directly through denied promotions or indirectly through the disparagement of their scholarly expertise. That is, in the court of public opinion, one is typically found guilty until proven innocent. To the extent that it does not seem to matter if words are misconstrued, taken out of context or grounded in empirical evidence and historical facts, institutions often capitulate to public outcry before they stand behind their faculty. The outcome is the same: if you find yourself the subject of academic blackballing, your skills — the ability to teach and conduct research in a manner suitable to your profession and field — will be called into question.

Paying the Price of Admission

Insofar as the default setting for American society is defined by hierarchies of race, class and gender, then the work of social justice, by definition, requires disruption. Yet disruptive actions, whether in the form of public protest or speech acts, are rarely experienced as necessary or productive interventions — as moving us toward more just and equitable outcomes. On the contrary, they are viewed as un-American, disloyal and uncollegial.

To be sure, under such precarious work conditions, staying silent and keeping one’s eyes focused on the “prize” of tenure, promotion or other forms of academic recognition makes sense. But for as long as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression continue to negatively shape the work-life conditions of both American colleges and society, there is a stronger case to be made for staging protests of multiple kinds. We need to keep speaking up and out because the alternative — the ascendance of the authoritarian state and the neoliberal university — is unacceptable.

That said, it is also incumbent upon people in positions of power to reject the narrative of “disruptive” acts or speech as categorically negative and unproductive and, instead, embrace it as an important and necessary strategy for positive change. They need to support faculty and staff who come under attack, because once threats of lynching, bombing, death and rape become the regular consequence for the expression of ideas, we will have solidified our decline into pure despotism.

Acts of disruption and pedagogies of dissent are vital to the health of a democracy. Thus, as faculty, we owe it to our students and society to insist on “thinking dangerously” and to engage critique as an essential mode of inquiry. We need to ensure that campus leadership understands that education has never been a neutral enterprise, diversity and inclusion are only starting points, and that study by definition requires struggle.

We need to recognize that the story of Colin Kaepernick is our story and work ever more assiduously to connect across various justice projects. The future of democracy and higher education depends on it.

Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

How Universities May Facilitate Sexual Violence In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Her most recent book is No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work (Temple University Press, 2012).

Are Universities Enabling Sexual Harassment And Assault?

Over the last year, several news stories have surfaced describing allegations of sexual assault against professors. While the details varied, the general outlines of the stories were pretty much the same: women who were graduate students or junior faculty accused tenured male faculty members of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. In response, departments and administrators often offered light punishments and made little effort to establish that their departments and universities were not places where the types of sexual violence described could occur with impunity.

Sexual assault and harassment are not limited to academic settings. But there are aspects of the university structure that make it too easy for those in powerful positions to abuse their status and engage in harassment and assault against less powerful groups (including, but not limited to, women).

In 1990, the late sociologist Joan Acker published a study that introduced the concept of the gendered organization. Acker argued that while we might think of bureaucracies as neutral, objective, impersonal institutions, they are actually gendered in ways that have serious implications for those working within them. Specifically, she contended that gendered organizations are structured in ways that privilege and advantage men through social processes including hiring, job expectations, culture and rewards.

According to Acker, this also shapes the ways that occupations are structured, such that organizational processes cast certain jobs as better suited for men or for women, and dictate job expectations and rewards accordingly. Acker’s framework has been widely used among sociologists and other social scientists, as this approach pushes us to think less about individual behavior and more about how gender inequality can actually be embedded in organizations’ basic functions.

Sociologists have used Acker’s framing to explore social processes in occupations as varied as flight attendants, firefighters and accountants. In most cases, they find that when occupations are gendered female or feminine (think legal secretaries), workers in those jobs are expected to be emotionally nurturing, deferential and supportive of the men in higher-status roles. In contrast, “men’s work” (think financial analysts) usually offers higher pay and status and allows for expressions of belligerence, frustration and anger.

When women are employed in “men’s” or masculine jobs, however, their gender still carries more weight than their employment category. This means that while female lawyers may do “men’s work,” they still are penalized for behavior that seems unfeminine. Similarly, when it comes to men in “women’s work,” they are viewed first as men who are therefore not expected to be nurturing or deferential.

Organizations thus shape the occupations that exist within them in ways that push men (much more so than women) into the more rewarding, highly valued positions and cushion men from the feminized aspects of their work even when they are employed in the jobs seen as “women’s” or feminine jobs. Scholars have dubbed this phenomenon the “glass escalator,” contrasting it to the well-documented glass ceiling — the invisible yet very real barrier that women face in advancing in male-dominated or masculine fields. (My own research, however, suggests that those gendered arrangements intersect with race and sexuality, among other identities; for example, Black men are denied such gendered privileges in “women’s” or feminine jobs like nursing.)

What does all this have to do with academe and sexual violence? Acker’s work can help us understand how and why sexual harassment and sexual assault typically go unpunished in academic contexts. If we think of the university as a gendered organization, it is structured in ways that disproportionately reward men with high-paying administrative roles and tenured professorships that convey autonomy, comfortable salaries, status and control over one’s time. Professors are also expected to be intellectual, dispassionate, driven by an extensive commitment to a particular field of study and willing to pass on their knowledge by training students and mentoring their junior colleagues. While those criteria can certainly apply to men or women, men are typically the ones stereotyped as more intelligent, rational and capable of the higher-order thought associated with academe. Additionally, organizational demands for achieving tenure assume a worker who is unencumbered by the sort of external demands that typically fall to women (unpaid household labor, child or elder care) and can thus devote copious amounts of time to teaching, research and service.

A professor who can fulfill these qualities is typically forgiven, to put it gently, personal eccentricities or antisocial behavior. But these protections can extend further in ways that can be damaging for those in the lower-status positions in the university hierarchy. Tenured professors may be rewarded with silence, tacit support, excuses or indifference if they engage in sexual violence or harassment toward those who are in subordinate roles that are not protected by the gendered organization. And to be clear, those vulnerable populations do not only include women. Men of color, trans men, gay, bisexual and queer men, or even men who lack the cultural and social capital to navigate the university bureaucracy may find themselves in a fragile position relative to those whom the university, as a gendered organization, is designed to protect.

This situation is complicated further by the fact that academic careers depend heavily on patronage and support from senior faculty. Recommendations, research assistantships, fellowships and co-authorships are valuable rewards that can make or break the academic career before it even begins. This puts all graduate students and junior faculty in a vulnerable position, but it leaves members of groups who are socially disadvantaged in one way or another in an especially precarious place. These are the populations that are already underrepresented in the university and more likely to be slotted into positions where they have little recourse should harassment or assault occur. Acker’s framework offers a way to think about the university as a gendered organization in which cultural norms, avenues for mobility and occupational expectations sort men into tenured professorships where they are often cushioned from the consequences of their actions if they decide to engage in sexual harassment or assault.

Viewing the university as a gendered organization does not mean that it is fixed, immutable or impervious to change. In some cases, faculty members have spoken out against fellow professors accused of repeated cases of harassment. Growing numbers of professors who stand against sexual violence can help change university culture and give this issue the attention it deserves.

It may also be the case that more women in leadership roles within university settings can help change the gendered processes that contribute to silence around sexual assault. In a 2015 study, sociologists Kevin Stainback, Sibyl Kleiner and Sheryl Skaggs found that having great numbers of women in management and executive positions can help reduce gender segregation in Fortune 1000 companies. Consequently, it may stand to reason that when more women (or underrepresented groups more broadly) are represented among the ranks of provosts, deans, chancellors and university presidents, they can change gendered organizations to ones that actively discourage and punish sexual offenders. Short of that ideal, we must reckon with the subtle, structural ways that basic university processes and norms are designed to reward and protect most sexual offenders from punishment.