There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

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.

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.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia


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

Research On/And Sexual Violence

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

An Introduction To Our Series On Sexual Violence In Academia

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

Amplifying the Voices of Survivors

The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.

In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.

I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.

I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.

But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.

Amplify Their Voices

Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:

  1. advocate for justice in academe,
  2. amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
  3. aggravate the status quo in the academy.

The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.

Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.

Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.

It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.

And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.

Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)

So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.

This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

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.