Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

An Intersectional Framework For Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nadeeka Karunaratne serves as the student development coordinator in the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, and previously worked as the violence prevention coordinator in the university’s Campus Assault Resources and Education Office. She is a trauma-informed yoga instructor and is fascinated about all things at the intersection of yoga and social justice.

I used to work as the sole violence-prevention educator at a large public research university. So I understand many of the demands placed on staff in campus prevention and advocacy offices. Those demands include fulfilling workshop requests, hosting training after training, creating engaging programming, and educating an entire campus community about sexual violence.

However, I also know that the ways in which we do all of that can be isolating, marginalizing and ineffective for many student communities.

As a woman of color, I have often been in white feminist anti-sexual-violence spaces where my identities and experiences are erased and further marginalized. My journey toward an intersectional framework of prevention — one that focuses on the most marginalized communities and discusses how multiple forms of oppression intersect with sexism — began with my own experiences as a prevention educator.

I began to place my own experiences within a larger context when I heard Jessica Harris speak at the 2016 annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She connected critical race feminism to sexual violence and the experiences of women of color. CRF examines the intersections of race and gender in relationship to power and aims to deconstruct interlocking systems of domination — specifically, white supremacy and patriarchy. Harris shared her conceptual framework, explaining that women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer from violence, but also that their experiences are qualitatively different from those of white women. Indeed, research shows that women of color undergo different rates of violence and have qualitatively different experiences of trauma.

I was able to further develop my intersectional prevention education philosophy through a conceptual framework at the 2016 conference of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There, Farah Tanis of the Black Women’s Blueprint introduced her theoretical expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model. She included “structural” and “historical” levels in her framework and discussed the importance of considering history and systemic structures of oppression in prevention. Indeed, the history of sexual violence in the United States has foundations in racism and colonialism. Rape is a tool in white colonizers’ violent tactics to eradicate and oppress indigenous communities. White people’s use of rape as an oppressive tool continued during slavery, wherein white men raped black women without consequence.

Our country’s system of higher education also shares a history of colonization, as the first colleges were established within a colonial context. Today the media and the dominant narrative in this country can portray stereotypes about women of color that are harmful and serve to legitimize their sexual abuse. In addition, the dominant narrative depicts men of color as preying on innocent white women. This can be seen from the dominant portrayal of what survivors on college campuses look like. It can even be seen in the renowned documentary The Hunting Ground, where the only named perpetrator is a black man who raped a white woman. However, even with all of this historical context and present-day narratives, discussions of racism and other forms of systemic oppression are often absent in our prevention education.

In order to address multiple forms of oppression in our education, we must move beyond supposedly inclusive prevention education, where we use gender-neutral pronouns and images that represent visible diversity, to a framework of prevention that is intersectional at its very foundation.

Below are some of the ways I have begun to do so in my own work. These strategies have been effective in engaging students in complex conversations about issues of sexual violence.

  • I open my workshops by introducing the issues of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence through the lens of power and control. I explain that a perpetrator uses these forms of violence to exert power and control over another person. I then discuss how those forms of violence are about power and control on both an individual and a systemic level. I have used this framing of the issues as an opportunity to educate students about the historical, racist and colonialist context of sexual violence.
  • One of the core tenets of critical race feminism is the importance of storytelling, specifically counterstorytelling. Counternarratives can serve a vital role for empowerment in our prevention education, particularly when mainstream white feminism excludes those narratives. We need to think of how the current national conversation centers on white, cisgender female bodies and then critically reflect on how our programming and prevention education does the same. We must then center the most marginalized in our society within our work. One example of a counternarrative I use is the pushback against the California legislation on mandatory minimum sentences in the aftermath of Brock Turner’s conviction. I explain that, while some advocacy organizations have lobbied for mandatory minimum laws, other organizations, particularly those led by women of color, emphasize the disproportionate impact of incarceration on communities of color. Additionally, I note that the notion of justice is complicated, since the definition of “justice” (i.e., incarceration of perpetrators) does not look the same for all survivors.
  • In many workshops, I discuss trauma-informed approaches for supporting survivors, as a form of tertiary prevention. I address some of the specific barriers to seeking support, leaving abusive relationships and reporting sexual assault (administratively and criminally) that exist in different communities. In addition to discussing barriers, I also talk about the community-specific ways of healing and coping that exist. This is important for moving away from a solely deficit-based way of thinking about marginalized communities. Introducing such nuanced ways of understanding support-seeking and healing will help people to assist any survivors who may disclose to them — and in ways that do not perpetuate further violence or marginalization.
  • When talking about rape culture, we must discuss how different people’s bodies may be represented in the media, rather than talking generally about the representation of women. That includes highlighting how the hypersexualization and exotification of women of color and their bodies, and the negative portrayal of people with disabilities, to name a few examples, contribute to rape culture and sexual violence.
  • One of the most utilized forms of prevention education within higher education is bystander intervention. However, traditional bystander intervention education does not account for the experiences of some of our students on many levels. Common lessons — such as calling 911 as a strategy, asking students to visualize perpetrators and ignoring the influence of identity in intervention — range from problematic to harmful. These lessons may make bystander intervention inaccessible for students from certain communities and further perpetuate stereotypes about men of color. We must complicate how we talk about bystander intervention — for example, by highlighting the salience of identity in intervention and acknowledging specific barriers — in order for it to be an effective tool.

These are just a few ideas and strategies to help us move beyond traditional methods of prevention education. We must invest in research and practices that explore new models, particularly in the context of higher education. Discussions of identity and intersectionality are vital to prevention education. Students are not interested in hearing presentations where their lived realities are not reflected. Students are not interested in engaging in education that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity or that does not address the wholeness of what they experience.

I will end with a quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde that further illustrates the importance of an intersectional framework of prevention education: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

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.

 

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.