some of us are brave
Part of professionalization in academia involves learning the unpublished rules of how to act, engage, and be an academic. Almost all of us, at some point of our training, is pulled aside and told the “real” rules of publishing, teaching, and cocktail mixers.
Minorities – be they ethnic, class, or gendered – sometimes don’t get the same level of counseling on such things. A lot of programs have sprung up to bridge the information gap. That’s a good thing.
However, two recent articles brought to mind how some rules are different for different groups of people.
The first is a good article in The Chronicle about keeping an open mind about where we are willing to work post-PhD:
But however realistic candidates are about the market, their dreams can have elements that are self-defeating. One that has become clichéd is: “I just don’t want to end up teaching in North Dakota.” Some job seekers who express that thought mean the actual North Dakota. But even more project North Dakota as metaphor: They don’t want to teach at an institution or in a location below the level—or perceived level—of their doctoral institution and their native region or city.
I agree with Perlmutter that idealism and outright snobbishness guides too many grad students in their career choices. The numbers are against all of us getting the R1 job in a charming, engaging, low cost, seasonable city. Not only will some of us work in high altitudes and down the prestige chain but one can be very happy doing so.
What I do want to add is that for some of us these types of decisions are driven by real considerations that are more real for us than for some other candidates.
As a black woman it matters to me that I not spend the rest of my working years in an area where that will make me an anomaly. If you’ve never been stared at like a talking monkey by the little darlings who have never seen a black person before in Whitetopia, USA while trying to get a cup of coffee, you may not get that. But its a micro-agression that over time can add up to a poorer quality of life. I have colleagues with mixed race children. For them, it is important that they live in as diverse an area as possible so that their children aren’t ostracized at school. And, believe it or not, there are certain areas in this country where a black man could and should feel unsafe moving about freely. Aggressive policing and non-deputized citizen patrols tend to not ask you for your university ID before treating you like a suspect.
It can sound overly dramatic if it does not apply to you but everyone cannot move freely about this country in equal measures. Honoring that among grad students can help validate the difficult choices many will have to make. And those choices aren’t all predicated on biases or elitism or ignorance.
The other article is one that I’ve responded to in some form in other spaces. It’s a cyclical piece about dressing “right” in academe. They come out regularly. This week it’s in Inside HigherEd. Maria Shrine Stewart cautions us to prize comfort and preparedness over style, saying “Teachers are what inspire the student … not their clothes.”
Theoretically that is very true. But many of us will teach in messy real places and spaces. For minorities, women, trans and pan gendered people, clothing is an essential part of performing legitimacy, authority, and acceptability. There’s a sizable body of literature documenting how students see women and black professors as less competent, less authoritative than their white and/or male peers. So, while I would love to be the kooky beatnik-come-theorist who teaches in Hawaii shirts and Birkenstocks, I risk undermining my effectiveness in ways not meaningful to him.
In a recent discussion on #FemLead (if you don’t follow this on Twitter, you should) a discussion about gendered microagressions was had in response to an article where a woman professor asked how to appropriately redress letters addressed to her as “Mister”. Many of the woman in the discussion had experienced this slight. Others experienced being mistaken for the secretary or receptionist. As one of the few women of color in the discussion I was the only one that mentioned being confused for the cleaning lady. That’s a function of being in a black body and in spaces where legitimacy is defined as other than me. It’s both gendered and racialized. And since I’m in the South I imagine it is also classed in ways unique to how we do race below the Mason-Dixon line.
These discussions about professionalization are important. They constitute critical social and cultural capital which can be particularly important for black, brown, gendered, and classed bodies. So, when we have these discussions and ignore how these things might operate differently for different people I am concerned that we’re missing an opportunity. Yes, there are special “for minorities” versions of these that come out from time to time. But in being allies it is important that all we who believe in critical self-reflection speak to these differences even when they do not apply to us. That’s how we normalize these discussions, provide examples of how to have them civilly, and how we don’t contribute — however, unintentionally — to the ghettoization of “black” or “first-gen” or “women” issues.