Different Bodies & Different Lives In Academia: Why The Rules Aren’t The Same For Everyone

Part of professionalization in academia involves learning the unpublished rules of how to act, engage, and be an academic.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.

15 thoughts on “Different Bodies & Different Lives In Academia: Why The Rules Aren’t The Same For Everyone

  1. That “North Dakota” article bothered me for all of the reasons you mention. I understand the point, of not wanting graduate students to self-select out of jobs on such broad terms, but to me the article read too much like “you have to be prepared to adapt yourself to ANYPLACE regardless of ANYTHING you might need from your location.” You, o candidate, and whatever social markers, personal needs, or physical presence you may have are irrelevant; the abstract fact of the job–any job–is the most important thing.

    Which is why, to me, a seriously troubling (and less-commented on) aspect of that article is the bit that implies that junior faculty should welcome being someplace that would provide minimal distractions from work. That to me doesn’t just minimize difference (though it certainly does), it dehumanizes the candidate/junior faculty member. No fun for you, junior faculty! Get back to your office!

    I wish we could get out of this binarism of “you must take any job you are offered! North Dakota: More Than You Expect!” vs. “I could never live anywhere that isn’t New York or San Francisco!” and instead start encourage graduate students to think in real terms about what they know they need and what kinds of things are deal-breakers.

    Full disclosure: I say this as someone who left teaching after a miserable year as a VAP in Fargo.

    1. p.s. “Fargo-Moorhead: More Than You Expect!” was actually the Fargo-Moorhead visitor’s bureau slogan when I lived there. There was a huge billboard right outside my apt complex with that slogan plastered on it.

      1. I teach urban politics, so I find that postscript very funny. But I agree with you — I declined to apply for a job in Mississippi, where they were courting me, because I was a young, single, Jewish woman.

        1. Call me crazy but I am the baby of a Civil Rights agitator. It would be really hard for me to shake my uneasiness about Mississippi and Alabama. I know things change but it’s difficult to tell that to someone whose mother is still very much alive. It’s not ancient history when the history is the first person on your cellphone’s speed dial.

          1. I too am a child of civil rights activists (one who was a civil rights and immigration attorney) and a Jersey girl at heart. However, I now teach at an institution in MS. I used to buy into the rhetoric about the South but lots of reading and an increased familiarity with critical race theory, along with many personal experiences have led me to conclude that the North (and many progressive places) are just as bad, only for different reasons. The racial profiling I and my friends experienced in the North was at times brutal. My daughter is a brown baby growing up in MS and her biggest worry right now is whether she makes the bus to school on time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like MS politics, have been mistaken for everything but faculty, and am well aware of the power of race and gender around me. But I have also learned that places and people can surprise you and that we should let empirical evidence, not stereotypes drive our decisions.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, and I say this as a person that left Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana after a horrible year of snow, cold, few POC and, ultimately, depression.

    I was one of those undergrad students who felt that location was important to me as a person who hates the cold and feels more comfortable in diverse city that seems to actually encourage diversity. I let people tell me that that wasn’t important and the school/opportunity was what mattered. Listening to them led me to the absolute worst year of my life.

    Location is important to me. Getting into a R1 university, not so much. I don’t care where I go as long as it’s warm, there are people that look like me, or look different from mainstream America and as long as I’m receiving a good education. Those are things that some of us need.

  3. I ran into this issue when I was on the job market. I even had to get ugly with some of my advisers who argued that if I, as a black woman who researched on racial violence, got an offer at DeepSouthRuralState should just accept it. When I called BS and countered that they should take the job and I would take theirs they came correct. After that I made clear that no one should expect me to consider jobs and/or places they wouldn’t consider for themselves. Even when I was on campus interviews, I counseled young female graduate students of color that they couldn’t afford to be too picky but they shouldn’t be foolish either re: their need to be close to family or to see people who looked like them in their lives on and off campus.

    Another thing that I would say that job seekers need to keep in mind is the racial/ethnic vibe and/or migroaggressions (LOVE THAT) they get on campus and in the town. Trust me, there’s nothing like a dean calling you a Yankee to make you say “just take me to the damned airport.”

  4. I have lived in college towns since I was a student in graduate school, I am a tenured professor now (and Black) and I routinely think about what my academic predecessors had to deal with years ago when they were faculty. As bad as things are (super duper minority status, micro-aggressions that are really *macro*), utter contempt and disrespect for subject matter and research interests, I thank my lucky stars that at least the places I have worked, the institutions and departments have paid lip service to encouraging diversity and interest in a range of research interests and methods.

    Even still, the barely concealed contempt for students of color, and utter reluctance to diversifying the graduate student pool, latent resentment that 2 or 3 students of color may benefit from a scholarship encouraging more students of color to enroll in the university, getting stopped while driving while Black, and hair care as an event in the X Games? This wears on a person. This is not even close to being North Dakota. Many want to be at the institution as it is one of the elite public R1s.

    But life is short, and while it isn’t the coal mines, dealing with this under the surface hostility week in and week out is draining. I think a lot of people don’t really understand that having a safe place where you don’t have to experience this day after day is incredibly important to a person’s mental and physical health. Not to mention, when we are in places that have very few people of color, our healthcare is not as good. Physicians just don’t see various skin ailments, or diseases that are more likely to occur with us – so they are dumbfounded or provide care that is marginal but not as effective.

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I was trained in the Sandy Darity school of academic presentations…and the Vivian school of self-defense. I think a lot of people should take their life classes. Because this kind of bullying is never OK and too few of us in academia train junior scholars on how to deal with it. Even fewer of usRead More