This week, we want to highlight an essay published this week, “I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis” by Naima Lowe. In it, Dr. Lowe details how her efforts to defend students’ right to protest at Evergreen State College put her in the crosshairs of right-wing hate groups. Bombarded by hate mail and threats (some of which she reprints in this essay along with the graphic, racist images she was sent), she attempted to find institutional support. While her story reveals how institutions are not equipped to protect faculty members who are doxxed and threatened by outside groups, it also demonstrates how her institution was unwilling to help her and instead found ways to find her responsible: by deeming her behavior uncivil, by equating her anger about racism with the hate flooding her in-box, by claiming an institutional need to “remain neutral.” We were impressed by Dr. Lowe’s honesty and courage in publishing this searing account of her experiences. It is a singular story, but we think her analysis makes it useful for all of us, and we urge you to read it.
In this post, we address a question sent to us by our colleague, Anna Moltchanova, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Carleton College. Anna asked us whether there’s a downside to having students introduce their pronouns in class and identify themselves as a particular gender in that it might introduce stereotype threat and affect their performance in class, especially since the first class of the term can set the tone for the rest of the term. She noted that philosophy is a field that is very gender-imbalanced and she wanted to know if there are ways to counter stereotype threat. She also asked, given the gender imbalance of the field, whether deconstructing the gender binary in such a context may cause some unintended retrograde consequences.
Thank you, Anna, for giving us a chance to think through this complicated set of issues that you raise about how to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students, given how male-dominated the field of philosophy is.
As Claude Steele and other researchers have defined it, stereotype threat describes a situation where a person’s performance on a task is negatively affected by their concerns about how they will do on a task, because their identity group is stereotyped as not being skilled or capable of that task. Researchers have demonstrated that any group can be susceptible to such a threat–in this talk, for example, Steele gives the example of how a White man might be under stereotype threat when asked to perform in a rap battle! There are a few conditions where stereotype threat gets “activated”—the stereotyped identity has to be “primed” in some way and the person has to care deeply about doing well on the task. Is it possible then that being asked to share gender pronouns could “prime” a female student in a philosophy class?
From our understanding of the research on stereotype threat, that is not out of the realm of possibility, but we’d want to weigh this possibility against the alternative. Given how important it is for people to be recognized as the gender they are, in this case, we’d venture to say that the possibility of triggering a stereotype threat seems lower than the possibility of the harm caused by mis-gendering students. One of the main things we understood from the conversation that we had with our friend and former Carleton colleague, Tegra, is that asking for gender pronouns ensures that we’re not assuming people’s gender based on our perceptions of their gender expressions (you can check that two-post conversation here and here). In other words, the moment where we are sharing our pronouns is not the first moment in which we are gendered in a classroom. It is difficult not to automatically assign gender identities to everyone we encounter—in fact, that’s one of the hardest habits that we have to break in order to ensure that we’re allowing everyone to tell us their gender rather than assuming it. Given that, asking for pronouns allows individuals to claim their own gender identity.
Once you or we have decided, then, that the benefits outweigh the costs of asking for gender pronouns, we can look at the research on stereotype threat that has shown that there are ways to mitigate its effects. It’s important, for example, to talk about doing well on a specific task or in a field as the result of effort and growth, rather than some idea that some people (or some genders!) are “naturally” better in philosophy than others. The idea of a growth mindset can allow women students to understand that philosophical intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. Studies have also shown that it’s important to think about the situational cues being given to students about who belongs in a particular department or field or what researchers calling “belonging mindset.” Promoting a growth mindset and paying attention to what implicit and explicit messages are being given to students about who “belongs” to a department or field can help encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, socioeconomic class) to see themselves as philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Such messages are conveyed in myriad ways: the gender balance of faculty in a department; the identities of speakers in a department; whose voices and perspectives are included in the curriculum and so forth.
Finally, you ask whether incorporating the notion that gender is non-binary risks necessary attention to the ways in which women have been historically marginalized in the field of philosophy and continue to face such marginalization. We were discussing just this issue in a different context recently. Anita mentioned that she saw a post by an alum during the Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings about how the discourse around gender and sexual violence reinforced the gender binary and made invisible the experiences of trans and gender expansive survivors of sexual violence. For a moment, Anita was taken aback and annoyed–can’t women (and clearly at the time she was defining women as cis-women) not have the spotlight for just a moment to focus on their experiences of harm? Then she took a step back to remember that expanding our definition of who has been harmed doesn’t subtract from the harm that one particular group experienced. Indeed, as we expand our understanding of who has been harmed and how, we gain better insight into the way power is structured. It also allows us to build broader coalitions in the fight against power structures. In this case, it is not just cis-women who are harmed by patriarchal structures, but all women and all people who are seen as not belonging in philosophy because of their race, class, gender, and other social identities.
P.S. Neither of us are experts in the concept of stereotype threat, nor are we in male-dominated fields, so we welcome any anecdotes, experiences, strategies, and generous critiques you may have (especially if you’re in White/male-dominated fields).
Suggestions for further reading:
Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29-46.
Beasley, M. A., & Fischer, M. J. (2012). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 427-448.
Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(2), 276-287.
Spencer, S. J., Logel, C., & Davies, P. G. (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual review of psychology, 67, 415-437.
Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797-811.
Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 379-440): Academic Press.
Image: Hopkins High School students staging a sit-in for sexual violence victims during the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh. (Image source)
As we’re settling into the fall term, we’ve been reading a new crop of articles talking about the “problem” of this generation of students on campuses and campus climate. Today, we wanted to provide links to two articles we’ve read in the past month on this topic. Of course, if you want to check out some of our thoughts on this topic, please see this previous blog post.
Sara Ahmed, one of our favorite thinkers on institutional privilege and power, argues in her new piece that we need to pay attention to the connections among
a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated. We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.
While her essay looks generally at how students who “complain” are talked about, she focuses specifically on how students who bring up complaints of sexual harassment are viewed and treated. She writes about the pervasive silencing of students:
I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learned of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticized as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have to testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.
The second article is a review of a book by the authors who wrote a well-cited and circulated article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In the review of these authors’ new book with the same title as the article, Moira Weigel argues,
The core irony of The Coddling of the American Mind is that, by opposing identity politics, its authors try to consolidate an identity that does not have to see itself as such. Enjoying the luxury of living free from discrimination and domination, they therefore insist that the crises moving young people to action are all in their heads. Imagine thinking that racism and sexism were just bad ideas that a good debate could conquer!
We’d love to hear your ideas and questions on this topic–please comment on the blog site or if you have a question, you can send them our way here.
Monday, 10 AM. Text from Adriana to Anita: “OMG I’m exhausted already. I hate this world.”
It’s been a tough week, y’all. There are the ongoing worries about policies and practices that negatively impact people and communities we love and on top of it, there’s been the onslaught of discussions about sexual assault and harassment brought on by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
In light of that, we thought it might be good–maybe mostly for us!–to remember what makes us hopeful even in trying times.
- Our students. We know it’s perhaps a corny thing to say but we really do mean it when we tell people who ask us about our jobs that our favorite aspect are our students. We appreciate the energy, the questions, the skepticism, and the joy that our students bring to our classrooms. We don’t meant to say that we walk out of every class session feeling great about ourselves or our teaching, but in general, our students make our days and lives better. They give us hope. This is true for Carleton students we’ve taught and for the high school students we’ve taught in various summer programs on campus (Anita, for example, has taught for the awesome CLAE program for the past few years).
- Each other
- Our amazing community of friends who share our rage and our joys
- Our podcast buddies, Todd and Crystal
- Stories of resistance. For example, this interview with Dr. Barbara Ransby who organized a group of 1600 Black feminists to write a letter of support for Anita Hill…and she did that in a time without the internet!! The group had to organize themselves quickly without email or Twitter or Facebook. And now, “The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign“, in support of Futures Without Violence, is leading a campaign for 1,600 MALE signatories that took out a full-page ad in the New York Times this Monday in support of Prof. Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” (Good for the men, but it’s way easier now with the internet. Just sayin’.)
- Using our bodies in intentional and joyful ways: yoga, dancing, running, and even curling (well, those last two items are Adriana’s thing).
- Watching silly videos on social media, like this one and this one
Last week we wrote about our ongoing reflections on what it means to hold and wield power in academia. We both find it necessary to persistently examine ourselves and our relationships to make sure that we use our power responsibly and with care. But we didn’t talk about ways to repair harm once you’ve already done it. So this week we thought we’d share a series of blog posts written by a favorite scholar of ours, Adrienne Keene.
In the first post, Dr. Keene discusses Black Panther as an entry point into conversations about indigenous futurism. If you read to the bottom of her analysis, you’ll see she added a quick note, two days after she posted her review (2/26), amending to acknowledge Afrofuturism. She thanks readers for their feedback, and takes the opportunity to recontextualize.
Well, she clearly continued getting feedback. The very next day (2/27), she wrote a blog post in which she apologized again. Titled “On Consenting to Learn in Public,” she provides a detailed history of how she grew up as a thinker and a scholar with the blog and with twitter. She says–beautifully, we think!–that
Once I entered the mindset that writing the blog was an exercise of consenting to learn in public, I became braver. I realized as long as I was genuine, and I was honest, and I was authentic to my own experiences, readers would join the journey with me. They would learn along side me. I didn’t have to have all the answers. I had plenty of questions, and that was ok.
It’s clear, though, that the feedback she was getting didn’t end there. She added an addendum to this blog post too, admitting that she removed a paragraph that was insensitive.
Finally, she wrote a whole new post on 2/28, this one simply titled “An Apology.” The apology comes first in this post and it is detailed, sincere, and clearly responds directly to interlocutors that maybe nobody but she heard from (we didn’t find direct critiques in the comments to “On Consenting to Learn” on her blog, for example). Even though the feedback she received was private, she learned (and apologized) in public. We also appreciated in this post the fact that she acknowledged the labor of the people who took the time to reach out and teach her.
There’s something graceful and admirable in her multiple attempts to really listen, to really learn, and to acknowledge that learning in this way was exhausting to those who stayed in dialogue and held her accountable. We think this is an amazing model (and hence an advanced seminar!) because Dr. Keene stuck it out, tried again and again, and came to a place of sincere apology and learning.
Spiderman is right.
Starting this fall, Adriana is a Full Professor, having been promoted this past spring (woohoo!!). As we celebrate this well-deserved recognition of her accomplishments, we want to take this moment to share some reflections on holding positions of power within institutions. As we’ve written about in other blog posts, earning tenure and now being promoted to full professor hasn’t been an easy process as women of color. First, there are fewer and fewer opportunities generally for people to obtain tenure-track positions, given the growth of contingent faculty positions. And given the racist and sexist history of academia, currently only a few women of color are full professors. Data from 2014 shows that only 28% of the full professors with tenure currently are women; there are only 143 Native American women in this category, 1,247 Latina women, 1,593 Black women, and 2,489 Asian American women. Adriana becoming a full professor is a big deal then for her, for Carleton, and for academia in general.
While our journeys to positions of power within academia have been difficult, we do now hold some power in our institution and we want to be thoughtful and mindful about what that means, especially in our interactions with folks who generally have less institutional power than we do–staff, students, and junior/non-tenure track faculty. This summer, we were surprised by the seeming lack of accounting for such differences in institutional power in the case of the sexual harassment case involving a full professor at New York University. While we won’t delve too deeply into our take on both Professor Ronell’s actions or those of senior scholars writing to defend her (we recommend this piece or this one for an insightful analysis), we were struck by the senior scholars’ apparent failure of imagination–could they have forgotten what it’s like to be a graduate student, to have little power, little access, and so much precarity?
As we discussed this case and our fundamental disagreement with how senior scholars responded, we had to admit that there were times when we, too, were not as mindful about differences in power at our institutions. Anita, for example, was reminded of the time when she sent an email to an untenured faculty member about a pedagogical tool used to discuss a text that she knew this faculty member was teaching in their class. From Anita’s perspective, it was just a friendly, collegial email–”Hey, you might be interested in this cool thing someone is doing”–and she was puzzled when she got back what she saw as an unnecessarily defensive email from the junior faculty member, explaining what they did in their class. When she chatted with Adriana about this, Adriana rightly pointed out that this faculty member probably was under a great deal of pressure during their tenure process where it can feel like everything you do and say is under scrutiny by students and senior colleagues. A “friendly” email from a tenured faculty member might not seem so friendly in that context.
Adriana recalled a time when she partnered with a staff member on a cool project. Adriana was very excited about the project, and she was eager to put in time organizing, strategizing, and making the project happen. She thought that if her partner had differences of opinion, they would just bring it up, and since that never happened, she plowed ahead. Of course, you’ve probably guessed that, actually, the partner had plenty of ideas, did not completely agree with Adriana, but never felt comfortable raising disagreements or areas of concern. When Adriana realized this, she felt terrible–she had failed to think about the faculty-staff power dynamic–and, more particularly, the institutional classism documented in the 2008 Carleton College climate survey. She hadn’t recognized her own power and, because of that, had bulldozed her colleague–she didn’t mean to do so, but the effects were the same.
These two examples are situations where we did become aware of how we were wielding power in unintended ways, but the damage had already been done. And we’re sure that there are other thoughtless uses of our power that we don’t know about. Going forward, the best we can do is to try and stay open to people’s critiques of our actions, especially from those who have less institutional and societal power than us.
The Ronell case also reinforced for us something we think about a lot and have written about before in this space. Researching, teaching, theorizing and writing about identity, power, and privilege does not make us immune to exercising power and privilege unfairly in our professional lives. In fact, sometimes being an “expert” in these fields can be used as a way to deflect reflection on our actions. Given that we both focus on issues on race and racism, for example, we know that saying that we are anti-racist isn’t a vaccination against being racist. We are not immune to acting passively or actively in ways that are racist just because we have friends of color, we are people of color, we can quote James Baldwin or Audre Lorde extensively…and so forth. It takes active, constant effort. Beverly Tatum describes this effort as walking against the flow of a moving elevator at a faster clip than the forward momentum. Jay Smooth talks about this effort as akin to daily, routine dental hygiene. Whatever metaphor you find helpful, it’s important to not fall back on the very tempting impulse to react to accusations of racism (or other -isms) in ways that make it seem like you’re somehow incapable of ever being racist. Because you’re not. Because we’re not.
Note: We’re back! As always, we will alternate original posts with links round up posts. We had a lot of fun answering your questions last year and would love to do that again. You can email us as email@example.com or submit a question anonymously here.
After complaining incessantly to anyone who’d listen (and of course, to each other) about the seemingly unending winter, spring is here… we decided that we need to take time to be outside more and appreciate the snowless landscape. So we’re going to be taking our customary summer break early this year!!
Do not despair, though, dear readers, because we have two things we want to leave you with:
- We had SO much fun doing our advice column this year. Thank you to those of you who wrote to us with questions. You helped us have some thoughtful conversations about issues we care about. PLEASE keep writing to us about what you want us to write about! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a question anonymously here.
- Shameless plug! We want to give a shoutout here to the other creative, public scholarship project that we are involved in–A PODCAST! Given that it was a podcast that inspired us to start this blog, we are so excited to be doing a podcast with our amazing and brilliant friends, Crystal and Todd, about something we all love–books! So please check out the four episodes we have done so far.
We hope that you all enjoy spring and…happy summer full of reading, reflecting, revelry, and righteous action!