With great power comes great responsibility

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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 dosprofx@gmail.com or submit a question anonymously here.

2 thoughts on “With great power comes great responsibility”

  1. I was investigating the Chronicle faculty data (because data!)(and you didn’t include the number of white female full professors with tenure in your paragraph, so I had to look it up as context…). While I was there, I noticed some interesting trends in the assistant professor data with black faculty. It looks like there are a larger than expected number of black assistant professors with tenure at research universities. What’s up with that?

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    1. I know there are universities (I’m pretty sure UST is one of them) where tenuring and promotion processes are separate. So you could get tenure without being promoted (but I’m guessing not the other way around). But I haven’t come across any research on why it might be a particular group that’s affected by those policies specifically, though I can certainly make some educated guesses as to the reasons [Anita]

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