Gender, power, academia

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[Image source: in the same Chronicle section we link to below, there are a number of powerful images.]

In today’s links round up, we wanted to highlight two of the short essays that were featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently in a section called “The awakening: Women and power in the academy.” This collection features responses from college presidents and faculty around the themes of women and power in academe.

The first one we want to highlight is called “Power is still too white: All women do not yield power equally” by Keisha N. Blain. Blain, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburg, reminds us that it’s important to keep paying attention to the intersections of race and gender when we have conversations about women in leadership positions, pointing out that often it is White women who have benefitted as opportunities for women have increased in the academy.

The second one we want to highlight is written by Alyson Brickey, entitled “The academy’s pink collar: Adjunct issues are women’s issues.” Brickey, an instructor of English at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, points out the important fact that much of the teaching in colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada is now being done by contingent faculty members and that women make up the majority of those faculty members (53%). She calls on those of us who are permanent faculty to “do the work of holding our institutions to account” and to stand with contingent faculty in their demands for “paid parental leave, better funding packages, quality affordable child care, and comprehensive health benefits.”

Let us know what essays resonated with your experiences in academia, especially as they relate to gender.

Calling out, calling in

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We’ve been thinking about call out culture for a while now (here’s one example of what might be seen as a “calling out” of people with privilege). We’ve read think pieces that argue that call out culture in social justice circles is toxic and that we need to be more strategic about how we call out people’s troubling behavior, while others counter this notion that it is call out culture that is toxic rather than racism, sexism, or rape. Like other folks we’ve talked to about this topic, we were especially struck by the tone of some of the conversations we witnessed our students having online. We were sitting around, thinking to ourselves, with fingers on chins, “Oh, these young people, if only they’d learn how to be kind on the interwebs.” As we talked about more about it, however, especially in light of some of the reactions we’ve gotten to some of our blog posts, we came to some different conclusions.

We think that the binary between call out and call in culture is not nuanced enough. If we want to move to “call in” culture, what exactly does that mean and what needs to happen so that people can understand that we’re ‘calling in’ and not ‘calling out’? What if people don’t want to be called in? What if no matter how gentle or strategic you try to be, people feel called out? What if there’s a long history of someone feeling silenced or trying various ways to point out troubling behavior that gets ignored (“calling in”) until words and frustrations explode on Facebook or other social media?

One way to think about this that brings nuance, we think, is to remember that context matters for how and when we point out troubling behavior or language that reinforces racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic structures, policies, and systems. One context that we think a lot about is intergroup dialogue. In this context, people are encouraged to share their stories and experiences; the goal is not to convince people that they are right or wrong. The participants are not presented with a host of data or statistics. However, they are encouraged to situate their personal experiences within larger structures, to consider the impact of their words on their fellow participants, and to stay open to how their path to college and in college was made easier or more difficult because of the access their identities afforded them or not. And it is the job of the facilitators to help participants do this kind of work–to ask difficult questions, to point out patterns in what had been said, to push back. The facilitators are there to notice not only what is being said but also what is not being said, body language, and so forth. Agreeing to be a facilitator or to be a participant in this context means that you’re taking on a particular responsibility to being open to critique and to being generous and productive with how you push back. However, these responsibilities are not ones, we think, is fair to expect students, particularly students who hold marginalized identities, to take on all the time on campuses in all contexts.

We admire the work that some folks have taken on to have difficult conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with them, and perhaps even dislike or hate them. For example, Dylan Marron who has conversations with people who have written hateful, personal comments about him online. Or the musician Daryl Davis who, for decades, has taken on the work of talking with people in the KKK and has convinced many to leave.

We don’t think it’s possible, though, for everyone to do this kind of work or that it’s fair to have the expectation that our students will do this difficult work especially in contexts when they haven’t agreed to do so. While in the context of intergroup dialogue and in classes we teach, we do ask students to listen differently, to be generous in their critiques of readings and each other, we do think there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to call out individuals in a public way.

What is difficult, though, is figuring out when and why that’s necessary or appropriate. We’ve been asked the same question about some of our posts. We’ve been asked, given that we work at a small college, what was our goal in naming specific experiences in our blog posts?

As we were writing, we thought that in not naming people but naming behaviors, we were not individualizing it. We believed that by placing particular interactions within structure, we might make it possible to shift behavior, or at least make it possible for other people to see our perspective more clearly.

In the conversation that follows we dig in a bit more into the question of context and goals when it comes to “calling out.”

Adriana: I’ve been thinking about how helpful it has been to me to think about higher education as a white space, through Sara Ahmed’s work for example. Spaces are racialized and therefore can be felt as less productive, less welcoming, depending on your background. Then I couldn’t help but see Carleton through that lens, on behalf of my classes and my students, and I think that’s what we try to do with our blog. We’re not trying to get people to believe what we believe. We’re discussing our own experiences: this is why our worldview is this way, and here’s some research for why we think our worldview is not just the two of us. Then maybe you (the reader) could shift your point of view a little bit.

Anita: Right. It’s our experiences of these interactions. But there is the other person in the interaction and clearly, they see it differently. One could argue that the way we’ve written about some of our experiences was ungenerous, unkind, unproductive. They could ask what was our goal in writing about moments that are specifically about Carleton and some of our colleagues, because even if we don’t name specific people, we’re talking about faculty meetings, we’re talking about White faculty, for example. What was our goal in presenting our side of the interaction?

Adriana: What do you think our goal was?

Anita: I think it was as simple as [or as complicated as!] interrupting that White space, the White take on things. Or this notion that we don’t have a problem. That we’re not a White space. We were pushing back on how we (the college community) don’t tend to name things. We don’t name Carleton or faculty meetings as these White spaces. We were interrupting that happy space, the happy Whiteness.

Adriana: It’s the killjoy moment. That’s the complicated part of call out culture. In being the killjoy in the moment, we may not intend to be so interruptive that things get shut down in particular ways. Of course, they never get shut down at the heart of the machinery. They get shut down in these junky, clunky ways that preserve the machinery,and that makes sure that the center keeps on running. We might think we’re being judicious and thoughtful about our call out but simply because it’s a killjoy call out, it gets perceived in these really painful ways for people. When students do it on Facebook, we’re sitting here, judging, and saying, “Why don’t you be a little bit nicer?” but maybe the students have tried to be nice and it got the same results for them as it has for us.

Anita: I think of the way that people were surprised by the blog, surprised by the tone, surprised by “what? You’re not happy here” or perhaps some people who felt called out might have reacted with a “but they never said anything to me!!” For our students, maybe by the time they get to Facebook (and sometimes this history is hinted at in their FB exchanges), they’ve already had these clearly unproductive exchanges in person. And then they get to this place where they’re frustrated not just by a particular moment but by a whole history of moments and they jump to pretty cutting language in their online exchanges. In the same way, even in the faculty meeting we talk about, there was a build up, there were earlier moments in which you tried to intervene, you had tried to be heard in person, and you weren’t heard. Again, if it was just that moment, we wouldn’t have written a blog post about it. But it’s hard to make visible that history of why that particular moment felt so frustrating. We do try to situate that moment in a history, in a structure, but perhaps that does not seem as obvious to others as it does to us. So then our post comes out in this way that people are surprised because they haven’t felt like we articulated our experiences of those moments to them in person or we have articulated it but people haven’t heard us.

Adriana: Then we do it in this somewhat direct way, in this culturally unacceptable way. It’s not that it’s wrong or vulgar. The fact is that it’s blunt and public makes it culturally inappropriate, and that means it gets read as spiteful, unproductive, personal, vindictive, ungrateful.

Anita: But what can you disagree with when we write about our experiences? You can disagree with the fact that it wasn’t your experience but how can you disagree with our own interpretations of our experiences? Which is what I think is happening. Saying, “But that’s not what I meant” negates our experiences, it negates our interpretation, it negates the impact. In a world where everybody has equal power, we could have just said, “Oh, this is what I heard when you said this” and the other person would say, “Oh, I hear you, though that’s not what I meant.” But a lot of the times institutional power works in ways that we don’t even get to say that. Somebody says something, you object, but just in your head, or with your friends. You don’t actually feel like you have the power or the wherewithal in the moment to respond directly. What we’re trying to think through is what happens in interactions where there are clear institutional lines of power; with faculty, for example, it’s between tenured or untentured faculty that often map onto differences in broader societal power because of race, gender, class, etc. Because if they are my peer or my friend, then there are different ways of calling out that are possible when there isn’t a power imbalance.

Adriana: I mean, you just call me out directly. [laughter]

Anita: But we don’t have institutional power over each other. I assume that students also call each other in more gentle ways among their friends.

Adriana: The perceived violence of the call out is exacerbated when there’s greater power imbalances involved.

Anita: Yes, it’s about power but also about a lack of relationship. For us, and in the intergroup dialogue context, this is why you build a sustained relationship.

Adriana: Maybe in these FB convos, they are not interested in sustaining relationships and maybe that’s okay. Why are we afraid of moments that are not about building community in particular ways? I’m thinking of Miranda Joseph’s study of LGBTQ organizations, where she tracks how in their work, these utopic dreams of how things should be get in the way of actually doing the work of building community.

Anita: At Carleton, there’s this rhetoric of how we are already a community. It’s not an utopian goal. It’s presumed that it’s already there and so we don’t have to work at it. So by challenging what happens at Carleton, we’re breaking community rather than believing in it. But what we’re saying is that for some of us, that community doesn’t exist.

Adriana: Yes, there’s a superficial sense of community. But there’s a difference between choosing each other and thus calling each other in, and this idea that somehow just because we’ve all chosen to be in this place, we are part of a community. You know me. I’m an optimist. I’m into this idea of bringing people from all over the world and saying we want you to choose each other; think of yourselves as belonging to each other. There are ways that the institution tries to build that community, in orientation, at the beginning of year. But it’s also this idea that you’re now at Carleton. And you should get along. Or you will get along.

Anita: Why do people come to college? If you come to a small college, are you buying into some part of it’s going to be this utopian community? We’ve talked to some women of color alums who felt some level of betrayal of that idea because the community didn’t work for them, it didn’t support them.

Adriana: And for faculty, just because we have chosen to work at this place, there’s an expectation that we’d get along, we’d be friends. We are just choosing a job, a pretty good job, but it’s a job. It’s not like someone said, hey, there’s this utopian community, and you see that in the brochure,  it looks amazing, and that’s why you get a job here.

Anita: No, but collegiality is a part of how we’re reviewed. And collegiality often gets translated to not challenging the institution or at least not challenging it in a way that actually changes anything. For faculty, it’s the notion of collegiality that’s invoked that ends up silencing dissent and for students, it’s the notion of community.

Adriana: I think the language of community gets used for faculty, too. When people speak up, sometimes the response is, “Don’t you remember our values about civil discourse?” Students are told that healthy exchanges of ideas is good. Civility is valued. But we don’t talk about social justice in our official statements about the college. We don’t state explicitly that we believe in justice, that we believe in racial equality.

Anita: Yes. And there’s no guidance about what to do when when different values clash. Yes, we value free speech and we value non-discrimination but what happens when those values clash in a particular incident? Is it a balance? Does one get valued over another?

Adriana: Part of that fake binary between call out or call in culture is related to this idea that we have a desire to build community, to build towards something we want to see. But what happens when there are differences in what we are building toward? It’s not like we all have the same ideas of a an utopian community. There definitely wouldn’t be enough crying in your utopia for my taste! [laughter]

As you might be able to tell from this post and our exchanges, we are still thinking through our ideas about the “call out/in” culture. We would love to hear from you how you’ve been thinking about these issues, within a college campus context, and also about how you’ve been navigating these issues once you’ve left that context. Please comment here if possible so that other readers can see your ideas!

How now down brown Take 3: Social justice on campus

In today’s post, we take on a question sent to us by a Carleton alum: “How do you navigate higher education institutions and be committed to social justice when these spaces are often antithetical to social justice?”

Our first reaction to this question was “Higher education institutions in the U.S. are often spaces that are antithetical to social justice because U.S. society is often a space that’s antithetical to social justice!” A long line of critical social theorists, including Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis and Pierre Bourdieu & Jean Claude Passeron have argued that educational institutions reflect and reinforce societal inequities, especially along socioeconomic lines. Carleton College and other higher educational institutions are no exception.

There is, however, an additional factor that might make higher education institutions seem particularly antithetical to social justice and we think it might be due to what Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. González describe as “the contradictory culture of academia.” As they write in the introduction to one of our favorite books about higher education, Presumed Incompetent, “On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the better of society–values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves ‘presumed incompetent’ as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance” (p.1). Another contradiction might be the lofty rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that is commonplace these days in colleges & universities that sit alongside ongoing inequities and differences between the experiences of marginalized students, faculty and staff and those of race, class and gender privileged students, faculty, and staff. We’ve written in an earlier post, for example, about how our identities as women of color are valued and appreciated as bringing diversity of representation to the college but the diversity of ideas and experiences we bring and champion often is not welcome.

Now we get to the hard part of your question: how do we stay committed to social justice and remain part of these institutions?

First, while our commitment to working towards more socially just schools and societies remain steadfast, we know that we do not always live out these commitments. Often, we fail to speak up and act in ways that align with our principles for many reasons, including fear, fatigue, and ignorance. These moments of failure lead us to develop a sense of patience and generosity–we understand that people and institutions fail in living out their commitments to social justice, as we do.

Second, the key difference between being a student at a small, residential college and being an employee at such a place is that while work is a part, an important part, of our lives, we do have lives outside of the campus! We do not have to eat, live with and hang out with our colleagues in the way that students have to eat, live with, and hang out with fellow students. We get to create communities outside of work that sustain us in the ways that we need. We get to take advantage of being in or close to the Twin Cities with their diverse racial and immigrant communities. We get to be part of a community of women of color academics, for example, in the Twin Cities who provide support and critical perspective on our work lives.

Third, working at an academic institution differs from the student experience in another way: temporality. We are here for the long haul (whether at one particular institution or in the larger apparatus of academia). That perspective means that we can see and feel the change that does happen, and we can participate in small or significant ways in its propulsion. For example, academic freedom means that we can generally teach what and how we want. Both of us see our classes as spaces of interruption that ask students to examine the way systems, institutions, and even nations do their work; we ask them to be willing to see not just the aspirations, but the costs involved. Teaching often offers moments of joy as students start to see structure and can then imagine better possible futures. For Anita, getting tenure has meant that she can pursue more participatory and collaborative research like her recent project working with five Carleton students on student experiences in STEM departments. Honestly, students–their willingness to learn; their excitement to teach us; their energy and curiosity; their diverse range of experiences–are a big part of what helps us stay in higher education.  

Finally, our persistence in the institution leads us to invest in changing it in ways that are often  invisible to students. We sit on committees, participate in tenure reviews, read and review manuscripts by colleagues, help lead national conferences, get involved in reading groups, try out new ways of learning and teaching, and develop programs that matter to us (like Critical Conversations at Carleton). In other words, we contribute to the workings of the institution. Sometimes that’s frustrating, when the wheels are turning in ways that we cannot stop or shift, but mostly it’s empowering, because we have chances to question the status quo and contribute to change.

When it comes down to it, we are both educators at heart. What we mean by that is that we believe in change. If we didn’t believe that individuals could grow or that committees could rethink their methods or that institutions could reassess their systems, then we would not be here. (Hmm, what else do you all think we would be doing if we weren’t teachers?) Our honest and deep belief in change keeps us going even when we get frustrated by these spaces that often seems antithetical to our commitments to social justice. In other words, what keeps us going is being together in the struggle …and having matching winter hats! 😉

Why individual change isn’t enough

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In response to our post answering a question about campus discourse, a reader posted a question that we thought might be a useful way to think through and write more in depth about some of the concepts we discussed in the post. We begin with a shorter version of the comments, you can read the full comment at the foot of the post.

“I am not sure what being a “structuralist” entails…It is people who produce structures. You can change the structure, but if the people do not change (i.e., if their attitudes and beliefs remain exactly the same), then another (bad) structure will inevitably replace the previous structure. Both individuals and structures have to change, which is exactly why discourse needs to improve. By talking to each other in beneficial ways, we come to understand each other. The hope is that such conversations will cause real change at the individual level. I am also not sure what you mean by saying that individuals are necessarily complicit in oppressive structures. There are always ways of opting out, though sometimes it requires serious sacrifices to opt out. A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing — e.g., Rosa Parks. Again, it seems like the way forward is both individual and structural change, because one bad structure will inevitably mutate into another bad structure, if people’s beliefs and attitudes remains fixed.”  

Figuring out the relationship between structure and individual agency and how change happens encapsulates much of what the social sciences and humanities are all about (possibly also the sciences but we’ll speak for the two areas we’re most familiar with!).

First, let’s go back to our hypothetical example of tenure cases at Carleton. If we found that a disproportionate number of faculty of color were not getting tenure, we would not jump to the conclusion that individual faculty of color just happen to be less qualified, and therefore faculty of color just need to do better. We  would argue that the system of tenure is set up in a way that disadvantages faculty of color and therefore we need to examine that system and change the system, as opposed to arguing that individual faculty of color should change to fit the system. What is the system here? There is a set of evaluative moments that are understood to be neutral and objective; one of these is the student evaluations gathered by our institutional research office. However, at the national level, there is quite bit of evidence that there are disparities in student evaluations between faculty of color and White faculty. In other words, educational institutions depend upon any number of systems that are supposedly neutral but that actually invoke and use metrics based on the experiences of the White academic elite. We agree that we want to get to a place where such disparities don’t exist by changing the racist attitudes and beliefs of students about the capabilities of non-White faculty. And two of us certainly try to tackle racist attitudes and beliefs in our classes. However, we also think that advocating to change the system of tenure and how much value student evaluations are given are also important and more immediate steps to take.

More broadly, we agree with Dr. King’s take on the need for both legislation and education/dialogue as ways to combat the insidious effects of racism:

“If we are going to solve the problems facing mankind, I would be the first to say that every white person must look down deep within and remove every prejudice that may be there, and come to see that the Negro, and the colored peoples, generally, must be treated right, not merely because the law says it, but because it is right and because it is natural. I agree with this 100 percent. And I’m sure that if the problem is to be solved, ultimately, men must be obedient not merely to that which can be enforced by the law, but they must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.

But after saying all of that, I must go on to the other side. This is where I must leave [those]…who believe that legislation has no place. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.”

King’s answer to the question of what leads to necessary, immediate change and fairer structures is legislation, i.e. changing hearts and minds takes a long time; changing the legal structure can provide immediate relief to the oppressed.Your mention of Rosa Parks brings up some interesting questions about how change happens. You write about how Parks being an example of “A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing….” It’s certainly true that Rosa Parks’ decision on a single day did lead to more collective action. However, Parks was already part of a larger, collective movement of struggle and resistance at the time she decided to take a stance. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and she has recently returned from attending  the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. She absolutely did have to make a decision that day to take a courageous stance in light of all she knew about how she might be treated in the legal system as an African American woman–however, we do want to point out that her individual action had a greater impact because of her involvement in a larger structure of resistance.

Thinking about a larger structure of resistance brings us to the final point we wanted to discuss about your question–the question about whether it’s possible to not be complicit in histories and ongoing systems of oppression. We think that it’s pretty difficult, probably impossible, for people to live outside of oppressive systems. For example, we live, work, run, and play on land that was stolen from the Dakota people. The two of us were not responsible for the colonization of the Dakota but we benefit from it. It is not possible for us to make enough sacrifices to get ourselves out of being complicit in the historical and ongoing legacy of settler colonialism (maybe other than not living in the U.S. perhaps but still anywhere we could think to move to has been touched by histories of imperialism and colonization!). Similarly, living in the United States means that we are caught up in a capitalist system that is impossible to get out of.

Adriana was chatting (online) with a Jason Lewis supporter recently; he didn’t announce his political party, but he seemed to lean libertarian. As he denounced taxes and government, she pointed out that we all benefit from state and federal government oversight and funding of all aspects of our lives. Getting off the grid–making your own clothes, growing your own food, refusing to travel on state/federal roads, riding a bike–might get you closer to not being beholden to and party to these institutions. However, the histories of these lands, of these places, of these materials would still embed us within structural formations of race, capital, etc. In other words, hard as we try to extract ourselves from pre-existing structures, they are omnipresent and we are deeply rooted within them.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take individual actions to live lives that are closer to our ethical and moral principles, and when our individual principles conflict with structural expectations, we do think that sacrifices are necessary. Rosa Parks lost her job, for example! Yet that sacrifice can’t remove a person from histories and systems of oppression and exploitation. Indeed, the loss of the job confirms the continued working of the system. And we both continue to believe that honest, critical dialogue can change hearts and minds, helping to fuel people to continue fighting for structural change.

P.S. The whole structure/individual agency question is definitely one that sociologists obsess over, so if folks are looking for texts to read that address that question in a nuanced way, Anita highly recommends Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t no makin’ it!

 

No snow day for you!

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This past week, Northfield, MN (where Carleton College is located) and the surrounding areas got a lot of snow. Starting Monday morning and going through Monday evening, there were blizzard conditions–gusty winds, blowing snow, little visibility…and the discussion that many of our colleagues were having on social media was about how Carleton chose NOT to declare a snow day. This blog post by our colleague, Amy Csizmar Dalal, highlights how institutional assumptions that faculty and staff can and should make their own decisions about whether to come to work on such a day forces individual workers into unreasonable choices between personal safety and fulfilling their job duties. We agree wholeheartedly with Amy’s conclusion: “Today’s decision by my institution to remain open during a significant storm was foolish and dangerous. It reflects a view of college personnel’s life circumstances (local, child care at the ready, a degree of financial security) that is outdated and out of touch. And providing choices that for many are false choices, is not really a choice at all. I would love to see us rethink such decisions in the future, and be a bit wiser about faculty, staff, and student safety.”

We would like to add that the fact that Carleton’s a residential college complicates how a snow day would work. Because our students live and eat on campus, it’s not feasible for all staff to stay home and not come to work since our students still need access to meals and to essential medical services as well as safe passage to those services (side note: big thanks to all the folks who worked to clear snow from walkways!). However, we do think it’s necessary to create an emergency staffing plan for inclement weather that is publicly available and is disseminated widely to the college campus. This plan might include a list of positions that need to be staffed; a list of employees who are willing and able to volunteer to fill those positions; and a delineation of how employees who do come in will be compensated (including reimbursement for child care and other expenses and arrangements for them to stay on campus overnight if necessary).

Enjoy the snow if that’s your thing and stay safe out there, everyone! And let’s work towards creating institutional policies and practices that err on the side of safety without assuming that everyone has the same level of power to make decisions about whether to go into work during a blizzard.  

How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse

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We received this anonymous question and since we are not sure if the person is a student or faculty/staff person on a college campus, we decided to answer the question assuming it’s a student, though what we have to say can apply more broadly:

“I have become quite concerned with the state of social/political discourse on campus. There does not seem to be any room for any viewpoints which are not decidedly progressive. Even a mostly liberal viewpoint with a caveat is condemned. In many spaces on campus, the only acceptable viewpoint is the 100% fully liberal one with no caveats or references to complexity of the issue at hand. An example of this attitude: any difference between a privileged group and a marginalized group is 100% due to oppression/discrimination and if you suggest any other potential factor, you are complicit/unenlightened/inconsiderate. Only a portion of people perpetuate this culture, but they are the most vocal and end up dominating discussion spaces. What can we as a campus do to improve the state of our social/political discourse?”

Dear Quite Concerned,

Thank you for your question; we appreciate your concerns about the state of social and political discourse on your campus. As we began discussing your question, it became clear that it was open to different interpretations and expectations. We decided to  intersperse our answer with the moments of conversations we had as we discussed it.

First we want to try and unpack your question. The one thing we see in how you start and end is that you’re framing your concern as an institutional one–you’re concerned about the state of campus discourse. The middle, however, is chock-full of frustration about not being heard. In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between how you try to help us see the issue and the way you are experiencing the issue. The phrase “state of social and political discourse” is so broad. Are we talking about classroom culture or lunchroom conversations? Where is this discourse taking place? We emphasize this because, of course, there isn’t one “state of discourse” on any campus; rather, there are multiple spaces of discourse with multiple goals and norms. For example, if I’m in the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus and my goal is to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, that is not a time when I want to have a conversation about whether someone thinks trans identity is “real or not.” Maybe at that point, someone trying to have that particular conversation would get shut down. In other words, we think it’s important to consider different discursive spaces and their expectations. In what contexts are diversity of viewpoints welcome and necessary and for what purpose? We’d go so far as to suggest that a diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily equal a “good” or “healthy” state of political and social discourse; it all depends on the particular discursive space and its –oftentimes unwritten– expectations.

Both of us have gone through trainings to help us lead dialogues, so one of our first moves in discussions about identity and politics, if someone brings up the possibility that we are complicit, unenlightened and inconsiderate, is that we try to take a step back and consider whether we are complicit and inconsiderate. We try to see these moments as learning moments and not necessarily about proving our progressive credentials. We’re wondering if you’ve done that; have you been able to really listen to the stories that matter to people as they reject your point of view?

We ask this because the example that you give, “differences between privileged and marginalized groups,” is vague. We wondered what exactly you meant by that phrase. What differences are we talking about? We can imagine a conversation about, say,  racialized differences in educational outcomes where someone suggests that we should think about “cultural factors” or “IQ” without attending first to societal and structural factors. We would see this suggestion as being complicit in continuation of oppression because there is a long history of people ignoring historical and structural disadvantages. Because of our disciplinary training, we both see larger structural factors as having better explanatory power for the social, economic, and cultural differences we see among groups. We also think that we’re all always complicit in oppression–as individuals, we are embedded in structures and thus help to maintain and reproduce those structures of oppression, regardless of our positionality.

As we thought through your question and considered the ways in which conversations about oppression and privilege require us to consider our own individual complicity in these structures, we surmised that perhaps there are times when you feel a bit browbeaten by these interactions because you are recognizing that complicity.

You can see perhaps that we think it is important for individuals to consider their own resistances and tensions to conversations about power, structure, and racial/class/sexual/gender formations. But all that said, there are times when discussions can feel unproductive and unhelpful on campus; from our viewpoints as faculty,  some student-focused discussion spaces for students, in particular, seem to have become very fraught and divisive. From conversations with colleagues at other colleges, this seems to be a common refrain, reflective of the state of discourse at the national level.

Here’s how we proceed in these kinds of spaces: we recognize that we cannot change what is happening to us; we can only change our reaction. After all, we cannot necessarily change how another person engages in a discussion, but we can become better at listening.

We both believe that all of us can work on listening more closely and with less personal investment in any conversation that is about social justice, about structure. Listening helps us move away from shaming towards naming structures. In other words, shaming others or ourselves does no good when we are trying to understand. At the same time, we need to get better at recognizing when we have positions of power in institutions and societies, this naming of structure can feel personal. Especially for those of us with identity-based positions of privilege, we need to develop that ability to not react right away when you feel like something is challenging you.

One emotion that tends to paralyze a lot of people is anger. While we are worried that people aren’t able to talk to each other because of anger, we deeply believe that we all need to get better at listening to anger and why a person might be angry. People have stories and experiences of discrimination that they need to share, oftentimes without wanting or needing analysis or counterpoint. In one of the groups that we are both a part of, we use meta-language to mark the kind of conversation we need–“this is NOT a problem-solving conversation”–as a way to let our friends know that we want their empathy, not their fixes.

Perhaps we move towards having more productive conversations through such signaling of intent and, in general, if we got better at not just needing to make our point in a conversation– “No, but it’s not about oppression!”–and  just ask questions about stories and experiences.

Adriana: Yes! It’s about dialogue! Ask questions.

Anita; Yeah, but what if somebody says when you are doing all the right things, “Fuck you! You’re complicit!” what do you do at that moment?

{long thoughtful pause}

Adriana: I think a response to pain has to be empathetic. It has to be as open as possible. I’m struck by that moment in the documentary from Stir Fry when the White man says to the woman of color, “I just don’t understand your pain. I really feel terrible, I just don’t understand.” And she says, “Just sit with me. Just sit in my pain with me.” I think the difficult thing about what you were asking me right now is that I can imagine scenarios where someone is super angry with me and I’m just not getting it, I’m unenlightened. I don’t see it yet so I can’t apologize because it wouldn’t be authentic. It would be fake for me to say “I’m sorry” because I need to understand first, but that person can’t teach me because they’re not in that space. So I need to acknowledge that in some way what is happening, where I say, “I hear your anger and I’ll sit with you.”

Anita: Maybe the move you make  when you feel attacked is to listen more, rather than needing to respond more. The thing that we do sometimes…I do it all the time [we all do it!], I think about all the arguments I’ve had where I should have been better at stepping back, taking a breath, and sometimes, yes, I did, but also there are many times when I didn’t.  It’s hard to tell from this question where this person is coming from. I would want to ask them: Have you always been at places before coming to this campus where your viewpoints have always been validated? Imagine going through 12 years of schooling where you’ve had very few people validate your experiences and your perspective. Maybe this campus is the space, for whatever reason, that finally does feel like a space where you can take up more space than you have been able to before. Imagine that when people shut you down, sometimes it’s terrible and they should do better, but other times, where is that coming from? Can you have this moment of empathy, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced being shut down before coming to this campus?

We don’t know, from your question, what campus you’re on, but we’re going to imagine you here at Carleton. We’ll imagine that you think of yourself as liberal. You’re going to all these events and you’re realizing you’re not as liberal as you thought. And you see that there are critiques of the liberal logic of the world which make it seem like this campus has no space for you. In the between-the-lines of your question, we hear that you want to feel like your voice matters too. And a lot of what we’re saying is that sometimes your voice doesn’t matter and that hurts.

But what we’re saying is perhaps your voice doesn’t always need to matter. For example, if people are talking about differences between privileged and marginalized groups, why do you feel the need to bring up other factors? Are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to think about other ways to change things?  As we mentioned earlier, we’re both structuralists. To us, saying that we need to change cultures or people, without changing oppressive structures, seems to us to be replicating a colonialist model that blames people for their own circumstances.

Because your example is vague, we thought through a hypothetical example that would apply to our positions as faculty.

Let’s say there was a review of tenure cases in the past 25 years, and we see a trend of faculty of color getting tenure at lower rates than White faculty. When the two of us would talk about it, we’d start by talking about the structures on campus that might be making it harder for faculty of color to get tenure. If another faculty member at that meeting said, “Well, maybe we should think about how faculty of color aren’t as good teachers. Maybe faculty of color have inferior publication records,” we would feel that this person was missing the point. We’d argue that they’re justifying discrimination against faculty of color and reinscribing minority status because we’re starting with the assumption that faculty of color are as qualified as White faculty. We probably would react with emotion, perhaps anger, and while that might make that faculty member feel like we’re attacking them, we’re actually just pointing to the fact that we need to get to the structural factors before jumping to the “faculty of color are deficient” narratives. We’re also well-versed on a large body of research on the long history of tropes of people of color not being as qualified as explanations for why there are so few people of color in institutions. We’re always trying to work against that kind of narrative.

Finally, the other thing we hear you saying is that making the case for structural factors/discrimination is a “simple” one. We would say that to talk about structural factors as we would in this faculty tenure example is to discuss a complex set of a factors that coordinate to reproduce the position of these faculty of color.

We want to end by commending you for caring so much about having these conversations, and trying to figure out what that can and might look like. In a future post, we plan to discuss our thoughts about call out culture in the age of social media and the possibilities of coalition politics. For right now, though, we’d just remind you and our other readers that face-to-face conversations matter. They’re hard. When you have them, you’ll see the look on people’s faces when you call them names or get really angry, you’ll see them shut down, and you’re hopefully going to think about whether that’s your end goal. If you just want to shut people down, go right ahead. But if the goal is –as we hope– to generate new communities and new systems of justice and a better future, we need to recognize that we live in a fucked up system, but we’re not going to make it any better by using the same fucked up ways of engaging with each other.

P.S. A quick note about how we would address this question a bit differently if it comes from a faculty member: We would say that we have institutional power, so if a student is saying to us, “you’re a terrible person” we don’t have to take it so personally. We have to have more sympathy and empathy and even when we might feel attacked, our job is to listen. Also, in our classrooms, we can set up discussion norms to make sure no one is dominating for whatever reason. We can use our power wisely!

P.P.S. If you want to submit a question, you can do so here.

 

Reading the Room –> Responding to Crisis

Image source

As teachers who rely on discussion and dialogue as pedagogical tools, we are often put in the position where we have to “read” the classroom–figuring out, for example, when it might be time to move on to a new topic or when there are questions or confusions about the theories or vocabulary we’re encountering in the readings. At these moments, we try to read the mood of the individual students in the class as well as of the class as a whole, sometimes deciding to surface questions and concerns that the students themselves seem hesitant to voice. Beyond helping us develop more effective discussions and learning spaces, this work of “reading” the room also helps us decide whether and how to respond to events–local or not–that potentially impact our community. For example, after an accident that killed three Carleton students, Anita decided to open her class sessions by giving time for students to share anything they wanted to. In one class, that discussion took up the entire class session and in another, the class felt ready to move on to the activity she had planned before the accident happened. And on the day after U.S. election day 2016, Adriana made space in her class for a discussion of students’ reactions to the results. She noticed that many of the students seemed depleted and others seemed numb, so she let them know that if they wanted to remain quiet, they could. While the discussion began slowly, eventually all the students were engaged in an emotional and honest conversation about their hopes and fears. She made sure to check in later with one student who was particularly upset; that person was grateful for the space to talk, saying it had been strange to walk through campus as if their lives were the same as yesterday.

While we believe it is the shared responsibility of the teacher and the students in any classroom context to create the classroom culture, we do feel that we are in a position of power and responsibility as “leaders” of the classroom. Just as we work hard to read the mood of and needs within our classroom, we think that larger institutions should be trying to do similar work at a macro level. Over the years we have heard several of our students voice their desire for the college administration to speak more often and more powerfully and clearly about particular kinds of issues; they perceive that deans and presidents are the “leaders” of campuses and therefore have a unique responsibility to speak up and speak out. Most recently, the members of the editorial team of Carleton’s student newspaper noted that students “look to our administration for direction and support.” They called on the administration “to have strong, clear responses when events, both local and national, threaten students.” Carleton’s administration doesn’t even have to read the room here; they just have to read the newspaper.*

One of the administrative responses mentioned in the editorial was the one to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this summer. Given that Carleton was not in session at the time, we thought it would be interesting to read the responses of President Sullivan and the University of Virginia (UVA), since her administration needed to put out several statements in real time as events unfolded. In this way, these communiques give us a chance to see a college administration “reading the room” and adjusting their language and tone to–we presume–the needs of the community.

The first statement, put out a week before the expected Charlottesville rally, emphasizes First Amendment rights to free speech and rights of assembly while noting that the groups marching represent groups that contradict UVA values. However, we noticed that President Sullivan didn’t use the terms “race,” “racism,” or “white supremacy.” 

The set of responses that immediately followed the Friday night march described the “hateful behavior” of “torch-bearing protestors” and understandably emphasized the safety and security of the college community. In one of these statements, Pres. Sullivan labeled the protestors “alt-right,” which at that time still occupied liminal status as a “good enough” word to name white supremacy. She continued to emphasize First Amendment rights, though she did note that acts of violence are not protected.

On August 13, that Sunday, she releases two statements after the death of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia state police. In one, addressed to the university community, she expresses sympathy and condolences but doesn’t name the specific racial violence. In the statement to alumni and “friends of the university,” she notes that there were “racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and misogynistic chants.” The difference between these two statements is intriguing to us. We lean towards thinking of it generously; keeping the university calm must have been a priority at the time. Yet on the same day, the university rector sent out a statement where he uses terms like “evil” and “white supremacist”; his particular religious standing gives him, we think, a way to denounce the gathering that might not be open to President Sullivan at that moment.

A week later, a community message is sent by President Sullivan, emphasizing that she has heard her community’s concerns about safety. She delineates a number of steps to achieve it, like hiring additional people for the “Ambassadors Program” and reviewing and adjusting policies about public gatherings. Finally, though, and importantly to us, she assures that the university is reaching out to those students and employees “injured by white supremacists.” This is the first time she uses this specific term, indicating with this usage as well as with other language about listening, that she is “reading the room” and figuring out what her community needs from her.

At the end, reading the room is only the beginning of the process. As teachers and leaders, we strive to read our classrooms and campuses in order to provide guidance and we try to be as transparent as possible about what those next steps are. Reading the room is nothing without clear follow through. Calling something “white supremacy” isn’t going to end white supremacy but it’s a start. Developing a common language and set of values makes possible the imagining of common futures. 

Notes

[*]After we wrote this post but before we published it, we received a campus-wide email from college administration, letting us know that a swastika had been found in a classroom. The email named the symbol as an expression of hate and justly pointed out that this kind of speech does not further anyone’s goals of intellectual exchange. It also detailed the steps the college is going to take to investigate the incident and to create a culture where we all are more respectful and inclusive. (Indeed, for those of you on Carleton campus, please consider attending this panel discussion “Responding to Charlottesville” Wednesday, October 18th.)

Just last night an update was sent, letting campus know that the swastika had been drawn in the course of a class discussion. While we’re both glad to know that there had been no actual hateful graffiti, we were also glad to see that the administration still plans to continue with the steps outlined in the previous email, promoting dialogue, reflection, and proactive deliberation about how we might/should/could deal with hate in our community.