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! 😉

Learning to talk about race

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Image Source: Ijeoma Oluo’s book is out and you should read it!

This week we want to share with you two recent Friday Roundtables that Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller hosted; both deal with how we talk about race, racism, whiteness, anti-blackness, etc. We appreciate that both conversations offered examples of how we refine our vocabularies as we think through social structures, processes, and formations as well as how one can engage fruitfully with disagreement.

The first, “Was Ta-Nahesi Coates right to call Donald Trump ‘The First White President’?,” provides a thoughtful discussion around Coates’ work. It includes our fabulous Carleton colleague, Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, who asks the whole group to nuance the term “white supremacy” and to consider what language really helps us name structural inequities.

The second, “How to talk about racism,” centers around Dr. Ted Thornhill’s “White Racism” class at Florida Gulf Coast University. Because many of the questions from listeners focus on how/why White people might not want to engage in discussions about racism, the conversation works through a number of strategies for how to name and discuss racism.

Both of these conversations left us feeling better educated, better equipped, and with a  new appreciation for Kerri Miller who discusses openly how she is working on learning about her racial privilege.

(Note: you can find both of these discussions in your podcast app, under MPR News with Kerri Miller.)

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.

 

Resuscitate us!

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As we ponder the next question that was sent to us for our How Now Down Brown column–to be published next week–we wanted to use this space to invite some sharing. It’s winter here, our nose hairs are frozen, and we’re both just trying to get closer to spring.

We’re going to take a page from the Code Switch playbook and ask you to tell us what book, song, or show is giving you life right now. What’s making your gray days “sunny”? Let’s all brighten each other’s Januaries!

How now down brown (aka Adriana and Anita become advice columnists), Take 1: Surviving grad school

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Dear readers, Happy New Year! As we wrote in this post last year, we asked our readers to submit questions they may have about navigating race on college campuses and this post is our first attempt at being advice columnists! We would like to encourage those of you who have advice to share to post your thoughts here on the blog so that the person asking the question can benefit from your ideas as well as our own. Also, if you want to submit a question (with your name or anonymously!), please do so here. Finally, we’d like to thank our friend, Rini, for helping us brainstorm the name of our advice column!

The following question came from a Carleton alum who decided to pursue an advanced degree in a field focused on Western cultural traditions (we paraphrased and changed some details to maintain the person’s anonymity):

“My original plan was to apply for a PhD, but things have changed…none of the texts I read speak to my positionality as a non-Christian, non-American, non-white woman! While it is true that my positionality allows me to raise important questions about inclusion and diversity that challenge these thinkers, it has left me quite frustrated. Lurking on the periphery of my area of study has become both academically and personally exhausting. Because of how my chosen field is exclusionary in content, in method, and in voice, I’ve found that my only choice is to act as “challenger.” I started to look for new academic arenas of inquiry. In other words, I feel like I no longer have a strong, academic foothold and instead find myself swimming in a large ocean of possibility. My biggest issue however, is that I am spoiled for choice. Since I no longer feel anchored to my identity as a scholar of [field of study], I am not quite sure where to go from here, and how I would even begin that process. I am experimenting with other departments this semester, and while it has been a gratifying experience, a part of me feels like I have been pulled back to square one. There is so much information around me, and to be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and quite directionless.

I go back and forth between feeling free and feeling trapped, but mostly I just feel nauseous! How do I make this uncertainty productive?

Signed, Mostly I Just Feel Nauseous”

Dear MIJFN,

Your questions and concerns are meaty, indeed. First, we wanted to recognize that you’ve already stepped into some certainty by deciding to leave a field where your situated knowledge production was marginalized and you felt unmoored and tired. While this is a step into uncertainty, it’s also a step out of perpetual exhaustion and intellectual alienation. As you know, you are not alone in moving into an academic field with love and engagement only to find that these fields don’t love us back. Like other scholars, women of color are drawn to academic fields for all sorts of reasons: because we want to learn these tools and voices and histories–but often, as WOC, we open our minds and hearts to these ways of knowing only to find that these disciplines expect us to assimilate to their values and ways without ever being open to how our diverse bodies might bring diverse ways of knowing. Some of us make peace with that, staying in fields and making sure we find other places where we can be loved and seen. Others of us, like you, decide that participation in a field from a constant sideline, where the contributions you make may be superficially welcomed even as they reify you as an outsider… well, that that’s not worth it. You’ve basically recognized that a field that you love might, in some very real, vital ways, kill you, take away your joy of learning, minimize your ways of making sense of the world. [see footnote]

So now that you’ve chosen you, how do you “make uncertainty productive”? As you can imagine, we’re not big supporters of the term “productive” – so let’s think about how that word is working for you and how it might be getting in your way. After all, what kinds of expectations are we pinning to the concept of “productive”? We’re guessing that you’ll feel you have been productive once you have chosen your next academic step; we’re also willing to bet that any kind of daydreaming, researching, mind-resting, sleeping, etc. that you do until then will make you feel not at all productive. And yet how are you supposed to make a choice about your next step unless you allow yourself to wander a bit, both metaphorically and literally?

We also want to say that the path to being in academia is only one of many paths one can take in life and our paths in academia are only two possible paths. We can only offer you what we have learned from our journeys, but we want to make sure that we don’t make it seem like academia is the only path to being able to do what you want to do. So we encourage you, and we’re sure you are doing so, to talk to people who are not professors, who are not graduate students, who didn’t graduate from college about their paths as well. Our view, like everyone else’s, is limited by the contours of our lives.

But back to what we do know some things about: we recommend you take long walks and allow yourself digressions. Wandering through the stacks of a library, looking at journals’ table of contents can be a great way of seeing what different fields are up to, what they’re prioritizing, what they’re arguing about. Wandering around a neighborhood can let your mind ask questions and notice things. Like they usually tell us in our yoga classes (we don’t really manage to follow directions, but we try): notice what you’re thinking and feeling, but don’t hold on to it or worry about it. Just notice. Pay attention to this mind and heart that you’ve developed; you’ve got skills. You are a scholar. Take note. See you. Know that there are others like you out there, even if they are not in your particular program or institution—try to connect with them through online or IRL networks.

Another way to think about this stage of uncertainty is that it is entirely normal. Most people go through it as college ends and they need to figure out which jobs to apply for. So your “big transition”–the one that requires you to go through some degree of personal crisis [who am I? what do I value? who do I want to be in 10 years] was just delayed a little bit. Now that you’re going through this transition, be kind to yourself, just like you were kind to all your classmates as they flailed about, emitting anxiety fumes, at the end of their senior years. What did you tell them then? What, then, can you tell yourself now? How we each “keep it all together” in times of chaos and uncertainty varies from person to person. Adriana writes stuff down and sings out loud. She makes sure she gets at least a hug a day from someone she loves. Anita believes strongly that one cultivates resilience and strength through community. She attends plays put on by community groups, supports friends who are performing their poetry or their music, and makes it a priority to build a network of support full of amazing people of color wherever she is. It’s these people and support networks that got her through predominantly White undergrad and grad schools experiences, and continue to support her as she navigates her way through academia as a woman of color faculty. You need people who will hear your anguish, your rage, and your joy without needing you to tone anything down even if you’re in a graduate program where you can find more of yourself in.

One last thought: to be able to sit in uncertainty–in not knowing–is an important skill. Adriana has long been a fan of Richard Feyman’s words on this issue: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” (link below)

If you can be comfortable in uncertainty, you can ask bigger, more impossible questions. Asking bigger questions allows you to wander more, to dream more, while also being incredibly humble about your place in it all. Your uncertainty is also your openness to the world, to new ideas, to new directions, to paths that you could not see before. Best of luck as you chart your way!

Footnote: We do wish that academia would think more about this, because the question is a vital one. After all, how do we diversify our ranks, our perspectives, without in some way letting those perspectives and challenges shift the discipline? Maybe that’s why I (Adriana) love being a part of American Studies. In a recent interview, Kandice Chuh, the ASA president, says, “For me, ‘America’ is not the object of American Studies. It’s actually a space through which we think, to ask other kinds of questions, questions having to do with humanization, with materiality, with power, with possibility, with nation, with colonialism” (link below). That’s a really different answer than would have been given twenty years ago; American Studies has shifted from and “exceptionalist” logic (what makes America so great?) to one willing to see the contradictions between the idealized, imagined America and the lived one with all of its institutionalized cruelty.  

Links:

Richard Feyman’s quote.

Kandace Chuh’s quote.

P.S. We saw that Roxana Gay has started an occasional advice column, which we are very excited about!