Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy

You’re probably looking at the title, and then at my photo, and thinking, “Isn’t she white?” Yes. Yes, I am white. I was never a graduate student of color in the academy.

So, my insights are limited, and I don’t present myself as an expert on this subject.

But I did have a career that spanned no fewer than three racially-charged departmental environments. And during my time in these three departments, I tried my best to stay open and alert to the challenges posed to the white dominant system in those departments by the graduate students (and faculty) of color. I came to understand some of the ways that my own subject position and mode of operation were products of white privilege, and the many unthinking ways that I reinforced that through my work. I watched graduate students and faculty of color brutalized by the unacknowledged racism of the institution, and I did my best to serve as an ally. I don’t think I was always as successful as I wanted to be. But I did learn a thing or two. And it’s those things I share today.

First, my background. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i. I got my first job at the University of Oregon. I got my second job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Hawai’i the Anthropology department was deeply implicated in the conflicts on campus about the relationship of the University and the Native Hawaiian community. One cultural anthropologist on the faculty, not long before I arrived, had just been forced to abandon her research focus on Native Hawaiians after her informants revealed they had systematically and intentionally lied to her in her most recent published fieldwork project.

At the University of Oregon, the archaeology program, which was highly Pacific Northwest focused, had begun intensively recruiting Native American graduate students shortly before I arrived. When I was there, there were approximately five Native American students enrolled in the department, some in the Cultural Resource Management MA program, with the goal of getting training to manage their tribes’ museums, and some in archaeology and cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on their tribal cultures, languages, and histories.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two Latina/o faculty members in cultural anthropology hired before I arrived had, over time, successfully recruited a group of approximately seven Latina/o graduate students, who were primarily enrolled in cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on a range of Latino, Mexicano, and Latin American cultural topics.

In all three of these departments, the presence of a “critical mass” of graduate students of color—that is to say, graduate students of “one” color, ie, from one particular racial and cultural background—fundamentally altered the department climate and profoundly challenged the graduate seminar environment.

At Oregon, because of a separate critical mass of white faculty members who were (within limits) willing and able to look directly at questions of race and their own privileged subject position, the department, at least during the years I was there, was able to adjust and grow as a result of these challenges.

At Hawai’i and Illinois, the departments proved unable to do this.

At Hawai’i, the cultural anthropologist who had previously worked with Native Hawaiians changed her research focus and left for a position on the East Coast. The department, during the years that I was there as a Ph.D. Student, indeed operated as if it was located on the East Coast. There was no indication whatsoever that we were a department at the very center of a profound social upheaval resulting from the newly powerful Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and the work of scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, right on our campus. The department stayed entirely mute. It was a department in total denial.

This despite the fact that at just the same time, the discipline of anthropology was itself reeling from a new interrogation from scholars of color (Edward Said foremost among them) of the profound involvement of the discipline in histories and mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism.  These scholars also queried the continuing racism embedded in a discipline that is based on the ideal of a white scholar writing about and making a career from studies of communities of color.

It was a curious fact that this critique was taken seriously at the most intensely white anthropology programs, while at the programs where the faculty felt directly threatened by actual people of color in the community, it was entirely ignored.

At Illinois, because the Latina/o graduate students had the support of two respected (albeit untenured) faculty members, and also the support of no less than the brand-new then-Chancellor of the University, Nancy Cantor (a long-time proponent of diversity in graduate education), they were able to break through the wall of silence and denial in the department, and force the issue of the racism of anthropology into the open.

The fascinating thing at Illinois was that the critique of anthropological racism was never explicitly denied. On the contrary, most of the white faculty members by that point were well-versed in “talking the talk” of self-reflexive anthropology and the imperialist origins of the discipline.

But when it came to taking the next step, that of interrogating their own privilege, and in particular, the readings assigned, and the discussions encouraged, in their own graduate seminars, then….well, things were entirely different. Far from being mute, the faculty became aggressive and hostile.

The department fractured in the end over a truly heartbreaking and appalling incident centering around a plaque that the university, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to erect honoring long-deceased UI anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his “Culture of Poverty” thesis (which, for those of you unfamiliar, basically blames poor Mexican people for being poor). I will not rehash the dreadful events that ensued here, but you may read about them in this account by a former Ph.D. student who was at the center of it: Brian Montes, “No Longer Silent: A Historical Moment of Latino Student Activism” Latino Studies (2005) 3, 280–287.

I’ve written too much without even getting to any thoughts on the purported topic of this post: “Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy.”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Kind of like the Republicans blaming Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. If a problem emerges under your purview—you must be the cause of the problem.

Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.

I am not the first to say these things, and I won’t be the last.

What I do want to say is this: the starting point and the ending point for so many graduate students of color in the humanities and social sciences is frequently (although not always) fundamentally different from that of white students. While some graduate students of color most certainly do turn their scholarly interests to subjects unconnected to their own racial or cultural background, and that is entirely to be supported, for the majority, I believe, scholarship starts and ends with the question, “does this help or hurt my people?”

And that is a question that white people don’t get. Because white people don’t have “a people.” Of course the most ethical among us will ask this question about the people we study. We might care deeply about those people and spend a professional life intimately involved with them. But they’re not “our” people. Even when we marry one of them, they are not our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers, our cousins. We have not seen our closest family members ravaged by the widespread, all-encompassing systematic poverty and alcoholism and disease that has ravaged the Native Hawaiian community, the Native American community. White people have not seen our families torn apart by oppressive immigration policies that victimize so many in the Latina/o community and force so many into hiding.

Sure, white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, or to a class. Working class white people in the academy do indeed feel systematically excluded from the in-groups and from classroom debates. I am not denying that. But it is different, because the stakes are different. When your people are dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide, your approach to academia is going to be different. It’s going to be urgent. It’s going to be impatient. It’s going to be angry. You’re going to ask questions about why their stories are not being told, and why scholars aren’t asking how the discipline helps or hurts a group of people, your people, who are already suffering from so many histories of neglect and disregard.

I have no solution to offer for white blindness and cluelessness. I don’t present myself as a hero of enlightenment in this regard. I am still blind to my own privilege much of the time, despite my best efforts. I would still be even more pathetically blind if not shaken out of my complacency by living in Hawa’i during a powerful moment in the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and if not directly confronted by a group of Native American graduate students in my Foundations of Social Theory Core Graduate Seminar at Oregon. If they had not asked me why all of my readings were by old, dead white guys, and insisted on an answer that wasn’t stupid, and if those students had not already been empowered by an archaeology program that was dedicated to supporting them, and if they had not been defended by a white cultural anthropologist Department Head who stood up for those students and our tumultuous class when they were attacked by the white students enrolled in it…..well, if all those things had not been in place, at that one moment in time, I would most likely still be totally comfortable with the idea of a Core Seminar in Anthropology imposing an all-white world view onto graduate students, and those Native American students would have been silenced once more.

Perhaps it takes a lightning in the bottle kind of moment to shake white people out of their race-blindness. That is depressing, and not good news. What I know is that graduate students of color bear far more than a fair share of the burden in pushing departments to confront race. And they all too often pay a terrible price for it.

How To Fire a Professor

Today’s post is a Special Request post. This one is for Jenn, who asks, “how do you replace one professor with another on your committee?”

This is a delicate matter, as I’m sure Jenn is aware. There are all kinds of reasons that committee members end up needing to be replaced, not all of them bad. But it is always delicate because there are professorial egos involved. And where professorial egos are involved, nothing is easy or painless.

In my own case, I decided to “switch out” a committee member between my MA committee and my doctoral committee at the same institution. I actually really liked committee member #1, we had a good relationship, and he’d been helpful. But I was moving in new directions, and I realized that for my external member I needed someone versed in postcolonial studies and post-marxist theory far more than I needed a second Japan-focused social scientist.

So I left him a jaunty little message on his answering machine, basically “firing” him from my committee. Of course I didn’t intend it that way. I explained my reasons, which were entirely scholarly, and indeed sound, and assumed that he’d understand them.

Well, he didn’t. He was furious. He was offended. His feelings were hurt. And he refused to  engage with me any further in my academic career.

Now, this was a juvenile and unprofessional response on his part. But for my part, I had totally failed to anticipate his feelings.

Indeed, until that moment it had actually never occurred to me that professors have feelings. Feelings, that is, about graduate students. I thought they mostly viewed us as burdens, and would welcome the opportunity to jettison one. I had absolutely no idea that in fact they might feel intellectually invested in one of us, and feel intellectually insulted if dropped.

Chalk that up to youthful ignorance.

In any case, I did learn my lesson. I was very sorry to have hurt the feelings of this man, who had only done right by me. And I made sure that in the future, I took far better care to try and anticipate the feelings of the committee members who had invested their time and energy in me, and later, in my students.

I have advised quite a few students in ways to negotiate this mine field.

While there is no one method of doing this that fits every personality and set of circumstances, the best way to proceed is probably a combination of email and personal meeting, for both the departing (fired) member #1, and the new (recruited) member #2.

To remove Professor #1, your initial email should read something like this:

Dear Professor #1,

First off, I want to thank you for serving on my thesis/dissertation committee. I have appreciated your efforts to improve my writing/scholarship/etc., your good advice, and your generosity with your time.

I am writing today because I’ve been making plans for the next stage in my work on the thesis/dissertation project, and I’ve been rethinking some of the intellectual directions I hope to take. In that context, I have realized I may need to reorganize my committee.

I am hoping that we can meet sometime in the next few days to discuss this in person. Would you have any time to meet with me? I’d appreciate it.

Thank you,


Once you meet in person, it is probably best to conduct the conversation something like this:

“I want to thank you again for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a great mentor and supporter, and I really appreciate how generous you have been in introducing me to new scholarship on xxx/editing my writing/discussing my ideas/etc.

The thing is… I’ve actually had a pretty big change of heart/direction in my research in the last few weeks/months. Instead of focusing on XXX, I am more and more interested in YYYYY. But I don’t know a whole lot about YYYY, so I’ve been working closely with Professor Q. It’s going really well, but I realized that I need to reconstitute my committee, to include Professor Q.

So… I’m really sorry, but that means I am going to have to replace you on the committee, and put Professor Q in that slot.  This is no reflection at all on my respect for your work—it’s just a reflection of the new directions that my work is moving in.  I hope you can understand.

Really? Thanks for understanding. I really appreciate that. I just want you to know that you’ve made a big difference in my studies. If it’s ok with you, I’d still like to stop by now and again and let you know what I’m up to.

Great. Thanks.”

All of this is pretty effusive in expressing appreciation and gratitude. I recommend that you operate along these lines even in the cases where you feel few of such feelings, such as when Professor #1 was a total asshole. You want to at all times preserve an aura of professionalism and probity in your dealings with faculty. As long as you couch this decision in entirely academic terms, it is difficult for Professor #1, or your other committee members, or the Department Head to take issue with it.

OK, now on to Professor #2.

The most important thing here, when communicating with Professor #2, is never, ever to criticize Professor #1. You do not want to give the impression of being a malcontent, or difficult to deal with. You must restrict your initial exchanges with Professor #2 entirely to intellectual and academic justifications. Much later, when you know Professor #2 better, and have established a relationship of trust, you might be able to express some other factors that came into play. But for now, at the beginning, again, stick closely to the academic script.

Your initial email will read something like this:

Dear Professor Q,

I hope your semester is off to a good start. I have been enjoying your class, xxx, and learning a lot.

I’m actually writing to ask if I might be able to meet with you in the next few days. As you know, I’ve been working with my committee on my thesis/dissertation project on XXXX. Since working with you, I’ve become more and more interested in moving this project in the direction of YYYY. You have opened my eyes to some fascinating scholarship that I didn’t know about, and now that I know it, I’ve really reconceptualized my entire project. It’s very exciting.

Because of that, though, I will be reconstituting my committee a bit to reflect this new direction. I would like to meet with you in person, as I said, to talk about my new committee.



Once you meet, you can simply express your excitement for the new direction of your project, and your eagerness to work more closely with Professor Q.

“Because of all of this, I was really hoping that you would be willing to serve on my thesis/dissertation committee. My timeline is to take my preliminary exams next spring, and I hope that one of them could be with you on the subject of YYY. After that, I plan to get out my funding proposals in the Fall, do coursework and finish up my dissertation proposal in Spring, and leave for fieldwork the following Fall. I’m hoping that schedule is compatible with your plans for being on campus.

You’re going to be on leave in Spring? Well, would you be open to doing my proposal defense by Skype or conference call? I know that other students have done that with no problem.

Really? Great. I’m so glad. Thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to getting into this area in more detail with you. For now, if you have any readings you want me to start on right away, let me know.”

The power of this approach to Professor Q is that it expresses genuine enthusiasm for his area of specialization. It is also highly respectful of his time. And it shows consideration for his schedule. Few, very few, professors will be able to say no to a request like this.

I realize that not all communications with faculty will go this smoothly, and that sometimes professors are just plain difficult and unreasonable. But in general, if you can refrain from personalizing conflict, and stay at the level of academic pursuits, your efforts to navigate the minefield of reconstituting your committee has a fighting chance of ending well, with your reputation intact.

Good luck!

Humanities Graduate School: Go? Don’t Go? What’s a Would-Be Ph.D. To Do?

William Pannapacker has published, over the last several years, a number of widely influential pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, this past week, in Slate, criticizing the ethics and economics of graduate programs in the humanities. His most widely quoted take-away point, for would-be Ph.D. students, is: if you don’t have private funds to support you both during and after graduate school, just don’t go.

Why? Because the university economy, always precarious, has imploded.  Tenure track lines are being replaced at all levels with poorly compensated adjunct positions.  The hopes of Ph.D. students to live “the life of the mind” as a university professor–to have a life something like that of their advisor’s– have become vastly unrealistic.

And yet, Pannapacker argues, graduate programs each year take in cohort after cohort of new Ph.D. students to boost faculty egos, to maintain the prestige of the department as a “Ph.D.-granting program,” and to staff classes that faculty no longer teach. They admit these students with full knowledge that the vast majority of them will have no chance for regular academic employment (ie, with a liveable wage and benefits) after completion, but conceal this knowledge through a highly circumscribed advising ethos that focuses entirely on each student’s dissertation project, and what Pannapacker calls “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind.”

So year after year, cohort after cohort of Ph.D. students dedicate hour after hour to the research and writing of scholarly dissertation projects, struggling over minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, attempting to please their dissertation chair and committee, without being told the truth by anyone in the department: that for the vast majority of them, the hoped-for tangible gains from this exercise are unlikely to materialize. For many, the result of 10 years of time and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of expense is crushing debt and the systematic underemployment of adjuncting at $2000 or so a class. Some Ph.D.s marginally employed on the fringes of the academic system have ended up living on food stamps.

Meanwhile, the privileged tenured faculty ignore the wholesale disintegration of the academic economy, and their increasingly ethically untenable place within it, and label any less than optimally employed Ph.D. (ie, any not in tenure track positions), as a shameful “failure” who “never had what it takes.”

Pannapacker’s essays elicit a simply extraordinary amount of response from all sides.  He has clearly touched a nerve.  His Chronicle essays have prompted an outpouring of anguished stories from unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.s who thank him for telling the truth about their dismal experiences during and after their Ph.D.s, and leveling accusations at the departments that, they believe, systematically misled them. Writes one:  “We are supposed to love our intellectual labor enough to give it away whether we are paid to or not. The love is often there but it does not pay the bills. That tends to sour the relationship.” (mjelly33, Big Lie of the Life of the Mind, comment #5)

His pieces have also drawn outraged rebuttals from many who insist that all is well in the academy, or at least not as bad as he suggests.

The fiercest rebuttals seem to rest on one or more of the following arguments:

  • I got a Ph.D. and I am currently employed so there is no problem with the system.
  • I am getting a Ph.D. and I love it, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but I did not get the Ph.D. to be trained for a job, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but the opportunity to think great thoughts about the humanities is priceless, so there is no problem with the system.
  • The point of the humanities is to think great thoughts and any association with things as vulgar as jobs and salaries is unseemly.
  • I am a working class person, grad school is a better option than most others I had, and how dare Pannapacker or anybody tell me what I can and cannot do.

The only position among these with which I have sympathy is the last.  Personally, I appreciate Pannapacker’s use of overstatement to force his point.  But I also appreciate that it is not an optimal position, irony aside, to tell working class young people to abandon their goals, and to leave the world of humanistic inquiry to the elite (even acknowledging that Pannapacker comes from a working class background himself).  As a number of commentators have argued, graduate school with funding can be a responsible and considered financial choice, regardless of its future outcome, for those who may not enjoy a wide range of other options, or who are comfortable with financial risk.  I make the point elsewhere on this site, on the page “It’s OK to Quit,” that I don’t believe in telling someone to abandon their dreams just because their dreams are difficult or next to impossible to accomplish.

My position is, rather:  go in not just with “your eyes open” (as so many Ph.D. program apologists insist) but with a strategy and a game plan.  Calculate your chances from start to finish, and maximize them with strategic choices about *which* program, *how much* funding, *what* topic, *which* advisor, *how much* TA-ing, *how* to cut corners, *when* to be selfish, *where* to network, *how* to schmooze, *where* and *when* and *how often* to publish.  And so on.  Find the job ad for the type of position you want and make every decision based on reaching that goal.  Get out quickly.  Don’t count on your advisor.  Don’t fixate on the dissertation.  Protect yourself. Collect your own set of transferrable professional skills.

With this set of calculations, it may be possible to optimize the humanities graduate school experience to, at least, minimize risk of debt and maximize potential for employment.  I make no apology for this language. No one can change the world if they can’t afford food and health care.  That is the point of The Professor Is In.

But to return to Pannapacker: it is unfortunate that “just don’t go”–Pannapacker’s most incendiary claim–has become a red herring drawing attention away from the courageousness and power of his larger critique.  He is the first to speak the truth, in the baldest terms, without neo-marxist theoretical trappings or jargon, about the great hidden economy of the academy, and the studied silence–or in cases, sanctioned ignorance–of the professoriate that maintains it.

It is a dishonest and unethical system.  Not all faculty who operate within it are personally, individually, dishonest or unethical.  Many are sincere, and doing their best to advise their Ph.D.s.  Their best simply isn’t good enough.  No amount of advising about an intellectual project is good enough in the current economic conditions of the academy, in which Ph.D. students have become the serf labor of a stratified neo-feudal system that is maintained by an administrative elite, in which the professors themselves have little real power, except over their own students.

The solution is not for working class students to turn away.  The solution is for the professoriate to tell the goddamn truth.

The solution is for Ph.D. advisors to speak directly to the inequities and exploitations built directly into the reliance on teaching assistant and adjunct labor in their departments, and to the silences around the real potential for tenure track work for their graduates.  The solution is for the professoriate to admit that they too are increasingly disempowered “workers” who draw a wage, and to acknowledge and train their Ph.D. students as wage-earning workers as well.  The solution is for “employment skills training” to be made a central element of every responsible humanities graduate program in the country, by which I mean: training for both academic and non-academic employment.

Without Pannapacker, the shameful ethics of humanities graduate training would still be hidden behind a veil of bullshit.  The masturbatory bullshit of those professors who get off on the miniature stageshows of intellectual prowess that is Ph.D. advising.  The bullshit of departments and administrators who mouth the benefits of the life of the mind while running the university like a corporation.

How to Tell Your Department About a Family Crisis–A Special Request Post

Today’s post is requested by Shane.  Shane wishes to know about the etiquette for academic workers in vulnerable positions–particularly adjuncts–to inform their departments about family crises that might impact their work.  For example, if a parent is dying, how do you ask for time away from your class without adversely affecting your standing in the department.

Now, The Professor is all about telling the truth.  And that means I tell the truth when I’m not an expert on a subject.  I’m not an expert on this subject.  I was never in this particular vulnerable position.  So I welcome perspectives from anyone about this subject, and ask you to post freely in the comments.  I’d like to learn more.

As a department head, I did have to manage, on occasion, graduate teaching assistants who had to leave their positions in mid-semester because of family crises.  What I expected in that situation was an email followed by a personal meeting–both of them as far in advance as possible, to give me time to handle the staffing adjustments that had to take place.

The email should read something like this:

Dear Professor XXX,

I am teaching XXX this semester, and the class is going well.  I appreciate the opportunity to teach in the department.

Unfortunately, I am writing today because of an urgent issue that has arisen, that may impact the class.  It is a family issue, and I would appreciate meeting with you in person to discuss this at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you,


Prior to the meeting with the Head, it would be wise for the adjunct to make her best efforts to find a replacement herself for the class periods she is going to need to miss.  Anything she can accomplish to lessen the hassle for the Department Head to scramble around looking for a replacement mid-semester is going to endear her enormously to said Department Head.   It will build the good-will upon which you depend.  Be aware that the Head cannot, most likely, legally accept a kind offer of “volunteer labor” by the adjuncts’ friends in the department, beyond one or two class meetings.  Chances are, new contracts will have to be drawn up to account for the shifting assignments.  But the true hassle for the Head is in finding a warm body to put in front of the class.  If the adjunct can handle that part, she’s going to enjoy far better standing with the Head.

In the meeting with the Head, explain the circumstances as calmly and unemotionally and BRIEFLY as possible, and explain what exactly you need.  Apologize ONE TIME only –“I’m so sorry to cause this inconvenience to the department mid-semester” and do not apologize again.  Thank the Head for any accomodation possible.  And then leave.   Follow up with an email thanking the Head again, and communicating your exact departure date, etc.

I cannot anticipate how humane and flexible your particular Head or Chair will be.  I know that I always worked with my TAs to accomodate their personal family needs.

The point I want to emphasize in this post is this:  do not grovel!  do not be a supplicant!  do not walk in apologize up and down and sideways for how “unprofessional” and “inconvenient” your request is, and “what an imposition” you are causing for the department, and to “please forgive” this hassle.  You are a human being and you and your needs are entitled to respect!

Women—hear me now!  The more you demand this respect, the more you will get it.  EVEN when you’re in a marginal status.  The fact is, if you act like a supplicant, you’ll be treated like a supplicant, and disrespected.  Walk in with healthy self-respect, and the Head will likely “stand down” and stop with (or at least modulate) the attitude.

At the risk of totally unacceptable over-generalizaton, WOMEN DON’T SEEM TO GET THIS.   Women graduate students and young faculty, in my experience, seem to think that if they just apologize enough, they’ll play on their superior’s emotions to be given special dispensation to slip by unnoticed.  NO!  It’s the opposite!  The more you apologize, the more you irritate the person in charge.  You are wasting their precious time. Stop apologizing and stand up for yourself and your needs.

In summary:  Be quick to anticipate the problem.  Do not wait until the last minute, if it’s a crisis that can anticipated (understanding that not all can), schedule the meeting early, take the steps in your power to solve the Head’s problem yourself, be courteous and brief, do not apologize more than once, and follow up with a clear statement of your plans.

With these steps, you maximize your chances for a humane and positive interaction with the department.
Now, readers—let me know about your experiences.  I’d like to hear them.

What Not to Wear, Assistant Professor Edition: Fashion for the Academic Set

(Thursday Post Category–Here’s How You Get Tenure)

Egged on by the redoubtable Martina of TheLifeAcademic, I have agreed to do a series of posts on What Not To Wear (Campus Edition).  She is on a mission to de-depress academic fashion, and this is a mission that I completely endorse.  Just because we’re smart doesn’t mean we have to be dreary.

Readers, dress better!  “Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”

Seriously, you’ll be amazed at the boost this gives to your confidence. And the impact it has on the way you’re treated by students and colleagues.

There will be five posts in the series.

  • Grad school
  • Job market
  • Assistant professor
  • Conference
  • For the guys

And yes, these posts, except for the last, are directed toward women who present conventionally as women.  I am not offering a post for butch dykes, although being a loyal femme fan of butch dykes, I’d be happy to (please email at to request).  And men just have less scope for error than women, and so they only get one post.  Sad but true, women need more advising on this subject.

Today, Assistant Professor Edition.

Now to be perfectly honest, most assistant professors I have known have not dressed badly.  That doesn’t mean they’ve dressed well.  But they haven’t done anything sartorially that might actually destroy their chances for continued employment.   The same cannot be said for job candidates.

So for today, I’m not going to make the sweeping critical judgments reserved for job candidates in my forthcoming “Job Market Edition.”  I’m simply going to move top to bottom, from hair to shoes.  I am channeling Stacy, and I make no apology about that.  You may disagree, but you will not change my mind.

Hair:  It is not illegal for an assistant professor to have a trendy haircut.  Ditch the ponytail.  Reject the pageboy (of any length). Show that you ARE All That.  Spend the money on yourself to look good.  Find the hottest hair salon in your town, and become a regular.  You will be astounded at what a good haircut does for your confidence.  If you do nothing else from this post, do this.  Don’t know how to find the hottest hair salon?  Go to the hottest coffeeshop, find the barista with the coolest haircut (male or female, it matters not), and ask them where they got it.

Skin and Makeup:  I like makeup. Not everyone does.  It’s optional, of course. If you go for it, and I think you should, let’s lean away from Wet N’ Wild and more toward L’Oreal and Revlon.  No need to go into the overpriced department store brands at this stage in your career.  I like Revlon Colorstay because I put it on in the morning and don’t have to think about it again.  I recently discovered that lip stain makes a killer all-day blush.

Even if you don’t wear makeup, take care of your skin.  It’s your largest organ!  It deserves care!  Use a toner and moisturizer. They feel good and make a difference.Do the occasional clay mask.  Cheap ones are fine.  I like organics, myself.

Jewelry:  Wear conservative jewelry to job talks.  You may wear conspicuous jewelry at large conferences.  In your daily life in the department, aim for the middle.  Beware of jangling bracelets.

Tops:  Take out your tops and look at them them.  Are they stained?  Get them cleaned or throw them out.  Are they ripped?  Fix them or throw them out.  We notice.  Your students notice.  Please.

Iron your shirts. I know there’s no time. But iron your shirts.

Your blouse must button completely over the girls.  There must be no gapping of any kind.  Wearing a camisole underneath the gapping blouse is not an acceptable solution.  Your breasts must be, as Clinton says, locked and loaded, and covered in their entirety by your clothing.   Cleavage and bra straps are unacceptable in any academic setting. Leave the hooker-wear to the undergraduates.  Choose tops that don’t have to be tugged at to preserve modesty.  Aside from these two rules, wear what you want.  Take chances.  Be visible!  And your students will love you, simply love you, for any effort you make to stay current.  And wear colors, I beg you.  Black doesn’t make you smarter.

Addendum:  Readers have asked what to do when you’re really busty and blouses just don’t work.  I am not unfamiliar with this problem.  Pullover tops with some embellishment are good.

On a related note, the fitted jacket is the assistant professor’s best friend.  The best current fitted jackets look hip and professional.  Have jackets in many colors.  At TPII we disapprove of matchy-matchy for daily wear–but jackets can be combined with any skirts or pants in your wardrobe.  Here are a few cute ones, from the Boden website.  But DON’T buy jackets online! The fit is too tricky. See below.

From Boden USA
From Boden USA
From Boden USA
From Boden USA

***Be Aware:  Jackets are hard to fit!.  The best and most expensive jacket will not do its magic if it doesn’t fit YOUR body.  And a badly fitting jacket will look the opposite of good.  Jacket shopping can be grueling, like swimsuits.   Put in the time.  It’s worth it.  The time you spend in the stores you’ll more than save in the mornings when you’re rushing out the door for the 8 AM class.

Bottoms: Pants or skirt?  The perennial question.  I don’t think it matters.  You must be comfortable.  Just leave behind the trailing earthmother skirts you wore in graduate school.  You are a young professional. You have to look like one.  Old-timers bewail the homogenization of the assistant professoriate, in their sea of dull grey suits.  Nevertheless, own a grey suit.  Just make it really, really stylish grey suit.  And wear it with killer shoes.

Shoes: You don’t need to wear heels if you don’t usually.  Flats or even better, flat-heeled boots (ankle boots or knee-height) are great. If you do like heels, for the job interview, wear a heel between 1 and 3 inches.  I don’t recommend flats because, frankly, you need the height.  Above 3 inches, and you’re tottering.  I wear this kind of heel every day, but that’s me.  I like heels.  Avoid stillettos and kitten heels–they stick in sidewalk cracks and trip you.  The round or square toe and a stacked heel keeps you safe from falling over as you approach the podium.  Beyond these rules, express yourself.  Have the hippest shoes that you can pull off.  They give you mystique.  They say, “I’m brilliant AND I’m cool.”

Your Briefcase: You’re not still using a backpack because that would be sad.  You bike to work?  Of course you have a messenger bag.  Now take out your briefcase and look at it.  Is it stained?  Is it ripped?  Is it canvas?  Throw it out and go buy yourself a high quality, stylish leather or microfiber briefcase, preferably black, but there’s some give on that one.  If you want a limited edition graphic designer item, go for it.  It’ll add to your mystique:  “Oh this?  It’s from London, so, yeah….”

How to afford all this on an assistant professor’s salary? Second hand boutiques.  Any college town worth its salt will have at least one and probably a handful of high quality second hand women’s clothing boutiques.  Shop at these, and you can cover 75% of your clothing needs.  True, you’re buying your undergraduates’ cast-offs, and have to hate your life to some extent. But, whatever. I didn’t buy new clothes until after I was tenured.

Why do all this? Because image matters.  And because you’ll feel better.  And when you feel better, you perform better.  Don’t believe me?  Try it out for a month, and find out for yourself.

“Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”

Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part Two

(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Last Tuesday I wrote Part 1 of “Using Rage to Stay Motivated,” a Special Request post for Allen.  He asked how to stay motivated while writing his thesis.  Staying motivated through the long years of work on a thesis or doctoral dissertation is one of the greatest challenges of the academic career.  I always think of the thesis writing stage as in some ways the nadir of the process, because you feel at your most vulnerable—is what I’m writing good enough?  Will it even be accepted and passed by my committee? You may have many challenges later in your academic career, but rarely will you be operating from such a position of fear.

Last week I wrote about using personal rage to stay motivated.  For many of us, rage about our topics gets us up in the mornings and keeps us awake late at nights.  It inspires.  It energizes.  It motivates.  And that’s a good thing.  If you’re angry about your topic (global warming, cancer, racism, homophobia), use that rage, harness it, channel it and be powerful.  Yes, in academia you have to translate rage into scholarly prose.  You can’t say “I’m outraged” directly.  But believe me, your message comes through loud and clear.

But what about those who do not have personally enraging topics?  What if your thesis topic seems neutral, and benign?  Two things.  First off, not to beat a dead horse, but do take a moment to ask yourself—why are you really, REALLY writing this dissertation?  What do you want to prove?  Is there a voice in your head that you’re in a battle with?  In many academic cases, there is, but it’s unacknowledged.  Academics are, as I said last week, a timid lot, generally afraid of high emotion.  Make sure you’re giving your emotions their due.  You might actually be really angry about something—and far better you KNOW and acknowledge that, then keep it repressed and have it come out in all of the multitude of self-defeating, self-sabotaging ways that angry young academics have to stifle their own voices, creativity and careers.

But let’s assume you did that, and you really aren’t angry about your topic per se, or about any individual connected to your topic.  There is still a way to use rage to stay motivated.  This is scholarly rage.

Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey.  You are the hero.  The topic is the field of battle.  The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship.  And your enemies?  The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas.

You must save the day.  You must uphold the standard of truth.  It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.

Create the scene–in words, in pictures, in diagrams–of this battlefield.  Who are the scholars who have not properly accounted for xxx?  Who are the scholars who have neglected xxx?  Why did they do so?  What were the stakes?  Above all, what was their agenda?   And what knowledge, what advances, have failed to materialize because the populace has uncritically accepted their views?

Now, how will you save the day?

How have you seen the previously unseen, recognized the previously unrecognized, given visibility to the previously neglected?  Why are you doing so?  What are the stakes?  What is your agenda?

If you really care about your topic— and most of you do or you wouldn’t be engaged in this madness called a doctoral dissertation— this battle is already raging in your head.  You just may not have identified it as such.  Your power, though, your motivation, lies in bringing it into the open.  Be angry that scholars haven’t seen what you see!  Be angry that it has fallen to you to reveal the truth about this subject!  Be angry that others will resist your claims!  Be angry that your advisor doesn’t “get it.”

And then channel that anger into writing.  Write more.  Write better.  If people say to you, “I still don’t get it,” don’t just passive aggressively claim they’ve “missed the point.”  Explain your point better!  Go back to the drawing board!  It’s proof you’re not there yet!  It’s your job to make sure people get it.  Do the work.  Get it done.

We wouldn’t be doing this thing called scholarship if we didn’t believe the stakes are critical.  Now get in there and fight for them.

How to Write an Email to a Potential Ph.D. Advisor/Professor

Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post! 

Grad School Application Guidance Package and other help listed below the post.

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to write an email to contact a professor to serve as a potential Ph.D. or graduate school advisor.  This can be a minefield.  Yet the email inquiry to a potential advisor is one of the most important steps in your entire graduate school process, in that it is your chance to make a first impression on the person who will dictate many elements of your life for the next five to ten years.

I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May.  I have a [4.0 GPA] and experience in our college’s [summer program in xxx/internship program in xxx/Honors College/etc.].

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.  My specific project will likely focus on xxxx, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of xxxxx.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans?  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,



Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!




Buy Now

Encapsulates all of the advice that we provide in our graduate school advising services, including:

1. General instructions and overview of the function and “best practices” of an initial query email to someone you hope to work with

2. A template for what an email like that should look like

3. A sample email to a business school prospective advisor

4. A sample email to a comparative literature prospective advisor

5. A sample email to a computer science prospective advisor.

Buy Now




Here’s What Goes in Your Tenure Portfolio–A Special Request Post

(Thursday Post Category—Here’s How You Get Tenure)

This is a Special Request Post for Joan.  She wishes to know how to create a tenure portfolio.

While every tenure process differs slightly by campus, and you should confirm all expectations with your department chair in your first year and annually afterward, by and large your tenure dossier consists of 7 elements:

1.  Your c.v. in correct tenure format

2. Your publications

3. Your teaching portfolio

4. Your tenure statement

5. Grants and awards

6. Evidence of service

7. Your external review letters


These documents will be reviewed by your tenure committee, and department head.  The department head will transform the portfolio of materials into a lengthy tenure report on your case, which, with your external letters and some substantiating materials about teaching, will advance to the associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  Ultimately your successful tenure will be approved by the Provost (or equivalent).  Here is what each of these elements includes:

Your C.V. in Correct Format

Most institutions require a tenure c.v. to adhere to very strict guidelines.  One of the elements of this is the marking of every publication as “peer-reviewed” “invited” “highly selective” etc., as well as strictly clarifying if the publication is published, in press, accepted, in revise and resubmit stage, or merely submitted.   The c.v. format is meant to prevent “padding” and “obfuscation.”

Your Publications

All articles, books, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other items written by you.  Whether your institution considers online writing such as blogs relevant to tenure is something you must discuss well in advance with your Head/Chair.  This will also include reviews of your major works, as in reviews of your book in major journals.  Some institutions may require evidence of citation of your work.

Your Teaching Portfolio

Your teaching statement/teaching philosophy, your student evaluations, all of your syllabi, some major assignments or projects from your classes, peer reviews of your teaching by colleagues, examples of teaching skill development through your campus’s Teaching Effectiveness Center (will have a different name on every campus).  Will also include a list of your graduate student advisees and their status, and the committees on which you are a member.  Also special intiatives and teaching to undergraduates, such as independent studies.

Your Tenure Statement

This is your own reflection on your research, teaching, and service, past, present and future.  There are usually word limits and formatting requirements.  Disregard these at your peril.  It is typically approximately 5 pages long, single-spaced, and if at a typical R1, devotes 60% of its length to research, 30% to teaching, and 10% to service. Your percentages should reflect the norms of your institution and position, and so may weight teaching and service more heavily. (We will discuss the elements of an effective tenure statement in another post).  It must primarily encapsulate your research accomplishments, contributions, and trajectory from past to future (a substantial second, post-tenure project is a key–but often overlooked–element of this statement) in language that can be comprehended by an interdisciplinary higher level committee from across the campus—ie, that can very well include faculty from biology, physics, English, cinema studies, economics, agricultural sciences, anthropology and French, all on one committee.  In short, this piece of writing must make the case for your brilliance and productivity without using any field-specific jargon.

Grants and Awards

Evidence of monetary grants you received both large and small.  This may include the proposals you wrote to apply successfully for the grants and the letters awarding you the grants.  Both small on-campus grants and large multi-year grants should be included. Also includes non-monetary awards you received, such as best journal article in xx field by a junior scholar (this would also be in the Publications file), outstanding teacher awards, best undergraduate mentor award, etc.

Evidence of Service

Letters documenting your service on any department and campus committees and collectivities, such gender and equity committee, curriculum committee, faculty senate, search committees, tenure committees, etc. Also includes evidence of service to your discipline, such as manuscript reviews for refereed journals, grant proposal reviews, etc.  Also includes outreach initiatives you might have pursued to the community, local schools and organizations, and media coverage of your research, etc.

Your External Review Letters

These are the 5-6 letters obtained by the department head/chair from illustrious senior scholars in your field/s. These individuals will have read a selection of your publications, and your tenure statement, over the previous summer, and will compose a lengthy single-spaced letter evaluating your work, its quantity, its pace, its import and originality, its impact on the field, and its likelihood to make you a leader in the field in the coming years.  They will be asked, specifically “Would this candidate receive tenure at your institution,” which can make for some interesting language when the letter writers are Ivy League and are thinking “no” but have to write “yes.” The biggest risk is usually slightly less then completely effusive language, as even a phrase that even implies a question will be scrutinized intensively by the tenure committee, department head, associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  However, the department head, in their larger statement of support for tenure, provides the summary and context of the letters and can often minimize any damage.  Letter writers fully understand the stakes of tenure review.  The norm is that anyone who is not fully supportive will not agree to write a letter in the first place.  Few, few scholars make it their business to sabotage a junior colleague’s career and life. Of course it does happen, but rarely, very rarely.


Effective and organized departments will require you to create a dossier in your first year in the form of a binder or a box of files, and expect you to add these documents to it on a monthly or semester-ly basis.

Disorganized departments will find the secretary frantically calling to ask why your dossier isn’t ready when your tenure committee is scheduling its first meeting and the chair/head is on the verge of sending out her requests for letters to external reviewers.

Protect yourself, and keep good files.  Keep every scrap of paper that crosses your desk thanking you for sitting on x committee, or congratulating you for winning that $250 for your media literacy initiative.  Collect copies of not just your major publications, but the book reviews that you write, and every small publication that you produce, as well as published reviews of your work.  Ana Salter has a great ProfHacker post that discusses the digital aspects of this.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR MEMORY.  In year 5 you will have forgotten the 3 independent studies with undergraduates you (foolishly) agreed to do in your first term.  You will have forgotten that you served as an external reviewer for a minor  journal in your field.  You will have forgotten that you served on the grievance committee in  your 2nd and 3rd year, mostly because the committee never once convened.

You are your own advocate. Noone else has your back.  The responsibility for protecting yourself and your tenure case lies with you. Besides productivity, organization is your best friend.

Do you have any questions about all of this?  Please put them in comments below, and I will answer each and every one.

Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part 1–A Special Request Post

This is a post originally published in July 2011.


[This post, parts one and two, is for Allen.  Allen asks for advice on staying motivated as he completes his thesis.

I have been thinking about this since he asked.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only write about what has kept me motivated in my writing.  There are many excellent sources for writing advice, which cover writing methods and ways to get through writer’s block and “the slump.” These are often useful.  One piece of such advice was certainly valid for my own dissertation and book experience:  write every day, even if only 100 words.

But, this advice is about writing, not about motivation.  And about motivation, well, I only know what worked for me.


Rage motivated me.  It motivated me all the way through my dissertation, and it motivated me all the way through my book. Losing connection to my rage (scholarly rage—I was overflowing with other kinds!) played a large role in my ceasing to write and publish.  Getting back in touch with my rage has fueled the writing of this blog.

So how is rage a motivator?

Two ways.  The first is personal, the second is scholarly.

Today, in Part One, I will discuss Personal Rage, and its connection to academic motivation.  Next Tuesday, in Part Two, I will discuss Scholarly Rage.

Those of you who read my bio know that I did not apply or win funding to graduate school to study Japanese women who picked up white guys on the beach.  No, I had a “proper” research subject.  But things changed almost as soon as I arrived at the University of Hawai’i, moved in to the East West Center,  met the Japanese man who would eventually become my ex-husband, and took up surfing.

As the white girlfriend/fiance/wife of a Japanese man, in Hawai’i in the early 1990s, I was something of a joke.  At that time, Asian men were the universal laughingstocks of the American sexual hierarchy.  Where Asian women were reaching a height of fetishized glory as the ideal partners of white men, Asian men were objects of mockery. Things have changed a lot in the intervening years, and now the sight of a white female-Asian male couple is not that jarring.  But it is hard to overstate the dismissive looks and rude comments that my then-husband and I received in those years, on a campus and in an environment that was absolutely dominated by Asian female-white male couples.

Simultaneously, in the course of my surfing at sunset, I had discovered the pick-up scene in Waikiki between Japanese women tourists and local (mostly) white guys.  I started doing interviews and fieldwork, wrote a seminar paper on it, and began to understand it as the tip of a much larger iceberg of discourses of desire (as I called them) produced by Japanese women, in Japanese, about a white male fetishized imaginary.  I was intrigued, and decided to make it the topic of my Masters thesis, which developed into a doctoral dissertation on the white man as fetish object in Japan.  Over the next several years I interviewed a large number of Japanese women and white men in Hawai’i and Japan on what I called the interracial erotic imaginary.

And thus, the origin of my rage.  My status as a white woman married to a Japanese man was under constant attack, both directly and indirectly, in my research.  The narratives of my Japanese female and white male subjects were fairly simple at their root:  the Japanese women I interviewed held that it was “obvious” that white men were “better” than Japanese men.  And the white men held that it was “obvious” that Japanese women were “better” than white women.  They didn’t just state these truths, they took these truths to be self-evident, organized their lives around them, lived exclusively among others who shared them, and never considered the possibility of any contradiction.

The upshot of this was that both I and my then-husband were overtly, unapologetically dissed, at every turn, in my dissertation research.  This would make a body angry.

Rage got me out of bed in the morning.  Rage kept me in front of the computer.   Rage illuminated, shall we say, my relationship with my advisor, a Japanese women whose husband was white.

I’m not saying this is healthy, by the way. I had to go into therapy to deal with my rage, ultimately.  But I sure was motivated.  I got that thing DONE.  I got it funded.  I got it published.  I got it presented.  I was on a fucking mission.  I’ve never been so motivated.  I was so motivated I, the ultimate night owl, got up every morning at 5 AM, as an assistant professor, to fit in 2 hours of writing time on my book before my new baby woke up.

So, aside from a possibly interesting story, what is the takeaway message here?

I’ll tell you a truth rarely acknowledged in academic circles.  Rage fuels a LOT of research.

Granted, most people aren’t being systematically insulted by their own ethnographic informants.

But people who work on the environment?  on cancer?  on sustainable energy? on extinctions? on threatened languages?  on the fraying social fabric?  on the decaying school system? on neoliberal capital?  on war crimes?  on violence against women?  on homophobia?

Rage.  It is rage that fuels this work.  A righteous rage.  A good rage.

Academics are generally a timid lot, and tend to fear and reject intense emotion.  Your rage might frighten your advisor, and you might have to keep it quiet.  My rage profoundly offended my advisor, to the extent that by the end she sought to negate my work as “polemic” (it wasn’t) and prevent me from being awarded my Ph.D.

You can’t generally speak or write overtly from the place of rage as long as you write in academic genres.  It has to be sublimated to some degree.  That’s just the way it is in academia.  I do not ascribe to the belief that that means the academic system is completely oppressive.  It’s just academic. Academic inquiry strives to attain perspective and a certain degree of generalizability. It is not meant to be polemic.  That is a different genre.  Analysis requires a certain distance and coolness to be analytical.

But that can be a white heat.  A calm at the center of the storm.  You don’t have to write, “I am angry!” to allow your anger to expose lies, injustices, and truths.  Your emotions, your rage, are the source of your power.   If you channel them, they produce earth-shattering results.

So allow your rage, if you feel it about your subject of study, to motivate you. Don’t suppress it. Just channel it. Learn when and where and how to express it. Of course it’s frustrating when others don’t share your rage. But let that frustration fuel you further, to try and persuade them. Or failing that, to expose them! Just always be the manager of your rage, so that it serves you, rather than you serving it.

Now, I am aware that many in academia are working on projects that really aren’t motivated by a personal rage per se.  And that’s fine.  In Part Two, I will discuss the second way that rage can keep you motivated, even when your project itself is calmly benign.

But before I sign off, I’d like to ask—do you have any stories of rage fueling your research and writing? Did you ever feel like your rage got you into trouble in your academic career?  I would love to hear your experiences.

Getting Schooled for My Sexism

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in the Academy)

When I was a brand new assistant professor, the chair of my department put me in charge of the department’s speaker series.

This was actually a good thing.  Being in charge of conceptualizing and executing an innovative speaker series, and inviting senior scholars from around the country to our university, was invaluable opportunity to extend my own professional reach in the field, and around the campus.

I got to be on a first-name basis with many senior scholars in my discipline, and I learned how to find the on-campus funding for things I wanted to do.

But that doesn’t mean it all went smoothly.  I was barely out of my Ph.D. and had no idea how to interact as a colleague with the illustrious scholars I invited.

One lesson stands out.  I was on about my third guest (the schedule was about one per month).  She was a Berkeley senior professor of archaeology,  well known to my archaeology colleagues, and highly influential in the field.  Meeting her at the department on the morning of her talk, I told her that I’d arranged a “pizza lunch” for her to meet with the graduate students in the department.

She looked at me quizzically.  “Do you arrange a pizza lunch with graduate students for all of your visitors?” she asked.  I stopped, and thought.  “No, you’re the first one.”  “Am I your first female visitor?” she continued.  “Yeees,” I said, sensing danger.  “Yes,” she replied, “I thought as much.”  She continued, not unkindly, “Let me give you a little heads up.  I’ll do the pizza lunch, no problem. It’s not a bad thing. But I want you to be aware.  Aware that women scholars are routinely asked to do things like this — meet the grad students, be accessible, be a role model, do a little “extra” teaching — wherever they go.  And male scholars are not.  Be aware that you simply *assumed* I’d be ok with this kind of thing and scheduled it without checking first.  Be aware that you did not make that assumption with the male scholars you invited.”

I gulped.  Blushed.  Stammered.  She was a famous scholar, a terrific person, and an honored guest.  And I’d fucked up.

She looked at me kindly. “It’s ok,” she said. “I understand.  I know you didn’t *intend* that.  But you did it.  Just be aware.”

I’d been SCHOOLED.  Schooled in my own internalized sexism.  And I was a young feminist scholar.  Shit.

I never forgot what she said.  I was aware.  I made a point to start noticing what women and men were expected to do in the academy, and what that meant for their time, their reputation, their stature.

I started noticing how women were assumed to be available, to be nurturing, to take time, to take on service tasks.  I noticed that women had trouble saying no, and ended up shouldering an enormous burden of the responsibility for keeping the graduate students “cared for” and the department running.  While men blithely cruised in and out, keeping their office doors closed, “too busy” to be bothered.

I’ve tried to mentor women undergraduates, grad students, and junior faculty to recognize and resist the call of “doing more” and “pitching in” and “helping out.”  I’ve tried to teach them the virtues of selfishness. But I wonder….  does the message get through?  Or do they just have to be schooled themselves, like me, the hard way?