The Problem with my Analogy

I have listened to the responses to my post on Tenured Privilege, and I am sorry for the upset and harm that my post caused.  It goes without saying that my intention was not to make light of racism or appropriate it through analogy but to identify the operations of power around privilege. However, asking for a focus on my quote-unquote good intentions is one of the most time-honored of #nopologetics tactics, and having articulated those intentions, I am not asking for the focus to be on them.  The reactions to my post from many corners–particularly TressieMC, Roopika Risam, and Brittney Cooper– show me the limits of analogy as argument, particularly with respect to race.  As Brittney Cooper pointed out on Twitter, the problem in my post is that racism is “marshalled as a discursive vehicle” to move a “bigger” point.  Putting race and racism in the service of the so-called larger concerns as articulated by a white person is indeed another permutation of racism.  So, I hear my critics, and I am sorry.

I know that academic spaces are deeply inflected by structural racism.  A thorough and responsible discussion of race and tenure must also include the fact of racism in sustaining tenure itself, with a particular focus on the racism of the tenured, and the structural racism of the institutions that confer tenure. This piece,  to which I was directed by Jonathan W. Gray, shows us some of the ways this racism operates.

I want to affirm that I still strongly believe in the point of my post, that hierarchical power within academia breeds privilege and blindness to the urgent conditions in which graduate students and adjuncts work, and that the onus is on tenured faculty to recognize that privilege, along with its implication in broader questions of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.  I hope that the critique of racism in this case will not operate to excuse tenured readers from critically examining their own practices with regard to adjuncts or to the graduate training that produces them.  This is an intervention that needs to happen decisively and soon, regardless of any failures on my part in urging it. But let me reiterate my regret at using an analogy to make my point which was in itself another example of white privilege.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The Problem with my Analogy — 16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Dude, Where’s The Race in Your Class Analysis of HigherEd? | tressiemc

  2. I can see your point here, but I suspect your opening paragraph has it right as to what the problem was with your post: that it could be read as subordinating race to a larger issue.

    The thing that I took away from your post, and that I thought Roopika pointed out when she first tweeted it, however, was not that you were making light of racism or appropriating it for a different point, but rather that you were using rhetorical analysis that initially came out of the study of racism to point out common moves being used by a member of a privileged group to counter the complaints of a less privileged group. And in that I thought you were spot on.

    Perhaps, as some said on Twitter, it might have been better to emphasis the extent to which you were not comparing things or making an analogy but borrowing a type of analysis (something that has happened repeatedly and fruitfully over the years between feminism, queer studies, post colonialism, and other focusses). That might have been better both because it would have avoided any implication that Tenured Radical was in same way a racist or had a similar conscious attitude towards adjuncts and graduate students as well as avoiding any implication that you were attempting to appropriate racism in this debate–or in other words, avoiding an implicit argumentum ad hitlerem-style problem, except with race.

    But that doesn’t mean that your analysis of the power dynamics going on in the discussion was not necessary or useful. TR herself repeatedly expressed surprise at the vehemence with which she was being repudiated in her comments and I think your column explained why: although I’m sure it was inadvertent, her rhetoric did very strongly mirror the stereotypical responses we see from members of a privileged group when that privilege is attacked. You drew your analysis from discussions of white privilege. But similar rhetoric is found in discussions of class and occupation throughout time. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century discussions of the place of servants, for example. Or, I’d argue, medieval, post-plague discussions of social mobility.

    So, good of you to apologise directly and immediately for something that may have come out too strong. But I think your general rhetorical point is still valuable and useful.

      • Your analysis isn’t wrong, although the emphasis is somewhat misplaced. First, higher education in the U.S. (and elsewhere) does indeed need to be understood as part of a larger system, which you accurately described as “corporatized.” The reason tenured faculty do not “rally to the cause of the disenfranchised,” as you expressed it, is precisely because they are privileged. As Holly Sklar and others have explained, the overall trend of corporate capitalism is toward “proletarianization” of previously semi-autonomous professionals, so tenured faculty are more interested in identifying with the power structure, and maintaining their privilege. They don’t want to be “proletarianized,” which is what identification with the “disenfranchised” would mean.

        Perhaps a better analogy might show tenured faculty as bought into the power structure like the white minority in South Africa, as depicted in the current movie Mandela. The only reason whites came to support a black majority taking power was because they ultimately recognized their own apartheid system had become untenable. It was either change, or get wiped out.

        I’m hoping tenured faculty will come to a similar realization before conditions reach such a point, but I wouldn’t count on it. I’ve argued for decades that tenured faculty need to forge alliances with not only adjuncts, but with staff, students, and a community base. Even among the faculty union, which ought to be something of an enlightened vanguard, such an argument goes virtually nowhere. Again, and I dislike saying it, maybe conditions have not yet sufficiently matured for such analysis to take root.

  3. Every time I read something like this I thank God that I work in Africa and not the US. Racial discrimination is not about discourse. It is about denying equality particularly in the realm of rights to different groups of people based upon their ancestry. That is racial discrimination is practice not discourse.

  4. I think this analogy is apt, especially in terms of the language of denial. However, I would suggest that a more telling analogy would be to the social structure of the Post-Reconstruction South. In that era, racism was part of the mechanism, but was encouraged by the white oligarchy, in order to convince poor whites that their interests were more closely aligned with the oligarchy than with the recently-freed blacks.
    In the case of modern academia, the most calculating “racists” are not the tenure-related faculty (TTF) and especially not the not-yet-untenured TTF; these are analogous to the middle class and poor whites of the post-bellum South, who were (and are) made to feel superior to black freemen (in this case, the non-tenure-track faculty, or NTTF) by the white oligarchy, a position (in this case) occupied by administrators, many of whom enjoy the security of a tenured position, but who perform no teaching or actual service duties. While in earlier eras these administrators were often senior scholars, increasingly, it seems they have few scholarly achievements or commitment to the “Life of the Mind,” and often seem to have been awarded tenure itself as a result of service as opposed to scholarship, much less teaching. At this point they form a class protected by tenure but paid in accordance with a very different scale than even most full professors, and often migrate from institution to institution, with departmental tenure being part of the hiring package.
    The critical decisions about how many courses should be taught by TTF and NTTF—and the pay scales for both—and the ability of untenured TTF to become tenured is ultimately controlled not by faculty, but by administrators. Those same administrators control the ability of senior TTF to enter the oligarchy, usually with a substantial increase in salary and with no loss in security—a “fired” administrator reverts to his or her faculty status, usually with the salary increase intact.
    The relevant comparisons are not just the NTTF/TTF faculty ratio, but also the NTTF/un-tenured TTF ratio, the TTF/administrator ratio and the administrator/student ratio. These ratios to have evaluated not in terms of by raw numbers (although that alone is telling) but in terms of salary and power… Over the last two decades the faculty (TTF and NTFF) has lost both wealth and power not to a shrinkage in numbers but to as shift in wealth and power from the faculty to the administration. The ultimate losers have been students, especially graduate students, who are trained to think like adjuncts by being awarded Graduate Teaching Fellowships, but who are increasingly denied entry into the TTF ranks due to the increase NTTF hires. One could easily extend the analogy to the concepts of share-cropping and the convict-lease system of the Post-Reconstruction South.
    For these reasons, it seems to me an analogy involving post-1960s America is less precise than an analogy involving the South in the Redemption Era.

  5. Karen, an apology for an analogy that ends with use of the very same analogy is no apology, only a reiteratance of the same arrogance of identity and position – as justified by its same positional, non-inclusive, observation. THESE same motivating factors, alone, are the elements I believe You were trying to exemplify with your analogy in the first place. The used analogy failed because any elitist behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with ANY specific skin color (any more than any other physical characteristic) that may be situationally evident in the self-aggrandizing authority in question at any particular time and place of the offending ‘non-inclusive’ stance being taken. Maybe a closer analogy is that ALL such ‘offenses’ are based only on the egoistic arrogance (the exclusive identity) of the offerer. Essentially, in your apology, you have demonstrated the very principle you are objecting to, while remaining unaware of your insensitive (racist, even though unintended) behavior, owing to the fact that ALL of us can NEVER be aware of what exists outside our position, when we are only looking from within this position. The greater awareness only becomes apparent upon the inclusion of our own ‘contestants’. I live with these same difficult tendencies, and have to be vigilant in remaining open to protestations arising around me. Hopefully, I have communicated these observations with the least amount of offense possible. If they have not served in opening the awareness to our own inherent tendency toward ‘non-inclusiveness’, then I have failed in my intent. In any case I wish You well, and Thank You for speaking up as things are becoming more apparent that can be improved with a little ‘tooling’. Respectfully yours, Darshan

  6. This was a relief to read because while I thought you made some really good points in your earlier post I too was pretty uncomfortable with the analogy to racism. It’s so weirdly rare to see just a straight-up apology in blogging rather than a “sorry you felt that way” or “here’s a redirect! let’s talk about the ways I can construe my critics as wrong rather than saying I got something wrong!” — too late for TR, but boy could she have benefitted from taking a page from the handy dandy “hey I messed up” book that you are using here 🙂

    Talking about grad programs and the responsibilities of tenured faculty, I’m using my real name here, to “out” myself about something I’ve never before had the nerve to write about publicly. I’m a tenured assoc prof at an R1, and haven’t seen anyone else writing (perhaps they have, and I have missed it) about the way that you can’t really advance to full prof without sacrificing a few doctoral lambs along the way.

    When I was untenured, I turned away several potential grad students because they seemed to me underprepared in some way, or else encouraged them to apply elsewhere to programs that I thought would be stronger than ours for their interests. This seemed to me particularly important for PhD applicants, where the consequences of being either a marginal student or getting a degree from the wrong program could be disastrous.

    In the case of underprepared students, I typically didn’t say “I think you are underprepared”; I said — thinking I was being tactful — “hmm, I’m not sure I’m the best match, but perhaps contact my colleague x or y”. I thought my colleagues would turn them down as well, and they’d sort of get the hint that way. To my surprise, these colleagues more often than not encouraged the applications and ended up supervising the students in question.

    I found this truly puzzling until I crossed the tenure line. As an untenured faculty member, I was protected from any sort of pressure to supervise grad students: what I did then (supervise MAs, serve on committees of students of colleagues, or in other departments) was good enough at that level. Since earning tenure, however, the feedback has become pretty relentless: I have to bring in grad students, and in particular, if I hope to advance to full down the road, I have to produce some PhDs.

    I haven’t had tenure for long, but I have started to think about what it will mean to hold the line down the road. There are my own career prospects. And there are also social dimensions. As it stands, to be a professor who doesn’t “attract” grad students is to be held in mild disdain by colleagues who have lots of students and more departmental presence as a result.

    To speak out as being *against* the recruitment of grad students would necessitate specifying my reasons — which would more or less amount to an attack on the ethics of my faculty colleagues and on the preparedness and potential of many of our department’s current graduate students. It would also be to stab the department in the back for purposes of resource allocation within the university itself, as other departments all insist that their graduate programs are excellent, “recruitment” to them is a worthy and important task, standards are uniformly high, etc. etc. etc. It’s not a joke that central administration is always looking for weaklings to cull, so that result of my speaking out would not be an institution-wide conversation in which departments reflected on their grad programs. What would result would be a chum in the water effect in which other departments would insist on their absolute distance from any of the phenomena I raise about my own department and their relative super-excellent excellence and meriting of faculty lines and grad funding. Having sat on grad committees in other departments, I know the issues I am concerned about are present all over the place in my institution and, from my readings on the issue, other institutions also (as readers here know well).

    Finally, it’s not as if there are lots of other academic jobs out there, as everyone here knows perfectly well. So this is the little world in which I live and am likely to continue living for years and years: my colleagues are nice people, though possibly not reading as much about the collapse of faculty jobs as they might. My department’s students are nice people, too, though often more naive than might be ideal. Do I want to make them all hate me? I have a feeling that I am not the only faculty member out there quietly wrestling with that question.

    • Kathleen, thank you so much for this comment, especially your willingness to write it under your own name. It is a perfect and candid articulation of one of the structural reasons this cannot easily change. Would you consider making this as a guest blog post for the blog? I’d be happy to just take this comment and put it up as a guest post without any additional elaboration by you, unless you felt like you want to add something. Please let me know at Karen

      • That would be an honor Karen! I would like to reframe it a bit to make it more ready for prime-time; I’ll send something along in a couple of days and you can see what you think. Thank you for the invite!

  7. ” But let me reiterate my regret at using an analogy to make my point which was in itself another example of white privilege.”


    Isn’t this thin skinned need to be super sensitive on certain topics one of the many reasons you left academia?

    You’ve understood history. As far as I can tell, you nailed it. You’ve done as best anyone living beyond an era of formal legalized segregation can. Even the black generation of today can claim no experience with the strict social and legal codes of slavery and Jim Crow. The living memory is dying and almost dead.

    For the record, I’m not saying racism is dead. Imperfect humans guarantee that’s a never ending battle. But we are past the era of legalized, formal discrimination.

    Let’s face it: Most of the people you actually offended were white, middle-class (or better), privileged academics not wanting to hear they have much more in common with the powers that were during the Jim Crow era than a true academic.

    You’ve understood what it’s like (to the best of your ability) to have lived in that era and made the tremendous leap that you were the bad guy in a startlingly similar situation. That’s an amazing accomplishment that most people never work through.

    In my opinion, “white privilege” is about never having to face that ugly truth that you personally have contributed to social wrongs. (And ultimately, that has nothing to do with race in any situation – just drop the color and we’ve got “privilege”.)

    Once you’ve faced that and corrected it to the best of your ability, your privilege card is all used up. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. 😉

    Good luck to you and your work. And don’t apologize for having honest opinions. We’ll never live Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s dream of being judged by the content of our characters if we can’t work through the literal skin deep.

    PS – I’ll probably offend someone because I used the term “black” above. I don’t use the term “African American” because I consider it racist. I was taught way back in the day that the implication that the descendants of slaves, who have been here long than my family, belong back in Africa was a silly racist fantasy. I feel it’s much more honest and to the point when I’m discussing race.

    Although I’m still not thrilled with calling people who are clearly dark brown the color black. Just as I am clearly beige, not white. I’m stuck, though with non-evolving conventions. Oh well – one battle at a time.

  8. When I read the previous article, I didn’t think the analogy was inept at all. Sure, there is more to race than discourse, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to simply ignore discursive overlaps. Also, I hasten to add, that in the historical reality of institutionalized racism there have been a number of cases of classes of individuals who have been effected by measures targeted at certain groups, often for racist or sexist reasons. For instance, with the institution of the pool tax, it was objected at the time that one of the side effects of such laws would be the disenfranchisement of poor whites. The response of the elites was more or less “good riddance.” We see similar effects with “voter fraud” measures in various states, where the intent seems to be to disenfranchise persons of color and the poor but has the odd side effect of also harming the base constituency of those who seek to enact such laws (e.g. the elderly).

    I think intentions do matter here. If the intent is to whine and say, “what are you complaining about, poor whites have it just as bad,” then I can understand the eyerolling. If the intent is to get adjuncts to understand that they are the disenfranchised and not temporarily embarrassed professors, then I feel the analogy is quite apt.

  9. In response to Jay Jurie, and to reiterate the comment I made on Karen’s original post – this argument, that tenured and tenure-track folks can’t see the issues because of their privilege, really needs to be broken down and reconsidered. There are some people in powerful positions who are completely disconnected from the problem. There are many more who recognize it but _feel_ or _are_ powerless to help. The super-intensive expectations for job candidates, which Karen mentioned in her facebook post today, also apply to everyone in the system. Just because there are more adjuncts teaching, that does not mean that tenured faculty have less teaching or fewer admin resposibilities. Everyone is being asked to do more, publish more, for less. Yet we are not making a sustained critique of that, because we are preoccupied with discussions like this. The discourse of privilege functions to divide people and weaken any possible coalition formed by the tenured and non-tenured together. The recent resurgence of the meme/self-effacement/put-down “1st world problems” and “check your privilege” all over social media is part of a really regressive trend to just shut people up and drive people into distracted side-arguments leaving the real issues of exploitation and discrimination, and the shared accomplishments coalition communities can make, unexplored.

  10. I take it as a sign of the extent to which identity politics have replaced class politics in what calls itself the “Left” in this country of Mammon that the single best analysis of the ideology of tenured privilege I have read is called out for being racially insensitive. Sorry, but fuck that. Maybe if the academic Left was less concerned about sensitivity and offensive discourse constructions and shit and a little more concerned about economic justice in their own fucking profession, then we’d all be better off. White, Black, Brown, the whole rainbow of us sorry fucks.

  11. The book Presumed Incompetent is relevant to this conversation, and it would be nice to see some blog posts on the very different obstacles that underrepresented racial-minority students (fespecially rom racial groups constructed as less-intelligent if not subhuman) actually face in navigating the academy, especially as a rejoinder to several of the comments above which really seem not to understand the concepts of white privilege or structural/dysconscious racism and implicit bias:

    It would be great if you could focus some posts on the land mines, in graduate school and beyond, for non-White students in general and women of color in particular, including how ‘fit’ often is code for race/color/gender discrimination. It would also be appreciated if you could do a post on what do to if one is being bullied, harassed, discriminated against but one’s professors, department, university is committed to covering it up: after all, as the Gloria Allred suit against Berkeley, Dartmouth, USC, and Swartmore makes clear, universities usually try to cover up abuse, not publicize it like CU Boulder did with their philosophy department. You refer to the “racism of the tenured” above, but I think you need to write more about this (especially to help students of color to not get derailed in and by abusive advisers and grad programs), particularly since many of those professors for whom this call-out applies are blind to (usually willfully) their own biases and discriminatory practices.

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