A woman’s place is on the syllabus

We’ve been busy. Organizing, mourning, resting, strategizing, spending time with loved ones – not to mention all our paid (+unpaid) labor as academics.

As TSW writers and readers know all too well, our work (every dimension of it) didn’t just begin nor will it end with the change of any administration. For many of us though, the work  (every dimension of it) feels more urgent now than ever.

There’s a lot more to say, and lots of voices we want to feature in this space to speak, to listen, to make change.

And we also need to – and do – act “in real life.” *

There is SO MUCH to do though, that it can feel overwhelming. And in our role as academics, especially in a climate that wants to censure topics and conversations in the classroom (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and eliminate academic freedom by eliminating tenure (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), what can we do?

I think lots of things, and lots of “small” things that add up. Which brings me to:

A woman’s place is in the syllabus.

One of the most concrete steps we as educators can take is to decolonize our teaching (and our research, and our outreach, and our mentoring).  Many of us, unconsciously or not, claim we are merely finding the “best” material or the “right” material for our classes (and the “right” students, etc). With so much scholarship and so many scholars to choose from, what does that mean?  Doesn’t that claim sound awfully familiar lately?

So as many of us start our semesters today or started them recently, let’s reflect on our choices for our syllabi. Who are we asking students to read? Who aren’t we? What topics are we covering? What aren’t we?

It should go without saying that I am not here with definitive answers, as this is a continuous process for everyone.  I’d like to share a few readings that help think through the work of syllabus building and revisiting as vital (if seemingly mundane, as it’s “backgrounded” and invisible) work in the academy:

Decolonizing the University

Please post syllabus here

Celebrate Black History Month to Decolonize STEM

Decolonizing Science Reading List

 

What are you reading and doing to decolonize your teaching? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

 

*I mean, the internet is part of my real life, so I find that term not meaningful.

I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic.

In my home country, I am not a racial or religious minority. But I hold political views that are never represented in government and decision making, and I hold no hope that this will change any time soon. Some of my activist friends do amazing work protesting policies they disagree with and hateful decisions and actions taken in their names, but the work is incredibly time-consuming. For most, it’s taken over their lives and has become a second job. For me personally, there are no jobs in my field there, and it’s not clear that I could live there even if I wanted to. Most of my friends who have similar backgrounds and goals as me have left for other countries, although most hold out hope of being able to one day return.

I have lived in several European countries. Europe was a big paradox for me. I lived in countries where I felt incredibly comfortable, and where I was not, myself, a persecuted minority. Or, at least, the opinions were probably there, but it wasn’t acceptable to express them out loud and I never once felt singled out or hated. Yet I can’t ignore the fact that others are now persecuted minorities, that immigrants are disliked,** and most importantly, that these same countries have a track record of ruthlessly dispatching with their minorities, to put it mildly. Parts of my family were some of those minorities. It shaped how my parents were raised and how I grew up; it’s a central issue in my life that has shaped my personality and my belief system. Being comfortable in Europe scared me, because my ancestors who felt the same paid for it with their lives.

For close to a decade now, I have lived in the United States. This is where my home and family are. I have no illusions that it’s a perfect country. It’s not. If ever there was a doubt, the current political climate reminds us that there is much work left to do. But the United States was formed on values of freedom and liberty. It is one of the most diverse countries I know. It has federal, state, and local governments. Civil society plays a big role in our daily lives. There are many opportunities to contribute and make a difference. I want to believe that here, atrocities like those that happened elsewhere cannot happen.***

Here, I am a minority. You wouldn’t immediately know it from my accent or how I look, so I am one of the lucky ones. But I am not oblivious to the hateful speech around me. Yet even with its imperfections, I take America to be one of the most successful social experiments of the modern era. Things are difficult all over, but that’s not a reason to give up. I choose to fight to make my adopted country better, and in the process to make my own life better. I started with small gestures: a sign on my office door ensuring all that they are welcome here; chats with students to reaffirm the same and to make myself available as a source of information and support; donations to organizations such as PP and the ACLU; local demonstrations. I am hoping to find a local organization to volunteer with.

I hope that others will accept me and join me. I refuse to believe that this is something the US cannot recover from, even if it does get far worse before it gets better. It’s up to all of us not to give up. This is a golden opportunity to restart the fight at the grassroots level, to rethink how we reach out to others and how things got to be this way. Mostly, I hold onto a broader perspective, and I retain my optimism. Hard work and faith have gotten me this far, and I am counting on them–and on you–not to disappoint me going forward.

 

* and how things really are here in the States. Things haven’t actually changed that much – but some of those who could previously be oblivious now can’t do that anymore. Noticing the racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, … sentiments can be horrifying if you never knew they existed, or you thought they were only held by a fringe minority. Those who despair the most appear to be not those who face these sentiments, but those privileged ones who weren’t aware of them before, and hence whose worlds were shaken up the most.

** as evidenced by recent election results in several of these countries.

*** and that I’ll fight with all my heart to stop any such attempts. And that I’ll know to get out in time if I lose the battle. Because I am optimistic, but not naive.

Professors- Don’t Panic, Organize

I have put off writing this post until the absolute last minute because I still don’t know how to talk about the election, and yet I can’t seem to talk about anything else. What does it mean for my queer marriage? What does it mean for my undocumented students? What does it mean for my community college where we live and die by Pell Grants? I have been selfish- thinking mainly of myself and making contingency plans from the banal (get personal documents in order) to the ridiculous (preserve all the vegetables so we can eat underground after a nuclear apocalypse). It is only in the past week that I have started to think collectively, and remembered that community, allies, and coalitions are the best place to start.

In academia, we are horrible at collective action. The structure of our disciplines creates silos, and our research can lend itself too readily to isolation and over-inflated egos. We start to believe we only need our impressive intellects to thrive in the world. As contingent faculty have taken on more labor to free the select few who have access to tenure, we have wrapped ourselves in the comforting lie of meritocracy. “It should be this way,” we tell ourselves, “the system is working.” At best we think, “I don’t have time to deal with these massive structural problems in my field.* I am trying to write my book.”

We have forgotten how to work together for systemic change. Humanists in particular write about social justice movements. We don’t often participate in them. In fact, the folks I have seen in the greatest state of panic are my tenured colleagues and mentors. I think it has been a long time since they confronted this level of vulnerability. I think of Slavoj Žižek delighted with himself as he publicly endorsed Donald Trump for his disruptive potential. It felt so familiar. The white, leftist professors I knew in my graduate program have made similar flippant remarks. Privilege is a powerful enabler of delusion.

This week I started doing small things. I began reinforcing my emotional support network, which overlaps with the network of activists and organizers in my local community. I took time to call my friends, near and far. I worked with a few other professors and the student equity program to organize an event for vulnerable students to come and talk about their reactions to the election. We created a poster campaign with messages of inclusion and acceptance to paper the hallways of our campus. These are tiny steps. The next ones will be crucial. I hope we can unlearn that academic privilege that asks us to be individuals with great minds, and relearn how communities strike back against injustice in all its forms.

*sexual harassment, racism in hiring and promotion practices, contingent labor, rising tuition and student debt…

 

 

Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. Continue reading

More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” Continue reading

When should you (or your students) defend?

At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)?  If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?

The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated.  I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else.  So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.

What’s so complicated then?  Lots of things. Continue reading