Saturday, February 26, 2011

Disrespected, Take Two

(cross-posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

I wanted to take a second to acknowledge the responses to my most recent post (about complaints several senior black faculty have expressed to me about their treatment in the academy). I appreciate the discussion that it has sparked, and I definitely want to follow-up on some comments and questions.

goxewu thematizes one prominent (and very reasonable) response to my blog post: that it is just too doggone vague and ambiguous. Mere “blind-quote journalism,” goxewu writes, wanting more specificity to be convinced that there’s anything close to a there there. “There is a middle ground,” he writes, “between complete vagueness and anonymity (which is what Professor Jackson has now) and blowing everyone’s cover.”

Responding to trendisnotdestiny’s question about whether bringing the topic up at all might be enough, goxewu responds: “I’m going to be a little more severe here: Prof. Jackson is essentially saying, “I know a lot of important black professors at elite schools and they confide in me. So take my word for it that in our private conversations, where they let their hair down like they wouldn’t with anybody else, they complain about racial disrespect.”

Then goxewu begins a debate about the similarities and differences between a “paid blogger and a journalist,” arguing that the two are equivalent, which means, he contends, that I am obliged to provide more proof to ground my piece.

marktropolis, who always has great feedback in such moments, pushed back against that blogger-as-journalist claim, but he agreed that it might be useful for me to add more particulars to my story.

Several people wonder if I can go back and get some quotes, or at least add some more details to the descriptions of the faculty I’m invoking.

Then Marc B and Marktropolis have a discussion about the role (and potential cause) of under-representation in academia, a theme I invoke in the post. (And thanks, MB, for the link to your piece from the minnesota review. I just printed it out for an upcoming train ride.)

“But what causes under-representation? Every time I give a talk,” Marc B writes, “whether it’s at an Ivy League school or a community college, you can hear a pin drop when I ask folks to speculate about a truth that everyone present already knows: Why are police departments more diverse than history departments?” Other commentators, including marktropolis, try to answer that question.

Several other comments reinforce the idea that more of the story needs to be told. Professor Chuck Kleinhans wants more specifics and asks whether or not Clarence Thomas might be read as similarly disrespected (and in race-inflected ways), the latter comment spawning a series of sub-debates about the Supreme Court Justice’s relative ideological autonomy (with marktropolis explaining his skepticism about “bringing Clarence Thomas into this thread” and livefreeordie2 contending that marktropolis is disrespecting Thomas).

joelcairo calls for “a full-blown ethnographic study” on the topic, which I do find intriguing. And wilkenslibrary asks about the degree to which “distinguished black women faculty feel as disrespected as their male counterparts.”

Thanks for the comments, and here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll make a few phone calls this weekend and early next week to see if any of these scholars might allow me to provide more substantive details about their stories/sagas (without compromising their anonymity). Maybe I can even get someone to let me post a short Q&A with him about his particular concerns. In fact, someone might even be willing to go public in a less anonymous way, but I’ll find out. I’ll also try to chat with some distinguished black female scholars about their lives in the academy. See what I get. In many ways, what struck me about the scholars I brought up in my post was the fact that these stories were decidedly unsolicited, but it might still be valuable to ask some female faculty, point blank, about their own experiences.

For now, let me just say that three of the scholars I mentioned are at Ivy League institutions, four more work at research institutions on the East Coast or the Midwest, and one teaches in the University of California system. A little more specificity, with possibly more to come.


(cross-posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

For the past year or so, I’ve been inadvertently collecting unpleasant and disconcerting stories from senior black faculty. These stories have come mainly (though not exclusively) from men, most of whom are incredibly accomplished and wildly influential in their fields. These academics are housed in several different disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, and their confidential disclosures demonstrate real unhappiness about their treatment in the academy.

If I had to use one word to describe how these aforementioned scholars feel, it would be disrespected, profoundly disrespected.

In these narratives, senior scholars of color describe themselves as under-appreciated by administrators, relatively marginalized (and even maligned) by fellow colleagues, and somewhat alienated from other experts in their fields.

The first time I heard such a tale, over lunch at a coffee shop in California, I tried to dismiss it as an isolated incident, one person’s idiosyncratic experience. Maybe he was just being hypersensitive. Or I could have caught him on a particularly bad (and non-representative) day. But then I sat across from a few more senior scholars (in Michigan and Massachusetts, in New York and North Carolina) with similar stories to tell (of humiliating slights interpreted as race-based disrespect), and I had to admit that something more was going on than what some might imagine as a lone faculty member’s thin-skinned bellyaching.

Of course, most of these scholars are sharing such stories with me (as their relatively junior colleague) for my own good, in hopes of steeling me for a similar (potential) future of professional discontent. Their point: No amount of publishing productivity or public notoriety exempts one from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with under-representation in the academy.

In all but one instance, these scholars weren’t lamenting the stain of “affirmative action,” the fear that their successes were tainted by other people’s assumptions about their achievements being predicated on something other than purely meritocratic grounds. Only one person seemed plagued by such a concern. The others were arguing the opposite (or close to it): that they had succeeded at a game decidedly stacked against them, and the thanks they received was a tacit (or not so tacit) attempt to ignore them, to demean them with cool indifference and a series of daily exclusions (from, say, important departmental discussions or substantive leadership roles at their universities).

For the sake of protecting their anonymity, I won’t divulge the specifics of these anecdotes. Not one of the scholars shared their examples with me banking on the fact that I would eventually write about them in The Chronicle. In fact, some of these senior scholars probably don’t perform their disaffection in any conspicuous way, especially not in mixed company. But these intimate discussions have been so disheartening and depressing that I wanted to write something, even something relatively opaque and inadequate, to begin describing this troubling discourse.

My brief post doesn’t nearly do justice to the stories I’ve been told. Or to the seething anger that those stories narrate. And there are many people who would argue that a lot of older faculty members, no matter how distinguished, feel the sting of disregard from younger colleagues. Race, they’d say, has nothing to do with it. But these scholars are thematizing their stories in explicitly racial terms. And even if they are swinging at mere windmills and making racial mountains out of race-less molehills (or mistaking ageist mountains for racial ones), it is still important to figure out why some senior black faculty, very senior black faculty, feel that they are more disrespected than their white colleagues.