GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

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On Activists and Activism

In Uncategorized on 2014/06/02 at 03:29

Today’s post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series is from University of Venus editorial collective member, Afshan Jafar, who asks how we might unhyphenate the “scholar-activist.”

Recently, I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony of Connecticut College’s Holleran Center  for Community Action and Public Policy. And while these remarks were directed at undergraduate students who have been involved in the Holleran Center, I think they are pertinent to feminists in Academe; especially those of us who choose to engage the public through our writing. Below is a portion of my remarks.

. . . For those of you who don’t know me, I am also the mother of two daughters and given that I teach predominantly about gender, my two daughters are often the subject of many class conversations. I’d like to introduce the rest of you to them through my remarks here today. A few days ago, Aleena, who will be nine this summer, and Lilah who will be six this summer, were talking about the White House, as they are both fascinated with architecture and U.S. presidents. They decided that they want to be presidents of the United States when they grow up and as soon as they decided that, they sat down to write a list of things they wanted to accomplish when they become president. Here are some of the things that showed up on their lists. Let me start with Lilah (and I want to emphasize that I did not guide them in anyway while they made these lists):

Stuff I will change when I am president, by Lilah:

  • I will change schools

  • I will make people not litter as much

  • I will make people sell things at a good amount

  • I will make people not follow gender norms.

And here is some of what Aleena wrote on her list:

Things to change when I am president, by Aleena:

  • Better education at schools

  • Healthier, tastier food at schools

  • Make Walmart pay their workers a living wage

  • Two days a week, every school would have a No Trash Lunch Day. On No Trash Lunch Day, kids (and employees!) would bring a lunch with nothing to throw away. (Only recycling will be allowed!)

  • Once a week, every school will take a field trip to an educational place, such as a museum. There, they will learn about the art and exhibits.

  • Once a week, US schools will go to clean up litter around the school.

 . . . Perhaps what is most surprising about their lists is that they have absorbed a basic sociological lesson: that change needs to be structural as well as cultural . . .

But that’s the problem: How do we influence something that feels as intangible, yet as permanent as culture? Culture is one of those things that we like to use to explain everything  – and as a sociologist, I obviously spend a lot of time talking about how our culture influences us. But that focus on culture, can sometimes become paralyzing. We throw our hands up in the air and say “that’s just our culture, it will NEVER change.” But cultures aren’t permanent and cultures do change. Instead of thinking of cultures as a box (one that contains things, but also one that contains us), it is more appropriate to think of cultures as fluid – changing, shifting, moving constantly. Cultures are made and re-made – they do not descend upon us from the heavens, and they do not materialize out of thin air.

But if cultures are made, then we need to ask ourselves who made them? Does everybody benefit from what has been created? . . . the answer to the second question is “No” – not everybody benefits from what has been created . . . culture is always a manifestation of social relationships and power and privilege within a society.

So how do you change cultures? One small, but I think significant, way is to re-think your identities as activists. There will be many outside of this college who will discourage you from activism and from adopting the label of activist. Even on college campuses we use words like scholar-activists to describe students like you.  Scholar-activist. The two words together, this hyphenated identity, makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. You see, while it’s supposed to be a positive phrase, one that captures the various aspects of our lives, it is a phrase that signals something limiting and mutually exclusive about the two categories on their own. It’s like using the phrase “male-nurse”, which implies that a nurse by definition cannot be male and thus we need the qualifier, male-nurse . . . I want you to think about what the words scholar and activist mean to you.

If I asked you to envision a scholar, here are some things I can guess will come to your mind: A solitary figure, working by the light of a lamp (or a candle because scholars apparently forget to pay their electric bills), somebody who is surrounded by books, and churning out even more books. In short, it is somebody who seems removed from and perhaps even above, the company of other humans. The scholar is also somebody who seems to be interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge – an unbiased, non-judgmental, rational, researcher.

Now if I asked you to imagine an activist, chances are that you will imagine some sort of a protest, a person with his or her fist in the air.  And if I asked you to describe the activist further, chances are that you might respond with the words “angry, upset, or emotional”.  And that’s the big lie we’ve all been told and we’ve all internalized – that being a scholar and being an activist are two different callings: one is about disinterested, unbiased, scientific pursuit of knowledge, the other is defined by bias, anger, and emotions. To label somebody as “emotional” is a way to devalue that perspective in our culture. And as long as we can paint activists as situated within the realm of emotions and feelings, we can dismiss their contributions and perspectives and we can keep activists on the defensive.  Well, turns out that this definition of activists is completely wrong. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that people who have a high “justice sensitivity” (that’s the technical, scientific term for people like you who are interested in issues of justice and fairness), are not “emotionally-driven”. Instead, their interest in justice is cognitively driven – it is the outcome of reason, not emotion. And while I don’t want to devalue the significance of emotions, it is important to understand and remember that we, activists, are not in fact, irrational.

Activists are not biased – at least not any more so than any person who identifies him or herself as a scholar. The guise of disinterested, objective scientific research only serves to hide the bias that exists all around us. Activism is about uncovering those biases that exist in our culture. It is about revealing that which has been made invisible, it is about challenging that which has been made acceptable. You’ll notice that I say “has been made invisible” or “has been made acceptable”, because there is no “natural order”; there is no essential or inherent way of being. And once we accept that, we have to see that power is always implicated in who is made invisible, who is normalized, who is accepted, and who is marginalized.

But that’s the trouble with activists. They see a little too much, a little too well. And that’s the burden you have borne during your time here but a burden I hope you will continue to bear after you leave here by embracing your identities as activists – not as an addendum, not as a hyphenated identity, but as who you are. Because as the writer Arundhati Roy, reminds us: “The trouble is that once you see . . . you can’t unsee . . . And once you’ve seen, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I hope you will take these words with you and that they will give you the courage in those times when you most need it. In those times, when it might be so much easier to lower your voice than to speak up. In those times, when it might be so much easier to avert your gaze, than to lock eyes in defiance. But no matter what course of action or inaction you choose in those moments, Roy is correct: Either way, you’re accountable.

Thank you very much!

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.


Presumed Incompetent

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/04/23 at 01:20
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Utah State University Press, 2012. Edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, Angela P. Harris.  570 pages.

The 30 essays in Presumed Incompetent expose a nasty truth about Academia: it is not above the realities of everyday American life. It, in fact, reproduces and reinforces society’s inequalities, stereotypes, and hierarchies within its own walls.

That academic women, especially academic women of color, are often presumed incompetent, is probably not surprising to most. The virtue of this book is that it enables the reader to see that these experiences are not individual experiences nor are they the result of individual flaws. Keeping this insight in mind, these essays become more than just “stories” or anecdotes. They point to the larger structural and cultural forces within Academia that make the experience of being presumed incompetent for women of color far too common.

The book is a collection of various types of essays: scholarly literature reviews of the experiences of women of color, personal narratives, and interviews. The content is divided into five parts: “General Campus Climate”, “Faculty/Student Relationships”, “Networks of Allies”, “Social Class in Academia” and “Tenure and Promotion”.  As one can tell readily from the themes, the book isn’t directed at students, nor is it meant primarily for use in a classroom (although there are several chapters that would be a good fit in courses that cover race, class, gender and sexuality issues). The book’s primary audience is faculty and administrators. It not only highlights the cultural and structural obstacles facing women of color in Academia, but proposes strategies and recommendations aimed at faculty and administrators. Several essays do this effectively, but Niemann’s concluding essay provides a particularly valuable summary of strategies and advice.

Several themes cut across the five sections of the book.  One is the discussion of stereotypes and identity work.  For instance, African American women may be seen as “mammies” and expected to be nurturing and caring and when they are not, they face anger and disappointment from students and colleagues (see Douglas’ and Wilson’s essays). Another example is Lugo-Lugo’s chapter, which discusses the stereotypes of the “hot Latina” and how they play out for her in the classroom where she must negotiate her identity as a Latina and a professor.

Lugo-Lugo also touches upon a second, though sometimes less explicit, theme of this book: the corporatization of higher education.  There are several layers to this phenomenon that affect women of color disproportionately. For one, contingent labor now makes up the vast majority of faculty positions in this country.  White women and women of color are disproportionately represented in these contingent ranks. Women of color only make up 7.5% of all full-time faculty positions in Academia (pg. 449). Given this reality, the presumption of incompetence gets reinforced and magnified for women of color. But there is another aspect of corporatization that is considered in the essays in this book. These are the essays that discuss student evaluations of teaching.  Because students increasingly come to the classroom with a consumerist mentality, they feel entitled to a certain experience, a certain grade, a certain “kind” of teacher. Lazos’ chapter, in particular, is a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand the factors that impact students’ evaluations of their professors. Departments chairs and members of committees on tenure and promotion will also find this chapter useful since they are responsible for evaluating a faculty member’s teaching effectiveness and student evaluations are a primary source of that information.

The importance of mentoring is also underscored in many of the essays in this volume as they highlight the need for good mentorship not just in graduate school but throughout the various stages of an academic career. The essay “Lessons From a Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On,” by Adrien Wing, discusses the need to have a variety of mentors across racial, gender and institutional lines. Wing reminds the reader that she “never put all my eggs in one basket. If one mentor did not work out, that was fine because there were others” (p. 366).

There is one recurring piece of advice in this collection that worries me: many authors exhort women of color to simply do better and do more than what is expected of them.  This includes doing “more than the minimum”, teaching “on a grand scale” (p. 362, 363).  This lesson, which may seem productive from an individual’s perspective, does nothing to address the deeper problem of why women of color feel the need to do this in the first place. It poses a very personal solution to a problem that the editors and authors themselves have identified as a structural issue.

That critique aside, Presumed Incompetent offers valuable lessons and advice for just about everyone in Academia, from contingent faculty, post-docs, and tenured and tenure-track faculty, to administrators and search committees. It is up to us to heed that advice if we hope to erase the dangerous and erroneous belief in academic women’s incompetence.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teaching Difficult Topics

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:23
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

I am a sociologist. I teach some of those courses that many academics wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. One such course is Sex, Gender, and Society. I also teach other courses or segments of other courses that deal with sexuality, globalization, imperialism, wars, religion, sweatshops.  These are all difficult courses and topics to teach.  Many of my colleagues think I am a glutton for punishment for wanting to teach these courses (if these weren’t enough I just added Sociology of the Body and Embodiment to the list of courses I teach).

These are some of my favorite subjects to teach, but I also know, especially as a junior faculty, that these subjects can create a backlash among students and how they view and evaluate the teaching of these subjects. Over the years, I have realized that there are some steps that I can take that make for a better experience for me (and maybe better evaluations that actually judge my teaching and not penalize me because of the topic).  Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about teaching sensitive topics:

Dealing with the “F” word:  Feminist. That’s the dirty word that students are afraid to say out loud but is on everybody’s mind when they walk into one of my gender-related courses. By now I know very well what students think of feminists: biased, man-haters, no sense of humor, angry, and so on. So now, I discuss what it means to be a feminist from the first day of my gender courses. I encourage students to voice what their concerns might be coming into a course like mine and ask them why they chose to take this course. Turns out most of them have what would be classified as “feminist” reasons for taking the course! I spend a lot of time making them comfortable with that label and getting them to embrace it. Most of the difficult subjects we teach have some baggage in terms of the preconceived ideas that students bring with them about the subject and its teacher. These notions need to be addressed and corrected starting from day one, and then the message needs to be reinforced repeatedly throughout the course (for instance feminists aren’t man-haters; if you teach race, it doesn’t mean you hate white people and so on).

It’s Not About You: As a sociologist one of the messages that is most important in my classes is getting students to see how our actions, our lives are part of larger patterns and larger systems. One of the most difficult things about teaching sensitive topics (race and gender for instance), is that it’s bound to make people defensive. Discussing male privilege or white privilege often gets read as a teacher accusing them: “You are sexist” “You are racist”. My job is to constantly remind students that “It’s not personal”, that this is about larger structures and patterns of privilege. Related to that is the need to get students to see past their personal experience (see previous post and the section on “personal as proof”) and evaluate the evidence in front of them.  This particular message cannot be emphasized enough when teaching sensitive topics.

But Sometimes It Is About You . . . And About Me: I once received a comment on a course evaluation that said, “she is the scariest professor I know”. People who know me well (including my students who’ve taken several classes with me) find this utterly hilarious. Me? Scary? What had I done? I had held the student accountable and hadn’t extend the deadline for a paper. I think this speaks to gendered notions that students bring with them when they come to the classroom. As a young female professor, especially a young mother, they expect me to be nurturing and when I am not, they get frustrated or scared. Clearly, sometimes it is not the message being conveyed, but who is conveying the message that rubs students the wrong way. While I have some colleagues who are very critical of immigration policies (in this country and in Europe) their message, as White Americans, is seen as nothing more and nothing less than critical insight. The same message delivered by a brown-skinned immigrant can be seen as “having an axe to grind”, being “anti – (fill in the name of the country in question). I now make it a point to discuss students’ expectations of and reactions to their professors and how these might vary (even when the subject itself doesn’t) based on the professor’s gender, race, nationality, age, and so on.

Teaching sensitive topics is difficult and there is no way around that. But I do think that the above steps have helped me over the years (sometimes more successfully than others), to get students to evaluate their own responses and reactions before they evaluate me as a professor.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Chronicles of Nonsensia: The Sad, the Infuriating, and the Incredible

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/14 at 00:44
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

If you’re in academia, chances are you’ve spent some time thinking about and discussing student writing. You may have found yourself enraged at something, or laughing out loud, running to share the hilarity with the nearest living being. Maybe you scribbled it down somewhere, or perhaps it seared itself into your brain and never needed to be written down.  Following are some themes from student writing that resurface over and over again and some memorable quotes from over the years. Some will make you laugh, others will make you cry and some might make you do both.

The Either/Or, Good/Bad:  This is the kind of writing where nuance and complexity don’t really exist. Things are either all bad or all good, and the idea that most things, people, cultures are more complex than that, is not really entertained. There is a need to come up with a right and wrong answer, to take sides, to conclusively declare something as good or bad.

The Appeal to a Higher Power:  As a sociologist, this one is probably one of the more frustrating ones.  This can take many forms. For instance:  “Mother Nature intended it to be this way”, “This is God’s doing”, “It’s only natural”. “It’s because of testosterones”. Sometimes the higher power is of an interplanetary kind: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.

The Hyperbolic/The Grandiose: This kind of writing is prone to showing up in an opening sentence, where the writer wishes to impress the reader by making a grand, sweeping statement. Of course the problem with grand, sweeping statements is just that: they are grand and they are sweeping and thus inaccurate. Students particularly love these kinds of sentences in introductory paragraphs. Here are some examples: “Since the dawn of time . . . ”, “Ever since Adam and Eve . . . ”, or for those of a less religious nature, “Ever since cavemen . . .”, “In all societies throughout history . . .”

The Resigned: Contrary to what you might think, this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily strike the particularly pessimistic; just the particularly lazy, who don’t want to think through a specific issue too deeply. This kind of writing comes out in phrases such as: “That’s just how it is.” “That’s how it’s always been”, “Nothing will ever change”.
(Notice how resignation is combined with the hyperbolic in the last two examples).

The Supernatural: These are rare and often deliciously hilarious. They often come about due to sloppiness and not reading (and writing) carefully. I will share with you an example from some years ago when I was a graduate student teaching assistant. A student was summarizing a crime from the previous night’s news and wrote: “The parents woke up to find themselves dead”. Wow. That’s rough. And I get cranky waking up at 5:45 am. And no, this was not a news story about the paranormal.

The Conversational: This kind of writing fails to distinguish between a formal essay and (sometimes a late night) conversation with a roommate. Consider the following example: “The girls were struttin’ their stuff, trying to snag a piece of ass for the night”. This kind of writing shows up more commonly in less egregious forms than the above example, as a piece of writing that sounds like a conversation instead of a research paper.  “The man is insanely muscular” (analyzing images of masculinity in the media), “Her boobs are jacked-up (analyzing images of femininity in the media).

The My-Dog-Daisy or the Personal as Proof: This is the kind of writing (or in-class discussion) where the student insists on presenting a singular incident from their life as evidence against the social scientific research being discussed in class.  Many years ago I had a student present “evidence” of the inherent differences among races by stating that his “dog, Daisy, a very sweet and loving dog, never barked at anyone except black people”. Daisy knew something that criminologists had apparently missed. Other examples:  “My brother is very sensitive” (thus it is proof that there is no expectation in American culture for men to be in control of their emotions); or “My grandparents were immigrants and went on to become very rich and successful” (thus it is proof that the American Dream is alive, well, and not to be questioned).

Let me be clear: This is not just another rant against our students and how poorly they write. I think these themes reflect larger patterns of thinking in American culture. They also represent how information is presented in various media outlets. It is no surprise then, that our students replicate these ways of thinking in their writing.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Opting Out

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/11/19 at 11:04
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

I am opting out. Not out of my career, but out of the educational system. I have a seven year old who started second-grade this year.  A few weeks into second-grade, we decided to finally act on a decision that’s been a long time coming. We decided we’re going to home-school her – at least for this year.

We live in a rural community, where, besides our public school and one very expensive private school, we don’t have any other options. And although homeschooling seems more common than I had realized, most of the homeschooling families we had heard about in our town are religious families with different motivations than ours (although I would think that there are some important overlapping concerns between religious and secular families when it comes to homeschooling).

I guess it shouldn’t be very surprising that two academics (my husband is also a Sociologist), people who are in the profession of education and the pursuit of knowledge, should come to the decision that our educational system is not serving our children well. For us, our decision to home-school stems in large part from our profession and also from our specific field of inquiry. In our own classrooms, we both emphasize independent thinking, writing and analyzing instead of checking off boxes for the correct answer, and probably most importantly, we emphasize the importance of questioning, of wondering “why?” or “why not?” and trying to figure things out instead of being given answers.

Sadly, very little of this is happening in our public schools. Sure, there are exceptions, but by and large, our public schools are geared towards passing standardized testing, of meeting certain “requirements”, and identifying those kids who do not meet these standards. The kids who already meet the standards or are far beyond them, are the “easy” kids—the kids teachers don’t have to worry about. It is not the teachers’ fault, of course. They are under pressure to perform and to have students pass the state tests, or whatever standardized testing their schools use. But what happens to these kids who are beyond the standards for their grades? Who fosters their curiosity and their love of learning? Who lets them know that it is not only OK to be smart, it is, in fact wonderful? Instead, these kids sit in the classroom day in and day out, for hours on end, going through the motions, not being challenged, not being encouraged, and feeling like misfits for being “smart”.

By the time our daughter started kindergarten, she had already read many books in their entirety, on her own: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and other Roald Dahl books), The Magic Tree House series, and many others. By the time she started second grade this year, she was just finishing up reading the last of the Harry Potter books on her own.  When she started kindergarten we were told that she was ahead of the curriculum, but that she’ll eventually “level-out” and the curriculum will catch up to her. We were told the same thing at the start of first grade, and then again at the start of second grade. To us, these statements were disturbing: why should any school expect or want a bright kid to “level-out”? Shouldn’t schools try to sustain students’ curiosity and love of learning? We think so. Yet, we kept our daughter in school, not fully realizing how slowly the curriculum would grow compared to her curiosity. Now we know that the only way the curriculum will “catch up” is if social pressure to “dumb herself down” catches up to her and she figures out that being smart doesn’t really have any benefits in school.

I have read that currently homeschooling is the fastest growing trend in schooling in the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if academics made up a growing percentage of homeschooling families in the future. After all, we are in a position to see what the outcome of the deficiencies in our educational system is.  And if there are those among us, who resist standardization, rote learning, and quick and fast answers in our own classrooms and for our own students, how then, can we stand by and watch our own children be put through this kind of education in our schools?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What’s In a Hug?

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/09/15 at 22:23

Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

A hug. At its best it communicates affection, love, respect, admiration — a spontaneous expression of (positive) emotions. At other times, it’s an obligation — a turned cheek, a sloppy hand over a shoulder, a quick pat on the back and we move on, relieved to have put the encounter behind us.

When I was a young graduate student, I never hugged my students. I was trying hard to be taken seriously, by students who were barely younger than I was and were sometimes even older than I was. I was trying hard to establish my “authority” in the classroom. I even dressed very formally.

So when I became a professor, at first I simply carried those same old rules with me that I had learned and established in graduate school: Distance, authority, formality. The problem was none of that fit my personality (not even the clothes!) and none of that fit my way of teaching as I started to develop my own teaching style and persona. So I relaxed my rules about how I dressed, how I spoke in class, how much I joked around with my students. All of this was facilitated by being at a small liberal arts college, where we are encouraged to interact with our students outside of the classroom (lunch programs, talks/presentations in dorms, informal discussions in the coffee shop with smaller groups of students).

But there was one rule that I hadn’t changed much. I didn’t hug my students. Of course there were some teary-eyed students at graduation who always hugged. But graduation day isn’t really reflective of our normal relationships with students. But then something strange happened when I went on sabbatical for a semester. Towards the end of my sabbatical, I was involved in a departmental search for a new faculty, so I went to campus to meet with our finalists. As I was walking the candidate over to her talk, I ran into a student. The student ran over to me and gave me a big hug and asked when I was coming back. We chatted for a little while and then I went on. A few minutes later another student saw me and did the same thing! Then I got to the room where the candidate’s talk was being held, and another old student of mine came running from the other end of the room and gave me a hug. Embarrassed, I mumbled something to the other professors about how our students must really miss us when we’re gone.

Experiences like these continued whenever I showed up on campus during my sabbatical. Here’s the interesting thing though: after the first few times, my discomfort at hugging my students disappeared. My students were expressing spontaneous joy at seeing me. . . I should be happy about that!

I understand very well all the dangers for young professors, who are trying to establish themselves as an authority. Hugging your students is not seen as “professional”, and it (might) make students think that you’re just one of them. But as I’ve gained more experience over the years as a teacher, I’ve come to understand that the rules I had established for myself as a graduate student (about how to dress, what kind of language to use for instance) were merely “crutches”, making up for what I lacked: experience and self-confidence. As I’ve gained more experience in the classroom, I’ve learned to let go of the crutches and realize that I can do just fine without them. I wouldn’t advise young graduate student teachers, or somebody who is just starting to teach to go around hugging their students – the crutches are helpful to lean on until you become more comfortable in the classroom

Sometimes, hugging is not a matter of comfort or experience in the classroom at all. It seems to me (based on anecdotes and observations) that there is a significant gender difference when it comes to hugging. Male professors are generally much more cautious around students and they certainly need to be given that their behavior is more likely to be seen as predatory. As a woman I have the privilege of not having a hug be read as “creepy” whereas not many male professors can hug their students without raising eyebrows.

That’s too bad really. Because a hug is best when it is spontaneous, non-obligatory; and that’s exactly the kind of hug students give when they’re genuinely happy to see you.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

WARNING: Reading Student Evaluations Can Make You Crazy

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/07/17 at 08:07
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

Aaahh. It’s evaluation season. Time for the tables to be turned on you. Yes, you, the professor. You thought you were being so clever by trying to institute some kind of an email policy: Telling your students not to email you at midnight and expect an answer before the 9 am class. You thought you were teaching your students responsibility by telling them not to wait until the night before to ask questions about their papers. You thought students would enjoy reading that ground-breaking and critical work on the topic that is so relevant to their lives. You thought you could show them that grades are earned not given away and you thought they would respect you for it. You thought you could teach them good writing skills even though it’s not a writing class. You thought . . .

Well turns out, you thought wrong.  Or you think you thought wrong. Wait, maybe you should think what you thought was right. It’s kind of hard to say exactly what you should think sometimes after you read student evaluations. After all, you could have one that says: “love the discussions- need more discussions” and another that says “lecture more”. One could say “love the short weekly quizzes, kept me on task” another could say “hate the quizzes”. One could say, “love the weekly writing” another could say, “I don’t see why we need to write every week”. One could say “very open, friendly and non-judgmental” and another could say, “won’t listen to the other side of the argument”. One could say “THE BEST!!!” and another could say, “AVOID at all costs”. *

This is why reading student evaluations can actually drive you crazy. They are meant to provide you with feedback to improve your teaching, but do they really? I have been fortunate enough to not be on the receiving end of many negative evaluations (at least not in the last few years!). Still the couple of negative comments that are completely contrary to what everyone else says in their evaluations are what seem to grab my attention every time. If two students out of thirty think a particular section dragged on too long, is it something I need to change? If three students out of 28 think I should return papers faster, is that something I need to work on? Can we ever reach 100% of our students? Should we try to? If everyone is always happy with us, are we (especially social scientists) asking the right questions?  I know, rationally, that if two students find something wrong and the overwhelming majority doesn’t, that means I am doing fine. Better than fine. But I find myself wondering about those students (okay maybe fixating is more accurate), and wondering about why the student felt a particular way or why they wrote that particular comment in the evaluation.  I am not a perfectionist. So why do these comments bother me so much?

At moments like these I have to remind myself to stop acting like Frasier. That’s the character of Kelsey Grammar from the sit-com Frasier. In this particular episode –one of the funniest I’ve seen–Frasier is privy (behind a one way mirror), to a focus group’s assessment of his radio show. Everybody loves him. Everybody, except for one person. The rest of the show focuses on Frasier’s obsession with trying to figure out why this person doesn’t like him or his show. In order to get the answers, Frasier stalks him, tries to talk to him, and eventually (inadvertently) crushes his hand and burns down his news-stand.  All this is to say, student evaluations need to remain anonymous, if for no other reason than to keep the Frasier inside all of us at bay!

Why do evaluations make so many of us crazy? I think the most frustrating aspect of it for many academics (as it seemed to be with Frasier) is the finality of it. As academics we like to explore, we like to question, we like to think, re-think, discuss, re-evaluate, explain. There is no way to probe, ask why or how, or ask students to clarify or expand upon what they’ve written in an evaluation. The words are there, just staring back at you anonymously and all you can do is wonder to yourself, “what the hell does this mean?” I think that, ultimately, is what drives us crazy.

*These are not statements from my evaluations, (although some of them are). These have been gathered from conversations with many faculty, both male and female.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

TedX: The Speaking Equivalent of Blogging

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/06/02 at 03:32

Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US. 

When three of my students approached me a couple of months ago to participate in a TEDx event, I balked. The students sent me a very well-organized folder with information about TED, some of the speakers already lined up, links to their favorite TED talks and then they set up a meeting with me. The event was in the middle of April. As many academics know, April is not a good month for us. The semester, at least for me, picks up like a roller coaster and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down for the end.

I had so much to do in April. I had taken on an extra course in April (part of a gateway course for another program), so I was teaching four courses. That means I was grading for four courses. I had over 65 proposals to review for my new volume, and I needed to put together a proposal for the (possible) editor. All of this would be happening the week of the event itself. There’s no way I can or should take this TEDx event on, I thought. I decided I’d meet with the students, but that my response would probably be a “thanks for thinking of me, but I really am very busy and I just can’t fit this in to my schedule”.

But then I had the meeting with the three students. They were so excited and working so hard to pull off an event of this magnitude all on their own!  They had put their hearts and souls into trying to organize this event and now they wanted to line-up speakers.  I was torn.  I told them I’d think about it over the weekend and let them know.  “Of course I know I should say no”, I kept saying to myself. “But if I were to do this, I would probably go with this topic” would be the next thought. And so back and forth I went.

When I finally sat down to talk to my husband about why I was so torn, I realized that part of it had to do with my schedule. The other part had to do with the fact that this was completely new territory for me. This was no academic talk at a conference. Far from it: I would actually need to be concise (what academic knows how to get their point across in under 18 minutes?), entertaining, and intellectually stimulating at the same time! I had never spoken in front of such a large audience before, and then the thought of being video-taped… to be honest, that was intimidating. This will be around forever! What if I screw up? I feared the exposure: my thoughts will be out there in the form of a video, I won’t have control over this “product” once I put it out there.

Not so different from blogging after all is it?

By the end of the weekend I decided I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. TEDxConnecticutCollege took place on April 14, 2012. The theme was “Rethinking Progress” and I spoke on “Women’s Bodies”. So, what do I have to share with my fellow academics and bloggers about the experience? You know the thrill that you get when your blog post is about to go live? Now multiply that by about a hundred and you’ll get a good idea of what this kind of public speaking is like. It was an exhilarating experience. It gave me the same sense of freedom that blogging does. You can be funny, even if you’re discussing something serious; you don’t have to worry about quoting important scholars endlessly to prove to everybody that you know what you’re talking about; and you can (and should) leave the audience thinking instead of providing them with neat little conclusions that they must accept because you bombarded them with data and evidence.

Perhaps most importantly, it taught me that just as we, as academics, feminists, thinkers, have turned to blogging because “we have something to say”, we should also consider using public speaking opportunities to say what we want to or need to say. It’ll help us reach a wider audience than any academic conference we’ve attended, especially, as in the case of TED/TEDx when those talks are made available to anyone with a computer connection.

What are you waiting for? The world is waiting to hear what you have to say . . .

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

An Academic’s Lament

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/05/17 at 00:59

Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

I’ll be honest with you. I read Mona Eltahawy’s piece, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  with quite a bit of aggravation. I am tired. I am tired and resentful of being put in the position of constantly having to bring nuance to a discussion like this. I am tired, as a Pakistani and an academic, of taking one step forward, two steps back. Of constantly having to tell people that gross generalizations, sweeping statements, and titillating pictures, don’t make the argument any more solid or acceptable, even when used by a “native”or “local” person.

Perhaps the most astounding characteristic of Eltahawy’s piece is that it ignores one of the very first lessons that students of Orientalism are or should be familiar with. There’s a simple exercise I use in one of my segments on women and religion in my courses. When we get to a discussion of Islam and “Muslim women”, I ask my students to fill in the blank for me: “Muslim women are  _____________________”. The students come up with many, many responses, which I won’t get into here. The point is that they have no trouble at all coming up with immediate responses. Now I ask them to imagine if I had asked them to finish this sentence: “Christian women are ______________.” They look utterly confused. What country am I talking about? What race? What kind of Christian? Am I referring to Evangelical Christians? In short, they realize that the category Christian woman is really meaningless unless I provide them with further specific details.

You see my point? Whereas we accord complexity, diversity, and yes, nuance to our understanding of other religions, when it comes to Islam it all seems to be painted with one big brush stroke and usually in the color black (see the pictures which accompany Eltahawy’s article). That Eltahawy talks about “women in the Middle East” as one large, undifferentiated group, and in the same paragraph talks about women being “covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either”, gives the impression that the above rules apply to every woman, in every country in the Middle East. That is, of course, not true. And Eltahawy knows that. This is the kind of sloppy and sensationalistic journalism that has made the work of academics who study and teach about the region much more difficult. And then, when we have to spend time setting the record straight or bringing in “complexity” to the issue, we are accused of being “defensive” and not wanting wash our dirty linens in public.

As an academic and a teacher, I am also tired of the stifling opposition between cultural relativism and universalism.  Each position, if adhered to staunchly, is problematic.  And we all know that, so we use these labels to quickly undermine someone’s position without engaging in the particularities of their argument. If you believe in universal rights you’re ethnocentric or imperialistic; if you believe in cultural relativism you are willing to excuse all kinds of abuses and oppression. We leave no possibility for complexity: that it is possible to criticize without being a ethnocentric and it is possible to ask for contextualization without being an apologist.

The idea that “political correctness”, as Eltahawy says, prevents people from critiquing Muslim countries is, well, ignorant and downright dangerous since it encourages an all out, unapologetic attack on Muslims. Islamophobia is alive and well and you don’t have to go very far before you run into it. I recently had a boy in my daughter’s first grade class (on my first day volunteering in my daughter’s class) tell me outright that “people from Pakistan kill other people” and that they “drop bombs”. When a six year old has absorbed these messages about Muslims, a call for an unleashing of sorts is the last thing we need to be doing. And journalism, like Eltahawy’s recent piece, make academic considerations of the issue more urgent and more necessary than ever.

But it leaves me resentful still that I have to do so much repetitive work, constantly “responding” to sensationalistic and over-simplified analysis. I know I am not alone in this. Any academic, who belongs to a stigmatized minority has to deal with the issues of balancing criticism while not further reinforcing damaging stereotypes in the larger culture about “Us”.  We realize that there are different layers of oppression and we can’t focus on one kind alone (gender, for instance) while ignoring, or worse, reinforcing, another kind (racial, for instance).

It’s not easy but at least we try.  Eltahawy on the other hand, has given up that pursuit all together.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The R1 Bias*

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/04/03 at 00:14

Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

Having been out of graduate school for several years now, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the advice we received in graduate school often did not match our reality or our preferences. I’ve written about the “publish or perish” emphasis and the lack of emphasis on teaching in most graduate programs.  There are other manifestations of this lopsided emphasis on research.

Recently, I was reminded of the lopsidedness, when I volunteered to do a “Critique Me!” session at the winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) this year. At this session, faculty from all kinds of institutions and backgrounds volunteer to offer advice to current graduate students regarding the job market. They specifically offer advice on each person’s CV, personal statement and whatever other materials they may have brought with them. The organizer of the session very accurately described the format as similar to “speed dating”. The “experts” sat at different tables and every twenty minutes students moved around from one table to another.  We briefly explained our background/expertise (such as working at a small liberal arts college, part of an academic couple) so that students could identify who matched their interests the most. More organizations need to do sessions like these, and in a moment you’ll see why.

Even though I had volunteered to serve as an “expert”, I was unsure. How much advice could I have to offer? I’m only in my fourth-year as a tenure-track faculty after all. I thought so many things I have to say would be . . . obvious. Turns out, I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a graduate student at a research university. My most interesting exchange was with a graduate student who sat down at my table and started her introduction with something along the lines of “I know you’re at a small liberal arts college, and I don’t want to teach at one, but I still wanted to talk to you . . .” She went on to tell me how much she absolutely loves teaching (which is the reason she decided to get a PhD) but also wants to do research, so the only option for her would be an R1 institution.

Whoa. Here was a passionate and enthusiastic student, one who considers teaching to be close to her heart and she will only consider an R1? What made her think that an R1 was her only option? Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course there are amazing teachers at R1s (I had some of them!), but they don’t normally go there because they love to teach and feel like it is their calling in life.  So I asked her: If you love teaching so much, how come you don’t want to consider a small college?  Turns out that somewhere along the way, she had picked up the idea that small liberal arts colleges, for instance, just make you teach and teach and never leave any time for research. Not only that, she was led to believe that research isn’t rewarded or expected at small liberal arts colleges.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why have I been working so hard at my scholarship then?

Once I cleared up these misconceptions and told her about what life is like at a small liberal arts college like mine, she seemed thrilled. Maybe even relieved. She then told me how a liberal arts option is never really discussed and how people treat her love of teaching as a naïve preoccupation, one that she’ll outgrow once she’s in the real world.

The devaluing of a small liberal arts career is connected to the devaluing of teaching, of course, but it’s also connected to the exaltation of research institutions over any other kind of institution. Why are we trained in graduate school to think of R1s as our top choice? Why do we want our “brightest” students to land at R1s? Having been to a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, then to an R1 for my graduate degree, and now back to a small liberal arts college as faculty, I can tell you that I wouldn’t trade my experience at a liberal arts college for anything, not even for an R1 job.

This is not a denigration of R1 institutions by any means. It is simply a plea to graduate programs to acknowledge that not every one of their students will be happy in a large research institution. If we want graduate students to succeed (that is, be happy in their choices and careers), we need to consider their interests, passions and strengths and advise them accordingly.  But before we can do that, we have to let go of the idea of the research university as the best job in academia.

* I realize that Carnegie has officially dropped this classification. But I use this term in this post, because 1) it is still commonly used, and 2) because it does symbolize the high ranking we give to research universities.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.