“Your degree, your reading list, your completion of a single course at a university can’t automatically make you my ally. Allyhood requires action and understanding. Tell me you’re my ally, and I’ll ask you how you work to end racism and sexism in your everyday life. You can’t dismantle systems of oppression by reciting Angela Davis quotes.”
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I’ve been privy to a sense of inferiority that my education is not as “good” as what I may have gotten from a more prestigious institution or program.
As an academic librarian, I have seen this phenomenon be hushed, glossed over, dismissed, and, well, taboo’ed among professional circles. Only when I am around trusted friends-colleagues does this get any frank voicing and discussion.
I am fully aware of the strong opposing forces in my value system–how my tendencies toward Asian filial piety often conflict with my value for self-actualization, self-determination, and individual agency. There’s nothing quite like parenthood and child-rearing to bring such contradictions in sharp relief.
And since I don’t do mental compartmentalization all that well, and thought puzzles and cognitive dissonance trigger my obsessive tendencies, I am more than a bit fascinated by the hierarchies of perceptions of prestige among academic programs. Shopping for a higher ed school does bring out questions of fit between the individual and institution, sure. But the connection of the institution to a favorable outcome in the job market (i.e., to become gainfully employed), especially in academia, is something I don’t see very often.
Suffice to say, these sorts of prestige rankings of seemingly neutral things, like schools and programs, do develop into rankings of people. I often feel like I have to apologize for attending and graduating from the state-run schools that I did. I’ve also had been in the position of being told that, maybe, I shouldn’t have tried to attend a more prestigious academic graduate program because I am and my previous experiences are just…not good enough. Then there’s this strange train of thought that I find chafing–getting a tenure-track position proves a person’s better quality/better worth/better whathaveyou. I always raise my eyebrow to this and people who say this sort of thing out loud. If we accept that the game is rigged, that certain outlooks and behaviors are valued above others, and that structural and institutional discrimination exists, why, then, the self-congratulations of this ilk? It smacks of ignorance and lack of awareness. And aren’t we supposed to expect more, expect better from academics? Smh.
So, is there a link? If there is one, I think it has to do with our too-human tendency to hierarchically rank things and people. But is there more to this than a garden-variety human tendency? Good question.
Yes, we are very edgy. We’re so far out on the edge of the university, we’re sitting out here on the sidewalk!
Once upon a time, I fancied myself wanting a livelihood out of my devotion to the study of culture. I loved sociology and anthropology. However, I was daunted by the extremely detached scholarly stance that seems to be prevalent in both disciplines. Postmodernist, critical, and deconstructionist perspectives were pushing difficult questions that put a traditionalist in the hot seat, making for very tense, very offensive-defensive sorts of interactions. Coming of age in the late 1990s academy–in San Francisco, California, no less–I grew drunk with promises of social and political relevance for the emerging scholar. The subaltern was speaking and she was pissed, emotional, and that was okay. What’s more, she was learned, scholarly, and not taking any guff from anybody, just because she was a brown woman. She’ll do analysis, publish, and do social theorizing herself, with or without permission from anybody.
The promise of this sort of scholarship was not forthcoming from the more-traditional programs that I encountered. This made me opt for cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University. One of my most vivid memories of doing cultural studies at CGU is encapsulated in the quotation above, made to me by a fellow student in the program–cultural studies makes no apologies for doing scholarship with purpose. We were racking up the student debt in the tens of thousands without any promise of future employment. Much like real life, there were no guarantees. We knew it would be hard to get a job afterwards, but we were there to become activist scholars, not worker drones of the university machine. We just didn’t care. Or if we did, we didn’t talk much about it.
During my time at CGU, I was immersed in literary theory and philosophy, reading about art and literature in ways that I hadn’t done before (Benjamin? Who’s that? Hoggart who? You mean the Frankfurt School has nothing to do with sausages?). What I recall most of all about my scholarly program, however, wasn’t the intellectual growth or stimulation. It was the high level of isolation and dread that permeated my existence as a grad student. The discomfort I experienced was so palpable that I burst into uncontrollable tears during one of my paper readings in class, in front of people I had to see the next day. I had reached the limits of faking for survival. Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to be a cultural anthropologist and scholar. Maybe I didn’t have the chops to be the well-spoken subaltern. I just couldn’t read a dense academic text each week, for each class, and still be the sort of mother and wife I wanted, needed to be. In 2000, I dropped out of CGU and the graduate program I was a part of. I left feeling like a failure. In my darkest moments, to this day, this failure still haunts me. What’s more, I left after spending a number of semesters becoming really intimate with the student health services and various forms of SSRIs.
Looking back, my trek to San José State University’s library school was a small personal triumph. It was an act of defiant return, with the recognition that I wasn’t wanted or meant to succeed.
Now, I’m being pushed out…again. Is it time for me to admit defeat? Should I finally accept that I suck? That my academic space would be much better used by a more ardent scholar? That none of this has anything to do with my being born brown, in a little-known colonized nation, and with a particular type of reproductive function?
Got words for me? Please write in the comments. I haven’t yet concluded this tale. Maybe you can help me do that?
“In a way, this reflected what I would call “slow-boil activism.” I have certainly encountered a number of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position. My own critique of this is how much one must bite their tongue and compromise to stay on this path, and that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you. But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career.”
Some of my random thoughts: Surviving in the belly of a very hostile beast is not easy. Thanks for the tough love. But what I really need is the gentle kind.
Should I have the fortune and enough fortitude to continue with my graduate studies, it would be because of my desire to make a difference in the lives of people living in the margins. Oh, helping advance the field would be great, too, but really, it’s optional. Right now, I am glad to do what I can, in support of matters that are of gravest importance to me.
Things crystallized for me, as an academic-librarian-wannabe-scholar-wannabe-activist, after reading Michelle Munyikwa‘s post, “Be Vital. Be Involved.” She writes of a woman’s plight to seek legal justice for her son, who has been jailed. She attempted to contact a number of scholars of mass incarceration, but came up with nothing.
For her, this was a source of outrage and shock. How could no one have responded to her? What were we here for, studying this stuff, if we aren’t going to help community members as they need it?
Many librarians believe in, are committed to the spirit and letter of service to their communities. I know many believe in, are committed to, and can articulate answers to the questions posed by the woman in Munyikwa’s post (conveniently quoted above).
While having these questions answered and settled allow us to do the work necessary to be of service, I strongly suggest we never, ever, ever stop asking these questions. Failing to do so regularly puts us on the very precarious path towards further irrelevance. As a friend of mine whom I greatly admire recently said to me, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
“They are stories that show how far some people will go to silence women and minority voices, and how those silencers are in positions of power or aided and abetted by those who are.”
“If she is a whore for doing that then so are many of us doing the work we believe in without the assumed authority of being white and male. I am that kind of whore and trust me, if you think its hard out there for a pimp wait until you hear from a woman working the tracks.”
via Academic Whores.
Sounds about right. LOL!