Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

cupofSTFUAh, yes: freedom of speech. What some really mean when they evoke it is, “my right to have my say and not have you talk back,” like all of those crybabies who have cancelled their appearances at commencement ceremonies in the last few years because not every student and faculty member greeted their future appearance on campus with hugs and cocoa and slankets.

If you really believe in liberty of speech, then stop telling others to STFU.  In my view, the people who are being criticized most vigorously for speaking up lately at Yale and the University of Missouri are all too often quiet about their experiences, silent on campus, and eager not to draw attention to themselves, and it’s these students whose voices we need to listen to the most.

Too many people have zero imagination about what it is to be African American or Latin@ on a historically white college or university (HWCU) campus. But everyone who has ever attended or taught or worked at a HWCU knows that African Americans on HWCUs are viewed with suspicion just for being there, let alone when they try to unlock their own damn bikes or organize a protest about their marginalization.

I teach at a HWCU in Northern Colorado, a place that is increasingly Latin@ but has very few African American residents.  In my classes, my experience with non-white students in general, and African American students in particular, over the past fourteen years is that they go out of their way to be polite, inoffensive, unobtrusive, and try not to call attention to themselves in any way.  Their efforts to try to fly under the radar and evade notice grieve me, even as I think I understand their interest in remaining quiet and unobtrusive.  I work to offer a non-white perspective on history constantly, but I don’t know if I’m making it better or worse for my non-white students (or if they even care.) That’s the reality of attending a HWCU for the majority of black students in the United States:  working hard to get your degree, trying not be noticed, not taking up much space or speaking up in class. Continue reading

Tired of academic quit lit? Another view on academic labor.

dontquitApparently responding to the recent spate of academic “quit lit,” Matthew Pratt Guterl writes:

Let me tell you why not to quit.

You’ve been told that the university is a back-breaking neoliberal machine. That it encourages a certain solipsism and inhibits any sort of solidarity. That it will wall you off from colleagues and comrades. That it wants you to be happy but also to focus only on your own happiness. And that, by doing so, by finding happiness in the profit you glean from your own labor, you are complicit in someone else’s tragic undoing. In their erasure from life on the tenure stream. And in their own chance at happiness. That the ideological work of the institution dissolves your identity as a worker, and that it makes it impossible for you to connect with someone else with a different pay grade or institutional status, even if you both work in the classroom.

The architects of this story are scarred survivors of a dystopian landscape. Brilliant and talented, they’ve walked away from the tenure stream, spent a few years questing for a bright future, or never quite got close. The university they describe is bleak. It features: people tearing down other people; days and weeks spent alone in the office; a job market that resembles Lord of the Flies; faculty who are either preening peacocks or back-stabbing social climbers; students who will suck the life out of you, or who too closely scrutinize your tone and your words; administrators interested only measuring things, in taking away money, or in expanding their own ranks. They describe a life set to the lonely rhythm of the keypad and warmed by narcissism.

He appreciates the totalizing effects of this academic dystopianism:  “Full of strong colors and clear divisions, it is a magnificent, totalizing, overdetermined work of art.  Dystopian landscapes serve a purpose. They do great political work. Their broad brush strokes are meant to persuade, but also to focus the eye on a single, instrumentally conceived big picture. I might disagree with them on the details, but I also see their truth out there.”

But then he makes his point, which is an important one:  “other realities are out there. Other landscapes for you to inhabit. Or to create.”  Continue reading

Sometimes I don’t know what to say.

In both my grad class and my undergrad class this week we’re discussing Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America.  This is a book that goes over very well with college students, given their vulnerability to sexual assault as well as Block’s analysis of the racial and class dynamics of rape complaints and prosecutions.  I was pushing my students on the question of why more hasn’t changed over the past 300 years, and decided to ask them if they knew someone who had been raped.  All of us but ONE person out of 17 or 18 of us in the discussion section raised a hand. Continue reading

The author’s corner: Selbstmörder und freiheit edition


University of Chicago Press, 2015

Don’t miss John Fea’s interview of Terri L. Snyder about her brand-new bookThe Power to Die:  Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015)., which I learned of via the ubiquitous and always-in-the-know Liz Covart on Twitter.

In the course of the interview, Snyder outlines how she came about her ideas for her second book in the course of researching her first book, Brabbilng Women:  Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia (Cornell University Press, 2003; Cornell Paperback, 2013): Continue reading

You #LookLikeAProfessor too!

magicmirrorThere’s a nice explanation at Inside Higher Ed today about the #ILookLikeAProfessor meme that took off last week on Twitter.  Masterminded by my Tweet peeps Sarah Pritchard, Adeline Koh, and Michelle Moravec, the movement attempts to address the age-old problem that we professors who aren’t bearded white men face at work:

Frustrated by the microaggressions we experience as “nontraditional” faculty, we started a new hashtag:#ILookLikeAProfessor. The flurry of photos, retweets and horror stories since last Thursday suggests that we are not alone in experiencing entrenched stereotypes and bias — both subtle and explicit.

  • The female professor mistaken for an undergraduate. She was grading homework, not doing it.
  • Male teaching assistants assumed to be the professor.
  • Faculty members of color assumed to be the custodian.
  • Asian professors assumed to be Chinese food delivery drivers.

We are not making this up.

Continue reading

White woman faculty member encounters campus “police.”

Perhaps like many of you, I was appalled but sadly not shocked by the senseless murder of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati “police officer” Ray Tensing.  The only thing that surprised me is 1) what violent people are willing to do even when they know the cameras are rolling, and 2) that Tensing was indicted yesterday on murder and manslaughter chargers.  Also 3) why the f^(k are campus “police” issued service revolvers?  This is clearly a risk to public safety on and near our campuses.

Higher education needs to look to itself to address the militarization of campus “police forces.”  It’s not just the state troopers and municipal police, but the so-called campus “police” who patrol our workplaces and our students’ educational and recreational spaces.  DuBose’s death has moved me to share my encounters with campus “police” over the past twenty years of my life as a faculty member.  Yes, me!  Goody-two-shoes white faculty lady! Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading