Tenured Radical offers some thoughts from pseudonymous guest blogger Herlin Hathaway, a Jamaican American graduate of a small, liberal arts college who’s midway through his first year in a Ph.D. program. The main point of the post is to get some insight into academic transitions like Hathaway’s, but to me the strongest point that came through in his piece was the overwhelming whiteness of the faculty he has worked with:
My advisors had always told me that there is something about being a black male in academia that attracts well intentioned but often embarrassing special attention from some white faculty. I had not experienced this while at Little College because my professors seem to have been the most socially conscious, social justice oriented and culturally sensitive teachers ever. They were never patronizing or imposing and always critical but kind. Indeed, there were other professors at Little College who were known for being inappropriate or “too much” but I never studied with them. I was not prepared to not have this happen in graduate school, however.
. . . . . . .
Prof. X is not so much inappropriate as he is overly paternalistic. Prof. X wants to “rescue” me intellectually, which is both nice because he is supporting my work, but weird because sometimes he talks down to me. In class, Prof. X points to me when he discusses any and all things “African American.” (This I can at least understand because my work is on the African American family but it has become a running joke in the class because he doesn’t realize he does it.)
Prof. X once asked me if I played basketball because I’m so much taller than him. I told him I used to play football. In front of the whole class, Prof. X then proceeded to tell me how he graciously helped (almost rescued) his previous inner city black student-athlete from his inability to read and write and guided the young man to become a multiple fellowship award winner (Fulbright, White House Internships etc.).
Hathaway’s experience is probably all too common given the absence of faculty of color on most faculties, let alone in top graduate programs. As I recall, I worked with three black faculty in my decade-long college and graduate school career and no other faculty of color, compared to dozens of white faculty.
Hathaway’s commentary is also a fascinating sociology of whiteness, particularly with respect to a major quirk among white faculty-types today: obligatory dog companionship at all times.
I confess I’ve never been a dog person. Before I went to Little College, I had never known a friendly dog and I never knew anyone who had a dog. As a child I was taught to run or at least stay far away if I saw a stray dog because it probably had rabies or would attack me. (My Jamaican parents were convinced that there was something fundamentally different in American dogs as distinct from the dogs they owned “back home.”)
My parents and I thought it was crazy and sort of funny that on my freshman move-in day, a number of dogs were roaming the dorm halls and resting on the couches because a few students had brought their pets to see them off. (My father concluded that this was evidence of Little College’s “liberal” policies.) So, imagine my surprise when I visited my first year advisor’s office during freshman orientation and realized that her dog stayed in her office!
Advisor: Are you okay with dogs?
She lets the dog out of the pen and I sort of freeze up in my seat as it walks to me, sniffing my shoes and my bag. At this point I’m only half listening while my advisor is introducing herself because I’m trying to look as comfortable as possible around a dog that has quickly grown fond of my book bag. I missed most of what she said in the meeting but that day I learned that dogs are part of academic life.
Those of you who have been affiliated with a college like Hathaway’s will understand what he means. In addition to a White Thing, the dog fetish must be a SLAC and elite school affectation–teaching at a public Aggie means that the only animals on my campus (aside from the occasional service dogs and Seminar, my commuter horse) are the patients in the off-campus Vet School emergency department and the ones hanging upside down in the Animal Science building awaiting their appointment with the meat cutting students. In other words, animals have their uses here–and hanging out in faculty offices ain’t one of ’em. (And this is not the case because we on the faculty aren’t white, of course. Like pretty much everywhere but at HBCs, we are overwhelmingly a white faculty.)
Go read the whole thing. Good luck, Herlin Hathaway, and dog bless.