fuck advice columns

The following is a guest post by Victoria Reyes.

I used to write columns for Inside Higher Ed, for example, that pinpointed practices that can help grad students, postdocs, and faculty not just survive, but thrive in the academy, even in the midst of crises. 

Why is it, then, that I’ve recently become so angry when I see similar, recent essays? Like the one describing the habits of successful faculty during the pandemic. Here the author stated: 

Faculty who seemed to do the best described themselves as not only highly committed to making the online format effective, but they balanced this commitment with a spirit of understanding, patience and kindness with both their students and themselves. They recognized they would not be able to accomplish everything they might have wanted at the start of the semester, so they made realistic adjustments in their expectations. That included modifying their lesson plans; reducing lectures and, in some cases, replacing them with independent learning activities; cutting or limiting student assignments; and providing extra support to students who needed help.

They also provided space for students to share their experiences and frustrations with their transitions to online learning and established a collaborative environment that allowed them to work with their students to make adjustments as issues and concerns arose. They were clear throughout the process that they and their students were to just do the very best they could during an incredibly difficult situation.

This is contrasted with faculty who were not successful. These faculty, instead: 

talked about feeling an inordinate amount of pressure to get everything done right and to cover the same content in the same way that they would have during a normal semester. Given that maintaining the same academic pace was impossible, their exhaustive attempts at achieving it resulted in their feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. Efforts to quickly learn how to use the new technological tools to do the same things they did in person were frustrating. They also expressed annoyance with students who were not as engaged in class activities or who struggled to meet the assignment deadlines because of the pandemic. In essence, the pressure of trying to do everything perfectly became overwhelming, which caused such faculty members to feel defeated and, in some cases, to even become disengaged.

The author ends with a call for “good enough” which does not lower standards. But the underlying assumption in this essay is that these faculty are all equal. Equal in pay, life circumstances, how the pandemic has affected them, and the institutional support provided, among other considerations. I fully agree that during the pandemic, faculty needs to readjust expectations and provide supportive, kind and patient environments. That’s also more difficult to do when administration or faculty colleagues do not do the same. Or if a faculty member is financially precarious, is caring for sick, elderly, or young children at home, or is subject to racism and sexism by administrators, faculty, staff and students. 

Or the essay where the author says that the problem of not enough students of color in STEM is due to students of color advising one another to not major in departments with hostile climates or not to take classes from faculty who perpetuate said hostile climate. The author first suggests the need for “Creating meaningful ways for students to form diverse friendship networks” – with the implication being that students of color need friends who don’t advise them about hostile climates, effectively blaming students of color themselves for not being STEM majors. Or suggesting that “students of color also need to be connected to mentors of similar backgrounds in their first semester. They need mentors who understand their experiences in the chilly climate and the biased advice they will receive” which only puts even more service, mentoring and equity issues on faculty of color and other marginalized faculty who are often not even in the problematic department and if so, are likely already dealing with extensive and similar stress.  To be sure, the author’s last suggestion is to “faculty must work to cultivate classrooms that are inclusive for all students. Advisers must combat their own biases to ensure that they are working to help students overcome racial inequality — not perpetuating it themselves with their advice.” But cultivating inclusive environments needs to be front and center. And even still, how it’s framed here is individualizing hostile climates. Instead, advice needs to be centered on breaking down and breaking up hostile climates to begin with, which are systemic and not the result of a few “bad apples.”

The pandemic, coupled with heightened exposure of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the racism and sexism that higher ed and the United States is built on, has broken something in me. Broken my tolerance for bullshit excuses and performative statements and activities that do nothing to address the systemic racism and sexism that keep academe (and life more generally, though this essay is aimed at academia) exclusionary. So I’m using my anger with precision, as Audre Lorde suggests, to write this essay and fuel my efforts toward a more equitable and just academia and against racism and sexism. 

Reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ statement about why she chose to reject UNC Chapel Hill’s offer after political, racist interference from the Board of Trustees blocking her tenure, and choosing to go to Howard to build a Center for Journalism and Democracy was inspiring and affirmative. 

Here, I quote her at length: 

At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.

I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.

But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight.

She continued: 

Many people, all with the best of intentions, have said that if I walk away from UNC, I will have let those who opposed me win. But I do not want to win someone else’s game. It is not my job to heal this university, to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice.

For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.

I read those words and got chills. While I cannot directly relate to her and other Black faculty’s experiences, they parallel my own, and the experiences of other marginalized faculty that I personally know. Many similar stories of Black academics and other marginalized academics are also documented in anthologies like Presumed IncompetentStories from the Front Room, and Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics

Hannah-Jones’ statement and decision puts into practice the saying that you should move to a place where you are celebrated and not tolerated. It also reaffirms my own transition to the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies from the Department of Sociology.  

Don’t get me wrong, advice columns can be useful. They reveal what’s known as the “hidden curriculum” and can help individuals navigate the complex and often confusing matrix that constitutes academic life. But that’s exactly where it gets it wrong. Focusing on individuals’ behaviors – particularly those who are marginalized – and how to navigate systems that were built on racism and sexism does nothing to change these systems (see Bedelia Nicola Richards on cultural capital as white-centered). It may allow more people to enter. But it also just means more people are traumatized, socialized into an exclusionary academic system, and taught to think that how people are treated is okay. It is not. Academia is a workplace, and as such needs to be held similarly accountable for hostile climates it creates.  

So what to do? Get rid of advice columns? Not necessarily. Advice columns, if they continue, need to be primarily geared toward structural, not individual, change. That’s the only way to move forward if we have any hopes of making the academy more inclusive. 

It means that instead of aiming advice towards those most vulnerable, advice needs to be given – and then put into practice – to those who hold the most power: administration (whether that be president, chancellor, Dean, Department Chairs, and the like) and tenured faculty. 

What does that look like in practice?

If faculty of color and other marginalized faculty have incredibly high service and mentoring responsibilities, instead of advising them to say no – because the first time you say “no” often is accompanied by a follow up to the request, trying to explain why you should say “yes” – think about why we are saying yes and the incredibly important labor marginalized faculty are doing on behalf of the university and students. Work that is necessary and that the university could not function without. So instead, value this work that is often devalued and discounted. Make it mean more in hiring, merit and promotions. Or recognize this labor with money – pay faculty for doing this important work. 

I went to the ASA book forum for Adia Wingfield’s wonderful book, Flatlining, and in the session, she stated something to the effect of instead of paying faculty for this work, institutions should hire separate positions to do this work or create mentoring programs to redistribute the workload of mentoring, making the institution take on the responsibility of equity. I agree with Wingfield. My own experience has also seen that even with mentoring programs in place, all mentoring is not equal and there are many faculty who create toxic workplaces in the guise of “mentoring.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have mentoring programs. We need to institutionalize this important work. Instead, I think the solution needs to be multifaceted. 

If there is racism and sexism in a department, for example, don’t advise marginalized faculty and grad students on how to handle or respond to these encounters. Hold faculty accountable. Support chairs that address these issues head on. Definitely don’t put problematic faculty in leadership positions. Also, realize that teaching and mentoring graduate students, for example, are privileges and not academic rights, so if your department is a PhD granting department, limit interactions between problematic faculty and grad students. How can you identify who is problematic and who is not some people may wonder? It’s not a secret. It’s often open knowledge and can be traced to those conversations marginalized faculty and grad students have with department leadership about interactions and policies that are harmful and exclusionary. 

Too often, those in power seek to protect themselves, their own, and the institution. But that cannot be the default behavior if we are to change the academy and make it more inclusive, not just in words but in actual practice and for lived experiences of those who are marginalized. Nor can shaking your head, condemning behavior with words but not following up with concrete action nor change. Instead, what is needed is accountability and an understanding that accountability does not equate to harm.

Victoria Reyes is Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC-Riverside.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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