Strategies for Negotiating Power and Privilege in Academia

A year ago, a former student, Ishman Anderson, a young Black man currently a doctoral candidate in the San Francisco State University Educational Leadership Program, asked me if I battled the impostor syndrome, that is, the belief that we are academic frauds and do not belong at the university.[1] He asked me this question because he knew that I had grown up in the barrio of East San Jose and was a Chicana scholar in the academy. (Ishman, too, grew up in an under served neighborhood, West Oakland, and is now in academia.) “All the time,” I replied, “but I don’t care anymore,” which I knew was a lie as soon as I said it. “But if I no longer cared,” I continued, “then why would I have published my third book (based on my parents’ courtship and migration, I might add) before many of my white colleagues had yet to publish their second book?” “I do pressure myself a lot,” I confessed. “And it’s probably because of my need to overcompensate, as I’ve never felt ‘good enough’ or ‘legitimate’ in academia,” I said. These beliefs, I told him, “hurt us in so many ways.”

The impostor syndrome, I believe, is rooted directly to our lack of access to power and privilege in academia. While it can serve to motivate us, to prove to others and ourselves that we belong and have the skills, focus, and drive to succeed, it also ignites anxiety, increases stress, and makes us a little paranoid. My bout with impostor syndrome started as an undergraduate at UCLA, a place that was foreign academically, culturally, and socially, given that, in high school and during my childhood, I rarely ventured out of barrios in San Jose, except to travel to Mexico to visit relatives. In graduate school, the feeling of not belonging was amplified, as I had barely made it into graduate school (only one school accepted me, UCLA, thanks to a mentor, who pushed for my admittance and a one-year funding package). Plus, I was unfamiliar with much of the curriculum, even though I had studied the same subject, History, as an undergraduate. In my seminars, I thought for sure the professors could see through me, that I did not belong, as I often sensed that they paid little attention to me. Perhaps that was my paranoia but certainly I did not get much notice, which was how I wanted it. The last thing I wanted was to be thrust into the middle of a classroom discussion. My approach was to work hard and find a way to pull through. I did not, however, do it alone.

While in graduate school, I had an intensely supportive circle of friends, colleagues, and mentors. Though few in number, they taught me how to navigate departmental politics, professors’ idiosyncrasies, and demanding academic expectations, especially composing well-researched and argued papers, which was certainly my weakest asset. Without these champions, I would not have earned the PhD. Equally important, I would not have had the opportunity to establish the academic base I needed to pursue my scholarly agenda, which was (and remains) making Chicana and Chicano history accessible to wider audiences and making sure that the university is responsive to students of color. Tackling that agenda, however, was not an easy feat, especially in my years as a junior scholar.

It was then, at about the time I filed my dissertation in 1998, that I began to learn the insidious nature of power and privilege in academia. Not only did I have to learn about going on the job market, but once there I had to understand how to land and negotiate a job offer, establish a presence in the scholarly world, and battle (not balance) academic life with personal life. Along the way, I suffered bumps and bruises but also gained many personal and professional insights and rewards. Today, nearly twenty years later, I would like to offer a few words of advice to scholars along their academic paths.[2]

Finding Effective Mentors

In my view, one of the most effective strategies you can take in navigating power and privilege in academia is finding mentors who will advocate for you. While you may already have people to guide you with your research or put you in contact with scholars who might help you down the road, you can and should work to build relationships with a variety of mentors on and off campus. As Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Council for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) reminds us, we cannot rely on any one “guru” to have all the answers.[3] Whether it is finding the right press for your book or the right journal for your articles, teaching large courses while furthering your research agenda, or figuring out how to say “no” to service commitments, seek individuals who will have your back and are approachable, decent human beings. To do that, pay close attention to your colleagues’ accomplishments, passions, and demeanor. If they are heavily invested in teaching, seek them out for tips and techniques in the classroom. If they publish regularly and you are worried about where to submit an essay, invite them to coffee and ask them for their insights on venues. If they sit on a lot of committees, especially on promotion and tenure or other high-powered committees, invite them to lunch and ask them questions about the “P/T” process. If they have been successful in obtaining grants and fellowships, inquire about their research agendas and funding sources and how you can do that too. Certainly you want to avoid asking every faculty member for the tricks of their trade, but do choose one or two issues of most importance to you.

As you probably already know, most of your colleagues will likely not come from underrepresented groups in academia. But do not discount them. They just might have the answers to your questions and provide you with the right tools. This was certainly the case in my life. My main advisor in graduate school was an upper middle-class white man, Norris Hundley Jr., who not only guided me to the PhD but also did the same for generations of historians of color. Hundley’s greatest gift was teaching me the fundamentals of writing, an art that I continue to practice and perfect. Tragically, Hundley passed away in 2013. We all continue to mourn his loss.

As Hundley’s passing taught me, mentors are not forever. It is normal and expected to have new mentors in our lives. In most cases, the relationships morph as a result of transitions in our careers, that is, moving from graduate students to post-docs and/or junior, mid-level, and full professors. In short, our mentors shift as our needs do, as well.

Mentors are not limited to academia but also found in our families and communities. For many years, my aunt was my main mentor. She raised me and my brother from the ages of 12 and 13, respectively, after our parents died in a car accident. She was approachable, caring, and a good listener. I valued her input. Whenever I needed advice about negotiating child-rearing with the demands of being a professor, she was there to counsel me. By her example, I learned the importance of selflessness and lending a hand to the less advantaged, qualities I continue to try to achieve. Unfortunately, my aunt passed away in 2013 and no one has been able to fill her shoes. I doubt anyone ever will.

Though one-on-one mentoring relationships are ideal, do not lose sight of mentoring resources as found online at NCFDD, Inside Higher Education, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among many others. Take advantage of them. Most are free or available through your institution.

Becoming Effective Mentors

To negotiate power and privilege, we must not only find effective mentors but also become mentors ourselves in order to continue the work of “lifting as we climb,” as Black club women and activists of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club set out to do in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[4] We must remember, too, as historian Vicki Ruiz reminds us, “[w]e are educators, not surrogate parents, older siblings, or therapists,” [yet] “we do share a responsibility to ‘re-gift’ the mentorship that was so pivotal to our own professional journeys.”[5] Doing so does not mean mimicking our mentors. Rather, we must develop our own style and remain mindful of the differences among our students. Remember, significant diversity exists among undergraduate and graduate, documented and undocumented, working-class and middle-class, first generation, immigrant, and native-born students and we must bear those in mind when we advocate on their behalf. Though I have not always been able know the histories of my students, I have provided opportunities for them to share their stories. To do so in the classroom, I assign them a brief personal essay, asking them what they want me to know about them. In another assignment, I will ask them to write about who supported them along their path to higher education. Outside of the classroom, I approach our student center that is designed to meet the needs of under-served students and let them know of my willingness to serve as an advisor or mentor for special interest student groups. I also try to get to know them by reaching out to them in person, during a student event or before or after class. I don’t just ask them to come to office hours. I try to meet them in their comfort zones or safe spaces such as in study centers, cafes, or libraries, and offer to pay for coffee or a meal.

Finally, in looking out for their best interests, I have tried to put aside my professional and personal aches and pains, as difficult as it may be to do so, and focus on their needs. In doing so, I can begin the work of advocating on their behalf.

Strengthening Writing

Navigating power and privilege also includes strengthening ones’ academic skills to ensure promotion and tenure. In my field, publishing is the primary way we are evaluated, promoted, and granted access to power and privilege. If your writing needs improvement, as mine did when I started, find ways to strengthen it. To me, strengthening writing means learning and applying basic grammatical rules—which I didn’t learn until graduate school, under the guidance of my advisor, Hundley—as well as establishing your voice while, at the same time, keeping your audience in mind. You might ask yourself, do you need to write as an academic, using the terminology (i.e., jargon) needed to speak to those in your field or related fields (as you need to do for promotion)? Or, do you want to write for a broader, informed public (as you might do so after tenure)? Whatever group of readers you seek to satisfy, identify colleagues or peers who are willing to provide useful, specific feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and how you can sharpen or enliven it.[6]

Another approach I took to improve was to read books on “how to” unpack and refine your writing. There are tons. I have turned to that literature throughout my career and, at one point, subscribed to Writer’s Digest. In addition to that strategy, I read (and continue to read) the works of authors I admire for their engaging and compelling prose and innovative methodology. Among my personal favorites are Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed.[7] You might also consider hiring a professional editor who can help you unpack ideas and clarify your arguments, especially if you have no one to lend a hand with the elements of grammar or syntax that enable you convey the purpose of your work. If seeking help from an editor can help you learn how to clarify and advance your writing, then it seems a smart choice. However, I would caution you against depending on them to organize your ideas or motivate you when in a writing bind. Remember, many of us are asked to write regularly and on demand. You must have the writing skills to be able to meet those expectations.

Service Work and Learning to Say “No”

Among the many other essential skills that I found helped me as a junior scholar was to finesse the art of saying “no,” especially to service commitments in my home department and across campus. I found that I had to be strategic and consider the various power structures at play, namely the chair of the department, dean of the division, and committees (i.e., senior colleagues). Most departments will tell their junior faculty that they will be protected from doing too much service. While that may seem true to a senior scholar who has labored for the last twenty-five years overseeing faculty searches, sitting on personnel committees, and drafting departmental reports, to a junior scholar, serving on a departmental committee might seem onerous. I would agree that, to the uninitiated, service is burdensome and stressful but it is expected and can be rewarding, professionally and personally. Whether in your department or across campus, choose committees that are meaningful to you and have the potential to build the networks that are crucial to our careers. In my experience in working elbow to elbow with colleagues across campus, I have established powerful alliances with senior colleagues, including deans. Those allies, in turn, have spoken to my strengths as a leader and team player and have recommended me for other posts around campus. Most importantly, they advocated for me when it came to promotion and tenure.

I would caution you, however, in saying “yes” to every commitment to try and please colleagues and campus administrators. Before saying yes, I suggest that you do what many scholars of color have already suggested we do in navigating service requests: form a “‘no’ committee.” That is, identify at least three trusted friends and colleagues, preferably those not in your department or campus, who will help you contemplate the request and help you say “no,” professionally and diplomatically. Other strategies include waiting at least 24 hours to respond to the request and asking colleagues who have participated in such committees about the service load monthly or annually. You might also point out that “you would love to participate but already have three other commitments.” To juggle service, I also often follow the words of advice of one of my mentors: “get on high profile, low labor committee work”–that way you maintain control of your workload and fulfill necessary duties. Such low-labor committees usually include those whose mandate is to review reports, discuss pertinent campus issues, and make recommendations. Most importantly, these committees require “no homework.” In other words, it is work that can be done in the two-hour time frame of the meeting.

Equally importantly, document your labor, especially the invisible labor, as your service is used as a criteria for promotion and tenure. Informing colleagues of your work in pulling together an on-campus conference or symposium, for instance, or letting them know about your role on a committee or post outside of your home department is crucial in rendering the totality of your service. (I have worked, for instance, for the graduate division as well as the campus library but no one would pay attention to that unless I went out of my way to underscore that work, which I do out of professional and personal satisfaction.) Now is not the time to be humble or shy about your service. It needs to be recognized and rewarded.

Battling (not Balancing) Professional and Personal Goals

An equally essential realization I have developed over time is understanding that “work-life balance” is a myth. The idea that one can keep the demands of one’s professional and personal life in harmony is a fallacy. Yet, as junior scholars, especially as women of color, we are often told that we can publish, teach, and provide service, all needed to ascend the ranks of academia, while we establish meaningful relationships, start a family, if we so wish, and maintain our sanity. I say this not to discourage you from trying to achieve your professional and personal goals simultaneously, but rather to relieve you from unrealistic expectations, such as landing a job while dealing with a personal or family health crisis. While many institutions provide some relief for those going through major life changes, like having a child or caring for an elderly parent, they do not make up for lapses in our academic careers or resolve rocky personal relationships. More significantly, they fail to address the gender biases built into the invisible labor of care.

For me, ascending the ranks to full professor and being a healthy spouse, mother, cook, sister, comadre, and runner has been no picnic. I would be lying if I said I had attended every family reunion, birthday party, soccer game, and PTA meeting, while also carrying out my academic commitments. I have had to compromise on more than one occasion. I have also tried doing it all only to end up injured or injuring those I care about. I do not recommend any of that. Instead, I encourage you to structure and prioritize your time.[8] This will relieve you from feeling guilt or anger about not working on an article or missing a yoga class. Yes, some things have to give, but not you or your scholarly or social agenda.

Miroslava Chávez-García

University of California, Santa Barbara

 

“IMG_2708″ Photo by Flickr User betterDCregion. Taken May 4, 2017. CC BY 2.0

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The author would like to thank the following people for providing critical feedback: Ernesto Chávez, Vicki Ruiz, and an anonymous reader at Latinx Talk. The essay emerged from a plenary presentation delivered at the 2018 Ford Foundational Annual Conference in Irvine, California. Thanks, too, to fellow co-panelists, Annemarie Perez and Ray Serrano.

[1] Ishman Anderson granted permission to disclose his identity. Mr. Anderson is also a successful mentor. After graduating from UC Davis with his bachelor’s and receiving his master’s in counseling from UCLA, he landed a counseling position at California State University, East Bay. There, he started a support group, My Other Brother or MOB, for young men of color, primarily Black and Latino. To this day, Mr. Anderson continues MOB at the same time he works full time and pursues his PhD.

[2] I welcome, too, any feedback. Email: mchavezgarcia@history.ucsb.edu.

[3] Kerry Anne Rockquemore, PhD, is founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (https://www.facultydiversity.org/). She is also a prolific essayist on all topics related to mentorship and academia more broadly. For a list of some of her posts at Inside Higher Education, an online resource on higher education, visit https://www.insidehighered.com/users/kerry-ann-rockquemore.

[4] “Lifting as we climb” was the founding principle of the organization. For more, see, https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2018/02/21/lifting-as-we-climb-the-story-of-americas-first-black-womens-club/. For more on the organization, visit http://nacwc.org/.

[5] Vicki Ruiz, “The Gift of Mentorship,” Perspectives on History, March 1, 2015, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2015/the-gift-of-mentorship, accessed November 16, 2018.

[6]See, Miroslava Chávez-García, “Strategies for Publishing in the Humanities: A Senior Professor Advises Junior Scholars,” The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 48, no. 4 (July 2017), 199-220.

[7] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. (New York: Vintage, 2011); and, Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed (London: A&C Black, 2013).

[8] If possible, explain your work commitments to those you care about most or who depend on you, especially when they are unfamiliar with glacier speed in which work—namely, publishing—is accomplished in academia. Let them know that you are not ignoring them or their needs, but need to focus on your short- and long-term goals such as tenure.

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