Author discusses her book on being an “academic outsider”

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In Academic Outsider: Stories of Exclusion and Hope (Stanford University Press), Victoria Reyes offers plenty of both kinds of stories.

She also mixes stories of her professional life, such as the first rejection of a journal article she wrote, with very personal stories, such as her mother telling her: “I wish you had never been born. I should have had an abortion.”

Reyes, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, combines these stories with stories of her earning academic success. She responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: How did you decide on the approach you took with your book?

A: To be honest, I don’t think the approach I took with the book was something I decided on consciously. The book is a result of the COVID-19 ongoing pandemic, and in particular the school and colleges shutdowns that started in March 2020, alongside the increased attention to anti-Black racism and ongoing movements toward racial justice. My children remained at home for 2020-2021, with my daughter going through first grade virtually and my son staying at home instead of being at preschool. During the first 18 months of the pandemic, I couldn’t focus on my empirical work. Writing these essays became my way of coping when my world was falling apart and when any kind of barrier I had tried to erect between my personal and professional life collapsed. During this time, I also found myself drawn toward similar essay books, such as Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal Fleming, THICK by Tressie McMillan Cottom, and similar feminist writings that use the personal to theorize, such as Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed, all of which influenced my thinking and writing.

Q: You write that although you are a Filipino, many people assume you are Latina. How has this shaped your view of academe?

A: To be honest, I’m not sure. I think that each time it happens, it reinforces the invisibility of Filipino Americans (despite being the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States and despite the Philippines being a former U.S. colony) and diversity of Asian Americans more generally. It is one more instance of feeling as though I do not belong and am unrecognized.

Q: You write of graduate school admissions that, for many students, it depends on their relationship with someone who will mentor and advise them. How did that work for you? How does that system discourage many minority candidates?

A: In the book, I discuss graduate admissions in the context of how love and worth shape our lives, using the university as a particular kind of workplace.

To start off, it’s important to address what the graduate admissions process looks like in practice. Often, at least in my field of sociology, the application consists of a research statement, personal statement, GRE scores, letters of recommendation and transcripts. As part of the essays, perspective students are often asked to identify one or two mentors in the department with whom they would like to work with. Part of the rationale in asking this is to determine that elusive racialized, gendered, and classed concept of “fit” between the student’s interest and faculty expertise. In my previous department, while there was a committee that ultimately determined to whom to offer admissions, the committee chair would forward faculty any student who listed them as a potential mentor, asking their thoughts and/or if they’d be willing to mentor any of the students. The exact process likely differs across not only disciplines, but also departments.

Love and worth — which I describe in the book as not only a resource that individuals give or use (e.g., a form of what French theorist Bourdieu calls capital), but also sets of practices and as something structural and unevenly distributed — shapes this process in a number of ways. Scholars such as Tressie McMillan Cottom have also written about how the institution “cannot love you.” While love and worth shapes life, it goes back to even to how we determine college funding and who and what is “worthy” of funds and who is not, for example, I’ll limit my short answer to what is directly considered in the admissions process.

First, the parts of the application itself — the essays, transcripts, scores, and letters of recommendation — are not “objective.” Instead reflect and are the product of broader social forces, including gendered racism, that shape schools and neighborhoods. Second, the judgments of quality, worth, and potential (that is, how we define “quality” and “good”) that both prospective mentors and the admissions committee make are themselves racialized, gendered, and classed. Additionally, we know that people “like” those who are similar to themselves, whether that be in hiring, friendship, and the like.

As for my experience, I cannot say about the mentorship aspect since as the applicant I was on the other side of the decision! What I do know is that the people I connected with as mentors are not the people I originally identified. In my field, sociology, I don’t think that’s uncommon, because as you take more classes, read more, and interact with people, you connect with different faculty.

I’ll touch upon two ways that the mentorship aspect of the admissions system discourages historically excluded students. First, particularly those who are also low-income, first-generation college students, it’s difficult to know who to choose as a mentor (at least it was for me!) and all you have to go off of are pictures, biographies, and writings on a website. When the tenured professoriate is predominately white, looking at faculty pages as a prospective student from a historically marginalized community, you likely do not see anyone like yourself, and it’s difficult to know whether to reach out to potential mentors before applying (and if so, what do you say) and how to tailor your application for that elusive “fit.”

In some ways, this is what the attempts to reveal the hidden curriculum are about — to explain how to tailor the application and explain how you fit. However, knowing this doesn’t take away from being what Lorgia García-Peña, in her new book, calls “the one.” That is, knowing how to interact doesn’t take away from not seeing anyone like you on the department pages. Another way the admissions process (and graduate school more generally) is exclusionary is through interactions. Just because you’ve identified a person, doesn’t mean that person will want to mentor you and once you meet that person, it doesn’t mean you will connect, that this person will become an advocate for you, and it doesn’t mean you won’t experience constant microaggressions, which brings me to your next question.

Q: You describe the experience of being excluded in academe as “active and ongoing.” How is that the case?

A: The notion of the hidden curriculum is based on an assumption that knowledge is the key force of exclusion in society, and in this case, graduate school and academia. Many Black, Indigenous, and Brown people do not have the cultural or social or economic capital to know how to interact with professors, for example. So one way to address the hidden curriculum is to be transparent and write advice books and columns on the “dos” and “don’ts” of graduate school. But, as Bedelia Nicola Richards talks about in her work, this colorblind approach is based on white-centered cultural capital.

Advice columns presume the problem is navigating structures, not that the problem is the very structures themselves. So, drawing on this research, and as I discuss throughout my book, while knowledge is part of it and efforts to address the lack of knowledge are helpful, it is not enough. Historically marginalized people are actively excluded all the time. By that, I mean, through daily microaggressions and dismissiveness of their expertise, credentials, and often very ideas (as not “rigorous” or not “general” enough) by white faculty and the very structure of the university and higher education more generally vis-à-vis hiring, tenure, promotion, where to publish and who gets which awards and why, citation politics, politics of syllabi and reading lists, in how people define a given subfield and what is considered “general knowledge” and in the general devaluation of teaching, mentoring, and service, particularly at research universities. People, particularly women of color, have long been writing about this. To summarize, exclusion and exclusionary practices occur in all of these things and more: in interactions, in what’s being read and cited in classrooms and in research, and in how people and their work are evaluated and rewarded.

Q: With all you describe in the book about exclusion, what makes you hopeful about academe today?

A: To be honest, it’s difficult to be hopeful! So many brilliant people leave academe or are excluded in the first place. They are pushed out of the profession, a discipline, and/or a given department. But I have to remind myself and draw on women of color feminists who link hope to action. People like Sara Ahmed who says hope animates our struggle, Rebecca Solnit who distinguishes between optimism — the belief things will get better without any action on our parts — vs. hope, which requires action and that what we do matters, and Mariame Kaba who says hope is a discipline, one that needs constant practice. What also keeps me in academia — so far — is that I love my job. I love research, teaching, and service, and the people I meet, befriend, and become close to. Friends and colleagues, their brilliance in writing, their kindness and compassion, and their actions toward a more just world serve as examples and role models for what the academia could and should be.

 

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