Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Labor

One of white liberalism’s most cherished fantasies is the cultural capital of “color.” Only from a platform of quotidian white privilege could someone earnestly imagine racial difference as a kind of “value added.” I think white people really think this way.

It’s not just wrong; it’s a way of disavowing racial difference as a site of critical knowledge. This neoliberal fallacy is hardwired into the structure of institutional “diversity” schemes: it’s what allows their architects to celebrate the presence of nonwhite people until the moment those people share what they understand about how the institution operates.

In academia, many early career BIPOC scholars have been advised, according to the logic of diversity, that their nonwhiteness will open doors to interviews, fellowships, job offers. I understand that mentors are struggling to guide students through brutal competitions for opportunity, support, and stable employment. And there’s this myth in academia that while permanent, fairly compensated jobs in general are disappearing, BIPOC scholars are somehow in “high demand.” (They are not.) But telling nonwhite graduates that their race is the key to professional success contradicts what they know from years of experience: that structural disenfranchisement is not a form of power.

A tenet for better mentoring: Against the white mythology of racial cachet, we must justly represent the particularly full expertise these scholars have gathered by pursuing their work without the privilege of whiteness.

A tenet for revaluing the bonds of collegiality: If we want to build solidarity within hostile institutional conditions, we must do better at respecting all knowledge formed at particular distances from power, especially when it addresses us directly.

Dear colleague: here are some things I’ve learned from my position as a mixed-race she/her Asian American scholar who appears, in the eyes of the institution, promisingly racially ambiguous — a poster child, you might say, for corporate diversity schemes to bring a few of us in and keep us busy.

Minority status is not capital. It never is. Rather, it is a foundation of particular forms of knowledge and expertise that universities have a way of recognizing and extracting without crediting.

All expertise is hard-earned. Misrepresenting the lived knowledge of marginalized thinkers as a natural byproduct of identity effaces the work we have done to accrue that knowledge by living through, and thinking through, unjust conditions of being.

We have come to our expertise through various paths of survival. We have worked through racism. Colonization and imperialism. War, displacement, immigration. Rape and sexual abuse and sexual harassment and just constant sexism. Homophobia and transphobia and all manner of patriarchal gaslighting. Class alienation. Deep, relentless, shameless ableism. We have lived and thought our way through it, learned how to foster forms of collegiality that see us through it together, learned what kinds of research questions resonate with current pressures of co-existence, learned how to recognize harm and violence even in its most depersonalized bureaucratic and institutional guises. We have learned to think about power, about its deployments and abuses, with rigor and nuance.

So yes, we know things, and we’re very good at exercising that knowledge. It comes through in our teaching, our research, and our professional service.

You’ve seen our knowledge in action; you’ve praised it. You invite our input in meetings, you’re especially curious for our take on “sensitive issues,” because we reliably identify the stakes of official policies and statements. That’s not innate canniness. We’re hyper-literate in institutional rhetorics and experts in their material aftershocks. Our suspicion of power, when exercised in moderation, can be of great administrative assistance.

We have been asked to sit on immoderate numbers of committees.

Dear colleague: I’m trying to describe the ways in which we’re “in this together” and the ways in which we are not.

Academic labor is, in general, multifaceted and every one of those facets is currently being exploited, in general, by institutions. This is grounds for important forms of solidarity. But some of us are compelled structurally to perform kinds of labor that others of us have never come to know, or not until now.

It’s likely our understanding of labor has helped you better understand your own unexpected experience of being overworked or undervalued. We know what it’s like, and what it means, to work hard in ways that are invisible to those who benefit from our work. We forged the arguments for emotional labor, for affective labor, for intersectional vigilance, for the material duress of what the institution considers ineffable. The academy has manufactured a state of crisis that means we all (well, almost all) must work harder for less and you welcome our insights, to the extent that they resonate with your experience — we seem to have things to say about this. We have learned the importance of holding one another up, and are skilled in recognizing when someone needs that support.

But at some point, you will refuse to hear any more about it. It’s exhausting to you, how we belabor things. It’s endless. We just can’t let things go.

We are experts in holding patterns — how to endure them, how to hold others with us, how to remain aloft in inclement weather.

Lately, we are disproportionately sought out by students. You’ve recognized that; you’ve expressed admiration for our “natural” way of connecting with them, animating them intellectually, making them feel attended to and cared for. Dear colleague: That’s not natural. We learned to do that through rigorous trials, both experienced and witnessed, in hostile learning environments.

We hear the critique of power embedded in a student “complaint,” in a request for accommodation. We perceive the object that frequently eludes you: what students are attempting to address, what they are trying to ask for. We are well down the path of thinking about how to respond to the signals they give us that the institution and its conventions are not providing equal access to education. We have learned the importance of honoring work that is even attempted within inhospitable conditions, and we recognize the myriad ways the world, including the university, is inhospitable to students right now.

We have worked hard, over years, on techniques of being sensitive to individual students’ goals and situations without being intrusive or presumptive. We don’t always get it right, but we are always working on it. Sometimes, when we see you struggling to maintain a generous posture toward students, we offer to share what we have come to know about respectful approaches to accommodation. For our trouble, I suspect we are often perceived as unrigorous, lenient, sanctimonious.

You tend to think about accommodations in terms of “preferential treatment,” someone demanding some extraordinary allowance. No one has it easy, you insist, and persevering is how the job is done. You don’t understand that not only has the institution been tailored to the contours of your being, silently easing your way, but that your marginalized peers have been laboriously accommodating your needs all along.

We do not need lessons on perseverance. Our relationships with students can also be fraught in ways you’ve never encountered. In the classroom, we must continually establish and reestablish the fact of our expertise and the authority vested in it, even after years, after decades of teaching, research, and mentoring. Our students are perpetually surprised to find that authority presented in our persons — some are delighted by it, others are decidedly not. Despite numerous studies reporting how deep cultural biases against us are consistently reflected in student course evaluations — studies that simply reiterate what we know and have tried, for years, to tell you — our institutions cling to them as a means of assessment, and a basis for merit-based promotion and reward.

You have not been trained with the same depth and duration as we have been in the work of establishing mutually respectful, and therefore pedagogically rigorous, relationships in the classroom. Yet you have been disproportionately commended for your “success” in “learning outcomes.”

We are familiar with the ritual in which “opportunities” are created for us, and we come up wanting with “uneven evaluations” and a “thin CV.”

We also know that this ship was designed to sink and we’re the ones whose efforts are keeping it afloat.

Dear colleague: I’m not mad at you. I’m angry that I’ve learned not to say difficult or challenging things to you, while I’ve also learned how to absorb the difficulty of the things that are said to and around me all the time. I don’t need to blow off steam. I need my knowledge to land.

Sometimes I have been part of this “we,” and sometimes I have been the “you.” I have tried to learn by listening.

What we know about these institutional dynamics, about the professional myths that assign value in perverse ways, about unequally distributed burdens, about different and better methods of approach — it’s not an opinion, and it’s not mystified wisdom. It’s expertise, cultivated over time with considerable effort and dedication, just like all forms of expertise, just like yours.

We know academic institutions have great desire and need for what we have to offer. We feel it in being incessantly called upon to give of ourselves. We want to contribute our expertise in ways that feel just, supported, acknowledged, duly compensated. Right now, we feel like it is taken from us, that we are a resource being mined. You frequently tell us you welcome our voice, but we do not feel silenced; we feel wrung out. Your current methods of working with us are unsustainable.

I’m not convinced any of the institutions marginalized scholars offer to work for currently deserve our expertise.[1]

Dear colleague: We’re telling you what it will take for us to continue to offer our knowledge. We’re not asking you to show us the way to professional prestige; we’re asking you to rebuild the academy with us.[2]

Academic allyship has to be focused on transforming institutions, overhauling their missions and methods, to make them worthy of the people they mobilize and claim to serve. We don’t need your admiration, your acclaim, your invitation. We don’t need you to feel bad. We need you to hire more of us; we need you to practice humility; we need you to take some instruction.

There’s a collective endeavor underway, and we’re showing you this: step away from the center and you’ll learn how to do the work.

[1]Thanks to Eve Tuck, who asked at the Indigenous Education Network’s Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, February 5, 2018, “How do we build a university that deserves Indigenous people?”

[2]Thanks to Rinaldo Walcott, who, in his lecture “Queer Returns: Reflections on Racial Queer Justice and the University,” hosted by the program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research, McMaster University, September 18, 2017, urged us to abandon the colonialist university and its failed “diversity” projects in favor of building a new, decolonized university.