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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2013

Presumed incompetent

The intersections of race and class for women in academia

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González & Anglea P. Harris, eds. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2012; 588 pp; ISBN: 978-0-87421-922-7, paper $38.95 USD; ISBN: 978-0-87421-870-1, eBook $31.95 USD.

Review by Camille A. Isaacs

As I prepared to write this review of Presumed Incompetent, I recognized that its editors and contributors appeared to be speaking directly to, or about, me: a visible minority female professor in a contractually-limited position.

Although almost all of the qualitative data accumulated in this large volume refer to the United States, many of the narratives also pertain to the Canadian space, as the statistics for women and minorities in both countries are abysmal and stem from the same social histories that pervade North American society. The general editors’ (Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris) stated aim is to provide essays that “analyze the ways that race, class, and gender reinforce the marginalized status of women faculty of color.” (p. 9)

The 30 collected essays — grouped into five sections: General Campus Climate, Faculty/Student Relations, Social Class, Tokenism and the Search Process, Tenure and Promotion, and Networks of Allies and Men­tors — paint a depressing picture of the status of the academy for women and minorities, with many painful anecdotes and statistics about these women’s “presumed

But the editors also provide detailed recommendations for both minority academics and university administrators “to effect impending change and develop a climate where all faculty members have opportunities for a successful career in higher education.” (p. 452)

The various contributors contend that these presumptions of incompetence often originate from affirmative action or di­ver­sity quotas that create perceptions that “gender and race were the primary reasons for these women securing positions in academe, rather than their competence as scholars, teachers, and/or researchers.” (p. 66)

But these perceptions also negatively affect the academic. There is nothing more debilitating to one’s career and research goals than the idea that one is merely a token in the department meant to fulfill quota requirements. To counter this token­ism, the editors suggest institutions should be “color conscious, not color-blind.” (p. 453)

Acknowledging the elephant in the room that is race is essential for both minority academics and departments — a knowledge of how race affects the academic, in teaching evaluations for example, as well as what departments are doing to counter these effects, is a necessary step towards a more inclusive institution.

As documented in this text, and elsewhere, teaching evaluations can be very dangerous for minority academics. Accents, student perceptions of what a professor should look like, attractiveness, the expectation that female academics are more nurturing, and unconscious bias have often derailed many an academic. But what does the institution do with the knowledge that “student eval­uations systematically produce lower ratings for women and minorities”? (pp. 165–66)

Again, acknowledging that race, gender, class and/or ethnicity may be having a negative effect on an academic’s teaching evaluations is critical for equitably advancing a minority academic’s career. “If decision makers do not take the time or care to fully understand the candidate’s teaching file, including evaluations, and permit important personnel decisions to proceed on the basis of potentially misleading or biased data, then they ethically fail the professoriate, students, and the institution.” (p. 185)

Unfortunately, as the contributors argue, there are too many grey areas upon which an academic’s career rests, and that reinforce the predominantly white male hierarchy that continues to characterize most academic institutions.

Despite most universities having detailed procedures on acquiring tenure, for example, there are still too many non-quantifiable aspects that can hinder academic advancement. Most performance review procedures include language such as, “meets basic expectations” or “exceeds expectations,” but who gets to decide if a faculty member is meeting expectations or whether a publication in a particular journal should be considered prestigious or populist?

Too many institutions continue to operate as “country clubs” (p. 285) of sorts, where information on comportment and advancement is supposedly transmitted by osmosis. How does one define collegiality exactly? Are there a set number of dinner parties I must host at my house? Cookies to be baked for underfunded faculty events?

An academic’s movement toward tenure is as affected by non-quantifiable factors as quantifiable ones: “The position of new professors is truly precarious, even when the candidate is hard working, congenial, and a productive, respected scholar. How their mentors interact with them and present a candidate’s body of work to the faculty for evaluation may determine the candidate’s professional future.” (p. 230)

If one is looking for Canadian statistics or narratives, this is not the text for you. Much of such data can be found through Statistics Canada or even the CAUT Bulle­tin, which regularly publish information on women and minorities in academia (See “Not Enough Parity on the Academic Career Ladder”, CAUT Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2, February 2010). In addition, the sheer number of narratives provided in this almost 600 page tome at times appears to pile suffering on top of suffering.

The concluding chapter does, however, provide a detailed list for academics and administrators which describes concrete ways to move forward to truly evaluating female minority academics and creating inclusive institutions. Useful strategies are recommended, such as “use teaching portfolios to evaluate faculty, rather than relying solely on end-of-course teaching evaluations” (p. 458) or “seek out alliances with productive faculty across race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender and sexual identities.” (p. 497) And they also urge picking one’s battles.

But how does one speak up for one’s rights, when silence is the expected comportment for non-tenured faculty? “Senior colleagues, even those who embrace antisubordination ideologies … often advise their junior contemporaries to remain silent.” (pp. 142–43) The expected behavior is that one remains silent, becomes a workaholic and appears collegial until tenure is achieved, which one contributor describes as “a four- to six-year-long audition for faculty status with aspects of a fraternity initiation ritual mixed in to increase the unpleasantness.” (p. 230)

But so many minority female academics are working in precarious, non-tenured positions and not achieving tenure that their voices are being lost. We are reliant on tenured faculty to speak out on issues of discrimination and this doesn’t always happen.

In addition to the many recommendations offered in the final chapter, I would also urge institutions to take a hard look at their departments and ask if they are truly reflective of their student body and community. Ask how many minority fac­ulty members are working as sessionals, contract, or continuing faculty.

If your department appears to meet diversity quotas (both women and minorities) primarily through non-tenured staff, your institution is not working toward an inclusive environment in the spirit in which such policies were created.

Don’t fall back on the hackneyed excuse that there are no minority scholars to fulfill your searches. Think outside of traditional CVs. There may be perfectly good explanations for gaps in a scholar’s career — the inability to get junior positions, child/ aging-parent responsibilities, or the lack of a network.

Acknowledging a white, predominantly male, privilege in academia entails the difficult task of giving up some of that privilege.

Camille Isaacs is an assistant professor of English at OCAD University in Toronto.