Last April (2014), I interviewed for a tenure track position at an historically black college/university (HBCU) with a graduate program in urban and regional planning, which is my academic discipline. Once again, I was willing and somewhat excited about teaching at an HBCU. I have very fond memories of being an undergraduate student at an HBCU, which is where I started my college-academic pursuits. Some of the best years of my early adult life were spent at Clark Atlanta University, my alma mater, and the idea of returning to an HBCU in a tenure-track position is always intriguing to me.
So, upon arriving at my interview (I was one of several finalists), I was ready and hyped for the day that I was about to experience (or at least I thought I was). Finally, near the end of the day, after I had met with departmental faculty members and administration one-on-one I gave a lecture. During the lecture I included a slide where I provided a definition of feminism and I talked about the negative and antagonistic attitudes about feminism and womanism as they are articulated in public and in the academy amongst people who are active in higher education as professors and administrators. I shared that once during a previous interview (at a predominantly white institution or PWI), I was informed (or come to think about it maybe it was a warning?) that any talk of feminism, womanism or any woman-centered, justice-seeking conceptual or methodological framework would probably be received by students as “gobbledeegook.” And, in sharing about that experience, I articulated what my response was to that comment. Recalling that experience, I explained that I think that gobbledeegook is what we – academics – do best. Further, upon the occasion of this new interview at the HBCU, I expounded on that saying that we, as academics, specialize in exploring and examining topics and discourses that seem foreign or like gobbledeegook to new and returning college students. We talk and we teach gobbledeegook, or at least it seems that way for a time. Speaking or talking gobbledeegook is a part of what we do as academics; we generally have deeper, more advanced commands of intellectual vernaculars and ideas compared to the students; and, ultimately, we are in control of the course design and curriculum development. Graduate program professors assume that most students come to graduate school with undergraduate knowledge or a less rigorous set of educational competencies that what we have to offer (yes, structurally higher educational is hierarchical). More than likely, first-year graduate students don’t know what we know, and vice versa; we don’t know what they know. Whatever the case, it is often in graduate school that students are introduced to new ideas and languages, which challenges them to go beyond the terminology and concepts that they learned in undergraduate college, and this so that they can be better prepared to go on to even more advanced intellectual or professional landscapes. At first, getting to that point may seem impossible to first-time graduate students. I remember, for example, during several semesters in seminary that I kept a dictionary next to the books that I was required to read for class. Despite the assistance that the dictionary gave me, I often felt like I would never understand the concepts in those newfound books and pages. Technically, I was unprepared, but I was wrong (momentarily) about my own intellectual abilities.
Of course, I was unprepared for what I encountered in graduate school because the new ideas and languages were much more complicated and theoretically dense than the readings that I was assigned in undergraduate college. Of course it was uncomfortable and, of course it felt like I had not been given the proper training and education to get through the readings with an understanding of the materials and books being assigned. When my classmates and I complained about our struggle to understand the complicated new ideas and languages to our professors (people like Dr. Emilie Townes, Tex Sample, and Kris Kvam) they listened, but they also gently urged us to keep up the effort and they reassured us that once they too had stood in our shoes, but that if we persisted with our discomfort that we would one day break through it and be able to read the materials with ease, comprehension and confidence. Of course, at the time, I was a skeptic because the ideas were new to me and I had to spend at least double the time preparing for class. Of course it seemed that the words and ideas in the assigned readings were beyond me or over my head, so to speak. And, of course, I/we didn’t like it.
Ironically, after I finished the lecture for my recent HBCU interview, which was a lecture that I organized so that those present (that included students, faculty and administrators) would gain a first-hand understanding of my approach to research and teaching overall, and as we entered in to the question and answer portion of the lecture, I was politely informed by one member of the faculty (one of the people who would have some decision-making power over my ability to get tenure in the department) that my lecture was very “interesting” and all (his words), but he asserted that what I had presented would probably go “over the heads” of their students. And, there it was, again. A little annoyed by his comment, I explained why I had given the lecture as I did, and I underscored how in my opinion it is very important for students and practitioners to understand the theories and methodologies that inform the everyday practice of urban and regional planning. In addition, I clarified that my reason for giving a thorough layout of my theoretical and methodological motivations was to model how one can use such theories and methodologies to address other academic and professional questions or issues (and I followed that with a little impromptu role-playing with a black male student sitting in the back of the room). These justifications, however, did not seem to suffice, and one after the other, several other faculty members chimed in and alleged that their students just need “the basics.” At that point I felt like I had been put on notice by key faculty, all men (who were the only ones speaking), that womanism and feminism were not really welcome, and regrettably, it was obvious to me (based on their questions) that teaching from a womanist standpoint (or epistemological starting point) would not be perceived as a strength by my potential colleagues and thus by those who would play a significant part in my getting tenure. To me, their line of questioning and comments had labeled and condemned my ideas as too much and unnecessary for their students, most of whom would be black (so much for academic freedom, right?). I felt like, wow, how first-world, white and patriarchal to assert this about black graduate students without first bothering to ask those students if they felt that what I was saying was indeed “over their heads” or intellectually out of their reach. Indeed, they assumed the power to speak for the students, and tacitly, they assumed the power to speak for womanism and feminism.
Episodes like this are not that unusual. In fact, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard this type of faulty reasoning and covert questioning from academic and professional audiences who do not have a critical understanding of womanism and feminism (they tend to go with what they have heard about womanism and feminism instead of what they actually know for themselves). And, rather than admit that they (the academicians and the administrators) don’t have the slightest clue about womanism or feminism and what those terms mean in theory and in practice (or that they are not really okay with these frameworks), they problematize the most vulnerable in the situation by singling out the students as the ones who will not be able to comprehend any more than the basics, whatever that (“the basics”) means. With this dynamic at work, the students are convenient scapegoats and a silent majority for the ignorance or anxieties of my would-be colleagues who probably wouldn’t be that comfortable in conversation with me about womanism or feminism anyhow; I mean nothing goes over their heads, right? Right. Most graduate students will not openly contest claims made by the persons responsible for their grades, especially not if they see that a faculty candidate is subtly being told by their professors to stay in her own lane or place. Blurring the lines or crossing boundaries is not something that many academics seem to be able to do all that well, even when they claim to have an alleged interdisciplinary approach to their disciplines. It’s easier to pull rank, to assert one’s power and to obscure one’s insecurities than to say that one is clueless about womanism and feminism (or theoretically against them) in front of one’s students or colleagues.
Each time I hear claims like this (at HBCUs or PWIs) I know better than to go along with the assertion and the assumption that a collective group of young, black college students (or any group of students) will not be able to get where I am coming from, and that womanist and feminist frameworks are not appropriate epistemologies for teaching courses on research methods, data collection, geographic information systems, or any other subject relative to city and regional planning in general. I am a former pastor, and I am very good at making complicated topics/matters quite plain; looking back, I have worked at it for damn near two decades. For me, this is a familiar hermeneutic; writing and teaching in an accessible way, and with a very clear understanding about where I stand as a thinker and a scholar (and whether they admit it or not, everyone stands in a particular historical place and from a particular social location and with a particular lived experience). In and of themselves, unsubstantiated claims about black college students in graduate programs and the implicit attempts that non-black men use to explain or delineate where womanist and feminist hermeneutics ultimately belong reveal to me that a very powerful and enduring white, patriarchal tradition is at work. It also illuminates popular fears, stereotypes and anxieties about black women in the academy, in addition to an irrational concern about the influence that black women may allegedly have upon black students. It is very regrettable that such thoughts are being articulated in higher education all the time, but being a professor does not rid one of biases, racist or sexist thinking. In fact, racism and sexism, all oppression, thrives on fear and institutional power. One can perceive of the oppressive weight of an institution, for example, when a powerful gathering of men or women (which could be just two or three) comes to the realization (whether consciously or not, and whether individually or collectively) that black graduate students might discover or develop deeper educational or professional interests in response to coming into one-on-one contact with older black professors who have a critical and even profound grasp of womanism, feminism or any other gender-centered ideological framework unbeknownst to them. I believe that those fears and anxieties are complicated when those with decision-making power surmise that said black graduate students might also simultaneously admire said black professors as role models, mentors or friends. Consequently, those who are nervous about the potential for this kind of attachment and the concentration of power and popularity that might develop between black women professors and their students (especially black students) don’t then seem to have a problem belittling and dismissing womanist and feminist frameworks as gobbledeegook and subsequently announcing that all this talk about womanism and feminism is much too much for students who allegedly only need “the basics.”
This kind of talk/behavior is cowardly and it puts students in the middle of something they don’t deserve. It is convenient to blame the students (as not being able to get it) and dismiss womanism or feminism as gobbledeegook and unnecessary for educational enrichment. Claims that womanism and feminism are not really a valuable part of a post-secondary education can and should be interpreted as covert smack-downs, or as attacks on the psyche of black women, black educational achievement, and academic freedom in general. This kind of institutional rejection is reflective of traditional, white, and patriarchal fears about the rise of women and men who are uniquely qualified to teach graduate students how to think and think critically and ways that are beyond the capacity or “over the heads” of those who hold the keys to granting tenure, but who have no desire to learn anything new or different from what they already know (or think they know). Without a doubt, racism and sexism, and all other “isms” for that matter, ego-trippin’ and jealousy are discernible and quite tangible among those who are employed in higher education.
Well, suffice it to say, that I am so very glad that some of my professors did not dumb me down, nor did they obscure their own theoretical and methodological motivations for a life of teaching in higher education. They did not think that just because my classmates and I had little to no knowledge of the ideas and topics that we were being introduced to in graduate school that we were incapable of handling anything beyond “the basics.” Instead, they believed in me/us, and they believed in teaching in a way that crossed intellectual and even institutional borders and boundaries. They knew how to cross the line and come back to see about me/us; to see if I/we were still trying to find my/our way around academia and the rigorous ideas that were brought to our attention by critical writers and thinkers. Frankly, it is because of professors like these, the ones who were willing to work openly out of their epistemological and ontological situatedness, and challenge me/us at the same time to do the same, that I learned to believe in my own intelligence and in the need to develop a critical consciousness towards my education. Unfortunately, my encounters with academicians and administrators who are anxious and afraid of black women in particular who are afraid to teach openly from their epistemological and ontological realities illuminates the fact that anti-woman and anti-black attitudes are still deeply entrenched in the higher education industry and that any talk or activity that disrupts white, patriarchal and hierarchical philosophies and foundations upon which higher education is built will be met with a collective and troubling control-driven xenophobia. This is the current reality that many black women face in the academy or at least the ones who dare to say and embrace the words womanist or feminist without apology.
As for me, needless to say, and after a series of actions and non-actions by the HBCU institution with whom I interviewed, I withdrew my application for the position in early July in part because, in my opinion, no job in higher education or elsewhere is worth that kind of internal and unnecessary collegial tension and treatment; and not when there are so many other viable options available today to womanists and feminists with PhDs. That situation, the fact that I/we womanists and feminist academicians have a much wider range of options, a bigger ocean perhaps in which to cast our nets than the generation of womanists and feminists that went ahead of us, is due to the courageous work of women, men and all those in between, who were not afraid to speak of gobbledeegook and of ideas and concepts that others wouldn’t be able to grasp for decades and perhaps centuries to come. And they did this regardless of the costs. For them, I am very grateful.
© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.