Photo by Flickr User Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
by Erika Gisela Abad
This past summer, a call center coworker of mine joked that I should have clients call me “Doctor,” because, having recently graduated with a PhD, it was my professional title as well. As we laughed, I recalled graduate school conversations where the title ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’ was not a laughing matter, especially among women and peers of color. Many of us believed that the title could reinforce what respect and authority we had earned. “Doctor” conversations in both graduate student cubicles and call center cubicles reflect how each environment perceived power, authority and, more specifically, respect. As I compare blogs and academic journals that discuss the nature of how faculty are treated to the perceived experiences of customer service workers, and undocumented workers to which they are compared, I ask myself: when did I begin to equate educational training with earned respect?
In attempting to address the question, I bear in mind compared expectations and value assessment in each position. While the comparison warrants longer conversation, I had to come to terms with the reality that the skills of a person with an advanced degree are more transferable to other forms of white collar and or middle class labor than those within other professions. The way some adjunct faculty have reflected on their experiences, it is easy to forget the extent to which one with a master’s or doctorate can apply their literacy, writing and reviewing skills to other professions. While it is an injustice that adjuncts who rely on teaching as their sole income do not make a living wage nor have access to affordable healthcare, it is important to re-examine the context in which the aforementioned concerns are discussed. Particularly that the focus is on one profession which experiences these economic limitations instead of the general limitation as a whole.
The reason one applies for food stamps, could have barely afforded adequate health care insurance, or worries about their economic stability has less to do with education and more to do with both national and regional policies of what we allow a living wage to be for anyone. Those of us who are underemployed or who, despite our training and skills, do not have full time teaching positions, are a testament that professional degrees do not, by default, create a demand to match the supply. As we vocalize our gendered and raced subordination within the profession, it is critical we bear in mind the national policies and practices that shape limited access to education, adequate health care and affordable housing. Moving beyond the disappointment that advanced degrees do not guarantee the higher quality of life expected, what critical lessons are we learning from the economic recession?
I will answer that question specifically focusing on the women of color narratives I have begun to review so far. Women of color, who speak from a position of recognized institutional marginalization, frame their narrative cognizant of how their gendered and raced social locations create student-teacher/teacher-administrator/supervisor tensions (Turner, Harley, Maisto). Such testimonies and theoretical discussions had initially framed the reliance on “Doctor/Professor” as a symbol of authority and respect, especially on campuses whose towns and cities featured fewer middle class and politically organized people of color. Solely relying on resilience built from my graduate school experience tempted me to forget the manners in which working-class women/women of color in my family and former client bases have worked to assert their respect because of their right to human dignity and community empowerment. As much as I worked to resist institutional xenophobia and the resulting micro-aggressions I encountered along the way towards my PhD, my self-righteous resilience transformed into a meritocratic ethos that overlooked the womanist, mujerista ethos that shaped my intellectual and political communities.
At the core of that ethos lies the understanding that formal education is but one avenue by which we can address social disparities. While reflecting on the pressures and stresses experienced as a result of departmental hierarchies and policies, it is imperative to remember the professional and skilled position from which we speak. Many of the readers of and contributors to Mujeres Talk use our position as educators and advocates to disrupt the insular culture of the ivory tower. As we do so, we risk a great deal because of how our commitment to serving students and our greater communities is pitted against our institutions’ expectations of production. As my academic generation negotiates the double-edged sword of cultural capital and racial profiling, how are we coming to terms with the vulnerability of critical pedagogy and the prestige of our formal training? How do we not internalize racial micro-aggressions by presuming our mixed-class position should be the foundation of our economic security?
Returning to my coworker’s joke, a title or formal training does not guarantee the recognition of human dignity, nor should they be required to acknowledge it. I do not ignore the grave concern around society’s devaluing a liberal arts education nor am I ignoring the worth of the time and effort I put into my projects. As we work to call attention to the degradation of liberal arts higher education and to social justice oriented pedagogy and scholarship, what would it look like if we addressed those concerns within the greater injustices experienced by those whose labor in literal and figurative ‘service’ work is undervalued?
1) Firmage, Ed. “Wage Slaves in the Ivory Tower.” UVU Review the Student Voice. 26 March 2013. 2) Harley, Debra A. “Maids of Academe: African American Women Faculty at Predominantly White Institutions.” Journal of African American Studies 12 (2008): 19-36. 3) Leonard, David. “Adjuncts Aren’t Slaves. Let’s Stop Saying They Are” Vitae 4 December 2013. 4) Maisto, Maria. “Adjuncts, Class, and Fear.” Working-Class Perspectives. 23 September 2013. 5) Snodgrass, Langston. “Adjuncts: The Slave Labor of Higher Education.” Langston Snodgrass. May 2013. 6) Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes. “Women of Color in Academy Living with Multiple Marginality.” The Journal of Higher Education. 73.1 (2002): 74-93.
Erika Gisela Abad received her PhD from Washington State University’s American Studies Program in May 2012. Her work and poetry have been published in Diálogo and Mujeres de Maiz, and she has work forthcoming in Latino Studies and Sinister Wisdom. An alumni of AmeriCorps and long-time volunteer of organizations serving Latino youth and their families, she does her best to maintain communities ties that foment a theory in praxis. Since finishing graduate school, she has been supporting the Latino community of her North Portland parish, running between the kitchen and the food pantry, going to where she is needed.