Stop expecting academia to love you

I read a disturbing description of poor judgment on a teacher’s—a professor’s—part. In class, in front of all the students, a Suffolk University professor challenged the authenticity of a student’s writing. A skeptical professor handed the undergraduate student Tiffany Martinez a graded assignment that questioned her use of the transition word “hence.”

The professor wrote “This is not your word.”

“Not” was underlined twice.

Martinez describes, “My professor handed me back a paper (a literature review) in front of my entire class and exclaimed ‘this is not your language.’ "

This graduate student expressed the internal struggle the professor's comment generated or reaffirmed: "Their blue pen was the catalyst that opened an ocean of self-doubt that I worked so hard to destroy . . . I am hurting because my professor assumed that the only way I could produce content as good as this was to ‘cut and paste.’ I am hurting because for a brief moment I believed them.”

As I read the rest of Martinez’s blog post, I began to hear the voices of my high-school students who speak about the dream of going to college. Many of them, like Martinez, will be the first in their families. I heard the insecurities that begin their sentences when they speak.

I understand that first-generation insecure ambition. I am the first in my family to go to college, to earn a master’s degree, to be a published writer.

When I read Martinez’s words, I heard the insecurity that I challenge more and more these days in class.

“I was just going to say,” a student said the other day.

I brusquely interrupted: “No. No, you were not just going to say,” I snapped. “Don’t minimize your ideas. Say, ‘I have this idea to share.’ Go!”

Today, as I erased the board from the previous class, a brilliant student came up and shyly, hesitatingly said, “I don’t mean to question . . . you . . . your . . .”

“Question me. What?” I blurted without looking at her, still erasing.

“I think you may have messed up when you entered our last quiz grade? I got an A but it says I got an F.”

Oooops.

"It's OK to question," I told my student after I fixed my mistake.

I sometimes grow impatient with my students' reluctance to express their ideas.

I’ve learned to admit my mistakes. On a few occasions, I’ve had to say to students, “I’m sorry.”

So Martinez’s professor needs to apologize for jumping to the conclusion that Martinez plagiarized.

But Martinez—and all first-generation students in academia and aspiring to be there—need to apologize too. They need to apologize to themselves for not recognizing their academic self-worth.

Martinez writes, “I am tired and I am exhausted” because this confrontation with skepticism confirms “how I always knew others saw me.”

In today’s world—twenty years after college minority recruitment programs saw themselves solidified in the 90s—I hesitate to sympathize with struggles like those highlighted by Martinez.

I’ve brought up these struggles with many college graduates in my circle of friends (we’re all in our 40s) and all of us—who were the first or one of the first to go to college—admit that we never felt like we did not belong in academia.

We felt lonely. We were broke. We struggled. We felt lost. But we never felt like we didn’t belong.

Even as the only Latinx student in many undergrad and most graduate classes, I always felt and knew I belonged there. That’s what I kept telling myself. Even if I didn’t know how I was going to buy my books or pay my tuition.

In my undergraduate Shakespeare class, my professor read one of my essays out loud—because it was good. I couldn’t believe it.  Another professor gave me a D on another paper.  My writing on that essay deserved it.

So I hear Martinez’s struggle—the struggles of students at top colleges—and I have to ask, “Where’s your voice?”

THIS is where you use your academic voice to see the professor and challenge his or her assumptions on a professional level. THIS is what it means to question the system you want to join and change. If YOU don’t question it, it’s not going to change.

I’ve said before that in high-school, we protect students too much. We idolize our high-achieving students. We validate everything they say. We save them when they struggle instead of teaching them to save themselves.

So when these high-achieving students enter the “real world" of academia, they’re surprised by skepticism.

I guess they expect to receive something comparable to social media “likes.” That ain’t gonna happen—especially the higher they go.

I’ve faced my share of skepticism. Because I did not attend a Big Ten or Ivy League school. Because I have an education degree. Because I don’t endorse popular, volatile pundits. Because I don’t blindly follow popular Latinx leaders. Because people wonder, “who the hell does he think he is?” after reading some of my blog posts.

I didn’t always have the voice I have today. In college, I felt so lost, most times I was silent. When I started my career, I had to find the courage to speak up—to speak up in professionally accepted ways--when I saw injustice. I found other colleagues who saw the same injustice. Together, we spoke up.

Sometimes I am the only one speaking up and you know what?  It's scary.  It's lonely. But I feel fulfilled when I speak up.

Twenty one years after earning my first degree, I have this blog, a history of impressive published pieces, a national writing award.

When my students start to lose motivation, I show them this rejection email from a Chicago Tribune editor that I received shortly after I started my blog. The subject line was “Ray this is not written like . . .

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“That’s so mean,” a student said.

"I go through the same writing struggles you do," I tell my writing students.

For a moment, I believed that editor. But I know my writing—I knew she couldn’t be right. I showed my commentary to a couple of people I trusted and they disagreed with the editor’s judgment.

I concluded what I knew--my writing was not problem. That Tribune editor, I understood, was not going to publish an anti-Chicago-mayor editorial. Unless I missed it, the Tribune’s editorial board has not challenged or questioned Rahm Emanuel's leadership. They generally love him. I still published the commentary on my blog.

Tiffany Martinez is right: “Academia needs work.”

So we need to work to change academia and our social structures and our self-perceptions. We can feel dejected—I do on some teaching days and when editors reject my writing. People who disagree with my blog posts try to invalidate my ideas and me all the time.

But I keep writing.

We need to use our voices to challenge those who do not want to hear us.

Twenty-one years into my teaching career, I’m still challenging ideas and my voice is louder. The struggle never ends.

I did not go to a highly selective university.  I do have male privilege. My reality and Tiffany Martinez’s reality are not identical.

But I am still a first-generation brown man from a working-class, immigrant background with two college degrees (that I paid for myself ) who teaches--English.

Nothing came easy.  Nothing ever will.

So Tiffany Martinez—you were treated unfairly. Your professor is wrong for assuming you are not capable of using “hence” or producing your own ideas.

But don’t tell us; tell your professor.

Work to change the academic world you work to be a part of.

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