some of us are brave
2016 happened. Boy did it happen.
It’s that time of year when people I admire start reflecting on their year. I belong to many tribes and each has its own flavor on end-of-year assessments.
Academics recommend reviewing your productivity highlights to remind yourself that you are not a failure. They also recommend reviewing your “shadow CV” — or the things you went for but failed to achieve — as a reminder that our front stage is not all there is to our life. The backstage matters, too.
I do not like to comment on my professional achievements in public. A black woman’s front stage isn’t exactly safe to share. I did some things this year. I finished a few book projects. I published a few book chapters. I edited a few things. I published one article, submitted two more. I wrote about 60 or so essays for various platforms, including my own here at http://www.tressiemc.com. I did a few dozen public lectures and talks.I went to the White House. Twice. I taught a couple hundred students, graduate and undergraduate. I co-founded a master’s program, wrote up some curriculum, sat on a few committees, and mostly managed to keep standing. That’s that.
My shadow CV is too big to go into. I shoot for things all the time and all the time I am shot down. I have a list of rejections for All The Things — articles, book proposals, grants, and policy proposals. For people of color, I’m not so sure the hashing out the shadow CV is as good idea as it is for those presumed to be competent. Just know I have one. That’s enough.
Things I Enjoyed
I am not often proud of my work. Or, I do not spend a lot of time feeling pride. But, there are some things I especially enjoyed producing this year.
I reflected on how social media changes how I teach, especially given what I teach:
In teaching race to undergraduates I immediately noticed a style and language that reminded me of tumblr. My friend Jade Davis likes to say that tumblr isn’t really social networking and that it is really more like a digital ‘zine, freewheeling digital re-mixing culture codified in a social networking architecture. I would add that tumblr seems to attract younger users who are drawn to counter-culture discourses.
I have taken to sending some terms on vacation in my class (e.g. privilege) and pulling others out of retirement to play first string for a bit (e.g. power). I ask students to consider these other terms as ways to explain their ideas and ways of knowing for twelve to thirteen weeks before we revisit the more popular words.
I still do this — we learn about power before I allow discourse about privilege in the classroom.
This year I started closing out major research projects. My book, Lower Ed, drops in February and it has taken up almost five years of my life. With some mental space cleared I started thinking about some of the unanswered questions I had to sit aside while working on that book and my dissertation.
One thing I am thinking about a lot is how to think about inequality in the new economy. Truly, that’s what Lower Ed is about. It is what my study of social media and culture is also always about.
Nothing is influencing my thinking on this more than theoretical work being done by Marion Fourcade and Keiran Healy. Their theory on classification situations is how I approached thinking about how and why so many black women are exposed to for-profit colleges as legitimate credentialing organizations (available to read on the new SocArxiv open access repository):
Classification situations offers a mechanism to apply black cyberfeminist themes in analysis. Those themes focus on processes and relations produced by the given conditions of the political economy in which digital platforms are produced and used.Classification situations clarifies one way that this happens: through categorical relationships with institutional practices rationalized and diffused in a political economy of neo-liberal transformations of society. In this framework, how black women take up higher education choices using digital platforms is shaped by pre-existing categorical constraints produced by markets and States. The choices made given those constraints are conditioned on categorical differences in relationship to civic norms like privacy as well as differentiated higher education systems, where different institutions organize differently to efficiently allocate marginalized groups to different kinds of educational life-chances.
I am having fun thinking about those things.
Things I Thought About
Of course, 2016 was a big year for lots of other reasons.
This year’s presidential election exposed and leveraged almost every socio-economic and political shift that has been building in the U.S. for the last forty years.
Let’s see. There is the economic stuff, of course. Unless, I am misreading that research, globalization has been chipping away at U.S. dominance for some time. Workers have felt that as more competition for jobs that feel less secure, flat purchasing power, and more cheap stuff that can be bought. For some reason, we only listened to the economists on what that meant for people. As a result, the economists never saw the global recession coming and they’ve done a pretty bad job of explaining how and why people are experiencing the recovery-less recovery as intensely as they are.
This election cycle that looked like economic anxiety. Whether you supported the libertarians, democrats or republicans there was a candidate trying to run on the anger and fear produced by long-term economic anxiety. For reasons I’ll never quite understand the democratic party thought someone named Clinton stood a chance of convincing people that she was a radical choice for these times. God bless Hillary. She didn’t deserve what she got but neither did we.
There is also the status competition stuff. Again, unless I’m misreading that research, economic anxiety also manifests through the given social hierarchy. In the U.S. that means economic anxiety will manifest through: racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Bless the entirety of our dear hearts, but everybody missed the boat on this one. Well, everyone with a bullhorn missed the boat on this one. Academics and activists and old black women in Sunday School didn’t miss a beat on it.
I did my best. That’s not saying mine was the best analysis but that I did the best I could with the tools that I have to engage this moment.
I consulted with the Bernie Sanders campaign on higher education and black institutions.
I argued that race theory — the actual theory and scholarship on race and not its bastardization in popular culture — could add a lot to class and media analysis of voting patterns in this election:
I am trained a social scientist. I know how polls work, much to the chagrin of the professionally smart men who sneered at me when I said this nation could absolutely elect Donald Trump.
To be professionally smart is to concede always to rational science, to polls and confidence intervals. These colleagues, the professionally smart, seemed dismayed that the black woman they’d been brave enough to think smart could believe a President Trump was possible.
They were dismayed but not surprised. Women and black people always have a potential blind spot where race and gender are concerned. It is why we’re so emotional and irrational. We just cannot see past our unscientific claims of racism and sexism to be truly professionally smart. Our models, in the parlance of the professionally smart, are always just a bit skewed.
It’s a shame, too. Because the professionally smart really want evidence that their faith in affirmative action for smart minorities is well-placed. It is a shame with a black woman has as much potential as me and still can’t see past that racial blind spot.
My blind spot was, of course, perfect clarity about how whiteness and racism work.
Professor Andre Carrington said on Twitter that he hoped that the rush among many to pick up Hannah Arendt to explain our times would also lead some to pick up other work:
Let me just say, he ain’t never lied.
Things I Said and Did
2016 will be the year that I put Lower Ed into production, Digital Sociologies was released, and I almost got For-Profit Universities out the production door.
The website has been updated for all that jazz.
I started a newsletter for folks interested in Lower Ed news and things I cannot say on Twitter.
Hands down, the best academic presentation I did this year was on digital sociology in the corporate university for my keynote address at the University of Mary Washington.
And, perhaps, the most emotionally grounded essay I wrote all year just made it in under the wire.
I responded to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ epic longform essay on the first draft of Barack Obama’s presidency:
I’ve been fortunate. The Atlantic has asked me to engage Ta-Nehisi’s work before. This time, was no exception for me in that it was a no-brainer.
I did what I always try to do – I explored sociological theories through my experience of them in response to an empirical reality: my president was black. What did that mean? It meant confusion, conflict, joy, pain, reflection and disillusionment:
Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.
As I said, I’m too busy to be proud of most anything I do but I am as satisfied with this essay anything I have done recently.
On A Personal Note
I had a banner year. Professionally, my life could not have gone better. Personally, I had a lot of loss. Most notably, my father was murdered this year.
It is a strange word. I did not even realize until he finally died, Thanksgiving morning, after days in the hospital that murder is what had happened.
I do not have sense of it yet. I do not want to talk about it. I just need to know it happened and I am still here.
It has changed my approach to life in some ways. Calibrated my tolerance for risk. Cracked open my fear of death and dying. Added a new groove in my empathy brain. But also a new groove in my bravery brain. Who knows how those can coexist.
You may have noticed that I also now have a tip jar for the website. Trying to walk my talk, I moved http://www.tressiemc.com to A Domain of One’s Own this year (with a lot of help). I’ve never had any support for this website. As a graduate student I fronted all the costs of maintenance and hosting and the emotional labor of moderating and writing. Now, I am stretching a bit to get help here and there. If you ever want to tip, please do and know that I appreciate it. It mostly subsidizes graduate students who I hire from time-to-time to do some editing, formatting, moderating and management.
The one thing I can say about 2017, is that for good or for ill, it won’t be 2016.