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Ask the Oracle

With Scholar Lisa Flores

Senior scholar Lisa Flores answers a question from Stephanie Hartzell, the Graduate Student Representative for ORWAC. Dr. Flores is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

What's your advice for emerging scholars from underrepresented backgrounds who are attempting to navigate the landscapes of academia in general and the discipline of communication in particular?

Navigating academic landscapes is tricky, regardless of our background, but for those of us from underrepresented backgrounds, the terrain can be not just complicated. It can, quite literally, be hazardous. Indeed, as I reflect on this question, I am reminded of a quote I heard at a panel on race, gender, and academia several years ago, when the panel chair looked at the largely women of color audience and quoted Whoopi Goldberg, from Ghost, talking to Molly (Demi Moore): “you in danger, girl.” That poignant and all-too-true line captures the reality—or a least part of it—for underrepresented scholars in academia. We will be depicted (and seemingly experience) as emotionally off-kilter—too angry, too shy, too demure, too bold. We will be told that we are too sensitive when we name the institutional structures and cultural practices that undermine our work. We will be expected to do the work of diversity yet we will be critiqued for playing the race card when we do. Students, sometimes reviewers, and even perhaps our faculty colleagues will name us as biased, if not unprofessional. Most of us will work in predominantly white institutions where we will experience a double isolation—the typical isolation of faculty expected to work alone compounded by the isolation of underrepresentation, where we will be the only faculty of color or only out queer faculty in our department. And of course despite our talents, wisdom, and scholarly excellence, we will be tokenized, expected to be grateful for our positions. And yet, despite these dangers, here we are, working toward membership in academia. Given our shared path and shared commitment, what are we to do? What are you to do?

Perhaps the thing you must do first and often is think about who you are and who you want to be. There are many pieces of this first task, and some of them are no doubt already familiar to you, as they are the questions that most academics will likely consider:  Do you want to be a teacher-scholar? A scholar-activist? Do you want to work at a research-intensive school? A teaching institution? How do you want to think about family? About personal interests and commitments? But there are additional pieces here that you, as an underrepresented scholar, may experience differently, if not more intensely. (How) Do you want your race/ethnicity, sexuality, social class, (dis)ability, citizenship to matter professionally? Though others will make your identity matter, and do so in all kinds of ways, such as assuming you have particular teaching and service interests, you might want to craft a narrative for yourself and revisit it often. Though I hesitate to use the word “choice” unreflexively or with disregard for the ways that “choice” circulates within neoliberalism, I do find that I am regularly faced with professional “choices,” many of which hinge on the ways I want to integrate race/ethnicity, sexuality, and citizenship as theory, identity, and lived practice with my professional identity. Having a sense of who I want to be at those intersections helps me think through these choices. A quick example. Underrepresented faculty are, in my experience, more likely to be infantilized around our identity positions, reduced to our underrepresentation. If that happens, you are likely to find that colleagues expect you to have certain interests and skills, typically around diversity, but they might not expect or be able to see your other interests, maybe in personnel issues or leadership. If you have a sense of who you are and want to be, you will be better positioned to seek opportunities that enable you to develop your interests and abilities.

The next, equally crucial, thing to do is build your network. While this is important advice for all emerging scholars, it is particularly crucial for underrepresented scholars. We are, after all, underrepresented. And this means that we have few colleagues with whom we share identity groups, not just in our departments or on our campuses, but in the discipline and the academy at large. For those of us whose teaching and research emerges through our identity position—we study race/ethnicity, sexuality, disability, nation and citizenship—we will also be underrepresented by teaching and research interests. The isolation can be profound and debilitating. There are likely to be many moments when you are made to feel, well, crazy, as if you are the only one who sees and experiences the institutional racism, homophobia, or sexism that surrounds us. Networks will help you to ground you, to remind you that the smog of the isms is real. With networks, you can thrive, even in isolation.

I invoke network to include both communities of affiliation and affinity as well as communities of mentors. Attend to the plural here—communities. Reach out at conferences, on email and social media, to those whose interests and experiences seem linked. Cultivate academic friendships so that you can share teaching and research ideas and excitement as well as professional frustrations. Ask individuals to mentor you, and look for a host of mentors who can help you think through questions of scholarship, of teaching, of service, of leadership. Don’t expect that one or two mentors will have the depth of experience and knowledge to offer you the fully complex insight you will need to navigate the academy. Ask. For. Help.

Finally, beware the shiny objects that will surround you. You are likely to be invited to participate in a host of different projects, each of which may tempt you. Before you agree, reflect back on the questions of who you are and who you want to be. For those of us privileged enough to have full time tenure/track positions, academic life feels so flexible. We can choose what project or task to work on and when. But you are likely to be held accountable to only some of those projects or tasks. The dissertation will have a defend-by date and the tenure file will have a file-by date. While there are any number of reasons we (almost) miss our deadlines, too often I have seen individuals struggle with those deadlines because they got distracted by the shiny object.

As you move through whatever phase of the academic journey you are on, I hope these few thoughts give you some guidance. It is a dangerous path. It will most certainly have its struggles. So too will it offer you a host of possibilities--conversations with like-minded friends, colleagues, and students, times of wonder and joy, and the opportunity to intervene, even if only momentarily, in the contemporary intellectual moment, a privilege indeed.


Thank you, Dr. Flores, for participating in our “Ask the Oracle” Column.

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