Academic Privilege: Experiences as a white cisgendered gay male atheist Engineer

Wow.  So after skipping out of PFP early on Monday to attend a talk titled “Why are you Atheists so Angry” by Greta Christina, I was going to write a post about    what angers me about the current state of academia (for those of you not familiar with Greta’s talk, anger in this context is not a bad thing, it is a powerful motivator for social change).  In the process of confirming the url to her blog, a curious random happenstance led me to this post from July, 2011, which in turn lead to here and finally to Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege

I’m not going to rehash the situation and subsequent discussion that lead to the first two links, but if you have time for nothing else, read “Of Dogs and Lizards” immediately after this (or earlier if you find yourself thinking that I shouldn’t be “making a big deal” about this).

This whole sequence of posts was really relevant to me because I had just spent a good deal of time last week discussing the concept of “privileged” with a group of friendly folks.  The parable did a better job of explaining it than I did, I think.

It’s important to understand privilege because it exists at all levels in higher ed, and has a profound effect on the people that don’t have it.  Before I go on, there are many, many kinds of privileged and many of us have some but not all forms.  There’s white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, cisgendered privilege, religious (in this country, Christian) privilege and so on and so forth.  Notice I’m not talking about the privilege that comes with having a lot of money (although the previously mentioned kinds of privileged have a huge effect on whether or not someone achieves financial privilege).  I’m talking about unearned privileges.  Privileges granted just by being born a certain way, or adopting a certain religion.

(Electrical) Engineering is a male dominated field, and while there have been many discussions as to why this is (and how to change it), one large reason is that it is not perceived as an inviting environment to women.

As a gay male, I tend to be sensitive to sexist comments made by professors, colleagues, even my adviser.  Not for the same reason a woman would be sensitive to them, although I can empathize, but because they make me feel like an outlier, like I don’t belong.  I really don’t understand, why would we “hire some dancing girls” to celebrate a successful paper submission?  And why would I pick a major based on the ability “to meet women”? And why is talking about how engineers can “pick up girls” such a popular topic (here’s a tip, maybe if you started thinking of women as human beings (editors note: I originally had written “human beans”, which might be the case as well)  and not some kind of alien species that you had to “trick” into talking to you, you’d be more successful).

I wish I could remember some more specific examples from the classroom.  All I can remember is numerous times feeling uncomfortable, both for myself, and for the few women around, after a professor (likely unknowingly) made a sexist comment in class.

Now, if you have read the parable yet, you’ll understand that I am not accusing the people making these comments of being bad people. They’re just unaware.  They legitimately do not understand why the comments they are making might be offensive to some people.  Because they have privilege.  It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just the state of the world that we live in.  But because they have privilege, they also have the privilege of ignoring the people who raise concerns.

I have had good friends suggest that maybe I was just “an angsty gay boy” for feeling uncomfortable about the pervasive heteronormativity I experience in Engineering.  I have been told by colleagues, after raising concern about a sexist remark made by a professor, that “it’s not a big deal, he didn’t mean it that way, don’t worry about it”.  Well, I am worried about it.  And I’m also worried when people tell me not to worry about it.  As you know by now from reading the referenced posts, these responses are a nice way of saying “shut up”.  Subconciously that is usually often done because maybe they see some truth in what I’m saying but don’t want to admit it because they’re uncomfortable facing the fact that they have privilege, or maybe it’s to try and preserve the privilege that they have.

Academe should be an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to ALL people, and I think most of us feel that way.  So please, the next time someone tells you that a comment made them feel uncomfortable, listen to them.  And understand that it might take a while for you to understand WHY a comment that sounds perfectly reasonable to you might make someone else feel uncomfortable.

What privileged to you enjoy that you might not be aware of? And how might they lead you to say things that may make others feel uncomfortable?

What unearned privileges do you *not* have, and have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable, or unsafe as a result?


When Politics Attack

It is generally understood that educators (and especially administrators) must maintain a reasonably level of objectivity and personal restraint when mentioning politics or other highly controversial topics.  We have a mission to reach out to ALL members of society, and alienating some showing strong endorsement for one side or another of a heated political debate is generally seen as antithetical to our mission.

However, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, recently asked

“Under what circumstances and to what extent should a college or university president speak directly to political issues and even speak publicly on particular political candidacies?”


Read his full post on Huffington Post.

He concludes that when a political candidate, or the views of a candidate are a direct threat to the institution of education, then it is not only appropriate to speak up, but educators and administrators have a responsibility to do so.

I fully agree with his stance on this, and the particular examples he refers too, but I wonder where others fall? Are we all always going to agree which views are a direct threat to the institution, or will that opinion itself be clouded by personal bias and emotion?

Blogging is hard

I started writing my first blog post for this course 10 days ago.  It is still in the draft folder.  This has been the common course of action throughout my blogging career.  I had attempted to start a blog a number of times long before signing up for either of these courses.  Previous attempts were all the same, initiated by outbursts of pent up desires to share my thoughts, dampened by the sudden realization that by sharing my thoughts others would be free to judge them.  How could I live with that?

It’s not that I thought others would be harsh in their judgment, and in fact, it probably had less to do with how I felt others would look at my writing, but how I would judge it myself weeks or months later.  What was I thinking? Why hadn’t I bothered to look of the definition of that word, it clearly doesn’t fit there? I pick over the details of my work to such an extent that it doesn’t take long to convince myself anything I create isn’t ready for the world.  My blog just one example.

But blogging shouldn’t be this hard.  There are no hard guidelines to meet, and so implicitly none that will be failed to be met.  Sure there will be reviews and critiques of a sort, but it’s easy enough to ignore that in a medium which lends itself perfectly to revision and constant adjustment.  Unlike a publication, there is little reason to obsess over small grammar issues and prudently check proper punctuation placement.  Even whimsical alliteration can scoot by under the radar without a second thought because the only gatekeeper to acceptance is myself.

So what’s the big deal?

Blogging is easy.