Reconsider a Career in Student Affairs

This is part of a blog series dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. In this post, we’ll review why you should reconsider a career in student affairs. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.

@HumanofHigherEd retweeted a post and said: "The ol' #SAChat proverb: the best time to leave the field is the year before you started. The second best time is now." The original tweet was from @AngelMandujanoo" and said "I'll be here before I graduate with this degree tbh lmfao." This was in reference to a post calling for all the folks who left student affairs.

The perfect tweet for this blog post: It is in reference to ‘who left student affairs in 2019″ tweet.

In November I intended to write just one blog post on why prospective students should reconsider student affairs graduate program. On my personal Facebook, I asked my friends (many who are in SA) “For folks in SA, what reasons would you give to discourage someone and advise them into a different grad program and/or field?” 

Let’s just say…folks had a lot to say on the topic. 

This first entry in the blog series will comment on the many darker aspects of student affairs that most prospective students, and even graduate students and some new professionals, are not well aware of. Student affairs has a bevy of systemic issues and more folks, particularly on social media, discuss these issues. But for every person who discusses these issues, there’s a high ranking white lady or dude in student affairs who calls that person a “dumpster fire” instead of, uh, actually calling the systemic issues a dumpster fire and working to address them.

Welp, here’s the dumpster fire:

gif of an adorablly drawn turquoise dumpster on fire

FYI you can actually purchase this as a tiny toy via here: http://bit.ly/2Fv5Sg5

1. Student Affairs Isn’t Puppies & Rainbows

Many folks believe that student affairs is focused on social justice. This is a fair assertion, especially because “social justice” is literally in the professional competencies of the organization. And there are many folks doing great work and consistently working towards justice, working towards liberation, working towards inclusion (these are all, to me, different levels of work, but all still important). 

And then there are others…Everyone will overlook or mess up on an area that they are privileged in (we are always learning as  educators) but then there are some folks who systematically contribute to oppression and tend to ‘fail upwards’. 

Ultimately, institutions of higher education were built on white supremacy (Wilder, 2013), colonization and genocide (Wright, 1995), sexism and classism (Cohen & Kisker, 2010), abelist (the ADA wasn’t signed until 1990 and many faculty still have issues providing accommodations), and in general have been against folks who weren’t Christian (read how the Ivy League discriminated against Jewish students) or LGBTQ+ (dip into the research with K. Renn) either. Yes, there have been many advances in equity since World War II and later growth during the Civil Rights Era. But there are still significant issues creating an equitable playing ground for students of color, disabled students (or ‘students with disabilities’/SWD – the community uses both terms and its personal preference), low-income students, trans students, queer students, non-Christian students, women, older students, students with children/families/who are caretakers, transfer students, first-generation students, immigrants, international students, undocumented students, and any other student who doesn’t fit the mold.

And remember, Dear Prospective Student, the research on disparities for marginalized students that is published in media (and most of the academic literature), focuses on students. If the environments at all institutions (to an extent, and then it depends on the college, department, supervisor, etc) can be negative to student well-being…what do you think that means for the student affairs professionals who hold marginalized identities?

…yeah, folks, there’s a lot of toxicity in student affairs for marginalized folks.

Cody Charles(2017) dives into this through his essay “Student Affairs is a SHAM”; focusing on the recruitment of marginalized students into student affairs. As a white woman, I have not experienced racism, but the stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues of color…what I’ve read in the various student affairs Facebook groups…and all the other oppressive environments and actions experienced by student affairs professionals holding one or multiple marginalized identities…Whew! And then the stories of transphobia, sexism, ableism, etc…there are many dumpster fires in this field.

Personal disclosure  – Five years of FT nonprofit experience + 2 years working in graduate school, and I don’t think I ever experienced systemic sexism at work (besides this one misogynist pastor who literally stapled papers and stared at his desk the whole time when I was meeting with him to discuss an important issue, ugh)…until I began my first post-graduate position in student affairs? Oof, yes. Multiple incidents that maybe I’ll write about in depth ten years down the road when there’s some more distance. (Lol yes, be nervous, you know who you are)

Trust me: Student Affairs is no better (yet also not any worse) than most other fields. I have folks who work in the private sector who have healthier work environments than some of the folks in student affairs. 

However, while its not puppies and rainbows, I will point out some benefits to balance this section…

The benefits for some folks for working in higher education:

  • Generally, most institutions have strong diversity statements so you can try to advocate for yourself to HR + more comprehensive reporting measures on civil rights (but that still doesn’t mean the institution will protect you necessarily).
  • If you come from a low-income family and/or have disabilities that require medical attention, generally most institutions have great insurance – often better than other fields.
  • Plenty more Paid Time Off (PTO) than most other fields, which is great if you have a chronic condition, family time, and/or love breaks from work. There are usually differences between institutions (public or private, small or large) on how much PTO you get.
  • If finances are a concern and you have dependents and/or you/your spouse wants to continue your/their education, many institutions will cover tuition for perhaps 1-2 courses a semester or some will cover all courses. You’ll still need to pay fees, however.
  • For trans folks, more and more institutions’ insurance policies include gender affirming healthcare (of course, this exists at large firms as well)

2. This isn’t a Lifelong Career

Perhaps you really are interested in working in student affairs forever…or perhaps you’re applying this fall to graduate school because you’re not sure what else to do with your career,

I’m sorry, Dear Prospective Student, but if you go to graduate school for student affairs, you’ll likely be in a different field anyway within 5 years – or at least, 50%-60% of professionals will be gone (Lorden, 1998; Tull, 2006; Marshall, Moore Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery (2016).

Can you imagine? Two years of your life studying and perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a career that last <5 years??? (Of course, if you get everything paid for, this can be fine – there are plenty of transferable skills, which I’ll cover in a future post).

Multiple scholars have covered this: Lorden (1998), Tull (2006), Marshall, Moore Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery (2016), Frank’s (2013) dissertation, Ward (2015), and more…

3. So why do folks leave the field of Student Affairs? 

Marshall, et.al (2016) noted the following themes; but note I am adding my own observational notes for the rationale and I have a large number of friends who contributed their own thoughts on this as well:

  • Burnout – Many functional areas require long hours (except for academic advising usually, but that still is a depending flow of talking to students non-stop throughout the day), including evenings and weekends. When offices are short-staffed or just have ambitious goals, this results in even more hours – and yet still, the professional feels like they aren’t hitting their goals. Sometimes when an office is short-staffed, but nothing is on fire, higher-up administators think “by golly, look how well things are working! let’s save money and cut x position immediately” resulting in long-term low-capacity and a culture of over-working.
  • Salary issues – Many jobs that one can obtain with a bachelor’s degree range from $30,000-$60,000 starting immediately. So why do most student affairs positions with required master’s degree start with a range of $29,000-$42,000? With a median of $35,000? This is not a lot to live on, as I will explain in a future post on personal finance in SA.
  • Career alternatives – I know folks who left their positions in student activities or multicultural affairs to become trainers at corporations making $65,000 and working regular hours. If student affairs type of work is what you are interested in, there are many alternative careers that use those same skills. (Again, I will explore options in future posts).
  • Work/family conflict – The weird schedules associated with student activities and residence life can be killer on a personal life. (for a light-hearted read, check out “25 Ways You Are Dating A Student Affairs Professional”)
  • Limited advancement – Renn & Jessup-Anger (2008) stated that the student affairs workforce is 15%-20% new professionals with less than 5 years of professional experience. There are a great number of entry-level positions but the competition gets fiercer for Assistant/Associate Director positions. And once you’re ready for higher levels? An immense amount of competition for director roles…often a doctoral degree is preferred for some of these roles and anything higher than director tends to require it. (But of course, as we know, having a doctoral degree does not automatically, in any way, make someone better at running an office or division).
  • Supervisor issues and institutional fit – The critique I have about current scholarship on this topic of leaving student affairs is it doesn’t cover the specific issues facing marginalized folks in oppressive conditions. Essnetially, this tends to get at the concept of “institutional fit” – some folks ‘fit’ while others do not (“fit” is almost always shrouded in power and privilege). As for supervisor issues, supervision is not really taught in graduate school (although for some graduate assistantship positions they’ll have a training on it), which means there are some mediocre and some absolute terrible supervisors running around….people get promoted or hired into supervisor roles with little regard for how well they actually supervise people, but hey! “Golly gee they supervised full-time staff at xyz university, so they must know how to do it, so let’s hire them!” -_-
  • Loss of passion – With all the above going on, who wouldn’t lose passion for their student affairs job?

4. You have to Still Pay for Parking as a Professional

Like….Tell me why at the age of 29 and freshly graduated with my master’s, I started my job with an annual salary of $35,000 and had to pay $600 a year for parking…just because my institution was adjacent to downtown of a city?

How many other companies or organizations charge their employees hundreds of dollars for the privilege of parking at work (some who are downtown in a city, but still). The one difference is sometimes smaller schools, especially community colleges, will provide free parking.

(okay this issue is small in the context of everything else, BUT I shall always remain mad about it)

5. The Pay Is Insulting for a Master’s Degree

Yes, I covered this a bit in #2, but it must be emphasized…

Most institutions have entry-level folks listed as “exempt”, meaning they must work at least 40 hours, but can be ordered to work “as much as needed” to get the project done. This is serious labor – high student contact, event planning, etc. All for maybe $17/hour or around $35,000 a year? In an upcoming post, I’ll share a copy of my old paycheck and do a ‘personal finance class for the entry-level SA person’ to give you a better idea of what this means.

6. The Student Affairs Field is Losing Value and Budget Cuts (i.e., jobs) are Coming

Until the research era in the 1920s-1940s, funded by millionaire philanthropists, hit higher education, faculty were the ones to serve as deans, advisors, etc. Many faculty, honestly unfairly, still think student affairs jobs are not necessary because ‘they’ can do it. But they cannot, because the professoriate has changed (to be fair, mostly at research universities) and the focus is research, publications, etc. Additionally, the needs of students have diversified and trained professionals (i.e., student affairs) are there to support student retention, advising, and running programs – training that falls outside the scope of studying one topic (history, biology, etc) in depth and teaching on it.

However, we are hitting a crisis in enrollment and across the board student affairs divisions at many institutions are thought to be of lesser value. I absolutely agree offices like cultural centers, student activities, etc are critical to student retention and absolutely necessary but when we are hitting a budget crisis, student affairs is going to be (and already is at many locations) the first to go once the president/board of directors get a chance. Colleges require faculty, financial aid offices….they don’t require programming in order to operate on a bare bones budget.

Why are budget cuts looming?

College enrollment has declined for the 8th consecutive year (Inside Higher Ed). “States with the largest decrease in student enrollment numbers were Florida, California, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the center, in that order. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, North Dakota, Hawaii and Kansas had the largest percentage declines.” Birth declines began in 2008 and by 2026 higher education will begin to experience the “college enrollment bust” (Bloomberg).

“Over the past eight years, college enrollment nationwide has fallen about 11%. Every sector — public state schools, community colleges, for-profits and private liberal arts schools — has felt the decline, though it has been especially painful for small private colleges, where, in some cases, institutions have been forced to close” (NPR)

Meaning if you enter a student affairs graduate program in fall 2020, you’ll likely graduate in spring 2022 and then have 4 years before your institution will (likely) start experiencing more cuts. 

7. Student Affairs Programs Aren’t Preparing Graduates for These Changes

The majority of student affairs programs are located at 4-year public campuses that focus on traditional undergraduate students (i.e., often straight out of high school, living on campus, not parents/caregivers). Which means the practical experience that graduate students obtain through their assistantships will primarily be with the “traditional student”. Our SA faculty primarily have their research focused on this “average” student population. Many of the theories taught in most SAgrad programs (though this is changing through texts like this and this) are rooted in the experiences of white middle-class college students.

Today’s college student, per the Lumina Foundation, has changed from what we may think of:

  • 37% of college students are 25 or older
  • 46% are first-generation college goers.
  • 9% of college students are first-generation immigrants
  • 42%of college students are students of color.
  • 64% of college students work, and 40% of them work full-time
  • 49% of college students are financially independent from their parents
  • 6% of college students serve of have served in the U.S. armed forces
  • 24% of college students have children or other dependents
  • 36$ of college students reported not knowing where their next meal was coming from   
  • 9% of college students reported being homeless within the past year
  • 31% of college students come from families at or below the Federal Poverty Guideline. The majority of college students (53%) come from families at or below TWICE the poverty level

These numbers? They will only change further as we hit the enrollment bust and colleges need to recruit even more students outside of the traditional high school recruitment circuit.

If you’re a current #SAgrad or in the field, did your graduate program teach you how to better serve and work with students from these (and other populations)? If you are a prospective student, definitely ask about this during interview season.

Faculty – feel free to prove me wrong and share in the comments or Twitter what your program is doing different. I want to believe #SAgrad programs are evolving, but have seen evidence to the contrary so far.

In Conclusion

gif of an adorablly drawn turquoise dumpster on fire

FYI you can actually purchase this as a tiny toy via here: http://bit.ly/2Fv5Sg5

***************************

Want to add to the conversation? Tweet me at @NikiMessmore

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January is “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs Month”!

Welcome to my new blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs Month”! A play off of NASPA’s “Careers in Student Affairs Month”, this series will provide guidance and advice to prospective students considering graduate school for student affairs (SA), but most posts will also benefit current graduate students (#SAGrad), entry-level student affairs professionals, and folks in SA who are considering a career change – or anyone who is here for some schadenfreude for student affairs. 

Man smirking/smiling and giving a tiny clap

Thanks to some interest from friends, I am interested in publishing posts from Guest Contributors for this blog series. If you’re interested, learn more.

And if you’re no longer working in SA or used to work in a different field, I kindly ask you to complete this survey on transferable skills: http://bit.ly/SACareerTransitionsSuvery 

I know this series would have been better in November, before folks have paid application fees, but hopefully this will benefit prospective students as they hit interview season (and folks in future application seasons). I don’t think our profession does a great job of open and honest communication about what the job is like (I just read one first-year grad say they hoped their starting salary post-grad would be $70k, and I was like “Oh sweetie, no”) and, frankly, I’m tired of how graduate students and younger professionals get chewed up by the system. It’s time to have a lengthy conversation.

A bit of background, as this shapes my perspective on the topic: I earned my bachelor’s in political science at Bowling Green State University (home to a well-established student affairs graduate program) and then served in a variety of grant-funded positions in the nonprofit sector for 5 years before entering an SAgrad program. This included serving as a director of a very small not-for-profit organization for middle school youth with my organization located in a university service-learning office, a community organizer on social justice issues with churches, managing a volunteer initiative for 17 counties through the United Way, and working in after-school programs (plus fundraising) for teens in a mid-sized city at a Latino resource center. After all these grant-funded positions (with limited or no benefits) that lasted less than 2 years, I thought about my other career interest of student affairs and decided it was time to tackle the GRE! I earned my master’s at another well-established higher education program, Indiana University, and now have been working in student affairs for over 5 years in service learning and student activities.

Whew, that was a lot.

So, I’ve been in two different fields, and I’m here to tell you, Dear Prospective Student: You don’t need to get a master’s in student affairs in order to have a career (and, uh, since 50%-60% of folks leave SA after 5 years, maybe you should consider a different career option entirely).

You can expect the following blog posts to be published in the month of January here at Dances with Dissonance:

  1. Reconsider a Career in Student Affairs – The darker truths of the field may have you reconsider your career goals – at the very least, I hope you’ll be more informed.
  2. 11 Things to do Instead of Graduate School for Student Affairs – You have many options for other related graduate programs – or none at all!
  3. 4 Things You Need to Know When Selecting a Student Affairs Graduate Program – I go beyond the usual advice to do some real talk that I don’t see (publicly) discussed very often
  4. So, How do you Live on a Student Affairs Income – Not well, lol. Consider this a personal finance course using examples of my own paycheck and bills
  5. Why I Actually Do Enjoy Working in Student Affairs – Don’t be confused that I hate my job – I actually like it, and here’s why
  6. Transferable Skills for Student Affairs Professionals – For my friends already in SA and wanting out, here I’ll draw direct lines between your transferable skills. You have many!
  7. Work-Life Balance in Student Affairs – We’ll go through a list of the different factors, since this topic varies wildly in student affairs.
  8. Plus, additional posts from Guest Contributors!

***************************

Want to add to the conversation? Tweet me at @NikiMessmore

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Guest Contributor Call-Out: “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs Month!”

‘Blog Series Description:

“Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs Month”:  A play off of NASPA’s “Careers in Student Affairs Month”, this series will provide guidance and advice to prospective students considering graduate school for student affairs (SA), but most posts will also benefit current graduate students (#SAGrad), entry-level student affairs professionals, and folks in SA who are considering a career change – or anyone who is here for some schadenfreude for student affairs.

There are bout 7 posts written/in-progress that will be scheduled throughout the month of January. Current topics that I am already posting on include:

  1. Reconsider a Career in Student Affairs – The darker truths of the field may have you reconsider your career goals – at the very least, I hope you’ll be more informed.
  2. 11 Things to do Instead of Graduate School for Student Affairs – You have many options for other related graduate programs – or none at all!
  3. Things You Need to Know When Selecting a Student Affairs Graduate Program – I go beyond the usual advice to do some real talk that I don’t see (publicly) discussed very often
  4. So, How do you Live on a Student Affairs Income – Not well, lol. Consider this a personal finance course using examples of my own paycheck and bills
  5. Why I Actually Do Enjoy Working in Student Affairs – Don’t be confused that I hate my job – I actually like it, and here’s why
  6. Transferable Skills for Student Affairs Professionals – For my friends already in SA and wanting out, here I’ll draw direct lines between your transferable skills. You have many!
  7. Work-Life Balance in Student Affairs – We’ll go through a list of the different factors, since this topic varies wildly in SA.

Guest Contributor Overview:

My original goal was to ask folks to contribute a post if they were interested, but a serious family illness that struck in September and still is something I’m helping to manage. I didn’t think there would be time to do a call-out, ability to follow-up well, or interest! But when I posted about the blog series online, some friends were interested in being a guest contributor, so I wanted to share this more widely! While I work in SA and enjoy my current role, I think the field has a lot of issues and it would be most helpful to prospective graduate students to hear from more folks from diverse experiences in SA.

Want to Submit? Read below and complete this form. Then get started writing!

Possible Topics for Guest Contributors: 

  1. Discuss your own experiences in Student Affairs; maybe your specific functional unit? We have a whole month dedicated to choosing SA as a field but few public pieces that outline some of the negative and even toxic/abusive aspects of the field. 
  2. Discuss systemic issues of privilege and oppression, whether it is from your own experiences or things you have observed in the field. This can be from experiences as a student affairs graduate student or as a professional.
  3. Why you left SA for a different field – has it been better, worse, or the same?
  4. Transferable skills from your SA role(s) to jobs in different fields. This is a topic that many want to learn
  5. Discuss how your SAgrad experience set you up for success – or didn’t. This blog series isn’t necessarily to tell prospective students not to go into the field, but really to make sure they go into it with eyes wide open.
  6. Go against the whole topic of the blog post – argue why people need a degree in student affairs! I love it when people defy authority, even when it’s me! 🙂
  7. Did you work for longer than 1 year before your master’s? Discuss your experiences.
  8. I’m very open to what you’d like to write on but please stay on the theme – overall, this series is meant to help prospective graduate students (and current grads, for the most part) make better and more informed decisions around their future.

Guidelines:

  1. Blog Post Deadline: Monday, January 16th at 11:59pm. I can do later by request, possibly. Just ask me. If many folks want to submit, I may extend this “month” series through February…time is wibbly wobbly timely wimey, anyways
  2. Date set for publication: January 23rd – 31st; possibly earlier depending on number of submissions
  3. Word Count: Typically blogs are most commonly read if they are between 700-1000 words.Sometimes that word count can’t capture all the greatness, so I would really cut it to 2,000 words maximum – just know folks may not read after the first 1000.
  4. Any requirements:
    1. For legal reasons, don’t use the names of other folks in your blog post unless they email me their permission (i.e., please don’t say “Dean Chad Spriggen is a total sexist pig”, even if it is true, because libel, y’all. I already had one powerful white lady academic threaten to sue me in 2019, and I don’t want that energy directed at me again lol).
    2. Freedom of Speech is the government not censuring your speech, not me, a basic blog lady on the internet. I will throw out anything that enforces oppressive systems/actions.
    3. You can be an anonymous author, but I will still need to know who you are. If you want to be anonymous, we may talk more. I completely get why folks may want this.
    4. This blog post can be written by a current student affairs graduate student, current professional, or someone who used to work in the field or has a degree in the field, but now works in a different field.
    5. Submissions that don’t fit in with the theme of the series may be met with a polite no.

Benefits to the Writer:

  1. Pay: I’m sorry friends, but I don’t run ads on my blog and don’t make anything from it. This is all a public service to the field and to educate the many prospective SA grads, especially first-gen students who aren’t sure what the field is all about. I am completely okay with folks not submitting something if they can’t get paid for their time! And if you choose to volunteer your time, I thank you.
  2. Share your cashapp/Paypal/etc and I’ll include it at the bottom of your blog post. If you run a business, include that information in your bio, and I’ll share that + relevant links as well. 

My Role in this Partnership:

  1. I will read your essay. I may edit it, unless you have an issue with that. I would never change anything without sending it back to you first before publishing. Depending on the number of submissions and my schedule between family caretaking + work, I may not do a detailed edit. If you want one, please let me know.
  2. I will publish your entry as part of the blog series on my blog, Dances with Dissonance
  3. I will market the post on social media (Twitter, and some Facebook, but I will be careful not to spam the various SA groups).
  4. The essay remains your property and my site will only host it. I’ll delete it at any time you request. I will never republish it.

Your Role in this Partnership:

  1. See the requirements above, and meet them
  2. Share the other blog posts in the series and support other writers

Contact Details:

Blog:

danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com/

Blog Author:

Niki Messmore

Twitter: @NikiMessmore

*Please note my schedule does not always allow quick responses to email. It’s best for folks to complete this interest form and I’ll follow up afterwards with my personal email so you have a place to submit + can answer questions. 

 

The Breakdown on the Meme that Broke HigherEd Twitter, Part 1

Note: The following is an analysis of the contentious debate(?) among higher education professionals (primarily in student affairs) on Twitter, and its greater application to the field. I believe this will serve as a strong case study on the generational differences in higher education professionals, meme culture, and the reactionary techniques utilized to protect white womanhood. Given the intricate and fascinating (to a nerd who enjoys examining how power dynamics in higher ed play out on social media) pieces to this story, I have broken up the essay into two parts. [Part 1] [Part 2]

I disclose that I was very involved in the dialogue and I have strong opinions – hence I’ve provided screenshots so folks can read and form their own opinion alongside my analysis. It’s okay for multiple truths to exist on one topic, for folks to disagree with me, and for folks to tell me I did something wrong (if true, I’ll fix it).

Please note that I am not the only voice on this topic – see threads by Sachet Watson, Dr. D-L Stewart, and (in response to the tweets on blacklisting) Jana.; plus multiple tweets (not all in a thread) by CJ Venable, Sunny, and Lena Tenney (here and here) and SO many others.


Table of Contents:

Part 1

  • I. To Meme or Not to Meme
  • II. So…what broke Twitter?
  • III. The issue on the table? (#Hamiltonreferences4ever)
  • IV….um…
  • V. And then?
  • VI. Are we done yet?
  • VII. But the Students!
  • VIII. The Next “Hot Take”
  • IX. Changing the Narrative
  • X. Actually, It’s About Legislators
  • XI. Victimization Narrative & Gaslighting Others

Part 2

  • XII. White Woman Victimhood ramps up
  • XIII. Gaslighting Continues…
  • XIV. Divisive Tactics
  • XV. She Didn’t Shame Anyone!
  • XVI. Ok and this one is just funny
  • XVII. Call Her Khaleesi
  • XVIII. Peak White Feminism: Misgendering and Racism
  • XIX. Fear Mongering of the “Secret Black List”
  • XX. In Conclusion
  • XXI. But what’s next?

I. To Meme or Not to Meme

On Monday, May 27th, a meme from the parody student affairs account Humans of Higher Ed (HoHe) run by (I believe) entry-level professionals (see the interview with the creators by Amma Marfo here) [update: Twitter informed me two are director-level folks] posted the following kind of tweet they normally do (link, since its a gif):

HOH original

Image Text: “When you realize that when you get to work tomorrow no students will be there.” Image: Baseball players jumping out of their chairs celebrating enthusiastically.

This is the standard sort of thing you tend to see from educators, in k-12 or higher ed. In fact, it is quite prevalent in k-12 education – there are plenty of memes by and for teachers celebrating summer (see: google image results); if you have a teacher friend, you’ve probably seen them celebrate summer. Same is true for retail workers around holiday hours, CPAs during tax season, and parents excited to send their kids back to school in September. Some folks like memes like this, other folks just shrug because its not for them.

But for some folks, they couldn’t just shrug it off.

One professor replied to the meme “This is absolutely disgusting and inappropriate.” A Senior Student Affairs Officer (SSAO) took the meme literally to say “<face palm emoji.> <— that feeling when folks who work in higher ed don’t realize many institutions continue to educate and engage students all 12 months. It might be a bit quieter, but I am so glad that our students still show up, get involved, and make progress toward their goals!”. A higher ed consultant with their own HE company called the meme gross and went on a bit about it. (no names b/c its their titles/positionality that matter here)

Why the disconnect?

If we approach this from a sociological perspective, we must first understand how differences in generation, class, and other identities/experiences will lead folks to approach memes differently. Memes are a unique tool of communication based in culture and can be difficult to understand, especially if one is not from that culture (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018). They are considered a form of “creativity” in “everyday conversation” (Willmore & Hocking, 2017, p. 140).

In regards to age, millennials love memes and use them as a source of comfort, humor, connection, etc (Urban, 2017; O’Connor, 2018; Milner, 2012). As the parody account creators and most folks interacting with the discourse are millennials, this is relevant. In particular, their usage is often made for humor, and that is a good thing for well-being and society (Taecharungroj, & Nueangjamnong, 2014). Millennial memes have, and continue to have a huge effect on society and organizations (Atay & Ashlock, 2018); it is only natural that they would shake up long-held perspectives in student affairs/higher education (SA/HE).

For a subset of millennials, specifically people of color, memes are used as method to thrive in an oppressive world. The college newspaper The McGill Daily discusses this in their article “What it memes to heal: Memes as a tool for healing for POC” (Dahanayake, 2018). The Digital Sociology Magazine at Virginia Commonwealth University also wrote “memes as racialized discourse” (tabi, 2017). This applies to many other marginalized groups as well, including women, LGBTQ+ folks, etc (Highfield, 2016; Westfall, 2018).

And on humor – well, good memes often utilize the comedic device of hyperbole. Clearly, I don’t know of any Student Affairs professionals (and I know many) who actually run, jump, and cheer when the summer session starts. Of course many of us still have some students, albeit a much reduced caseload.

II. So…what broke Twitter?

Well-known researcher, faculty member, and administrator Sara Goldrick-Rab (SGR, per her website branding; see list of media appearances). She founded the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and does very strong work supporting first generation and low-income college students via research and advocacy. Her background is in sociology but focuses on higher ed research; she claims to have worked in student affairs at one point but it is not listed on her CV (but then again, nothing is before 2004), so I cannot confirm her actual experience in this area. She’s enough of a public figure that she is verified on Twitter with over 32k followers.

In response to critique of the HoHE original tweet, entry-level Student Affairs professional Kimberly explained the tweet to the critics, and asked to not be shamed.

So what does SGR do? Shame her.

1st Tweet from Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab (also known as SGR): If you need a “break” from students, take a vacation. If you find they sap you then you might need @Jessifer and others to help you learn how to be more effective. And let’s remember- there is no higher education without students. #RealCollege. Second tweet from SGR: Celebrating the departure of students in summer is a trope. The idea that staff wellbeing requires distance from students, dependent on “summer break,” is privilege itself and ignores the hard work of staff and faculty educating year round. #RealCollege. Note: the quote she was tweeting was from Kimberly Newtown @knewt14, who said: We can miss our students but still appreciate and welcome a change of pace. I was pumped for my students to leave for the summer and that doesn’t make me care about them less. They are amazing! I encourage you to not shame people for needing a break.Now, SGR has (rightfully) critiqued oppressive ‘jokes’ that do punch down on students – the faculty who joke about all the dead grandmothers, etc. Those are excellent critiques because they have real world implications for students who actually do experience a crisis and then faculty may not care because of the trope that students lie to get out of exams.

III. The issue on the table? (#Hamiltonreferences4ever)

This initial critique is not based in logic.

  • “The idea that staff wellbeing requires distance from students, dependent on “summer break,” is privilege itself and ignores the hard work of staff and faculty educating year round.”
    • The folks who were initially responding are indeed staff who work educating year round. Very few colleges actually have 0 students during the summer – it just means educators have a reduced workload.
    • A summer break is a privilege? Uh…she appears not to be aware of the inequities that entry-level student affairs professionals face. The long hours, the low pay, the older professionals who expect younger folks to make work their #1 priority even if the institution considers them easily replacable? The immense workload of supporting student needs on top of program planning and other administrative tasks – never feeling like they can manage it all and thus look forward to the respite of summer? This is a common discussion topic in multiple student affairs spaces, especially among millennials
  • “If you need a “break” from students, take a vacation. If you find they sap you then you might need @Jessifer and others to help you learn how to be more effective. And let’s remember- there is no higher education without students.”
    • Sara doesn’t seem to understand the realities of student affairs work. I have learned from my colleagues in facebook groups that they often cannot take vacations because they may not earn that much PTO, or have oppressive supervisors who literally will not allow them to take off time or only allow one day at a time during certain time periods. This is a classist statement, and not one we would expect from someone who studies class. Apparently she only cares about folks while they are college students, much like how Republicans only care about fetuses.
    • She tagged Jesse Stommel, a Verfied Twitter account and Director of an office of Teaching and Learning Technologies. With over 23k followers, Jesse seems a deliberate tag in order to advance her Thoughts(™) to a wider audience. To be fair, Sara defended tagging him with the rationale that he’s her writing partner on the topic of “student shaming”. This can indeed be true. But the impact of her action makes it appear much differently from folks who do not have blue checkmarks.
    • She insults the entry-level professional by indicating that the person is not effective with her time, and that a leader in teaching could aid her. Sara appears to say that if the SAPro were more efficient, she wouldn’t miss the downtime of summer….
    • Finally, she mentions the students piece. This is a truth. Another truth is the the discourse among millennial student affairs professionals on social media is that they/we are very tired of institutions espousing that they prioritize students (even though they often don’t for students at the margins) but don’t prioritize staff support and care. Entry-level professionals are disposable because there are so many student affairs graduate programs that there are more candidates than jobs. For example, I know a white middle-aged male director who is never worried about high staff turnover because there are always so many applicants for any opening. That’s the toxicity of our environment. That is our reality for many folks. And as with any person in under-appreciated and low-paying roles (teachers, social workers, etc), research tells us that if we support staff wellness that the students will greatly benefit.

Gif of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend character Heather Davis saying: So then what happened?.

Kimberly responded to SGR and said “no need to be demeaning.” Instead of a response like “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be demeaning”, she responded thusly:

First tweet is from Kimberly Newton in response to SGR: No need to be demeaning. Students are my primary focus, I do take vacation, but I’m also entry level which means I do all of the things. Thanks though [includes emoji of someone shrugging]. In the second tweet, SGR responds with: Virtually all of us do all the things. I pull 80 hours a week every week and you’d never catch me saying I’m glad the students are gone. I’m an educator because the students are everything.

IV….um…

Gif of actress Kristen Bell playing Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place staring in amazment and saying in all caps "HOLY MOTHER FORKING SHIRT BALLS!"

It is interesting that SGR took a neoliberal pro-capitalist approach to the tweet (and in another), instead of recognizing the humanity of an entry-level pro, she doubled down on how she does all of the things, works 80 hours, and is clearly just a better person. (note: does she count all her time on Twitter as work? 80 hours is v unhealthy, girl).

good person.gif

This song from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” came to mind. Lyrics: “I’m a good person better than you!”

reponse to 80 hrs

In the above tweet, SGR assures that she is not bragging about her hours, but it is my interpretation – and many others – that she did weaponize her ‘work ethic’ in the original tweet to the entry-level pro.

I can see the point about her viewing the original meme as a destructive trope and why she, from her position, may see that. Her entire research and perspective on higher ed creates such a lens that it is logical how she would place that judgement on a meme like this. But again, she (and many other higher-level HE folks) inflated the meme to great importance – the meme (and its defenders) never said SA folks get a summer break or that students are people we need to get away from (in the narrative that she is wrapping – again, it is normal to enjoy time periods with a smaller caseload). They would not listen to other perspectives.

As one SAPro said – it’s a meme, not a minfesto.

manifesto

Finally, she made statements several times that her earlier tweet did not glorify long work hours:

glorify no

new girl-thats not true

V. And then?

Again, Kimberly defended herself from the high-profile researcher. SGR’s response is condescending and rude to the extreme.

sgr next 3.PNG

VI. Are we done yet?

Sadly, no. SGR starts retweeting her followers who also issue critiques of the meme. Then she says something that is so hyperbolic, one must imagine she understands comedic devices:

sgr 4.PNG

A reminder: It is still Kimberly, the entry-level SAPro, who is still connected to all these tweets, but also a few other student affairs folks (mostly entry level, some mid-level, mostly white, diverse along LGBTQ+ and class backgrounds) who have now critiqued SGR’s critique of the defense of the critique (tired yet?).

Amazingly, SGR has connected the college retention problem to a meme and the desire for student affairs professionals (note: she is not a member of that community and holds a higher position in the hierarchy of the Academy) to enjoy a quiet summer. Either this is comedy or I question her research methods.

VII. But the Students!

While SGR kept saying the meme was about shaming students, she could only find one ‘student’ who found it shaming. And to be fair, they were a college administrator who graduated undergrad in 1995 and said “if they were a student” they would have been offended. That did not stop SGR from repeatedly quote-tweeting this person as a student in order to prove her point.

IMG-3965

Somehow an undergraduate student studying history did find their way to the conversation…but SGR dismissed their concern.

IMG-3961IMG-3968 Although, again, no actual students spoke up, SGR continued to force the narrative to say that students did speak up and no one listened. Perhaps she was including herself as a student of the world, for we all never stop learning?

twitter no students spoke up

VIII. The Next “Hot Take”

After multiple critiques from higher education professionals (again, many hold a marginalized identity and are critiquing SGR’s capitalist perspective on higher ed), she then has the audacity to redirect the narrative around how it is the folks critiquing her who are privileged – not the nice cis white woman making a nice salary with national recognition….

sgr5

This is where the narrative starts to turn. Despite multiple student affairs professionals (again, the community in which SGR has inserted herself to tone police their lived experiences) describing the negative impact of her tweets, SGR has positioned herself to be the “Good Person” in this dialogue. Worse, she is taking a systemic issue of political support for higher education and placing the blame on the folks with lesser privilege than most who work on the front lines of colleges each day. And the ultimate insult? Stating that students struggle because entry-level folks are advocating for themselves…many of whom were just recently a struggling student and now work to support struggling students.

math.gif

I tweet at her, because I believe she is coming from a great deal of privilege on the matter.

response to me.PNG

Fun fact, but running a university center  and saying you oversee 11 staff is an administrator role; it is common for some faculty to have dual roles. But identifying as an admin doesn’t fit with the narrative, so she rejected it in two tweets. She also never addressed her privilege or that there are multiple ways of understanding so she should listen.

IX. Changing the Narrative

mute.PNG

By Tuesday night, SGR stopped responding to (most) SAPro critics and posted that she muted folks. Interestingly enough, she posted a quote from Brené Brown “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

This implies that SGR is the one doing the ‘real work’ and that these entry-level Student Affairs professionals are not. You know, the ones supporting sexual assault survivors living in their residence hall, holding conduct hearings for students who make minor and major mistakes, advisors who connect their students to food pantries, coordinators who help their first-generation students navigate the complexity of the institution. You know, those people.

Towards the end of the ongoing Twitter dialogue on May 30th, SGR attempted to change the narrative even further by…outright lying. Once again, the energy was directed at the newer professional that originally was quote-tweeted by SGR. Carefully read Kimberly’s post…

twitter - kimberly 1 Now see what SGR said when she quoted Kimberly’s tweet…twitter- where did i say snowflakes

If I was the New York Times writing about this like they write about Trump, I’d say something vague like “she said a falsehood”. Since I’m not, I’ll just say: this is an actual lie. Which is very odd and I cannot understand her behavior here, except to make the narrative about mean student affairs professionals who hate nasty little students like our names are Gollum and she’s the White Wizard (but surprise! definitely Saruman).

X. Actually, It’s About Legislators

 

Apparently, the new concern is legislators. What if they see this? *hand-wringing ensues*

chloe response leg

Now, not only is the meme responsible for student retention, but also our own working conditions. See Chloe with the swell response above.

leg 55

I explained in a Twitter thread using my knowledge in this area on how how SGR has really created a strawman argument around legislators and this meme.

XI. Victimization Narrative & Gaslighting Others

We often see this in conversations on social justice topics involving white women – they cry and play the victim (see: When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress People of Color by Dr. Accapadi) as a defensive tactic when someone points out they did something wrong. Although majority of SGR’s critics were white (many SAPros of color stated that they already knew how this would play out; whiteness is predictable), there were still a number of folks of color, especially women of color, and especially Black women who critiqued SGR.

victim

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as has been painstakingly detailed above…SGR doesn’t believe she shamed anyone. In fact, she is a hero to stand up to such a hurtful meme. These silly SAPros decided to make it about themselves.

Further, she keeps retweeting her supporters (just a few, and all seemed to be faculty with no connection to student affairs) who honestly misrepresent the issue and the student affairs professionals who are frustrated at the tone policing and inability to have their full humanity exist.

mischaracterize

Again, they all play into the narrative that SGR is a wonderful person/expert and truly the victim in this dialogue so she retweets them.

annie responseRepeatedly, SGR played the victim. Her earlier tweets conveyed her sense of superiority as she was rude and insulting to the original entry-level pro she responded to – she demonstrated quite carefully how she believed she cared more.

response to kristen

As @itsmewhiteman and others pointed out, folks were just repeating her previous statements back to her.

victim 500

Again, she maintains the narrative that folks are lying about what she said (when they only repeat her statements) and plays the smallest fiddle in the world that she cannot share her reality…despite not allowing folks with much less privilege than her be able to share their own truths.

Then when someone questioned how/why she does 80 hours of week per week, again she maintained the victim narrative and does not hold the self-awareness to see how she has committed baseless attacks against quite a few folks in the conversation.

baseless attack

Her perception of what took place was very different from almost everyone else. Take note of the words she uses in the next set of tweets: “dragged me”, “mob scene”, she didn’t “hit no one”, and “punching bag”:

cliff notes

didnt hit no onefalse statements

Another example:

wow

This is just one tweet from a very good thread, with great work done by Jennifer to engage SGR and help her understand the difference between intention v. impact. Unfortunately, Sara was unwilling to learn or admit she did wrong. Instead, she once again painted herself the victim of a violent scenario.

Then, when another scholar held SGR accountable on her maintenance of power structures, she acted like she had no idea what was going on. It is a tough leap of logic to believe that SGR missed the repeated statements of folks mentioning they were younger professionals and that she did not make assumptions about profile photos considering she later misgendered someone. But, this ‘playing dumb’ response works to uplift her as a victim and not an instigator:

twitter- younger professionals.jpg

Finally, it all comes back to the original newer Student Affairs professional that SR quote-tweeted at the beginning of this dialogue:

apoligize 5000apologize 66006006

SGR fundamentally doesn’t understand the purpose of the #sachat hashtag, which is community building and drawing attention to interesting or hot topics in student affairs and higher education. To say that Kimberly, who had politely engaged with SGR while the latter was rude, instigated a mob is…well, quite inaccurate.

Finally, Kimberly responds:kim

But SGR did not respond to this.


To continue reading, please see Part 2. The latter half of the essays explores the reactionary tactics to protect white womanhood and how the dialogue went into a downward spiral that included transphobic and racist actions.

The Breakdown on the Meme that Broke Higher Ed Twitter: Part 2

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part essay analyzing the contentious debate(?) among higher education professionals (primarily in student affairs) on Twitter, and its greater application to the field. I believe this will serve as a strong case study on the generational differences in higher education professionals, meme culture, and the reactionary techniques utilized to protect white womanhood. Given the intricate and fascinating (to a nerd who enjoys examining how power dynamics in higher ed play out on social media) pieces to this story, I have broken up the essay into two parts. [Part 1] [Part 2]


Table of Contents:

Part 1

  • I. To Meme or Not to Meme
  • II. So…what broke Twitter?
  • III. The issue on the table? (#Hamiltonreferences4ever)
  • IV….um…
  • V. And then?
  • VI. Are we done yet?
  • VII. But the Students!
  • VIII. The Next “Hot Take”
  • IX. Changing the Narrative
  • X. Actually, It’s About Legislators
  • XI. Victimization Narrative & Gaslighting Others

Part 2

  • XII. White Woman Victimhood ramps up
  • XIII. Gaslighting Continues…
  • XIV. Divisive Tactics
  • XV. She Didn’t Shame Anyone!
  • XVI. Ok and this one is just funny
  • XVII. Call Her Khaleesi
  • XVIII. Peak White Feminism: Misgendering and Racism
  • XIX. Fear Mongering of the “Secret Black List”
  • XX. In Conclusion
  • XXI. But what’s next?

XII. White Woman Victimhood ramps up

Sara uses the name of a well-known academic and tv personality who wrote a supportive tweet in her reply below. It is interesting for her to use the name of a Black man in the mentions of a well-known Black woman scholar, even though by this point she has engaged in a racist tactic towards a man in student affairs (more on that below).

IMG-3964

By this point on May 30, SGR has engaged in oppressive acts (racism and transphobia – described later in the article) but believes she is being “dragged” because she is a female scholar.

One could argue that student affairs doesn’t come hard for men who perpetuate oppression…but then just look into the case of a certain Higher Ed Thought Leader who owns a speaking bureau business (that is fronted as a nonprofit) that held accountable multiple times, banned from the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook Group, and taken to task on Twitter. He engaged in racism, sexism, and nastily criticizing a young professional on his podcast. I’d name him, but the word is he has threatened legal action against folks who speak about him and he calls their universities to make false claims about them.

sips tea gif.gif

Anyways…

IMG-3966

It is ironic that Sara brought up Ann Marie Klotz and sees similarities with her, considering what took place (also described later in this essay) in 2016.

XIII. Gaslighting Continues…

Much later into the conversation, SGR tries to argue that her word use of “effective” is different from the perceived meaning of “effective” (how people took it). Kind of like those silly Twix commercials where they go “or like how I’m a ghost and you’re a spirit!” This is called gaslighting, folks.

huh

Which directly contradicts what she said.

victim 5000000

This is understandable. She wants to be able to hold her opinion. That would have been fine…if she hadn’t engaged in the initial rude behavior, and then went wild on elements of racism, classism, and transphobia. A nice attempt at changing the narrative to her victimhood, tho…

BUT YOU DID

But she did attack people!

we could say

…student affairs folks could say the same for you

pushback

But in reality, SGR actually never responded to the substance of my very respectful comments on Tuesday night or many other folks’ respectful comments.

XIV. Divisive Tactics

pitting them against each other

Now we have reached the point where SGR – a cis white woman with class and Academy privilege (and I am quite sure financial privilege compared to the folks she mentions here) – seeks to engage in divisive politics. How dare these SAPros advocate for themselves and their right to enjoy a quiet summer! Meanwhile, look at these other groups who must struggle!

This is classism.

This is union-busting rhetoric.

This is divisive.

Although transformational higher education requires solidarity among all who hold privileged and oppressed identities…SGR would rather be pit groups against each other.

This was probably the most disappointing take. I’m unsure if SGR grew up in poverty like the students she advocates for, but it really doesn’t seem like it here. There’s no community mindset.

XV. She Didn’t Shame Anyone!

she didnt shame

LOL still says no shaming

But…

thor - is it tho

shaming 500

Now she’s saying that folks are lying – she never shamed.

And, uh, I’m not buying on her never shaming staff. Not unless all staff she’s worked with provide some confirmation of only positive experiences. At this point, it seems like the way she treats people would make it…interesting to work for her.

she has no ide

Then she deflects the harm she causes and engages in further  gaslighting – that she never caused harm at all.

When someone specifically addressed her problematic language, she refuted it and blamed how folks perceived the injury to be their own fault:

ahem

no shaming telephone

If that was her way of empathizing with a heavy workload, I imagine she learned how to connect with folks from this guy:

how you do fellow kids

Here’s the thing – she never emphasized with a heavy workload. She actually weaponized her heavy workload as a way to say folks who are looking forward to summer need to be more efficient. And again, if multiple entry-level SAPros say “you’re shaming us” and you keep saying “nope!”, uh…that means you are shaming folks – even if it was not your intent.

XVI. Ok and this one is just funny

cc pros weird tweet

Thanks for jumping in there, Clint.

XVII. Call Her Khaleesi

khaleesi sea of brown people.gif

Khaleesi! (Game of Thrones reference)

Sara began to continuously play into the role of “savior”; not an uncommon approach from white people (see: Teju Cole’s ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex‘).

proven advocate she is

She’s a proven student advocate, y’all! Unlike all of her mean, nasty critics. To another SAPro she went back on the ‘this is student shaming’ and glorified herself:

savior of SA

Multiple times SGR made statements that SHE is working on behalf of entry-level SAPros and really spun an interesting web of savior mentality.

Perhaps her self-victimization comes from her fans? Many tweeted how brave she was to stand up to a “Twitter mob” (people self-advocating, many from the margins of society) and she retweeted many of them. She even retweeted someone who is saying there were death threats when there were not any made at all, and it was truly egregious to pump up the situation so much:

retweets

Her savior and sanctimonious vibe continued in multiple tweets. Within her “apology” on May 29th, Sara again played up the new narrative that she was empathizing with people, reminds her readers that she is righteous and standing up for students, and that her 20 years of work speaks for itself.

apology 1apology 2

Folks, she is on GOOGLE. Clearly, not someone to disagree with:

twitter - google her.jpg

XVIII. Peak White Feminism: Misgendering and Racism

I identify strongly as a feminist and really prefer to uplift other women…but I am also very dedicated to calling in/out fellow white women when they engage in harmful practices.

I also don’t like it when privileged white women use feminist terms to shoot down ideas they disagree with. It negatively harms women who actually use the terms in sincerity. There were a couple of people who critiqued SGR’s tweets by recounting what she said and she told them to “Stop mansplaining” her (example 1; example 2)

And then…

SGR misgendered someone.

transphobe

It is very clear that she said folks were mansplaining her to anyone who (she thought) presented as male in their profile picture and/or had a “male” name. She did not take a second to check the person’s profile, where their pronouns are listed (they/them). When fairly critiqued on this issue, SGR doubled down on the transphobia with fake news:

cant be wrong

uhh firefly.gif

Uh…

trans 4 For some reason, Sara used a random article from a British newspaper to argue it is not a gendered term…but the article actually confirmed that the term “mansplaining” is a gendered term. She explains that this is what her students say…but many white students I know still believe ‘reverse racism’ is a real thing and I don’t coddle inaccurate use of social terms. Mansplaining has been a gendered term since it was published by Rebecca Solnit in the LA Times article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘.

twitter- genderAh, clearly SGR is “woke”, as she knows the term “gender non-conforming people”.

transphobe 3

There’s a great thread of folks challenging her ‘definition’ of mansplaining.

The kicker? She kept doubling down and never even responded to the person she misgendered.

asshole

Two days later, Bryan, the person Sara misgendered, added:
twitter -never apologies
These actions are transphobic, Sara. And this is not okay.

Then SGR made a classist, elitist, and ableist statement. (Why ableist? Anytime folks pull those elementary school taunts about people not being able to read, of being dumb, etc – these are part of a greater abelist narrative around intelligence). And, to be fair, if this is how Sara responds to someone with the word “tranz” in their user name…I think it’s fair to say that transphobia could have played a role with her response.

transphobe 2

Then she responded to a Black man working in Student Affairs with this:

twitter-paul porter

Girl.

racist qu.gif

Anytime a white person is in a disagreement with a Black person and tries to compare the situation at hand to racism, when it does not relate at all to racism? This is a racist action. This is not okay. Sara never responded to responses of how her tweet was not comparable and racist.

XIX. Fear Mongering of the “Secret Black List”

This whole situation and issues of white feminism reminded me greatly of Ann Marie Klotz, a senior administrator in student affairs. In November 2016, her blog post tore down a group on facebook and implicitly calling many folks of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and folks with disabilities a dumpster fire (read: ‘The Open Letter to the Open Letter’ to understand more) because they engaged in the profession authentically in a way she did not approve of (i.e., challenging oppression). An anonymous person commented on her blog post (now deleted) something like “well I won’t be hiring any of those people”. AMK did not challenge this statement rooted in racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or classism. Instead her response said something about how she understood.

Well, the secret black list made another appearance in this following thread:

fear mongering 1

white womanhood.PNG

Folks repeatedly asked her how she responded to the people who made these threats or if she thought they were okay. She tweeted several times that she said it was not ok…yet that was not in her original tweet or took meaning in any tweet. As @sunnydaejones stated in her response, this threat keeps arising when younger SAPros make critiques, yet those that make these threats are protected. Sara and AMK both would not out these anonymous administrators or take a stand against the unethical statements.

XX. In Conclusion

First, thank you for taking the time to read this essay.

There are a few takeaways from this incident. First, there is a generation gap in terms of online communication use and a difference in attitudes towards summer between student affairs staff and some faculty.  Second, this is a good example of how conversations can devolve on social media. Who knew when Humans of Higher Ed tweeted the summer break gif that it would ultimately result in a senior scholar engaging in oppressive behavior?

Finally, this incident is a good example of white womanhood (anywhere, but especially in academia) works to protect itself, by both the white woman involved and her advocates. Gaslighting, reframing the narrative to suit one’s purpose, self-victimization, and then (as the conversation continued over several days) diving into oppressive tactics to prove her point and make herself appear the victim.

PhD student CJ Venable analyzed SGR’s language and cited ‘Getting slammed: White depictions of race discussions as arenas of violence‘ (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2012) in regards to SGR’s violent language and self-victimization.

CJ tweet.jpg

@TranzWrites contributed to discussion on this being an example of fragile white womanhood.

IMG-3976

IMG-3977

I already mentioned at the start of this essay that Sachet Watson, wrote an outstanding critique (click to see the thread), but here are a few key things to understand (click images to view full-size):

To be honest, “The Fragility of White Women Thought Leaders” could be its own essay, comparing what took place from AMK in 2016 and SGR in 2019. It is my hope that readers will critically consider how whiteness shows up in academia, and in academic social media spaces.

XXI. But what’s next?

Do we “cancel” SGR? This is an interesting ethical issue. There are some that say “cancel” culture is too much – that everyone is problematic and we cannot cancel everyone; that everyone grows and learns over time. There are folks who believe that individuals who do good work (artistic or academic) but engage in harmful behavior should still be protected, because we don’t want to lose their contributions to society. SGR is a strong academic who engages in advocacy around important issues. Yet, she still engaged in oppressive acts and refused to take responsibility or apologize. What do you, Gentle Reader, think the next step should be?

As someone who easily could have been one of Sara’s research subjects (very low-income, first generation college student, and food insecure in college), I do find her attitude interesting. In my opinion, the way that she engages with others and weaponizes her reputation and advocacy work to attack others who come from that same background (but are a bit older) demonstrates that she is a good example of folks who do not have the lived experience of the people they are studying. There is a hubris that can easily develop when one is privileged compared to the populations they study. It does appear that serving as an advocate for low-income students has built up a savior mentality for SGR. Gentle Readers, please remember this case study for when you engage in research or advocacy for underrepresented populations.

On the topic of power, privilege, and understanding one’s positionality to others in higher education, it is imperative that individuals holding major privileged identities learn from this case study of what not to do. When someone says “hey, the impact of your statement was harmful”, do consider how you may have been wrong, engage thoughtfully, and apologize. If you misgender someone, for Thor’s sake, apologize. As a white person, don’t compare inane topics to racism when speaking to people of color. Get yourself people who will check you when you mess up and don’t inflate your ego.

And finally, remember that no matter how much “good” you’ve done, social justice isn’t a set of scales administered by Anubis. Your good acts don’t give you a “get out of racist/transphobic/etc jail free card”. We all make mistakes. But what matters is how we own up to them, apologize, learn from it, teach others, and keep moving on to make the world a better place.

And one more thing: Carefully consider this well-timed retweet by SGR. Sounds like good advice for all of us.

twitter - her tweet is great.jpg

10 Ways You Know You’re Following a Higher Ed “Thought Leader”

Thought Leaders(™) are the glorious saviors of higher education. With their keen thinky-thoughts, we can transcend the mere mediocrity of our field. All hail the Thought Leaders of Higher Education!hahahaha good one.gif

For those who cannot read intent online, that was sarcasm 🙂

Now, within #sachat and other spaces, recently folks like to make fun of the concept of a “thought leader”. I was inspired to write this fun post after yet another desperate and insipid post by a “higher ed thought leader” (lol).

What is a “thought leader”? Well, Wikipedia defined it as “A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.” Given the absurdity to which folks throw around the term, I thought something as basic as Wikipedia was just fine enough to cite.

How do I define it? Anyone with an ego and desire for attention that writes “thought leader” in their Twitter bio.

Onto the main event…

10 ways you know you’re following a

“higher ed thought leader”!

 

1. Well, it’s pretty easy, actually. They tell you they are a thought leader.

futurama - yay attention to me

(I could probably end the list here, but that seemed anti-climatic)

 

2. They tend to be long-winded and tweet a lot.

spn - cas - tell me

 

3. Sometimes they will reply to your tweets just to raise their own profile (and will use 2-5 hashtags just to make sure people see it)  – amazingly, this will sometimes happen even after they have blocked you for calling them out for their problematic behavior, but then unblock you because…they need attention, I guess? (this has happened to many millennial SApros…it is SO weird, y’all)

nicki minaj speaking

 

4.When you ask who their inspiration is, the honest answer is themselves.

mindy project - role model

 

5. They will use every student affairs/higher education hashtag that exists in each tweet.

doctor who - hashtags

 

6. They have the confidence of a unicorn (and sometimes the charisma of one). When someone calls them out for problematic behavior (like, say…an open letter seeping with racist and ableist microaggressions or denigrating a new #SApro on a podcast) they just keep flowing without ever apologizing for what they’ve done.

Confidence lol

 

7. They spew these kind-of-poetical but cringe-worthy sayings that sound familiar, like a hundred other people have said it before, but they emote the same feeling you’d get as a Dickens character being served some sad, cold gruel in the breakfast line.

i love lucy - cringe

 

8. Did you KNOWWWWW that you could bring them to speak to your campus?! I mean, yeah, you probably did, because they talk about it so much. It’s just the low low cost of thousands of dollars for two hours (and somehow they registered their business as a 501(c)3 nonprofit?!)…

buy chronic

(note: this does NOT apply to actual great campus speakers, including the former SA folks who have started a side hustle that I actually like – you know I heart you)

 

9. You’re…not actually sure what they are good at and why we should be listening to their thoughts? They are people who sometimes are still in the field. Or sometimes they were in the field for a few years before then making a career out of ‘coaching’ higher ed leaders for 20 years or so. Either way, you honestly have no idea what they bring to the table except a lot of noise.

mind project the office - so smart

 

10. A rare but truly hysterical tactic is they retweet ‘people’ who quote their inspirational sayings, and then you check the accounts tweeting them and are pretty sure its a bunch of Russian bots.

1000 followers

:::BONUS:::

11. They are most likely white and often a man, because there’s something about the socialization in a white supremacist patriarchal society that teaches men / white people that their voices deserve to be heard over others, regardless of their dismal mediocrity.

hairspray - nice white kids

Interrupting Racism at Starbucks: My Talk with a Fellow White Woman

Starbucks blog post

Well, turns out that visiting Starbucks the day before they close for the racial bias training was kismet. This just happened today:

 

***

I am sitting at a bench with two round tables at a Starbucks within a very white Indiana city that is a suburb of Indianapolis. A white man and woman sit at the other end of the bench. They are perhaps in their 50s? But I have difficulty judging age. They sit down to read. I notice the woman’s iPad wallpaper is a scripture quote.

I turn back to my work – which coincidentally is examining analyzing how white people categorize themselves within a survey I sent out.

It looks like they are getting ready to leave. The man comes back from the counter and tells the woman “They are closing at 2pm tomorrow”.

“What? Why for?” she asks in annoyed tone.

I hear all of this over the riot grrrl playlist I’m listening to on headphones. I take them off, as I am very curious how they will discuss this topic.

“Because of some training,” he responds. “It’s that sensitivity training.” His tone is placid and I cannot determine his opinion of said training.

The woman seems to express further annoyance, both in tone and facial expression. “How are they doing it? Videos?”

The man wasn’t quite sure.

I saw this as a good intervention moment.

My voice is low and soft; my goal is to come across friendly and not aggressive. “I think they are doing it seminar style with each team.” In all honesty, I have no idea how Starbucks will do the training. I just wanted to gently step into the conversation (USA Today does mention how the training will be conducted, if you are curious).

They both kind of go “Oh”.

Then the woman, still seated on the bench just two feet away, turns to me. Her voice takes on a sly, conspiratorial tone, sharing a secret that only I – a fellow white woman – can enjoy and appreciate. “It’s because of that thing that happened with the two men…”

It felt in that moment like she completely expected me to roll my eyes and laugh about the absurdity of it all with her.

I do not.

I quickly nod my head, as if I am misunderstanding her train of thought and share her opinion.

“Yes, I agree. It’s good they are doing a training on racism. There is a lot of it everywhere.” It is a push-back. I do not agree with her. This is usually not what a white person who explicitly or implicitly says something racist hears back in return.

I don’t have time to explain how white supremacy has shaped and continues to shape our country or give her a reference page full of critical race theory academic papers she should google. I would honestly like to see the conversation keep going and to help her interrogate her perspective that it is unnecessary (or worse) for Starbucks to have this bias training and that the men in Baltimore did not experience racism. So I kept my words short and waited.

Flummoxed, she shook her head and began stuffing things into her bag. “I’m not one of the younger generation who sees racism wherever I look,” she scoffed.

Her husband, probably for the better, is silent during this exchange. He’s still standing next to the table and waiting for his partner.

What I want to say is: “I have no idea how old you are, but I am sure you have seen some racism. You just didn’t care enough to pay attention.” But this is a bit more aggressive and people – strangers – don’t usually learn through aggression. It is a totally different story if they are the ones who are being aggressive, however this was not an aggressive situation. My goal as a white person is to be patient as needed when educating other white folks (while continuing my own education and listening to people of color – we all have a lot of collective work to do!).

“Well, you wouldn’t,” I respond. My voice maintains its softness, but there is a strip of steel running through it – I want to grab her attention. She looks at me with uncertainty. “We don’t usually see racism because we don’t experience it,” I continue while glancing down notably at my white arm and then back to her.

My statement bothers her. Her voice heightens just a bit in pitch and speed. “I don’t know what they talk about with that white privilege,” she says with derision. “I’ve never had anything handed to me. I’ve worked hard for everything.” Aggression spills out through the last two sentences, like a plastic bottle of mayonnaise that just got stepped on in a grocery store.

This is a common refrain from white people. Again, I don’t think she will give me the time to give an hour lecture on white privilege – or even time for the knapsack metaphor. I know she will leave soon. I’d rather her not leave without having some more food for thought.

“Yeah,” I say slowly as my wheels turn to find a relatable – and quick – story of how I experience white privilege. “I’m white and I grew up poor. But people definitely treated me better because I’m white than if I wasn’t, like with scholarships.” At my undergraduate institution I was often ‘a face’ for various things for the administration. This certainly privileged me. I was a good example of a poor kid trying to improve her life, but I am absolutely sure that if I wasn’t white I would not have received this same level of recognition.

I add quickly because she is getting up now: “Think about resumes and people with certain names don’t get—”

She cuts me off. Her words are stilted and not full sentences, as if she is at a point in her anger/annoyance/discomfort that she is trying to come up with something. She then says something akin to: “Well then what about women? If we going to talk about this…”

I internally roll my eyes. I am presuming her social class based on dress and devices, but it is a very older conservative middle-class white woman tactic to not care too much about sexism until it is a tool they can pull out of their purse to beat back issues of racism.

“Oh yeah!” I say this almost cheerfully, like ‘yes, that’s right, let’s discuss the interaction of multiple identities’ (note: intersectionality by Dr. Kimberlee Crenshaw gets misused too often, thus this wording).

The woman gives me a confused look. I continue. “Like I experience sexism because I am a woman, but also I experience privilege since I am write.”

She stands up. She has probably had enough of my ‘hippie liberal shit’ at this point (I assume).

I bring out what I hope will be my deus ex machina (a plot device that saves the day) even if previous experience community organizing in Christian churches for social justice has taught me it unfortunately is not.

“It’s what Jesus would want,” I say quietly. I believe this, even as I weave my own spiritual path that comes in contradiction of some religious institutions.

Her eyes narrow and, now standing, she almost looms over me (‘almost’ because she’s roughly five feet). “What did you say?” Venom soaks her voice. Either she heard me and disagrees or truly has no idea what I said.

I continue in a soft, yet not meek, voice. “I believe in getting rid of these issues like racism because that is what Jesus would want.”

An ugliness crosses her face that would (I assume since none can speak for any entity) inspire shame in Jesus. Her pale lips press into a thin line and she stares at me with furrowed brows.

“We have read the Bible back and front. There is nothing like that in there.”

I wish she could hear how she sounds. But her reaction is actually quite a common belief for many white Americans who go to church and read the Bible but are nowhere close to understanding God – not to say I understand God, but I sure know God is explicitly against evil. Racism is an evil.

“Sure there is,” I offer encouragingly. She begins walking away. “Think about the Samaritan story. That is all about race and difference.”

She says nothing more, nor does her husband. They leave Starbucks.

I honestly hope this woman (and her silent partner) think more on my words. If anything, I hope she asks herself the 1998-era saying “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) and recognize that Jesus would not be down with racism.

***

Why do I share this story?

It’s important for white people to share strategies on how to interrupt racism in everyday life. The fact that this took place at a Starbucks with a stranger due to Starbucks closing to do racial bias training? It was a timely reminder that these conversations can happen anywhere and at anytime – so let’s make the most of these opportunities when we can.

I hope my example can help others find the words and actions they can use to interrupt racism (and other acts of systemic oppression) within their own lives. However, I don’t hold up this example as perfection. I am imperfect and I do wonder if there are other speaking points or actions I could have taken; I certainly need better examples of white privilege that are brief to explain. But if this can help motivate other white people to jump into conversations, push back, and to educate – then awesome.

We, as white people, lose very little in confronting racism, especially compared to indigenous people/people of color  whose very lives can be at risk. But we also live in a world of ‘nice-ness’ where society teaches us not to confront people, especially strangers or elders, and to work towards harmony. Harmony only protects racists, so interrupting racism is important.

Starbucks, I’m glad you’re doing a bias training tomorrow. If anything, it provided an opportunity for at least one conversation on racism and white privilege to occur.

***

Feel free to leave a comment sharing your thoughts or send me a tweet at @NikiMessmore.

 

 

9 Surefire Methods to TOTALLY Get People to Read your Student Affairs Blog!

Student affairs blogging is a popular hobby/side hustle/personal reflection tool/academic writing method. There is so much freedom on the internet that anyone can publish a blog post, thus there are a plethora of student affairs blogs out there. So how to make sure people read yours? Enjoy these helpful tips (that are especially helpful for more seasoned SA pros)!

  1. Trick them into clicking the link by using a sassy title that sounds like it came from a Buzzfeed intern.
  2. “Neg” the reader. Not only is “negging” a method that pick-up artists (PUAs, aka P-U they are gross) use, but so can you! Negging would be where the writer emotionally manipulates the reader by insulting them or being sarcastically mean in order to keep them reading.
  3. Perpetuate systems of oppression that seep into our everyday lives, like commenting how people shake hands without realizing you’re being ableist or complaining about how angry people sound when you’re white and hetero and ‘they’ include people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and QTPOC.
  4. When people call you on how oppression is trickling through your blog post like a busted septic tank trickles into a basement, ignore them. Just keep drinking your craft beer.
  5. If you choose to get into the comments of your post (because more comments = increased reader traffic, woohoo!), conjure your internal politician or Hollywood executive, and tell the commenters that you are sorry they feel that way. This way, you say the words “sorry” while resting the blame squarely on them for not understanding your brilliance. Silly peasants, mwahaha!
  6. If the comments become too much for you, just delete them. Keep the comments that agree with you tho, because its the victors that write history, amirite?
  7. When someone greatly respected in the field disagrees with you, make sure someone (a friend, or perhaps a boss?) with more identity privileges than the dissenter sees their post, and then writes a pedantic letter to the dissenter.
  8. If all else fails, delete the blog post and pretend that nothing ever happened! You’re still a Student Affairs Darling! Go book your next speech.
  9. If you didn’t delete the blog post, be sure to repost it every year and run through steps 5 and 6 again. Constantly refresh your blog’s traffic page while petting a fluffy white cat and chuckling darkly.

This blog post was brought to you by the letter S for “satire” and the concept of “punching up and not down”.

sarcastic - youre welcome

Inclusivity in December: Action Steps for Higher Ed (and beyond)

 

schmidt

Image Caption: Meet Winston Schmidt, a Jewish character from the comedy “New Girl”. Image Description: Schmidt says “I don’t celebrate Christmas, okay? Or as I like to call it, White Anglo Saxon Winter Privilege Night.”

♪Tis the season to perpetuate oppression ♪

♩ Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!♩

You may be thinking, “silly blog writer forgot the words to ‘Deck the Halls’, but trust me – my lyrics accurately sum up the December experience for many folks.

As an educator, I write this to speak to other educators (particularly those in higher education), but my words should hold true to most environments.

December is a magical time for many, be it the celebration of the holidays or just a winter break from school. However, many staff and faculty members – as well as the institution itself – often (un)intentionally harm students by their cultural/religious emphasis on Christmas

Who are the students who may be harmed by the campuses that normalize the Christmas holiday and don’t make space for others?

  • Any student who is not Christian/doesn’t celebrate Christmas. In particular, our Jewish and Muslim students, who represent the two major world religions that are practiced in the U.S. after Christianity, experience disregard for their own major holidays yet have to experience Christian hegemony. Indeed, this has been a tough year for these groups, given the rise of White Supremacy/Nazi movements that are pro ‘Christian’ (which couldn’t be furthest from the truth and anyone worshiping a middle eastern Jewish man that loved foreigners and the poor should get His name out of their mouth when they act like this) and is decidedly anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-People of Color, and, well, basically most folks), the “Muslim Ban” of the Trump Administration that the Supreme Court just allowed this week to take effect. Additionally, our students who are pushed even farther to the margins for their religious beliefs because they are not of the Abrahamic faiths (Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Pagans, and more), must also experience a country that prizes only one religion on a societal/institutional level. Then there are even students who do fall under the umbrella of Christianity but may not celebrate Christmas, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    • Related: Consider your international students, especially, who may come from countries where there is a different majority religion. How may they experience the month of December at your institution?
    • There are many December holidays other than Christmas! Some of these may rotate throughout the year based on moon cycles, but Princeton University has a pretty good comprehensive list for this academic year.
  • Any student who is Atheist or Agnostic. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, 22.8% of Americans are unaffiliated in regards to religion – 3.1% identify as atheist, 4% as agnostic, and 15.8% don’t believe in anything in particular. If you visit their page and scroll down, you can click on your state to view a breakdown of religious beliefs to better understand the religious make-up of your institution.
  • Any student who doesn’t experience the societal standard for Christmas.  Society, through media, education, politics, and the local community, tell us that everyone who does celebrate Christmas, does so like they’re in a 1950s Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a happy dad, happy mom, couple kids, a dog, a nice middle-class home, piles of presents, and a giant ham/turkey for dinner. Ummmm, yeah. We need to remember:
    • Not all students have two parents. Students who have lost a parent (or both) or never grew up with parents (instead maybe other caregivers or relatives) don’t fit into society’s Christmas family. In fact, it can be very difficult, speaking as someone whose dad died in August 2013, to deal with holidays.
    • Not all students have money to buy or receive presents. There are some families experiencing poverty who may get charity help to give presents to children and teenage children, but once a child turns 18 they are “cut off” and don’t count. Maybe there is a savings for presents, but the fridge breaks. Families may just give a couple presents, but not that bucketful that other privilege folks get and definitely nothing fancy like a new electronic.
    • Not all families are happy. There is drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, illegal activity, and more that students may have to experience when they go home – if they choose to go home. Personally, as a college student I limited the time I spent home during winter break to protect my own metal health.
    • Not all students can go home to their families. Not all students may have a family – maybe their families have passed away or weren’t there to begin with. Remember that some LGBTQ+ folks may have cut off ties (or someone cut them off) from their family or going home just isn’t safe – see this great 2016 The Root article for more on this. Tied into the item above, there are many reasons why it may be unsafe for a student to return home.
  • Any student who has strict Christian beliefs. Surprisingly, it is rare for people to understand that Christmas celebrations have their roots in pagan traditions of Europe. The Roman Christians were cunning. In order to convert the pagans (a general term; depending on the region folks worshiped different deities in various pantheons) they incorporated pagan celebrations into Christian traditions. This maneuver successfully converted people to Christianity (well, that alongside other good and not-so-good tactics). Therefore, there are many Christians who strictly believe that engaging in societal traditions is an affront to God.

Questions to Reconsider Asking (especially if you barely know the person):

  • What are you doing for Christmas? Or: What are you doing for the holidays? 
    • Instead: “What are you doing over winter break?”
  • What did you get for Christmas?
    • Instead: Just don’t. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and even so, not everyone may get presents. We can’t all be Dudley.
  • Are you going home for the holidays?
    • Instead: “What are you doing over winter break?” YUP, that’s the first recommendation on this list to say. But remember, not all people can go home or want to go home or even have a home – if you don’t know someone’s story, don’t ask this. When you ask this question, you can make the other person feel shame for not fitting into a societal standard for what a good person does.
  • Did you have a good holiday?
    • SUCH A LOADED QUESTION. Let’s say folks do celebrate a holiday and you know they do. You should still refrain from conditioning the quality of their holiday in terms of “good” which means if it is not good, it is bad. There’s huge pressure that gets placed on folks who don’t experience a white picket fence holiday situation.
    • Instead: “How was your holiday?” This is better, because it is more open to interpretation.

Things to Stop Doing (especially at a public institution):

  • Putting Christmas trees in your office, or tinsel, ornaments, mangers, etc. Your office (yours or the department’s) represents you and it informs students who you are. Are you someone who just cares about people celebrating Christmas? How you decorate let’s students know if they are someone you can trust. And yes, there are many folks who don’t celebrate Christmas that enjoy the festive decorations of the holiday. So feel free to use context based on who you are working with and students who are in your office.
  • Christmas gift exchanges. LOTS of folks like gifts regardless of religious beliefs, so if you want to do this, consider taking out the religious aspects (“secret Santa”, “Christmas Exchange”) because yay prezzies.
  • Forcing staff to take paid time off during the holidays. It is one thing if your institution gives full-time staff a full week or multiple weeks off because the university is closed during winter break. It is another thing to encourage – or even bully – staff to use their vacation days the same day as everyone else because maybe the office is formally closed or the staff’s supervisor won’t be there to watch them. If you expect your staff to not work during the holidays, you cannot make them use their vacation days. It is actually illegal to do this if the person is exempt status – see Ask A Manager.

Things to Start Doing:

  • Recognize other religious beliefs throughout the year. If you are going to go hard on Christmas, Ramadan (Islam) lasts a full month so you have more than enough time to recognize this major holiday that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad and a time period of seeking God (Time Magazine has a good article with different perspectives).
  • Learn about other other beliefs, as well as the differences within atheism and agnosticism. 
  • Approve time-off for student workers and full-time employees who want time off to recognize their own religious holidays. Don’t make them feel like a burden for taking time off, when (if you celebrate Christmas) your main holiday is recognized by the federal government as a paid day off.

In conclusion:

Please be conscious that not everyone lives in a Norman Rockwell painting. This is a time of year that can be very difficult for people due to a number of different reasons, or even just mildly uncomfortable. If everyone you work with and all your students practice Christmas (and you’ve asked), that makes a difference in how you talk and decorate. But if you are not sure and you have not asked your co-workers and students, be considerate.

If you have other recommendations for inclusion, feel free to write in a comment or tweet me: @NikiMessmore

The Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault (ICESA) and Their Interpretation of “Feminism”

Or: Repeating History: “Feminist” PhDs & Activists Silence Women They Are “Saving”

princess bride-word

Me, to them, in regards to the words “feminism” and “pornography”

I am troubled to feel the urge to address the recent actions of the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault (ICESA) when their mission and work is urgently needed in Indiana. The state’s statistics indicate that the rape of high school girls is second highest in the nation and that only 18% reported their rape (WFYI), Indiana has inadequate laws and policies to support survivors (RTV6), in 2015 at least 70,000 rape kits weren’t tested (IndyStar), across our country there are 321,500 people raped or sexually assaulted every year (RAINN), and since the #MeToo viral campaign last week it is likely folks are more aware than ever of how many people they know have experienced rape, assault, and/or harassment (The Root).

Regardless of their good work, we must discuss the organization’s frankly disturbing take on what it means “to use a feminist lens”.

For those unaware, ICESA is hosting a 2-day free training this week titled “The Harms of Pornography: A Feminist Framework”. Hosted in downtown Indianapolis, ICESA says “Join us to learn about the harms of pornography through a feminist lens this coming October!” and the link describes the sessions and speakers, including “a panel discussion featuring feminist scholars and experts” consisting of Dr. Rebecca S Whisnant (University of Dayton, professor – Philosophy), Dr. Robert Jensen (University of Texas, professor –  Journalism)*, and Lisa Thompson (National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Vice President – Education and Outreach; this panelist operates from a Christian morality framework as does the organization so it is an…interesting addition).

*Edit 10/23/17: A bit of research on Robert Jensen reveals he engages in transphobic actions and listed alongside other academic TERFs. His inclusion to this event is even more insulting now.

Local feminist activists are angry about this event. As posted on Facebook, a protest against the training is taking place on Tuesday from 12-2pm at 450 Ohio Street outside the event. In the evening, a panel discussion featuring actual sex workers representing We Are Dancers USA (instead of people who just research sex workers) will speak on “Rights Not Rescue – Resisting A Single Narrative” at Butler University from 5:30pm-7:30pm, sponsored by Global & Historical Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. These events are being organized by Cassandra Avenatti on behalf of Queering Indy and Dr. Beloso (Butler University – Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies)

What happened next is what led me to write this blog post, because I am sure some of my fellow higher education professionals plan to attend this training and they deserve a fuller picture of this social issue.

Dr. Mahri Irvine (Anthropology background + Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, Critical Race, Gender and Culture Studies Collaborative –  American University) is the Director of Campus Initiatives at ICESA and has done a lot of research within the IU system (my alma mater). She also wrote the most condescending letter titled “ICESA Statement in Response to Harms of Pornography Protest October 2017” that immediately made me wonder if she/ICESA knew what feminist theory was (as the event says it is from a feminist lens) and question how someone teaching in a critical studies department could write something so insulting. Everyone makes mistakes when they are doing justice work, and I just hope Dr. Irvine and ICESA recognize their mistakes here.

So what did ICESA do so wrong? Let’s start with the event itself:

  • Pornography is a nuanced topic that ICESA decided to steamroll with a machine built out of Indiana puritanical morality.
  • “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” as Inigo Montoya (Princess Bride) would tell them. Pornography is a V A S T industry. There is a lot wrong with it(!), but also there is a lot wrong with every industry (tell me why I work in a field that is predominantly women but men hold the majority of leadership positions and myself and women I know experience sexism at work?). Also, did y’all know that there are multiple branches of pornography, including feminist pornography (porn done by women creative teams for women viewers)?
  • What feminist lens are is ICESA using? One from 1953? Your program is designed in such a way that I do not see any resemblance to contemporary feminist theory and activism.
  • The National Center on Sexual Exploitation was invited to speak on the panel. This is the same organization founded by Christian leaders and originally named “Morality in Media”. The literal top victories on their website include: “Stopping a bill in New Hampshire that would have fully decriminalized prostitution” (which only HARMS sex workers, please do the research), “Ending the sale of pornography at U.S. Army and Air Force exchanges” (“please put your life on the line, but making sure you don’t have porn is so important we need to spend resources on this lobbying”), “Marsh supermarkets removal of Cosmopolitan from checkout lanes in its more than 80 stores” (EYEROLL), “Resolutions declaring pornography a public health crisis passed in four states” (again, what a waste of resources). While I see they are doing some good (on sex trafficking and child sexual abuse), this puritanical organization gets a seat at the table and actual sex workers do not?!
  • Speaking of…the disability rights movement created “nothing about us without us” and it aptly fits many underrepresented and marginalized communities. ICESA thinks PhDs know more about sex work than actual sex workers. Folks, if you want to ally right – you need to let folks personally experiencing the issue lead the conversation. Currently, you’re garbed in a dingy white cape of savior mentality and it is not a good look.

‘But, Niki’, you may say, ‘ pornography IS bad’! Again, the conversation is nuanced.

  • The porn industry is so complex and there are many negative societal effects. But it is clear that not ALL porn is bad and honestly? ICESA is using a heteronormative lens by neglecting the differences with [queer-produced] LGBTQ+ porn + neglecting to discuss porn not featuring a cis woman and cis man and engaging in sexism by not realizing/ignoring that not all porn is made by and for cis men.
  • Read this to start off with (sorry, readers with PhDs, you’ll have to get a gist of how some porn can be feminist with an online article like us peasants) an article by Everyday Feminism titled “What does Feminist Porn Look Like”.
  • Umm, queer woman-centered porn produced by queer femmes exists! Literally, I found this in my first Google search and its listed in the article above.
    • Check out Crash Pad Series. Description: CrashPadSeries is based on the 2005 feminist porn award-winning ‘best dyke sex film’ The Crash Pad about a clandestine San Francisco apartment where lucky queers share its key to rendezvous for wild sex. Adult filmmaker Shine Louise Houston brings to the web her unique cinematic direction, hailed for its honest depiction of female and queer sexuality. It can be hard to describe this site, since what you’ll see here may vary. Our queer porn casts ‘real life’ couples who identify as dykes and lesbians, femme, masculine of center (boi, stud, tomboy, AG, and butch) and can be cis or trans women, trans men, people of color, people of size, older queers, and people with disabilities (including neurodivergent). Performers choose what they want to do on camera, so it’s common to see things like safer sex, role-play with onscreen check-ins and communication, strap-ons, kink and BDSM, orgasms and aftercare”
  • Did you know the Feminist Porn Awards exists? The co-creator Chanelle Gallant wrote a HuffPo piece this year that explains the history of the awards, the criteria of what is “feminist” porn, and what they got wrong by missing the chance to include fair labor issues for women in the field.
  • Read a pro/con of why porn is/is not feminist by Ms. Magazine to gain different perspectives.
  • Sex work (a term that covers the broad expanse of work involving sex and sexual activities) in general is actually seen (I have met folks and I have read articles) as empowering for some people or at the very least just another job like any other. Due to systemic racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and classism, certain populations of people have difficulty obtaining a job and/or a job that pays a living wage. Sex work is sometimes a work that is chosen. Unless your critique of porn is also addressing these ‘isms and capitalism, then it feels more like moral policing than a desire to help make this world better.

Now we must review the “ICESA Statement in Response to Harms of Pornography Protest October 2017” to better understand their mentality.

Here’s where, to me, it jumps out as condescending, demeaning, and just rather ignorant.

  • Paragraph 1, line 1: “It has recently come to our attention that a group of pro-pornography/pro-prostitution activists..” – huh what now? If you are using a feminist lens – especially a CRITICAL feminist lens, drop this ‘prostitution’ business. It’s called ‘sex work’. The year is 2017. It was this word that leapt out at me and, to me personally, discredited the organization and people associated with it. If you propose that this two-day training is using a feminist lens but you can’t keep up with feminist terminology that respects the people personally experiencing the issue? Then I don’t think you are the right folks to lead this conversation. At all.
  • I know Indiana gets the trends later than the coasts, but “sex work” has been used by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) for years and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) all use “sex work” as well.
  • As Australian sex worker and Political Science PhD student Elena Jeffreys says “”The term ‘sex work’ has been and is an important tool for sex worker movement solidarity building. When used as an umbrella term, ‘sex work’ is useful to ensure inclusivity in organising, policy and service delivery endeavours. The way in which the sex worker movement has adopted – and continues to fight for appropriate terminology educates the world that sex work is work. The term also unites all sex workers, by definition, under a common banner. The term ‘sex work’, and the history of the term, has a huge impact on the way the sex worker movement fights today.” (see more of her research here; definitely read “Sex Worker Politics and the Term “Sex Work” because all of us who are not sex workers need to understand that sex workers have been writing and advocating about/for themselves for decades+!)
  • Paragraph 2: “…pornography industry is inherently exploitative…” Please go read all the resources above and also talk to women and genderqueer/trans/non-binary people who work in the industry.
  • Paragraph 2: “…We recognize that some individual people, including women, financially benefit from this industry and therefore, they may believe that they have been empowered by it. However, the financial empowerment of a few individuals is not enough of a reason for us to support an industry that intentionally promotes violence and misogyny” This is so incredibly condescending and ICESA is truly out of their element here (see: all my previous points). Also, please realize that this exact same thing about EVERY FIELD that exists because our culture is inherently violent and misogynist.
  • Paragraph 3: “We are also excited that some students will be attending this event, because this training will give them a chance to learn from a variety of experts who have spent extensive amounts of time studying the negative social and health impacts of pornography.” The mistake is you are bringing folks with all the same mindset to teach students. There is not diversity of thought, just your ‘all porn bad’ agenda.
  • Paragraph 4: “In addition to academic research on this topic, we have heard from colleagues as well as friends that porn has an extremely detrimental impact on intimate relationships.” I cannot take researchers seriously when they tell me their friends agree with them (how does one cite this in APA?). It sounds necessary to expand one’s circle of friends to encourage critical thought on complex matters. I am happy to make new friends, and love coffee meet-ups.
  • Paragraph 4: “For example, many women and teen girls feel obligated to act out scenes from porn in order to please their male partners, or they feel pressured to watch porn with their male partners as a “normal” part of their relationships. Clearly, these are situations of sexual coercion and violence, because no one should be forced to engage in sexual activities when they have not given genuine consent.” First, please cite this. I am unsure how many women feel obligated to act our scenes from porn. Also, unless their partner is actually coercing them to do sex acts from porn, this is not an example of sexual coercion or violence. There is a difference between someone feeling obligated (internal push) to act out something on tv, compared to someone asking/demanding/begging (external push) to do so. This viewpoint is quite inaccurate, will confuse folks who are still trying to understand concepts around coercion, and are not fitting for ICESA.
  • Paragraph 4: “…pornography has become such a normalized part of life that many women and teen girls feel pressured to engage with porn or behaviors that have been promoted in porn (like anal sex)…” Okay, so this is what we call kink shaming. And trust me, people would know about anal sex even if porn didn’t exist. I have a wide online network of women from many diverse backgrounds and one started a facebook post on the topic of anal sex – surprise! Many women actually wanted to/or did and enjoyed anal sex with their male partners.
  • Paragraph 4: “The ICESA team is extremely proud that our agency has decided to address such a “controversial” topic, because it would have been much easier for us, as an agency, to stay quiet about this issue and avoid any potential conflicts with people who disagree with us.” If ICESA were to host an event on this topic and invite guests from multiple backgrounds (academics and sex workers) with multiple perspectives, then that would be something to be proud of. Instead, ICESA is actually avoiding conflicts with people who disagree with them by not inviting them to have a voice at the table.
  • Paragraph 6: “If a protest will be held, hopefully it will not distract our attendees from the educational goals of our event.” *cringes* Actually, wouldn’t it be better to engage with the protestors and, ya know, actually have a dialogue? Wouldn’t that be a great educational goal?
  • Paragraph 7: “We welcome pro-porn industry activists at our training” No you don’t. Otherwise your language and descriptors for these activists would be much more respectful.
  • Paragraph 7: “Hopefully some of them will decide to attend so that we are all operating from the same evidence-based research when we engage in conversations with one another.” But literally someone working at a Christian-centered organization (NCSE) without an academic research background is at this panel but actual sex workers are not! And you are only sourcing from one area of academic opinion and not others. So how evidence-based is this? And more so, this sentence is just so arrogant. ICESA presumes they are operating from the best form and hope to have their critics tag along and learn, rather than them learning from their critics in mutual cooperation and community work.
  • Paragraph 7: “…so that we can ensure a safe learning environment.” But safe for who? The ideas that will be thrown around at the training may actually harm sex workers.

The bottom line is: Just because a person has a PhD doesn’t mean they are not ignorant. One can research all they like on a topic, but if they do not have the personal experience (and also do not have personal relationships with those who have those lived experiences since every experience with a social issue is different), then they will never be a true authority. And that is okay. None of us can be true authorities on every single aspect of life. That is why it is imperative to work in solidarity with individuals who personally experience the social issue and allow them to lead the conversation.

I will say, I do appreciate when the open letter says “ICESA is committed to preventing sexual violence and making Indiana a safer place, which means that we have decided to facilitate difficult conversations about the role that porn plays in sexual violence” in the fourth paragraph – we need to have these conversations. I, and many others, just extensively disagree with your framework.

In summary, this event is not feminist and its framing of pornography is incomplete. I hope folks go to protest and I hope folks at the event have dialogue with the protestors. I hope ICESA will think deeply and critically on their framework and their words in the statement, and I hope they apologize to sex workers for how this has been handled. But most importantly, I hope ICESA understands where they went wrong, learn from this, incorporate what they learned into their practice, and keep continuing to do important work in Indiana. We need it.

And one more thing – if you really care about sex workers and want them to not be exploited, support advocacy work for fair labor conditions. Check out this rad guide: “No justice, no piece! A working girl’s guide to labor organizing in the sex industry