Failing (in) the Academy

The original post below was written for a class that was attempting at reimagining the humanities for the public good (Spring 2019). Edits have been made since the original submission in class.

Failing (in) the Academy

For my queer and trans people of color (QTPOCs) in the academy, how many times have our self-worth, gut feelings, and intuitions been called to question in service of the ivory tower? I have been thinking about our allowance to fail and how that failure is perceived and/or expected, which then places us in a position of impossibility of not failing so as to “win” the game. I often find myself questioning my worth especially when I cannot or don’t measure up to my peers. I am in need of a breather, and for those like me who are trying to find some breathing space, I hope this discussion of failures and failings is helpful to hang on to.

Housed in the department of psychology, there are particular expectations placed on my work (and my sanity) as I am supposed to produce work that will continue to uphold particular facets of professionalism which in turn maintain barriers to knowledge production. Even in critical spaces within my department, where radical scholarship is promised, I find myself reflecting on la paperson’s analysis of the second world university (many of which we are in/trying to get in). This university, i.e. the second world one, is often quick to offer a critique of the society it inhibits but it also ALWAYS support the structures that produces these power dynamics in the first place.1

What then is professionalism and knowledge production? I don’t question that knowledge that is to be shared should be done so in a rigorous manner, but is academia the only way to legitimize this process? How are we honest about the process if failure remains hidden? What happens when part of the process of knowledge making is demonstrating the failures? I began to wonder how the facade of professionalism and knowledge production can be dismantled, deconstructed if we were to embrace and admit to mistakes and failures. How many times do we see mistakes and failures published in academic journals or discussed in professional conferences? Embarrassment and (sometimes) hostile confrontation often ensue instead. This maintenance as experts and gatekeepers manifest itself in classrooms as well. How many times have we sat in classrooms where discussions have become detached from real people and real consequences and becomes a contest on who can cite the most theorists/theories (usually instigated by someone who is white and cisgender)? The process of the university creates a really highly pressurized environment that prescribes itself in elitism and professionalism that often brands the knowledge that is produced from this space as impeccable and infallible. This is not only a lie but it also manifests and perpetuates a space that marks mistakes and failures as high risk events that results in a defensive move rather than an admission. This curated elitist space requires authority to be unchallenged and unthreatened so that knowledge produced from here can be consumed as always right.

Who Gets to Fail, How to Fail, and Why Should We Embrace Failure

Of course, who gets to fail and how we fail is tied to our positionalities. Those who are offered more privilege (read: cisgender white folx) within this hegemonic structure have more leverage to fail and to “recover” from these mistakes. Women and femmes of color, particularly those who are black and indigenous, are surveilled and policed in ways that often makes failures and mistakes costly. A single mistake could result in a complete dismissal of a communities’ work and scholarship. Failures are in some ways already expected because of the various stereotypical assumptions painted onto our abilities. And when we do fail, these sterotypical associations are applied as a measure of our worth. With such high stakes, it is unsurprisingly to note that many QTPOCs end up with terrible mental and physical health outcomes.2 Hence, when I am speaking of failing and making mistakes, I am not only asking that of the individual but one that requires a structural change. We need to see how the structure of academia has already skewed our expectations of failures and successes.

This requires a fundamental shift in understanding that the academy is not infallible, that it is not the only place of knowledge production, and that it is not always the expert in the room. If the work we want to do is truly invested in the betterment of those who are oppressed, we have to disassemble the current academic space and challenge the relationship between white supremacists ideas and failure/mistakes. We have to allow mistakes and failures to be part of the vocabulary of the academy.

Here, I turn to la paperson’s working definition of the scyborg.3 The scyborg is always (dis)assembling existing resources to make it work for the moment while also understanding that what they produce is always going to be reworked by someone else coming along the way. In this sense, space is afforded to mistakes, and these failures are expected. To pretend that this does not happen is to be un-scyborg-like, thereby defeating the potential towards a third university.

My experience as a QTPOC in the academy has not always been kind. I am lucky to have met women of color professors whose mentorship I relied on as well as having the support of my cohort who are similarly keyed into the destructive ways of the academy. It is through them that I learned how to embrace my failures and mistakes without falling prey to the demands and seductions of these oppressive systems. I hope that my fellow QTPOCs can feel some relieve in the ways they are expected to produce knowledge and know that they are not alone in the ways they experience the academy.

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More information if you’re interested

1. la paperson discusses this in detail in A Third University is Possible in the chapter “A Third University Exists Within the First”. A free version of this book is available through Manifold (https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/a-third-university-is-possible ).

2. A plethora of articles have written about similar effects of college and graduate school on students of color well being. For examples, see Ciara Jones (Nov 28, 2017) Grad School Is Trash for Students of Color and We Should Talk About That (https://mystudentvoices.com/grad-school-is-trash-for-students-of-color-and-we-should-talk-about-that-af672814b3ee), (Jan 16, 2018) “The Verdict is in: Black and Brown Graduate Students are Profoundly Unhappy. What Now?” (https://medium.com/@ciarrajones/the-verdict-is-in-black-and-brown-graduate-students-are-profoundly-unhappy-what-now-21bf7f54ff11), and Young Invincibles (Jul 31, 2017) “Triple-Consciousness: The Souls of Intersectional Folx” (https://younginvincibles.org/triple-consciousness-souls-intersectional-folx/ ). An article published in The Atlantic also discusses the high dropout rates of graduate students in general, Te-Erika Patterson (Jul 6, 2016) “Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?” (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/why-do-so-many-graduate-students-quit/490094/).

3. la paperson discusses the function and position of the scyborg in the chapter “You, A Scyborg”. Embracing all of the complications and contradictions, the scyborg navigates the spaces in the university through a constant (dis)assembling. Mistakes and failures are part of the process; hoarding of resources (to build capital/leverage) is detrimental to the process.

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9/3/2019: I only found out about Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure after completing this post. In a brief introduction to the book from another professor, she summarized that Halberstam’s notion of failure is that it is a condition that we are all moving through in our life. Failure is not just a judgement as denoted by the context we lived in. Because of this everyone will fail and constantly fail. This is really useful to me and my current understanding of failure. I think the constructed-ness of failure and success is made even more explicit here.