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Presumed Incompetent
March 5, 2013 - 9:17pm

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Utah State University Press, 2012. Edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, Angela P. Harris.  570 pages.

The 30 essays in Presumed Incompetent expose a nasty truth about Academia: it is not above the realities of everyday American life. It, in fact, reproduces and reinforces society’s inequalities, stereotypes, and hierarchies within its own walls.

That academic women, especially academic women of color, are often presumed incompetent, is probably not surprising to most. The virtue of this book is that it enables the reader to see that these experiences are not individual experiences nor are they the result of individual flaws. Keeping this insight in mind, these essays become more than just “stories” or anecdotes. They point to the larger structural and cultural forces within Academia that make the experience of being presumed incompetent for women of color far too common.

The book is a collection of various types of essays: scholarly literature reviews of the experiences of women of color, personal narratives, and interviews. The content is divided into five parts: “General Campus Climate”, “Faculty/Student Relationships”, “Networks of Allies”, “Social Class in Academia” and “Tenure and Promotion”.  As one can tell readily from the themes, the book isn’t directed at students, nor is it meant primarily for use in a classroom (although there are several chapters that would be a good fit in courses that cover race, class, gender and sexuality issues). The book’s primary audience is faculty and administrators. It not only highlights the cultural and structural obstacles facing women of color in Academia, but proposes strategies and recommendations aimed at faculty and administrators. Several essays do this effectively, but Niemann’s concluding essay provides a particularly valuable summary of strategies and advice.

Several themes cut across the five sections of the book.  One is the discussion of stereotypes and identity work.  For instance, African American women may be seen as “mammies” and expected to be nurturing and caring and when they are not, they face anger and disappointment from students and colleagues (see Douglas’ and Wilson’s essays). Another example is Lugo-Lugo’s chapter, which discusses the stereotypes of the “hot Latina” and how they play out for her in the classroom where she must negotiate her identity as a Latina and a professor.  

Lugo-Lugo also touches upon a second, though sometimes less explicit, theme of this book: the corporatization of higher education.  There are several layers to this phenomenon that affect women of color disproportionately. For one, contingent labor now makes up the vast majority of faculty positions in this country.  White women and women of color are disproportionately represented in these contingent ranks. Women of color only make up 7.5% of all full-time faculty positions in Academia (pg. 449). Given this reality, the presumption of incompetence gets reinforced and magnified for women of color. But there is another aspect of corporatization that is considered in the essays in this book. These are the essays that discuss student evaluations of teaching.  Because students increasingly come to the classroom with a consumerist mentality, they feel entitled to a certain experience, a certain grade, a certain “kind” of teacher. Lazos’ chapter, in particular, is a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand the factors that impact students’ evaluations of their professors. Departments chairs and members of committees on tenure and promotion will also find this chapter useful since they are responsible for evaluating a faculty member’s teaching effectiveness and student evaluations are a primary source of that information.

The importance of mentoring is also underscored in many of the essays in this volume as they highlight the need for good mentorship not just in graduate school but throughout the various stages of an academic career. The essay “Lessons From a Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On,” by Adrien Wing, discusses the need to have a variety of mentors across racial, gender and institutional lines. Wing reminds the reader that she “never put all my eggs in one basket. If one mentor did not work out, that was fine because there were others” (p. 366).

There is one recurring piece of advice in this collection that worries me: many authors exhort women of color to simply do better and do more than what is expected of them.  This includes doing “more than the minimum”, teaching “on a grand scale” (p. 362, 363).  This lesson, which may seem productive from an individual’s perspective, does nothing to address the deeper problem of why women of color feel the need to do this in the first place. It poses a very personal solution to a problem that the editors and authors themselves have identified as a structural issue.

That critique aside, Presumed Incompetent offers valuable lessons and advice for just about everyone in Academia, from contingent faculty, post-docs, and tenured and tenure-track faculty, to administrators and search committees. It is up to us to heed that advice if we hope to erase the dangerous and erroneous belief in academic women’s incompetence.

New London, Connecticut in the US.

Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu.

 

 

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