Why academe should honor prickly women (opinion)

You may see them in the women who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice queens,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Women” -- the women who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “bro-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Women have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Women and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Women have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts -- among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are moms, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Women with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced -- and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry female colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Women is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest women hold the floor longer than their male colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their male colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as men should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Women take on the feminine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their male colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Women. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of women who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Women, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Women -- they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Women have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Women on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Women know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Women very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Women are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Women have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Women’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Women are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Women work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Women, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Women are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Women. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Woman, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Women everywhere. Persevere.

M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English, and Aimee Knupsky is associate professor of psychology, at Allegheny College.


Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

New student coalition alleges press is suppressed at Christian institutions

New student coalition is alleging religious institutions are regularly squashing student newspapers. 

Canada's top digital learning program to be absorbed into academic department

After four decades as a freestanding entity with budget autonomy, a center for distance education programs and research will be absorbed by its university's social sciences and humanities department. Some faculty members are unhappy.

U.S. Distance Learning Association has new leader

Reggie Smith III will serve as the U.S. Distance Learning Association's CEO and executive director after serving for seven years as chairman emeritus of the association's board of directors.

In 2009, Smith was elected the first African-American president of the association's board. A year later, he achieved the same milestone in the board's chairman position. He has worked in various capacities since the Distance Learning Association since 2004.

Online Learning Consortium unveils new e-book

The collection of excerpts from prominent digital learning leaders' writing touches on teaching, data analytics and institutional strategy.

Guidance for effective annual reviews (opinion)

Ellen de Graffenreid provides tips for managers to help find ways to make the process less fraught and time-consuming.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 

Enrollment Declines Steepest in Midwest and Northeast

Overall college enrollments continue to slide, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit that tracks 97 percent of students who attend degree-granting institutions that are eligible to receive federal financial aid.

This spring the center found a decline of more than 275,000 students, or 1.8 percent, compared to the previous spring. The decrease follows six straight years where fewer students attended college in the U.S.

Enrollments went down in 34 states this spring, the center said. Six of the 10 states with the largest declines are in the Midwest or Northeast (see below). In addition, the number of students who are at least 24 years old declined by 263,000, according to the center. Enrollments for the over-24 age group (sometimes called adult students) have fallen by more than 1.5 million over eight years. Meanwhile, the number of traditional-age students increased slightly (0.4 percent), the center said, but enrollments of younger students remain below their level two years ago.

The 10 states with the largest enrollment declines are: New York (45,608), Michigan (22,571), Florida (17,003), Minnesota (11,262), Missouri (9,962), Ohio (9,623), Pennsylvania (9,596), Colorado (9,049), West Virginia (8,755) and Oregon (7,255).

The report from the center also included numbers by sector (below).

Ad keywords: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education to be led by former Gates official

Credited with shifting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s higher education approach from arrogant to collaborative, Daniel Greenstein will be the next chancellor of PASSHE.

Scrutiny of ties between Mount Ida donor and president

Many questions and few answers about the personal and business ties between the president of the now defunct college and a wealthy benefactor.

Colleges should rethink commencement with students in mind (opinion)

Graduating from college is a big deal. It is a big deal not just for the graduate but also for the person’s family, friends and supporters. In such a context, it is understandable that students might want to celebrate the moment when the degree is conferred.

But as a recent incident at the University of Florida reminds us, what students want and what administrators want are usually two different things. The footage of the white University of Florida professor literally wrestling black graduates off the stage because they had the temerity to cap their achievement with a few dance steps is dismaying. It’s all the more so as it follows hard on the heels of a racist incident at Colorado State when white fears prompted the removal of Native visitors from an admissions tour, not to mention any number of other recent events and revelations that suggest that historically and presently, American universities often function as incubators of white supremacy.

The specifics of the Florida graduation incident also register in the context of how universities relate to their students and alumni. Graduation is called “commencement” because it represents the beginning of something rather than the end of it. Graduation is when students become alumni.  Especially in the current climate of radical defunding of state universities, commencement as the beginning of a life as an alumni donor is increasingly important to the survival of many higher education institutions. At my own university, commencement always includes a welcome from our president to the family of Clemson University alumni, and a more or less implicit promise that if you look after the Clemson family, the Clemson family will look after you.

This imagined metamorphosis from student tuition payers to alumni donors -- and student debtors -- is not even the weirdest aspect of graduation. The graduations I have observed go something like this: Because of the structure needed to deliver the right diploma to the right person, the graduating students are lined up in alphabetical order by, usually by major and then move in procession across the stage to where they receive their diplomas and a handshake from the president of the institution; they are then ushered back to their seats. In most cases, that will be the first and only contact an undergraduate will have with the president of their university. As students walk across the stage, their families wait for the single relevant moment in a ceremony that can stretch out for hours to cheer their graduate from far-off bleachers. Meanwhile, the faculty members who worked with students to help make this moment happen are quite often visibly bored in their role of providing a suitably august backdrop to the presidential handshake in their regalia.

These traditions vary from university to university, but a common focus seems to be on connecting the individual graduate to the university at large through a handshake with the president in an effort to cultivate a relationship with the alum as a donor.

It is a bad system. The mass commencement ceremony is a ritual that should be replaced by celebrations focused on students, not the university. The effort to connect new alumni to their university makes it difficult for them to celebrate with fellow graduates, unless their majors are the same and the last names are similar. The scale of these ceremonies, with so many graduates and only one president, means they take place in venues usually used for basketball or football games. This scale makes it difficult for students to connect with families before or after the ceremony. It also makes it hard for faculty members who might want to congratulate students and connect with them.

In general, the necessary size of commencement ceremonies at public and large private universities often prohibits graduates from sharing such an important moment with the people who helped them reach this goal. In that respect, performing a few dance steps while exiting the stage seems like an entirely natural response to the boredom this kind of ceremony engenders.

If we celebrate at worship, at home, or on the playing field in culturally diverse ways, we might expect that universities could find room on the presidential stage for diverse ways of celebrating graduation as part of their commitment to multiculturalism. Or not. The most immediate reform I’d suggest is to allow students more space to celebrate and to keep people who act like the University of Florida marshal far away from the proceedings.

More generally, though, students and faculty members should find ways to reclaim this moment of accomplishment from development officers and other administrators. At Clemson and elsewhere, students have developed community graduation ceremonies, including donning of the Kente, and Lavender Graduation. These are events that allow students of color and LGBTQ students, respectively, the chance to celebrate their achievements with the communities that sustained them. In this vein, great numbers of celebrations and even degree conferrals at the departmental level would be more meaningful for graduates because it would allow them to celebrate with the classmates, family members and professors, instead of waiting to shake hands with someone they’ve probably never personally met.

In the English department at Clemson, my colleagues Erin Goss and Angela Naimou have started a tradition whereby graduating seniors who are part of the English honorary Sigma Tau Delta receive a book that a faculty member picks out for them. Depending on the number of majors, and the willingness of faculty, these kinds of celebrations could be expanded to offer a more meaningful experience for graduating seniors. If nothing else, they could offer a deeper and more meaningful connection to an institution than sitting for hours in a basketball arena, waiting to hear your name called. If college presidents want, they could certainly continue to offer parting remarks to graduating students, but uncoupling this ceremony from delivering degrees would be better for everyone.

This is a moment for the University of Florida to reflect on the roots of the graduation ceremony violence that it experienced and how to prevent it in the future. At the same time, the particulars of this incident suggest an opportunity for many other universities to re-imagine this rite of passage as something that celebrates students rather than an institution.

Jonathan Beecher Field is an associate professor of English at Clemson University.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 


Subscribe to RSS - administrators
Back to Top