Popeye provides a metaphor for how underrepresented students experience college (essay)

College campuses have been somewhat quieter so far this semester, after a turbulent fall in which many campuses saw student demonstrations for racial justice in higher education. We’ve certainly not seen the end of such protests, however.

Last month, for example, minority students at Harvard Law School occupied a student lounge and criticized the administration for not supporting an office of diversity and inclusion, not promoting staff of color, and not taking a number of other “steps that are necessary to accord adequate and equal dignity to marginalized students and staff.” And last week, demonstrators at the University of Missouri, where students set off the nationwide movement last fall, marched once again over what they saw as inadequate efforts by the administration to improve the university's climate. Indeed, an annual survey of incoming college freshmen by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles has found that interest in student activism is at an all-time high, especially among black students.

The fact is that the students usually have a point. On many college and university campuses today, dynamics like implicit bias, stereotype threat, racial anxiety and microaggressions generate systematically different experiences for underrepresented groups in higher education -- dynamics that affect interaction and decision making. Yet because many (typically white) administrators and faculty members don’t see those dynamics, they don’t understand what is driving the anger, frustration and demands of the protesters.

Paradoxically, an old sexist and racist cartoon character, Popeye, the white, hypermasculine aging American sailor trying to adapt to civilian life in the 1930s and 1940s, offers a way to understand how underrepresented groups (racial and ethnic minorities and women) experience higher education in America. My aim is to in no way trivialize the important concerns that the protesters are raising, but rather to show why Popeye might have some relevance today as a metaphor.

I never particularly liked Popeye, except for one bit in which Popeye is left to babysit cute little Swee’pea. Inevitably Swee’pea would escape Popeye’s watchful eye and crawl obliviously right into some dangerous place like a lion’s cage or a factory. Swee’pea would be at the constant risk of falling into a vat of molten steel or right into the path of a conveyor belt with a giant slicing blade. Amazingly, Swee’pea would move at just the right time, or he would simply glide through the Rube Goldberg-like workings of the assembly line, so he never fell or got crushed; he would simply continue moving ever forward through the danger zone.

In contrast, Popeye would race to catch Swee’pea, only to get smacked, stuck or crushed in the moving parts of the assembly line. The different pathways of Popeye and Swee’pea through the same factory metaphorically illustrate how perceptual biases operate in higher education and lead to conflicting views of the academy for different groups.

Popeye’s experience is like the experience of underrepresented students in college. His getting stuck in the stamping machine parts while Swee’pea crawls on is like when a professor implies -- often unconsciously -- that some students (white men) are inherently better at math or science than others (women and students of color). When Popeye gets squeezed through rollers on the conveyor belt while Swee’pea passes through unscathed, it is like the research showing that faculty advisers (both male and female) are much more likely to respond to white male students’ requests for mentoring and to offer key lab assistant and leadership positions to white male graduate students -- which enhances their CVs that put them more in line for the next range of opportunities (e.g., fellowships and prizes). Even when Popeye keeps himself moving past these challenges into the ranks of the professoriate, he still may be hit in the face with a plank of wood, such as the evidence that women and faculty of color receive systematically lower student course evaluations, which affect tenure and promotion files. No single one of these barriers may be enough to completely stymie Popeye’s progress, but cumulatively they slow him down and put him systematically behind Swee’pea.

Meanwhile, Swee’pea’s path is similar to how white men experience higher education, moving forward but mostly oblivious to the ways that the status quo supports them. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that means life is easy for these Swee’peas. Successful white men often bristle, and rightly so, at the suggestion that because they do not face the same biases, they did not have to work hard for their success.

Swee’pea is persistent, even dogged in pursuit of moving ever forward; he is not “carried.” Indeed if Swee’pea stopped moving forward he would be in as much danger as Popeye -- much as every man who successfully graduates from college or traverses the academic “factory” of pursuing a Ph.D. and tenured professorship has had to remain focused on moving forward.

Yet Swee’pea’s head-down, dogged pursuit of moving forward means that he never steps back to see the machinery moving. So he never has any sense that the structural conditions around him facilitate his path through the gantlet of higher education. Not only is he unaware of how the structural conditions affect him, he is also completely oblivious to how those same structural conditions affect Popeye differently.

Popeye, however, is very likely to notice the gaps and inequities between his path and Swee’pea’s after he falls through the air or is stuck in concrete. For the minorities and women in academe who feel like Popeye, that recognition has both behavioral and emotional consequences. First, just keeping his head down and working hard to move forward doesn’t work for Popeye, because sometimes he finds himself hindered by the machinery -- just as minorities and women often feel like they have to work twice as hard to be considered competent.

Second, and maybe more important, underrepresented students and faculty members who traverse through higher education like Popeye does the factory -- wanting to keep their heads down and stay focused, but having to watch out for microaggressions and implicit biases that knock them off the conveyor belt -- experience a significant emotional toll. The frustration that the Popeyes of the world feel toward the Swee’peas, for both the trajectory they have as well as their obliviousness to the structure, is understandable. It is not surprising that some Popeyes -- that is, too many women and minorities -- decide to exit the factory entirely.

Solutions Must Be Systemic

Though Popeye may provide a cute metaphor for understanding the challenging experiences of women and underrepresented minorities in higher education, his quintessential act of gulping a can of spinach to overcome the challenges he faces is not the solution for inequality in higher education. That is, recommendations that focus on making individual Popeyes stronger via individual action and responsibility (e.g., additional training and thicker skin) are not only inadequate, but offensive. What is needed are changes to the systemic conditions that foster environments of stereotype threat and racial anxiety and that enable factors like implicit bias to operate.

For example, practices that facilitate access and full participation broadly, such as round-robin classroom contributions instead of hand raising, rotating lab positions and anonymous review of CVs can reduce the extent to which implicit bias can operate. They can also enable all students to both gain needed experience and demonstrate their skills in a less-competitive environment. More generally, creating communities that encourage diverse groups to work together on a variety of tasks -- sometimes explicitly related to race, ethnicity and gender but more often simply related to common interests -- facilitates more positive interactions and reduces racial anxiety and stereotype threat.

Some of these practices can be put in place relatively easily, while others, such as ensuring the inclusion of diverse groups at all levels of higher education, require long-term institutional commitment. Without that institutional commitment, and concerted efforts both inside and outside higher education, the academic “factory” will continue to be a harrowing path for Popeye, while Swee’pea remains oblivious to the girders that helped him along the way.

Denise Anthony is vice provost for academic initiatives and a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College.

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Slurs Plus Trump Name in Northwestern Incident

Two Northwestern University freshmen are facing charges that they spray-painted slurs against gay people and black people, a swastika and the name "Trump" in a nondenominational chapel at the university, The Chicago Tribune reported. The students (who were caught on videotape) also spray-painted over photographs of Muslim students. The two freshmen said nothing during a court hearing, but reportedly have admitted to the charges.

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HBCU Missing in Albany State's Mission Statement

When the University System of Georgia in November announced plans to merge Albany State University and nearby Darton State College, officials said that the combined institution would preserve Albany State's mission as a historically black institution.

But when a new mission statement was released last week, it contained no mention of the historically black mission. And the lack of that mention led several hundred students -- many of them dressed in black -- to protest at Albany State, The Albany Herald reported. Curtis Fluker, a senior, said, "It’s not 1965 anymore; it’s time to live in color. We really don’t care who comes to school here as long as we can protect the school’s legacy. This is not about the name of the school, but the new mission statement. Nothing is given to you at an HBCU, you have to earn it."

The HBCU Roundtable, which advocates for historically black colleges, posted the photo at right.

Art Dunning, president of Albany State, said more documents on the consolidation plan would provide places to include the historically black university mission.

Officials of the university system did not respond to an email from Inside Higher Ed asking why the historically black mission was not included in last week's document.

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An open letter to students about a course they call racist (essay)

Roksana Badruddoja writes an open letter to her students, à la Shannon Gibney, Saida Grundy and Zandria F. Robinson.

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Presidents Say They Have Organized Diversity Events

A survey of college presidents by the American Council on Education has found that many report having taken actions to deal with diversity concerns on campus. Among the findings:

  • Nearly half of four-year presidents and 13 percent of two-year presidents say students have organized around concerns about racial diversity.
  • Eighty-six percent of four-year presidents and 71 percent of two-year presidents have met with student organizers more than once.
  • More than half of presidents say the racial climate on their campuses has become more of a priority compared to three years ago.
  • The most common action over the last five years, for both two-year and four-year institutions as well as public and private institutions, has been initiatives aimed at increasing diversity among students, faculty and/or staff members.

An Inside Higher Ed survey of presidents released this week found that many college presidents see problems with race relations in higher ed nationally, but most think their own campuses are doing well.

Western Washington University students push sweeping demands

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Lists of demands from student activists have gotten longer and more ambitious, but students at Western Washington U may have others beat.

Appeals court upholds finding: Wayne State failed to respond to pregnancy bias against student

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Appeals court upholds verdict that Wayne State must pay $850,000 to former student whose pregnancy was subject of inappropriate criticism by supervisor.

Black Students Protest at U of Missouri

Black students at the University of Missouri at Columbia set off a nationwide protest movement last year over conditions facing minority students in higher education. On Monday, the Concerned Student 1950 movement at Mizzou again marched through campus, finding a locked door to the interim chancellor's office on the way, protesting what members call inadequate efforts to improve the climate at the university, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. A task force has been appointed by the university, and officials say it is making progress, but the student protest movement questions whether it is sufficiently involved in shaping the task force's agenda, and whether it is working speedily enough. Spike Lee, the film director and producer, joined Monday's protest, filming it for ESPN.

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Speaker at Saint Louis U Ignores Ban on Talking About Abortion

Roxane Gay (right) says she rewrote the talk she gave at Saint Louis University last week to focus on abortion rights -- as a protest against a last-minute "reminder" that she shouldn't talk about abortion. Gay, a feminist writer and an associate professor of English at Purdue University, says that her speaking agent received a notice the morning of her talk, saying that the university, as a Jesuit institution, didn't want her speaking about the "pro-choice agenda." Her response was to rewrite her speech to focus on a pro-choice agenda, and to talk about the importance with which she views abortion rights.

She says she thought about calling off the talk, but instead gave the new version to take a stand against censorship. "My temper flared immediately. I don’t like vague threats of censorship. I hate the word 'agenda' when it is used as a blunt instrument, when it is used to imply that one with a so-called agenda is up to no good. I am a deeply flawed person, but I pride myself on being concerned with the greater good, and seeking out goodness in myself and others. I thought about canceling my appearance, but then I reconsidered because really, what would that accomplish?" she wrote.

Gay then published her talk online.

Saint Louis University did not respond to requests for comment from Riverfront Times, which first reported the story, or from Inside Higher Ed.

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Harvard Law Seeks to Change Seal

Martha Minow, dean of the Harvard University law school, has endorsed the recommendations of a panel she appointed to change the law school's seal, a major demand of minority students and others. The seal (visible at right in a logo used by the student group) shows three bundles of wheat. Students say the seal is inappropriate because it was the family seal of Isaac Royall Jr., who was honored as a major early donor to the law school but was also involved with the slave trade in the 18th century.

In announcing her recommendation to end use of the seal, Minow wrote that the debate raised many issues. "Whatever was known in the past, powerful and challenging questions now arise about the Harvard Law School shield," she wrote. "Designed in 1936 as part of the university’s tercentenary, it contains a design based on a bookplate used by Isaac Royall Sr., who passed his wealth -- including enslaved persons -- to his son, the initial donor to the school. What role should history play in defining who we are? What was the genesis of the shield and how does that history influence our path forward? Do we better remember our connection with the Royall family and with slavery by preserving the shield or by retiring it? What role do symbols play in the school’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and belonging inside our community and in the world at large? Does consideration of the shield’s future put into question the names of buildings, endowed chairs, the nation’s capital and other embodiments of the past?"

Minow also gave her rationale for asking Harvard's governing board to vote to change the seal. "There are complex issues involved in preserving the histories of places and institutions with ties to past injustices, but several elements make retiring the shield less controverted than some other issues about names, symbols and the past," she wrote. "First, the shield is a symbol whose primary purpose is to identify and express who we mean to be. Second, it is not an anchoring part of our history: it was created in 1936 for a university celebration, used occasionally for decades and used more commonly only recently, and does not extend back to the origin of the school or even much beyond recent memory. Third, there is no donor whose intent would be undermined; the shield itself involves no resources entrusted in our care."


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