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Dear BIPOC and allied graduate and undergraduate students:
We are here with you as you work hard to navigate school and life, hoping to nurture your learning and development along the way. We remember what being a student was like. As Black women professors, we hold those student realities along with our own demanding and rewarding faculty lives. To help balance our work with you while taking care of ourselves, we write this support letter, which can complement other student resources. (See here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Though we can’t and don’t intend to speak for all women faculty of color, we do want to share our top 10 tips for students engaging with marginalized faculty from our distinct perspectives as Black women professors in the academy.
- Greet us with respect. For us to achieve the role of professor required the same qualifications as Dr. Older White Man. We recognize that you may not intend to assume we are “Miss,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.,” but those microaggressions are harmful nonetheless. If you don’t know someone’s title, you should usually address them formally, such as “Professor Last Name.” Professors who prefer to be called by their first name or another moniker will let you know. It is always best to assume formality until told otherwise.
- Treat us equally. Carefully consider your requests of female faculty of color. Oftentimes, students will ask for special treatment from us that they would never dare ask from male faculty, particularly white male faculty—for example, that we reschedule a class or assignment to allow them more time to study for Dr. Older White Man’s class. Such differential and unequal treatment is both unfair and disrespectful.
- Have realistic—and fair—expectations of us. Female faculty of color face unrealistic and unjust work expectations, including being representatives of our racial or ethnic group and having to engage in more teaching, mentoring and service than our male counterparts. Those expectations can turn into demands, in which we are met with entitlement, anger, frustration and sometimes unjustified formal complaints when we say “no.” In some ways, that is understandable if you are a BIPOC student: because we are both marginalized, you expect us to understand in ways that you don’t believe white faculty can or do. Therefore, when we are not everything you think you need, you can feel cultural betrayal. The academic system of inequality that has led to so few Black female faculty and increasing demands on faculty of color is not your fault or ours. Nor can we faculty of color unilaterally fix entire departments, even though we often try. Experiencing pain over the situation makes perfect sense. Angrily, and sometimes formally, blaming everything on us, however, is neither right nor fair.
- Respect our boundaries. Work-life balance is important for everyone—and especially for those who are likely to experience compounded invisible labor and systemic trauma, like people from the BIPOC communities. Therefore, it is crucial for us to take time away from our work to refuel our emotional and physical resources. Believing that we should be on call to you and other students whenever needed—after work hours, on the weekend, during breaks—creates unreasonable expectations that may interfere with our successful professional relationship. Moreover, such expectations reinforce beliefs surrounding the cult of busyness—an illogical social status symbol.
- Be thoughtful when addressing conflicts with us. Conflict is natural, healthy and often helpful in interpersonal situations, including professional relationships. When addressing conflicts or concerns with us, say things like. “I’m concerned about [describe the concern]. Could we talk through that concern and try to find a way to address it?” Avoid saying things like, “You are wrong for [describe the concern]. Fix it now by doing [a very specific thing].” Focusing on the specific issue, task or event decreases the likelihood of defensiveness and increases the chances of resolving the conflict without unnecessary personal harm.
- Be intentional when meeting with us. If you are seeking a female faculty member of color as an adviser or mentor, come prepared. There are far more mentees than BIPOC women faculty, so to ensure you get the most out of our conversations, please arrive with an agenda and list of questions or topics to discuss. Avoid scheduling meetings for generic queries (e.g., “tell me about your research”). Instead, use what can be found online to identify topics and craft questions that take the meeting to the next intellectual level—beyond what could be gleaned from a website.
- Create a mentorship network. Rather than relying on one person as a mentor, consider your needs and identify different people who might be able to guide you in each area. For instance, you may have one mentor for research, another for career development and yet another for emotional support in navigating academe. They may be professionals across the university and beyond, not just those housed within your major, department or school. Having multiple mentors allows you to learn more broadly from people with different life and career experiences.
- Do not mistake our kindness for leniency. Being kind and having high expectations are not mutually exclusive—we can and do have both. Though we may be caring and courteous, we also have high expectations of our students. Please don’t be surprised if our exams are difficult, our courses are demanding and our research projects are hard. The supportive environments we co-create with students also involve accountability mechanisms for your work and critical feedback to support your learning. It serves you to appreciate the high expectations we have of you, as they exist because we believe in your ability to learn and grow from student to professional.
- Guard against perpetuating bias in teaching evaluations. A plethora of research shows that women across races and faculty members of color across genders receive lower scores on teaching evaluations. Good intentions alone do not prevent bias. If and until this inequitable metric is abolished, here are some suggestions for more equitable teaching evaluations.
- Complete the evaluation. The more representative the student evaluation sample is of the class population, the more accurate the results. In other words, full student participation will provide the most accurate class feedback.
- Take it seriously. Teaching evaluations are not only included in faculty members’ job reviews, but they also inform how we teach the class in the future. Thus, your feedback can positively benefit our teaching and, consequently, future students’ learning.
- Respond fairly and equitably. Professors who teach classes that are often less liked, such as statistics and research methods, also tend to receive lower evaluations. Be cognizant of those tendencies while completing your evaluations.
- Be well-rounded. In any comments, providing both positive (great!) and critical (do better!) feedback is important. The positive feedback provides information on good things to continue and do more of, while the critical feedback alerts us to things we should change.
- Be respectful. A respectful tone is not only great practice for you—even when detailing what you do not like—but also shows respect for us as professors and fellow human beings.
- Use today as preparation for tomorrow. The content of this letter—as well as the very act of us putting it together—include things you can do both now and when you become a professional yourself within or outside academe. We hope we are showing you that you can love what you do, including loving working with students and/or other colleagues, while, at the same time, valuing yourself, guarding your time and commanding respect.
We hope these tips are helpful as you move through your education. One of our favorite parts of our job is working with students. Witnessing the growth and success of our students offer us so much joy within academe. As we teach, advise and mentor you amid all our other responsibilities, let’s work together toward a sustainable, positive, reciprocal partnership for our collective present and futures.
Dr. Shanique G. Brown and Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez