#DiversityinHigherEd – Mentors and role models

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from Conditionally Accepted.

Defying the Odds

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

In physics, we have hierarchies: between particle physics and everyone else; between theorists and experimentalists. It’s a nasty business and business as usual. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s just one African-American (genderqueer) woman Ph.D. who does theoretical particle physics or its holistic cousin, cosmology — me. Black men are slightly more common, at a count of about five. None of us were expected to be here.

I have two origin stories as a theoretical physicist. When I was 10, my mum took me to see Errol Morris’s documentary about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Going in I didn’t want to be there, halfway through I wanted to solve problems that Einstein hadn’t, and by the end I had decided to become a theoretical physicist. Not long after, one of Hawking’s graduate students explained to me by email that doing so required: going to a first-class university, getting a first-class degree and entering a first-class Ph.D. program. I started planning. I was from the ghetto, but I was going to attend Harvard or Caltech.

Nine years later, I was just months away from my graduation from Harvard College. I had chosen Harvard over Caltech because I didn’t want to be the only black woman in my graduating year. That decision was the first of many I would make because of my ascribed identity and how people made me feel about it. By the time I was nearing my Harvard graduation, I knew I was going to graduate school, but I had applied in astronomy and not physics and with the plan of doing exoplanet phenomenology, not theoretical cosmology and particles. Why? Harvard had taught me that physics departments were cruel places where girls from the ghetto didn’t belong. Scientists at the Center for Astrophysics were more welcoming.

I had gotten the message early and often: people like me don’t become particle theorists. According to one person, people with grades like mine didn’t become theorists, and I had noticed that the people with grades unlike mine were so unlike me in fundamental ways. They had parents who were Ph.D.s, they came from upper-middle-class households, they went to schools that could afford to offer Advanced Placement BC calculus classes, whereas I taught the course to myself. When I looked at who was excelling in advanced courses that all theorists needed to take, they were almost all one of two things, and usually both: male and white.

When I wrote to Hawking, I said nothing about being a little black and Jewish girl from the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, but Harvard taught me that these ascribed identities set me apart, priming me to take my place on the “wrong” end of what Joseph Martin calls “prestige asymmetry.” So, when I wrote to prospective graduate advisers, I took a chance and mentioned my background, hoping someone wanted to help me succeed. One of them was Edmund Bertschinger, an esteemed theoretical astrophysicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Bertschinger wrote back and told me that a black mathematician and theoretical physicist was visiting MIT that year, and he encouraged me to email Professor Arlie Petters. I looked up Professor Petters and learned that he was, like my mom, a West Indian. My second origin story begins with meeting Professor Petters, the first black professor of theoretical physics I had ever met. Petters asked me if I was planning to take his graduate course in general relativity at MIT. I gasped before informing him that people like me don’t pass classes like that. Nonsense, he said. I would take his class, and whenever I had a question I would show up at his office. I gave up arguing, got my cross-registration form signed and began to commute to MIT. I was the only woman, the only undergrad and certainly the only black person in the class. But I thrived, eventually going into the final exam with the highest grade in the class.

By the time Professor Petters insisted I attend the 2003 National Society of Black Physicists meeting with him, I was changing. I was into general relativity’s beautiful mathematical artifice and hungry for more. I still believed that this excitement could never be a foundation for a career, but I had also stopped thinking about it so much. At NSBP, room after room was full of black physics students, the majority from historically black colleges and universities, which were at the time the dominant producers of black bachelor’s degrees in physics. But equally importantly, there were black physics professors everywhere, including a few speakers in three sessions about cosmology and gravity. I went to all of those sessions, learning that, contrary to what I had been told, it was possible to make particle physics and cosmology accessible to undergraduates. A vision began to coalesce in my mind.

After the last session I approached Howard University professor James Lindesay. I was nervous, but the environment made me feel more confident. “I really enjoyed your talk,” I told him. “I’m taking GR right now. If I want to do what you do, what should I take next?” I expected him to ask me about my grades, to check whether I was worth talking to and whether I belonged at all. Lindesay responded so differently from what I had come to expect: “That’s wonderful. If you’re taking GR now, then next you will need to take quantum field theory.”

Professor Lindesay eviscerated a stereotype that was holding me back: I thought quantum field theory was for white boys, not me. In that moment, because I so admired him, I believed him when he believed in me. I realized I could become a theoretical physicist.

Today I am a theoretical physicist (or astrophysicist, depending on whom you ask). Because of the significant role it played in my life, NSBP has been my primary site of service to the physics community, as chair of the Cosmology and Gravity Committee for over 10 years and as co-chair of the 600-person conference in 2011. Doing this volunteer work helped keep me on the path during the many sexist and racist bumps I ran into on my path to becoming and existing as a theoretical astro/physicist. It also helped me see the powerful, ongoing importance of HBCUs like Professor Lindesay’s Howard University.

HBCU physics departments are the foundation that any African-American physicist stands on. Even as they shrink in number today, they care for black students in ways that schools like Harvard do not. Spelman College remains the top producer of black women — nationally — who go on to Ph.D.s in STEM. It is HBCUs that have valued black physicists enough to hire us as faculty, holistically recognizing the significance of our existence as well as our research and service, rather than narrowly defining success via impact factor and publication rate.

Black faculty, like black lives, matter. Black students don’t just attend HBCUs, and black students at predominantly white institutions deserve the kind of support that a professor like James Lindesay provides. Duke University students are lucky to have Professor Petters and two other black faculty members. But such groupings are incredibly rare — most physics departments have no black faculty, and no university in North America has a black woman professor of particle or cosmology theory. Faculty wishing to diversify academe regularly complain to me that particle/cosmology theorists act as gatekeepers during admissions and hiring, accepting only very high GRE scores and grade point averages, requiring more significant course preparation and refusing to budge on publication metrics, regardless of other contributions. Those faculty block people like me from ever getting admitted, much less hired. Even if I never become a professor, one day a black woman particle theorist will. And then another. What about two at the same time? Imagine the doors they will smash wide-open, changing the face of physics and what we know about the universe.


Photo of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein presenting her talk "Making a Universe With Axions."Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a postdoctoral research associate in the department of physics at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of cosmology and particle physics, with a specific focus on dark matter and the structure of space-time. She is also principal investigator on a grant to study the impact on science of excluding black and Native women from physics.

This post originally appeared in Conditionally Accepted, a column of Inside Higher Ed, on March 9, 2018.

#DiversityinHigherEd – Graduate students doing diversity work

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from Conditionally Accepted.


Hitting the Wall

By Prabhdeep Kehal

I have hit the diversity wall. Sara Ahmed refers to this moment as a person realizing that a practitioners’ decades of genuine diversity work, or efforts to create a more just and equitable environment for marginalized students, are met with shallow, symbolic responses.

Despite its looming shadow, I thought I would never hit this wall. I believed that my investments were not wasteful, even though I could have spent my time pursuing other professional endeavors. I was optimistic; diversity work has been billed among students, staff and faculty as the most legitimate way to help higher education realize its stated goals of equity. Diversity work was a moral imperative: to do nothing felt like giving up and resigning myself to persistent educational inequality. Yet despite all the patience that came with this optimism, I have finally run out.

Throughout my postsecondary career, much of my time has been dedicated to supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives. I volunteered this labor as if these institutions were entitled to my time. Very rarely was I asked to engage, because the assumption was that I would engage.

After experiencing years of slow progress, I came to see more clearly an immense gap between an institution’s intention for inclusion and their investment in it. This gap enabled the institution to benefit from my and other students’ free labor without being held accountable. I’ve reached the point where I can’t justify that exploitation. I’ve hit the diversity wall and am reclaiming my time and labor.

Diversity work requires a particular type of service: it asks us to put the institution first while rarely returning the favor, even for tenured faculty members. Not only is working on diversity negatively rewarded for women and/or people of color compared to white men, but graduate students are also in particularly precarious positions — as those from whom we demand change also hold immense power over our livelihoods and our career trajectories. Expecting graduate students to engage in the work that benefits the university — without compensation or accountability — is inherently exploitative. While graduate students are asked to operate according to a moral imperative with potentially high professional costs, the institution and department profit and get to set the bounds of change.

The national political climate puts an additional burden, and potential danger, on students doing diversity work. Given the 258 percent increase in white supremacist propaganda on campuses in the past year, those at the forefront of diversity efforts are targets for harassment or violence. Because institutions have not championed a systematic opposition to that growing white supremacist influence, the burden and responsibility of responding to these threats shifts to students. Students across the nation have mobilized in protest and created safety and healing communities for other students, all while institutions try to create the image of being the fair arbiter of peaceful, political discourse. As institutions manufacture and champion a false equivalence between white supremacy and antiracism, students and allied faculty members bear the consequences for taking a stance.

Our current social and political moment demands we either abandon piecemeal diversity entirely or refashion and ground it as a demand for racial, gender and economic civil rights. This demand would fundamentally alter how colleges and universities view themselves in society; rather than anointing the predetermined elite, they would be cultivating the best and brightest. Instead of relying on an ecosystem of exploiting minoritized students in the name of diversity work, institutions must see that the current political moment demands institutions take seriously how their existing political positions embody complicity and neutrality.

It’s time for students to actively ask whether your department or university has earned your time and commitment. There are thus far no systematic studies of the amount of service work that graduate students do. Yet if the trends seen at the faculty level — where femme-identifying faculty, faculty of color and the intersections therein do a disproportionate amount of service work — suggest anything, it is that these structural processes do not emerge at the faculty level but begin earlier in the pipeline. Whether 5 percent or 40 percent of graduate students are engaged in diversity work, the underlying labor structure enables institutions to leave students to lead the struggle until it is safe for the institution to take credit.

Given that diversity work never lived up to my expectations, I continued asking myself as a student, “How do I determine whether I invest in my department’s and university’s diversity work?” Neither of those entities is entitled to my time, especially since both of them tend to be powerfully invested in improving institutional rankings over actual quality. When I reframed the question of engagement, I realized that evaluating how a department or university treats its faculty of color and those of other minoritized backgrounds is indicative of its politics. While I previously saw negative treatment as a call to action, now I saw it more as the miner’s canary. If students and individual faculty members are the primary bulwarks against white supremacy on a campus, then the institution reveals its stance in this political moment.

Do I see the contributions of faculty members who identify from minoritized backgrounds being valued? What are the manifest politics that the faculty practice as it concerns the communities they are studying? Do I see research that has been historically and structurally excluded because of positivist epistemologies being centered and invested in? Do faculty members actively seek student input, and is this input then represented in department and university decisions?

Nowhere in my prior calculations did I ask these questions, or, equally as important, why individual students are called upon to fix institutional failures. As Ahmed explains, the diversity wall remains invisible to those who aren’t expected to do diversity work because they are aligned with the institution’s nebulous mission, and, as a result, free to distance themselves from diversity work. For me, realizing that I was confronting the wall while some of my peers would never even realize a wall existed was a turning point.

When I considered the history of diversity work in my respective units, I needed to divest. Did I see genuine efforts translate into substantive change over the years? Or I did see shallow, symbolic commitments that led to no change but plenty of rationalizations for why change is coming if we continue engaging? Did I see faculty members speaking their morals of justice into practice over time and challenging their unearned structural benefits, or did I see white moderates continuing to impede change? How do we even have conversations about when to start engaging when many of us get typecast as the “diversity student” from the moment faculty members tokenize our marginalization?

Such questions led me to consider what could happen if graduate students first demanded demonstrable progress before they ever engaged with any activities, particularly recruitment activities. And what couldhappen if faculty members had to take seriously the decades of scholarship on faculty of color and not leave this work to departmental staff and students? If students are bound by a moral imperative to do diversity work because the next generation should not have to continue to carry this burden, when do we stop pulling the institution forward and expect the institution to unambiguously lead?


Photo of Prabhdeep Kehal Prabhdeep Kehal (they/them) is a doctoral student in sociology at Brown University. Their research interests span racial theory, higher education and organizational theory in the tradition of Du Boisian sociology. An additional area of inquiry pertains to anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, and gender conformity within the Sikh and Sikh-American diaspora and how it manifests itself in advocacy. You can follow them on Twitter at @prabhbob.



This post originally appeared in Conditionally Accepted, a column of Inside Higher Ed, on February 23, 2018.

PhD candidate Jason A. Smith co-edits journal special section


International Journal of Communication
Publishes Special Section

Communication in Action: Bridging Research and Policy

What can communication scholarship offer policy?

Applied communication and policy work has a rich history in the field. However, scholarship and policy often run along different paths. In 2004, a group of department chairs and deans from communication studies programs around the country formed the Consortium on Media Policy Studies (COMPASS) for the purpose of building bridges between the academy and policy. Each summer, a group of PhD students are chosen as fellows and placed in Washington DC government and non-governmental organizations for a chance to work with policy practitioners. The placement affords fellows the opportunity to apply communication scholarship in policy settings and advance their own topical interests of study.

In this Special Section titled Communication in Action: Bridging Research and Policy, the importance that communication scholarship has on ongoing policy issues regarding media studies is demonstrated. Guest-edited by Jason A. Smith, Mark Lloyd, and Victor Pickard, this Special Section features 10 original commentaries that highlight recommendations, analyses, and insights made toward policy issues that are relevant to those both in academia and policy. This collection of work highlights the critical need for communication scholars to think beyond the purely academic space that their work applies to, and to find in-roads toward subjects that can speak to other audiences.

Authors for this special section include:

Douglas Allen, University of Pennsylvania

Cat Duffy, University of Southern California

Katherine Elder, University of Southern California

Michelle C. Forelle, University of Southern California

Brandon Golob, University of Southern California

Nicole Hentrich, University of Michigan

James Losey, Stockholm University, Sweden

Nathalie Maréchal, University of Southern California

Aalok Mehta, University of Southern California

Angeline Sangalang, University of Southern California


We invite you to read these papers that published October 15, 2015 at http://ijoc.org.

Larry Gross

Arlene Luck
Managing Editor