Primer on Checking Your Academic Privilege

As I am a sociologist of inequality, the recent discussion of the privileged slate of keynotes at the upcoming ESS 2018 meeting caught my attention. Here, delivered somewhat in the style of Emily Post but derived from my own observations and experiences, is a brief primer on checking your elite privilege.

SCENARIO 1: You are faculty at Ivy U, and it’s the first organizing meeting of your research workshop. You look around the table at your colleagues and grad students.

You ask the assembled group, “Who should we invite this year?” People suggest names of friends and colleagues from other elite institutions (e.g. “I think Professor EveryoneKnows at OtherIvy U is working on something new, I could ask him”) and the list is made.
In advance, you send an email to workshop attendees. It reads, “For our planning meeting, please bring in the names of at least 3 scholars who are doing interesting, innovative work and prepare a couple of sentences about why their work will be of interest to this workshop. We are going to invite a balanced slate of visitors this year – balanced on the basis of rank, gender, race and institutional standing – so make sure that your list reflects this diversity.”

SCENARIO 2: You receive a request to blurb a book/review a proposal or manuscript/write a tenure letter/consider an employment application from someone you have never met/whose work you’ve never read/who comes from an institution that is not in your network.

You decline because, “If I haven’t heard of them, they must not be any good” or “If they were doing good work, they wouldn’t be in that department.”
Apply some of your service to breaking down the caste-barriers in sociology. You can do this by reading the work of people outside your network, citing it, and including those scholars in your by-invitation-only events. You could even hire outside your network. Your departmental rankings can probably withstand an occasional out-of-caste hire.

SCENARIO 3: You would like to include faculty from non-elite institutions, but it never works out because, let’s face it, they just don’t have the publication record or the public profile that designates them as leaders of the discipline. Often they can’t make it to campus and, when they do, it’s hard because their academic experiences, concerns, goals, vocabularies, and frameworks can be so different. And, anyway, WTF? What you do is hard work and life at an elite institution isn’t just cupcakes and puppies. You deserve your accolades.

Just stick to your network. When you need a change of scene, signal to your pals at OtherIvy U that you’d be happy to move to their faculty.
Acknowledge that grad students and faculty at elite departments benefit from a host of advantages and your personal achievements aren’t attributable to your hard work alone. Your success is enabled by institutional funding (e.g. faculty development funds), time and resources devoted to research (advantageous teaching loads, funded graduate student assistants), and institutional resources (library access to most recent issues of sociological journals, faculty support services). However, you also benefit from symbolic privileges – a priori recognition as someone whose work matters and must be funded, published, read and cited, and presented in keynote addresses at conferences; and placement in the position of gatekeeper in the discipline and in your subdiscipline. You could use that power to create greater equality in the social world – and you could do that work in your disciplinary home.
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One Response to Primer on Checking Your Academic Privilege

  1. Lochan Gurung says:

    An idealist thought and you are not the only one… best of luck

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