Thursday, April 25, 2013

"How is your research relevant to the US?" The taken-for-granted assumptions of Whiteness

Rotin, a student from a moffusil town of Bengal, once came to work with me as a student.

He wanted to make change in the world, make a real difference in the rural Bengal that he had seen around him growing up.

Growing up in moffusil Bengal, he had seen a lot of poverty all around him. He had grown up amidst the poverty.

He wanted to earn a PhD because he wanted to make a difference in the world.

He felt that learning the tools of communication would equip him with the tools that he needed to work on grassroots change.

He didn't talk much, usually just smiled at me when I pushed him to work harder or become more confident in his ways.

When I shared with him my journeys of fighting back and shared why I felt he needed to express his convictions boldly, he just smiled back at me. I wanted him to share the anger that we experienced as academics of color in an academe so ensconced in its expectations of Whiteness.

And Rotin just smiled in silence.

In his silence, I saw the conviction of carrying out the work that he was here to do.

In the years we shared together as an advisor and advisee, I learnt so much from the ways of his silence.

From the many trips that he made back to India, working on projects, building infrastructures, working alongside communities. I learned about the quite conviction of silence.

He did the things that I armchaired about.

He built medicine supplies, developed hospital infrastructures, figured out  ways to protect local trees with medicinal powers, working hand-in-hand with communities that have been exploited historically and in the contemporary politics of modern India.

I felt very proud of Rotin, at the thought that I had the privilege of advising him.

When Rotin was preparing for the job market, I felt confident about the work he did.

But what about how he would express himself? Would he communicate with conviction and the certain degree of certainty that seems so necessary for survival in US academe?

Would he be able to secure a job that enabled him to do the work that he was already doing? making a difference in the landscape of rural Bengal?

When preparing for his job talk, Rotin thought it would serve him well to do a practice job talk, and he openly invited a number of faculty to his talk.

As is most often the case, the amount of wonderful feedback he received from his Professors helped him polish his presentation, think through the organizing of his presentation, and craft carefully the arguments he would present.

But one feedback stayed with him. A faculty member noted in the talk, "How is your work relevant to the US? You will not get a job here with this."

This shook Rotin.

Over the weekend when we chatted, he shared with me his experience and told me that he felt very uncertain now about the value of his work.

At first, I was angry with him. I was angry that he invited this faculty member and did not ask me. In my desire to protect him, I shared with him that I could predict that this would be the kind of feedback if he invited this specific faculty member to his talk.

I shared that I wish he took my advise before setting this up because I would not let him subject himself to abuse in the hands of White ignorance!

And then I spent time talking to him about the value of his work, about how much we all have to learn from what he did, about how much he has taught me.

Over the months, as Rotin and I worked through his talk, I remember the main issue we worked on was getting him to talk more about the work he did.

In his humility, he did not want to talk much about the work he did. He felt that the work would show through by itself.

In those conversations, I learned from him again, about the power of humility and silence, where works carry on their value in simply being what they are, transformative projects of social change and social justice.

And like many things I learned from Rotin, I also sit back now and think, the experience in the practice interview was perhaps meant to be.

It was perhaps meant to be as a reference point for the racism of Whiteness that remains hidden in its assumptions and yet becomes visible in its ugly insistence that our research be relevant to the US.

The experience sheds light on the biases that are inherent in notions of relevance when a White American mainstream which constitutes most of the communication discipline judges the artifacts of research on the principles of relevance, albeit mired in the inherent assumptions of Whiteness.

The experience also makes me reflect on my participation in the same form of violence when I insist as a Department Head of a Communication Department in Asia that my faculty colleagues publish at least some of their work in mainstream communication journals because these journals are the ones that are recognized by metrics of quality (impact factor, h-index, so on and so forth).

What I do now with this reflection and how I work through it, how I mentor my junior colleagues, how I mentor my advisees are the challenges that lie ahead of me and my academic journey.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied
on the video to make your point. You clearly know what youre talking
about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving
us something enlightening to read?

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