Who Do You Cite?

What’s citation got to do with politics, race and creating knowledge? I assumed that one simply cited the writers who were important to the essay one was trying to write. When your work is cited it means your knowledge is legitimate and valued. You have joined the academy. The more people who cite your work the higher the value of the work.

Before drafting an essay you do a literature review. That is look up who has written on the topic, what claims they made and how your views are similar or different. The essay’s bibliography shows that you have done the necessary slogging through the books and journals. You have acknowledged and paid your dues to the other thinkers in the field.

Creating knowledge, like every other human activity, is not neutral. Citations reflects who has the power in academia. That power is hidden behind claims that citation is simply showing the experts on the topic. The long list of references in an essay and in the bibliography creates the canon of the field. It encapsulates the writers who are the most influential. It is remarkable that those experts are still mainly white men and white women.

What happens when other experts are left out of the citations? It is a good indication that their knowledge creation is not valued. This leads to some interesting questions.  What do we mean by knowledge, how is it created, and who decides which knowledge is valuable and which is not?

Here, I am more interested in the third question. I am not a philosopher, just prone to philosophizing.

A few decades ago, not many women were cited in academic journals. The feminist movement upset the academic old white boys’ club by insisting that women’s experience, values and ways of knowing were legitimate sources of knowledge. The number of female thinkers cited shot up like a rocket. However, the space was unequally allocated. Black women were left behind or shoved off the rocket. In the world of citing women, it is white women (dead or alive) who dominate the references and bibliographies.

How can knowledge creation be neutral when it mirrors the racial and gender hierarchy in society?

As a PhD student I am being trained to create new knowledge. One day my research may be published in books and journals, and quoted in newspapers. Or, it could be completely ignored, buried in dusty academic journals that few read. Who will cite my work?

Citations are powerful. I am now using them intentionally now to make space for Black academics and their expertise. Nelson Mandela once said ‘if you want to change the world, you must first change yourself.’ I am doing so by challenging the white-bias-but-passing-for-neutral citation status quo. That means finding, reading, quoting and citing the long and rich tradition of Black intellectual thought.

Black History Walks Toronto

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Black Thinkers Matter, Too

I have worked at two academic journals as an editorial assistant. This has given me some insider knowledge on how the process works. Journals are written by and for academics. It is rare that their contents hit the newspapers or create a storm of protest on Twitter and Facebook.

Two journals managed to do that in the last decade. And both journals were forced to give a public apology for their ‘oversight.’ In 2017 the Journal of Political Philosophy published a special issue on Black Lives Matter. Without a single article by a Black academic. About decade earlier, in 2006, PMLA, Journal of Modern Language Association also published a special issue. It was on “Feminist criticism today: In memory Nellie McKay.” McKay was African American. There were no Black authors in the issue.

How was the ‘oversight’ possible in both journals, given the long and extensive process of planning ordinary and special issues?

Journals are the foundations of creating, curating and distributing academic knowledge. They are inherently conservative in outlook. A journal’s editorial board functions as its gatekeeper. It decides the theme of each issue. Oftentimes this is publicized in a call for papers, other times a select group of authors are invited to write for the journal. Once an article is submitted, the editorial board does an internal review of it. If the essay is seen to have merit, the editorial team then decides who to ask to do the peer review.

Like the editorial board, the peer review board is made up of fellow academics who are experts in the knowledge field covered by the journal. Typically an essay is critiqued and assessed by four people from the peer review board. They recommend whether to accept or reject the essay for publication.

As you can see from this brief overview, a journal’s editorial process is long. It can take a year or more from submitting an article to hearing back if it will be published or not in the journal. Most times parts of the essay may have to be re-written to reflect the feedback from the editorial and peer review boards. The essay is then reviewed again. Special issues of the journals are planned up to two years in advance.

So how was it possible for the journals to publish special issues on Black lives all of which were written by non-Black writers? To me their ‘oversight’ is a good example of hegemonic whiteness in action.

This mean the journals’ editorial boards equals a group of white men and white women around the table. They send the articles for review to another group of white men and white women on the peer review boards. Both boards function as guardians in two respects. First, they are guardians for whiteness.  Second, they are keepers of the field of knowledge.

The guardians ensure that whiteness is the default for entry through the journals’ gates. It’s as if they wear special glasses that enables them to see only in shades of white. Black authors become invisible at the gate as they cannot meet the basic criteria for entry. What they have to contribute to the journals’ area of knowledge becomes irrelevant if they can’t even be seen.

Dr. Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, he pointed out it had published an article on race or by a Black writer in the past five years. Race is at the heart of politics in the USA, yet a political journal systematically failed/refused to cover it. The journal can only have its head stuck way up in its own arse.

Protests forced both journals to plan special issues that include Black thinkers. In my view, this sop is defensive and rather tokenistic. One time entry into the journal means the white blinkers will be put back on, once the fuss fades. It does not challenge the centrality of whiteness embedded in the core of the journals.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Pictures and the Stories They Tell

The pictures on the walls tells a story. In my department portraits lined the long hallway leading to the busy student lounge. All were large, about half the size of a poster. Most were black and white photographs, with a few in colour, and a couple of oil paintings.

The pictures were of the deans of the department. It commemorated and celebrated their hard work in starting and maintaining such a prestigious department. No doubt it massaged their egos as well.

The people usually smiled in their portraits. Yet, I never felt the warmth implicit in their expressions. You see all the pictures were of white men. And of one white woman. Walking the gauntlet of their faces I always felt cold.pictures and the stories they tell 2

The students in my faculty reflect the multicultural reality of Toronto. So half of them are Indigenous, Black or other people of colour. None of us were reflected in the large pictures on the wall.

The pictures were a cultural dissonance in the department. In all our classes we address the core foundations of critical studies. That is we read, talk and write about how gender, race, and class, shape our worlds. Yet, each time we trekked to the popular lounge it was along a wall lined with mostly dead white men. The art collection clearly illustrated who had the power, and who mattered.

The picture were changed over the summer. On my first trek up to the lounge this term colour bubbled from the staid walls. They were filled with landscape paintings by Indigenous artists. I liked the colours, the nature scenes and the play of mythical characters.

Students paused to look at the pictures. They commented on which was their favourite and what was the meaning of the characters. People noticed.

The previous art collection memorialized and celebrated the dominance of white people in Canada. The new collection is a reminder that the country is an ancient land. It had a long past before European colonization. The new pictures show that it has a new future – one based on acknowledging the true owners of the country.pictures and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon

Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.

Older Academics: Get on Twitter to Boost your Career

It seemed like a great idea. Tweet all the academics featured in the journal, with a link to their article. It was a neat way of promoting the journal and the writers in one easy step. As the editorial assistant on the journal – student job to fund the PhD – I was adding value and not just sitting there staring at a screen all day.

It didn’t work.

My great idea sank after the third tweet. I found out that many of the academics were not Twitter. At first I thought it was just the ones featured in a Canadian journal of cultural studies. Maybe it was our usual reticence about promoting oneself. It turned out that age was the issue.

Academics under 40 used Twitter. Academics over 40 years of age did not.

The younger crowd grew up with social media. They made and consumed millions of posts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Social media was as familiar to them as the pimples on their faces.

The older crowd of academics are familiar with the wrinkles on their faces, but do not know how or appreciate the value of sharing them on social media. They are missing a great opportunity for promoting themselves and their work.

Especially for middling academics – the majority of us – who now realise that their cutting edge research has generated little change but has caused plenty of paper cuts.

Using social media is one way of creating a tiny, perfect universe of followers who are interested in the academic’s ideas. It’s better than the global shrug of indifference.

So here are the benefits of using Twitter:

1. Promote Yourself. And the vitally important work you are doing – even if that importance is just in your own mind. A tweet can connect you to others interested in the same area.

2. Find Friends and Allies. Twitter is an efficient way of finding others who are interested in your area of work. It increases the possibility of collaboration on research projects or conference presentations. Your Twitter followers can give you feedback on work in progress.

3. Spy on the Competition. Conversations on Twitter are fast and fleeting. It is a great way of checking out what your competitors are doing, thinking or writing about. Savour that feeling of realizing that you have more followers than your rivals.

4. Cross Boundaries. Academics are forced to focus on a narrow area if they want to be successful. With Twitter those boundaries can be crossed by using and following hashtags that appeal to a wide range of users. For example, #RaceAndSpace tweets are from academics in social justice, geography, outdoors recreation and conservation.

5. Follow the News in your Field. I use Twitter to find out about the latest jobs, conferences, calls for papers and funding opportunities. These are announced long before they reach print publication or get buried on specialist websites.

6. Boost Book Sales. Use Twitter to promote your old and new books. A weekly tweet with a link to the books will do wonders of the sales. Or at least raise awareness that your books are out there, waiting to be read.

7. Gossips and Scandals. Who got fired and why? Who is being sued? How did the university handle/cover that up? Twitter is fantastic for showing the hidden side of academia and what people really think about the hot potato issues of the day. You can join in the conversations or just listen to them. Either way it is riveting.

Twitter is the electronic equivalent of the chats around the office water cooler. We know that the best conversations often happen there.

So older academics, get over your fear or condescension about social media. Get on Twitter. It takes about a minute to set up an account. Do so and start tweeting. Let the world know about you and the vitally important work you are doing.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Hate, Freedom and Academic Crowdfunding

In my mind academics don’t do crowdfunding. They think. They lecture. They write. Academics don’t beg. At least not in public.

Crowdfunding is the latest spin on an old idea – use other people’s money to fund your dream research, inventions or business ideas. In the old days artists depended on patrons – a fat lord of the manor, a duchess with a social conscience or a scheming archbishop – to supply their projects. These days they turn to the internet.

The technology has made it easier to match money seekers with money givers. And it has blurred the lines between begging and investing.

The three most popular crowdfunding sites are Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon. Each caters to a different market. Kickstarter is best for entrepreneurs with a business idea. Indiegogo is for people, especially artists, looking to fund a particular project. Patreon is geared towards creative types looking for long term patronage.

Some academics have climbed out of their ivory towers and entered the world of crowdfunding. When research grants are hard to get, crowdfunding can fill the gap.

Ask Jordan Peterson.

This University of Toronto professor has raised a staggering $61,000 per month on Patreon. That is over half a million a year. His goal is to reach a million dollars a year. Peterson is using the money to fund his research against the use of transgender pronouns and political correctness on campus. In other words why social justice, sexuality studies and feminism are an attack on white people, specifically straight white men.

So far Peterson has 5,500 people donating to his research. His biggest backers are those longing for the days of empire and white Christian supremacy. Under the guise of freedom of speech, they want the freedom to attack anyone – especially Black and other people of colour – who don’t agree with their view.

Jordan Peterson is white privilege in action.

I have launched my own Patreon site. On the other side of my life I write adventure stories about travelling while Black. It’s probably the kind of thing that would make Jordan Peterson twitch. It takes time and money to do the research and to travel for the adventures. My PhD scholarship does not stretch that far. How many patrons will fund me? Will you be the first?

Patrons will get recognition. The dedication page of my new book will record the names of all the generous souls who donated for a year of more. They are investing in the success of a student and a Black travel writer.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London