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

Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Ugly Buildings Kills Ideas

It is big, squat and ugly. I am talking about the building that shelters my academic department. It is twelve floors of Brutalist architecture that is more like a fortress than a place for producing knowledge. The concrete and brick entrance is as pretty and inviting as a dungeon.

Entering the building does not put me in the mood to study – I am more tempted to turn right around and go back home. I will get to know this building well as I have four years of a PhD ahead of me. The lecturers, the seminars and meetings will all take place in this drab colossus.

Zaha Hadid where are you when we need architecture that is memorable and a feast for the eyes? I love the fluid curves of your Heydar Aliyev Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House. Oh, I just remembered – you are dead.

I quickly pass through the ground floor of the building, busy with students lining up to buy tea in the café, or chatting in loud groups on the fake leather black sofas. The students look so young. Many more people mill around the bank of elevators waiting for them to arrive. There are eight elevators, but they never seems enough for the fidgeting crowds.

Most days I head for the lounge on the twelfth floor.  What a difference a view makes. The lounge has glass walls on three sides and is flooded with natural light. Looking outside I get a bird’s eye view of Toronto. What strikes me is how green the city is – trees line the grid pattern of streets in every direction.

Psychology studies show that a natural view is not just pretty, it calms the mind and encourages focus. Living walls are the latest trend in office architecture – a wall of real plants changes the energy in a space for the better. The lounge has the next best thing – a view of the thousands of trees in the city.

Half of the lounge has high desks, with hard chairs arranged in strict rows. They are filled with students glued to their laptop screens, most with headphones on. Their message is clear – serious people are at work, do not disturb. I wonder how many are watching porn as they work.

The straight line furniture is too modern, too industrial and too cold for my taste. Psychology backs this up too – straight edges are less appealing. Straight lines in a windowless room are deadly for the soul; therefore, I refuse to get a student office. I had a meeting in one of these rooms; it had as much personality as a prison cell.

The seats at the opposite end of the lounge encourage lounging. The furniture is full of curves and arranged in semi-circles. The seats are soft and covered in fabric. The walls, carpets and furniture are all in shades of blue, grey and cream. These colours are relaxing and trigger creativity.

Plopping down, I look out the window and watch the clouds skipping in the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun. The CN Tower shimmers in the distance. Behind it Lake Ontario fades from cobalt blue to grey as it meets the horizon. Over the next two hours I constantly glance at the view. It encourages me to study.

When I am comfortable at home – a cup of tea handy, a treat of fresh dates on plate and jazz on the radio – and don’t want to go into that ugly university fortress, I remember the view from the twelfth floor window. Its open expanse of sky, trees and horizon, is enough to get me to go there.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

“What on earth am I doing here? I don’t understand a word of what they are saying.” The thoughts hammered in my head as I looked around the room. Everyone looked younger and smarter than me.

I chose my seat well – the one in the corner, close to the exit, at the back of the room. My confidence was as high as my toenails – and I had forgotten to paint them.

The speakers spoke without notes. I heard them talk of the wonderful opportunities in the department, the encouragement to discuss ideas and to be part of an academic community.

I sat with my arms folded trying to follow them. My head throbbed. I must have made a mistake. My wonderful research idea seemed rather silly now as I could not follow the speakers’ words.

“Why on earth did I want to go back to school at mid-life?” Other things were an easier way out of my mid-life crisis – skydiving; anonymous sex, lots of it; volunteering at the dog shelter. But I had tried none of those. Instead I chose to study for a PhD.

Professor this and professor that gave speeches. I recognized some of the names – they wrote the articles and books that I read and cited in my application. I never expected to meet them in the flesh. My confidence toppled to the floor – I could not think of a single question to ask them.

One professor asked about my thesis. She stopped me half way through saying she remembered the application and was glad to see that I had made it through. I thanked her, she was just being kind I thought.

The other students tried to reassure me that I was in the right place and would soon pick up the lingo. It seemed easier to learn Sanskrit, Ancient Greek or Cree. I slunk out of the room.

The imposter syndrome is quite common among first year PhD students, I later learned. We are used to being seen as egg-heads, geeks or nerds, but now we feel like fakes – seemingly smart on the outside, but stupid inside.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London