Profiling and Courage

New definitions of age and ethnicity for academia from an older-than-average student with kids of color.

April 27, 2014

By Robin Sacolick, Doctoral Student, Music Department 

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Robin studied and taught musicology for several years at the University of Arizona prior to coming to UCSC.
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Robin with her son—who still refuses to believe Santa Claus doesn't exist.

My school-aged son has a mind of his own. While he has been raised Jewish and Hindu, he refuses to accept my contention that there is no Santa Claus. He says “I don’t believe you,” no matter how many times I tell him.

On one hand, he’s setting a good example.  When I hear about disguised techniques of ageism in academic hiring, I need to have the courage not to believe them. Otherwise, I’ll just retire when I graduate, draw Social Security and become a burden on society--as have a number of smart, experienced friends who are no longer valued in the workplace. Yet, with brown school-aged kids, I do not fit any profile of ethnicity or age group: I need to work after graduation, and my blue eyes see the world as if they were brown. Thus, terms such as ethnicity and age need to be updated. For example, ethnicity is not entirely defined by color or place of origin—to some extent it is a function of experience and worldview.

Nor do I fit the profile of a new graduate student, having been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and training adults in large organizations for another twenty. Am I old—lots of experience, or young—only a grad student? Do these definitions hold? What assumptions might a professor make about me? How shall we define age?

I’m grateful for this blog opportunity to express some perspectives on why we all need to be ever vigilant of unconscious profiling due to outdated definitions, and to propose some new definitions and remedies. I’m also grateful for my Cota Robles fellowship, which is designed to support breadth in the pool of candidates to teach in California’s higher education system; and for my stellar dissertation committee’s understanding and assistance.

A few facts help to frame my perspectives.  Prior to UCSC, I studied and taught musicology for several years at the University of Arizona. When SB 1070 and a spate of related laws passed, my family returned to California: Even though it doesn’t fit the “Jewish-Hindu” profile, my kids are Latino.

While they are young, they are not dumb (to counter-paraphrase a current pop song.) They learned about profiling early. The following anecdote provides an analogy to how even unconscious profiling of age, ethnicity, etc. in higher education might impact students.

My kids used to hide when they saw police officers in Arizona—without prompting from parents. They had experienced profiling at school, and incidents such as the time we were stuck behind a truck at a Border Patrol station. The driver was being led away in handcuffs and the truck’s rear doors were open. We were facing directly into the contents, which were dozens of pairs of feet, stacked vertically and horizontally, all under a blanket. The kids believed me then, when I told them these were people who had just lost their life savings on this awful truck ride in hopes of getting work enabling them to send money back to their families, far away, who were impoverished due to NAFTA’s effects on family farms south of the border. Heart-breaking experiences like that taught my kids to hide from Arizona cops.

Police officers, border guards and universities share the attribute of power asymmetry with citizens, dreamers and students, respectively. How might grad students react around authority figures who made incorrect assumptions about their style, capabilities, experiences, motivations, responsibilities, etc.—especially if they came into school with backgrounds that led them to be wary? The answer recalls the Pygmalion Effect: vicious cycles of favoritism and success, or alternately of marginalization and fear. How might such students be encouraged to overcome their preconditioning? The establishment has the power.  If I think my teaching experience entitles me to stop learning from students or facilitating their success within their individualities, I become old as a teacher—no matter what my age.

Conversely, students, and my kids, also need to keep learning. If we stop at profiling incidents, we will go through life with the embittered sense that hiding is effective. We would be old before our time—stuck in an early model that no longer serves.

Thus, age is NOT best determined chronologically. It happens to some people very young, and to others, never. Age is a function of when we stop learning, and working hard. A recent Facebook post included a quote from the great cellist Pablo Casals. When he was asked at the age of 90 why he continued to practice cello, he said “Because I think I’m making progress.”

Fred Lieberman never got old. A Professor of Ethnomusicology, he was my dearest friend on the faculty. Our relationship included teacher-student and professor-TA, but also getting together with partners for concerts, discussing philosophy, working on independent research projects, and trading YouTube links. He sent me piano students, and I sent him jokes. Last year he died suddenly and tragically. This was intensely traumatic. He was in his seventies, yet his knowledge, zest for learning, and love of interacting with students as peers was legendary and vibrant right up to the end. Apparently because of his age, not all of the students in the classes for which I TA’d afforded him the respect due his vast expertise. This was the worst kind of ageism—the kind that marginalizes, demeans, and hurts. But these students were young and dumb, and knew neither what they were missing, nor the hurt they caused.

Nor, perhaps, do teachers who make assumptions about students without investigating. Last summer I almost failed a student at another college for an assignment on which I assumed he had cut corners. Then I took a class period to sit down individually with everyone. The students were mostly adults with jobs and families and I could not have pulled them into office hours outside of regularly scheduled class.  It turned out this student had a specific learning disability that had caused misunderstanding about the task. I was able to give him credit after all.

That example shows the advantages of investigating before judging—and brings to mind two suggestions for easily incorporating the needs of students with adult responsibilities:

1)flexibility/dependability of office hours (or at least relinquishing the assumption that lack of attendance means lack of interest or intellect on the part of adults); and

2)assignments scheduled well in advance.

When adult students are unable, due to responsibilities that produce schedule conflicts, to frequent office hours or to access reserve materials on short notice, it probably bothers them even more than their professors. It is not due to lack of interest, respect, or hard work. I like my classes, esteem my professors, and don’t mind working very hard with quick turnaround; that is how I have built my career.  On the other hand, if parents make the considerable efforts and expenditures sometimes required to attend office hours, it can be immensely frustrating if the professor does not attend.

Yet when I was a non-parental manager, it took me a long time to realize that parents who worked for me literally have all of their time booked, and must schedule well in advance. Moreover, grad students who move their families have to organize an intricate web of needs in order for the students’ partners to have work and for the children to have food on the table and peer groups. One result, for me, has been living in San Jose rather than on campus. I would have loved not to have to make the drive, but it was not an option. However, I earned two master’s degrees at California universities while making equivalent drives. It was not academically problematic, as long as things could be scheduled in advance. Nor is commuting an onus for those who work for pay; they are paid to do it, and companies’ HR departments are aware of parental needs.

Having trained as an educator, I’ve tried to reverse the Pygmalion Effect of not being a student who is in town for frequent extracurricular work and casual office visits. For example, I have presented at eight conferences; been accepted into three peer-reviewed publications; and been accepted into in an interdisciplinary UC studio—all of these, of course, scheduled adequately enough in advance to be able to strategize child care, etc. It helps to know about Pygmalion.

However, another student might need more special consideration.  For example, I once decided to request a grade change for a student who handed in an assignment after grades were posted. The student did good work, but upon investigation I learned that she came from a culture that had required her presence out of state when the paper was due. I’ve never regretted that decision.

With new definitions and proactive investigations of students' abilities, motives and circumstances to refine understandings of categories such as ethnicity and age, teachers are better equipped to support the diversity of a student body. Just as cultural sharing enriches society and learning, so does generational sharing. Of course, the Supreme Court cares little about this, but we as individuals still may make the choice to do so.

Moreover, encouragement of students of all ages supports post-graduation placement statistics—and equal employment opportunity for those who are chronologically older-than-average helps everyone economically. A lot of boomers are able, and need, to work-- but deemed “overqualified” or less-flattering stereotypes. Yet, if societies and hiring institutions do not value our experience, abilities and skills, they will still, one way or another, have to support us--the skilled, able and experienced. Social Security and unemployment (SUI) cost all workers money. In addition, if they dry up due to overuse because of lack of jobs for boomers, the burden of supporting the structurally (but not literally) unemployable will still fall upon future generations, in the form of direct support. Whereas younger applicants might be able to re-train and enter the workforce, no amount of retraining will alleviate ageism in hiring, because ageism is not about ability.

Nobody wins if ageism persists. However, if older-than-average applicants have equal opportunity at the hiring desk, they continue to contribute to public coffers, and everyone wins.

So, then why do we include dates on CV’s and resumes?! “Race,” “creed,” “weight” and “gender preference” are not common data points; however, dates of employment and degrees are--making age discrimination ridiculously easy. What such dates communicated about a candidate in the last millennium no longer signify the same attributes. And they do not tell a person’s age, defined as “willingness to keep learning and ability to work hard!” So inclusion of dates on preliminary screenings should be outlawed, or at least considered as politically incorrect as inclusion of other demographics.

The choices are win-win, or lose-lose. Like my son, who believes Santa is still out there somewhere, giving treats to all good children, equally, I believe an academic job is still out there somewhere, available to all qualified applicants of any age, equally.