Cover Image: Decolonizing Academia

Decolonizing Academia

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As a person raised in a colony, Rodriguez is preaching to the choir when it comes to decolonizing academia. It is my hope that as "minorities" become the majority, academia will evolve to more accurately reflect the student population.
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Rodriguez is a powerful writer who transforms her essays and nonfiction prose into poetry. What does it mean to decolonize? How do we go about this? First and foremost, this is not something we can define as white people. Academia is inherently a colonial institution. In social justice communities, it's often en vogue to say we're going to "decolonize" something without following the leadership of Indigenous, Black, and Latinx people. We think curating syllabi to be conscious of our oppression of others is enough, but it isn't. We often lack the self awareness and consciousness of how our syllabi, simply as a matter of existing, creates a colonial structure and power dynamic within an academic setting. Rodriguez carefully illustrates the micro- and macro-aggressive ways white people and others play into the system in seemingly innocuous ways that results in oppression, othering, and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. I am a white woman and don't want to mischaracterize the themes in this book as it's not my lived experience, but please go read this if you're in academia or tangential to it. We are often unaware of the gravity and power that we have in the classroom and academic fields, and Rodriguez holds up a necessary mirror to whiteness and colonialism.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Fernwood Publishing for giving me this ebook in exchange for an honest review. 

I am very interested in how academia has been colonized by Euro-centric thought, standards, hiring practices, structure and more, but unfortunately Rodríguez does not explain any of these issues on a macro level with any research or investigation. Instead she focuses on her first-hand experiences. Even that would have been an interesting and illuminating read had it not been in a style unsuited for this type of narrative. 

Rodríguez’s prose was more akin to poetry and the book would have been better as a longform poetic journey through colonized academia and the pain that walks hand in hand. The author has important experiences that all academics can and should learn from, but the book comes off as more of an extended diatribe than it does someone in search of tangible change. 

One point she makes with which I agree wholeheartedly is that “we are not having the difficult conversations [in universities] because it is simply not convenient.” Academia purports to be about learning when it is often just a conveyor belt in a diploma factory. 

However, I disagree that people cannot and should not write about things they have not directly experienced. If that is the standard we are using for investigative knowledge, we are resigning ourselves to ignorance. There is a place for anger in academia. For radicalism. For rage. But making this declaration is dangerous. 

I hope Rodríguez writes more about her experiences in academia as a push toward change. In the future, I would be interested in reading something more suited to her stream of consciousness style.
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I had gone in expecting a more formal work & was instead surprised by kind of memoir or work of creative nonfiction doing a deep dive into the emotional and psychological state of one attempting to decolonize higher education from the inside. It's an impassioned book never shying away from making the reader (most especially white readers) uncomfortable. However, Rodriguez fills the space of someone who demands more from our academy, who sincerely wants rigor across all fields for all persons. There's a touch of bell hooks in this kind of work.
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Why are the humanities failing humans? This is the core question that is being asked throughout the essay. I do not agree with most of the reviewers. I think this book touches something very important and I hope this is the first of many more to come! This essay is very useful for any discipline that exercises field work. I had a lot of fun while reading it. The style of the book is the perfect mixture between experimental Latin American literature (magical realism) and contemporary or prospective human sciences. However, I would love to see the cover re-edited since it does not do the content of the book any justice. 

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, the author, Clelia O. Rodriguez, and the publisher, Fernwood Publishing, for this opportunity.

#DecolonizingAcademia #NetGalley
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I read this book with an open mind, having read the previous book reviews by other readers. However, had my cautiousness confirmed. There has been a relatively new awareness on the need to decolonize the way we structure systems in our post-colonial world. Academia is admittedly incredibly eurocentric, where tenured, and positions where academics have power are often controlled by white, old, males. Rodriguez does a great job addressing this in the first chapter, however, in chapter 2, there was a massive repetitions of a single word, like "homehomehomehomehomehomehome". Initially, I assumed this was a printing error, however found out it was a stylistic choice. It turned tiring and annoying - quick.

Most of the problems I had with this book was the style. Although, issues on racisms cannot be quantified or be provided statistics and racism in academia may be relatively a new field - Rodriguez does not do a good job in providing me with the language and tools to combat these issues in academic spaces. It felt more like a rambling stream of consciousness that managed to get published in a book. 

Reading this book felt, tiresome and I wanted to get done with it as quickly as possible.
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This is a vitally important topic, and I was looking forward to reading a book that might persuade my college students to think critically about the power structures in academia-- structures that might escape their notice without their being asked to attend to them. 

Regrettably the author spends no time clearly delineating the problems she and other POC face in academia. No verifiable facts that would help the reader feel the magnitude of those problems are offered, and her anecdotal evidence/personal experiences are delivered in prose so purple it's embarrassing at times. Sometimes she has an arresting sentence, or a wonderfully vivid account (I liked the passages about her grandfather), but mostly her prose alienates where it should be drawing readers in.
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At no point in this rambling stream-of-consciousness rant did the author deliver a cogent thought. Many times one word, say, “bystanding” or “struggle,” was just repeated over and over to fill a page. Even little kids know not to waste their reader’s time with such obvious junk. The author delivers personal anecdotes as evidence, but no actual statistics or facts. I went to 2 universities in my academic career, and both had a myriad of minority professors, as well as such high political correctness standards that no such instances of flagrant racism would be tolerated. And this was over 10 years ago. I’m not saying her experience didn’t happen, I’m just saying personal anecdotes are meaningless in trying to persuade anyone of your case.
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This book brings up a lot of really important questions that academics in the West, who conceive of themselves as self-aware about themselves and their place in the world, need to confront rather than hide from. Some of the threads the author tries to bring up include:

1. How academia functions by fitting the diverse voices and cultures into certain theoretical frameworks, and expects its students, even those from those cultures, to speak about their experiences on its terms. There's also very little thought about how the methods of academia might disrupt local traditions and cultures by their very application (ie., through constantly having groups of students fly out to meet and talk to locals)

"At what point do scholars [stop] consuming knowledge through readings as if that was their entrance to worlds and ideas that are not meant to be explained but lived and felt? Will there ever be a phrase, a word, a sound, a passage, a dream or a nightmare that will make some people [stop]?"

2. How the countries where people of colour (POC) go to study often are those that colonized their countries and played roles in the devastation of countries of origin, complicating the relationship between these students and their new "homes". For example, the author speaking about the plane that bombed her hometown says

"The first written text [my grandfather] handed to me came from the belly of a Douglas AC-47 Spooky as it flew over our homes, nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” as I learned later on in life, manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California."

3. The systematic discrimination of non-white, non-male academics even in disciplines which ostensibly set out to challenge existing power. 

"Decolonizing in action means that if you are a white person claiming to be teaching and researching in decolonizing practices, stop lining up to speak at conferences about injustice and start demanding change so POC can take up the space it has been denied to them. You do not get to speak about our pain, claiming authorship over what we go through and getting away with it."

This can include not giving (enough) credit, not paying enough attention, disrespect, hiring bias, a difference if respect, etc.

"1:00pm I get an email from a friend who tells me I should consider applying to a job that seems like the perfect fit: “The Department of Humanities of XYZ prestigious university seeks for an expert in transnational and comparative perspectives of literatures from the Global South. We are particularly interested in scholars who can implement a rigorous research agenda using an intersectional approach to notions of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and why not? Caste. Our department is committed to encouraging minorities to apply, particularly women of colour.” 

365 days later “The Department of Humanities of XYZ prestigious welcomes our new heterosexual and Eurocentric professor, from England, whose research specializes in literatures from the Global South. He spent a summer in India, three weeks in Bolivia and participated in a summer study abroad program in Guatemala building a school. We are very privileged that he can join us.”"

I think all of these are really important questions, but unfortunately this book wasn't effective in talking about them because it chooses pretty strange styles to express itself. In the start especially, the author chooses to use sentences which are "artistic" to the point of opacity. Here are two examples that seem to me at least to sacrifice clarity, and hence power, for aesthetic(?)"

"You want to know about me until your smells poison your senses from the enduring ghosts of centuries of slavery, domestication, subjugation, subordination, dependency, and servitude."

"Math is the universal language and so is pain. Trying to find the medium to project the essence of violence is like finding a grain of sugar in the Namib Desert. So when my colonized brown body experiences academic practices under the banner of “decolonizing” I am being colonized once again."

"Be UNapologetically political. The dreams of our ancestors are the rays of sun feeding you through the vertebral column. There is no place or space in academia for earthy skin tones. Invent them both: splace."

"Splace"? Really? I don't see why this is supposed to be a fruitful invention for what she's trying to do here.

In chapter 2, I don't know if it's a printing error or a stylistic choice, but on every page, there are massive continuous repetitions of a single word for whole paragraphs, and while I thought the first time (for "south") it was powerful and innovative, it got gimmicky and annoying fast. 

(There are also a massive amount of spelling errors, which really take away from the book's readability and force, but I assume these will get corrected by a copy-editor at some point)

As for the analysis itself, a major issue is that she assumes that all the problems she talks about are linked. While this might certainly be true for her experientially (in the sense that she encounters all of them seamlessly), they are still distinct issues, and it might be valuable to distinguish between them. For example, when she says:

"At conferences, I was acknowledged if I had a tag with the name of the institution and ignored when I removed it. In class, I was acknowledged if I spoke English properly and rapidly ignored if I brought the accent to the table. In job academic interviews, I was acknowledged if I was accompanied by a popular academic who everyone wanted to network with but dismissed if I was with a non-tenure POC professor."

This seems to run together quite different issues because a caste system where tenured professors from top-ranked universities on top isn't necessarily racist, while systematic racism might exist (even if exacerbated by) within this caste system. Not making these distinctions makes the analysis weaker, even if they are more felicitous with regard to how she felt.

But that brings me to my biggest concern, which is that there are actually two different questions here. The first is about surviving academia as a poc, and the second is about how the systematic evils in academia (reflecting society's evils more generally) can be undone, and it isn't at all clear whether the answers to one will be the same as the answers to the other. In principle, anyway, we can see that the strategies for individual survival might not be the same as those that would end systematic bias or rethink research. 

So while I have no doubt that the author is an expert on the first, that is, on how poc academics can survive, on the second she doesn't really offer much. Sure, she says things like "Thank you to peasants everywhere for laboring the land as their backs salutes the sun daily. Their printed DNA on the food they encounter is never taken for granted in my table." and "Grandmothers are always right", and about solidarity and listening, but why would this change the situation or methods in any way that's not superficial? In any way that the average white "woke" academic cannot? And what way does she see out of the situation where any work by academics disturbs local culture? How can any institution that aims at generality like the academy not rely on frameworks? These are the hard questions, and as far as I can see instead of even attempting answers at them, we get a lot of navel gazing about how much pain the author feels. I'm sympathetic, but this is an evasion of everything complex here.

But it has to be admitted, there are moments when the author puts aside artifice, and talks straightforwardly about her pain, about how it is to be marginalized in these institutions, and at those moments, the book is breathtaking.

When she talks about how her family back home was and remains so proud and hopeful for her, and she's just a temporary instructor with no real path out, it's so powerful:

"Mujer sin Apellido de la Divina Gracia is the first woman from the village to make it in the U.S.A. She was born in the fabricated dreamy land of Elvis Presley, Madonna, sneakers, jeans, and highways. No one in her family had been where white people go to school. Her teachers always told her parents she was special. Her mother would imagine her daughter wearing an expensive suite, like the ones from catalogues. She was destined to be the family’s salvation. 

“Mija, we are so proud of your accomplishments. We’re so happy you don’t have to work as hard as we had to. I have been enslaved emotionally worried about your professional freedom. Our impaired lives working like burros pierced our initial dreams when we tried falling asleep on the train coming home every\day. We knew from the moment you got an award in grade one your future in this country will be secured. Every\body in town talks about you, mija linda. You’ve made it. One thousand sacrifices later, you’re a university professor. I bet you have a nice office, corazón, with lots and lots of books. Your boss must know how essential you are to students. We know you can’t help us yet because you’re saving for your pedazo de tierra. You know, we had this plan since you were born. We worked hard so that our hija could excel in the land of opportunities. Ay, mija, at least someone is putting the name of the familia so high. Your aunties can’t stop talking about you during las fiestas. I tell them you’re a very important person. I have faith you will save us from this misery one day.”"

And when she writes to other poc considering academia, her advise seem sound and so laced with pain, it's heartbreaking:

"Dear poc considering academia:

Even with the awards, grants, accreditations, networks, perfect candidacy, the promise of becoming a rising star, unconditional support of your family, high-ranking affiliations, extra-curricular engagements, book contracts, straight hair, constellation of exemplary community service, letters of references, good intentions to “save the world,” perfected accent You will need: palo alto, fuego, your mama’s prayers, witches by your side, documents, spices, a good pair of running shoes, an eraser, imagination, tequila, patience, your grandmother’s scarf, fighting gloves, cursing words, an onion, a compass, poetry, hoop earrings, a hammock, a cultural map, vitamin B12, to practice reciprocity, nerves of steel, a mirror, black nail polish, monster-like drawings, wings, cartoons, a rainbow, UNcontaminated water, backrubs, UNobstructed ears, crocodile skin, a megaphone, a broom, intuition, unmasking toolkit, a garland made of lavender, a vessel carrying the spirit of every female POC warrior, rocks, a reminder to charge for emotional labour for privileged folks, re-reading glasses and radical love."

This is a story of resilience amid the unfairness in an unjust system, and you can't help but respect the struggle, while raging at and mourning its necessity.
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