Recently Mount Saint Vincent University posted a job ad for new faculty hires. If you keep an eye on the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, then this isn’t news to you. If it is, then what you need to know is this: the advertisements explicitly ask for black scholars. And if you keep an eye on SAFS, then you also know that job adverts that solicit candidates based on some preferred, usually racialized, category are not new—although they appear to be more common of late.
The president of the SAFS has, of course, responded to MSVU’s advert with a tightly worded and well-reasoned critique of the job advertisement and what it means. Most readers of the SAFS Newsletter—and other folks who care about academic work—will not be surprised by the gist of the response: an academic hire ought to be based on one’s academic capacity because doing otherwise may lead others to undermine the value of a new hire’s intellectual ability. Indeed, the SAFS website is a virtual repository of well-reasoned and thoughtful responses on a host of related matters.
While I can easily get behind these sorts of arguments in favor of academic or intellectual merit, I find myself wondering if they’re enough. Differently, while a reasoned or rational response to what we might loosely call preferential hires is necessary it may, perhaps be insufficient.
Let me begin by offering a bit of speculation. While I cannot support hiring someone on the basis of group membership, I can see the appeal. I’d hazard it has something to do with feeling. And it probably goes something like this.
The injustice of racial discrimination is real (and we’d be fools to think otherwise). Our response to an injustice is almost always tangled up with righteous anger. Righteous anger spurs action and one action for correcting racial discrimination is to hire from a group who have experienced racial discrimination. Action of this kind often slakes righteous anger; we feel better. I suspect those who wrote the job ad not only regarded their action as the good thing to do—in the moral sense of the word—but, and this is the important bit, they also probably felt good—in the deep-down heart sense of the word—when they did so.
I speculate on the affective nature of this process because I think it offers something for understanding how those who argue for this kind of correction appear impervious to reasoned arguments that hires ought to be based on academic merit. To put this another way, I wonder about the efficacy of a rational appeal on a matter that may be, to a substantive measure, about affect. The subtext is, I hope, clear: reason and emotion can interact poorly with each other, particularly when the terrain of such interaction is morally inflected.
With this in mind, I want to offer a kind of addendum—one directed at feeling—to what I know to be a strong, though perhaps insufficient, reasoned argument. Maybe this will help. Or make things worse. One never knows where feelings are concerned. And that, of course, is probably the lesson.
I begin with a thought experiment in which we might invite the authors of MSVU’s job advertisement—or anyone writing a job advertisement with an eye to candidates’ group membership—to participate. It goes like this.
Imagine a moment when you are sitting with a newly hired colleague. Perhaps having a coffee between classes. Some casual moment when you are not teaching or writing or snoring through mindless administrative work. Imagine it is late September or early October and you caught them after class. Invited them to grab something before your office hours start. Imagine you are asking them how they are finding the shift from being a doctoral student to a full-time faculty. The two of you talk about teaching a bit. Then, research. Perhaps they mention a tidbit from their job talk that you recall. And as the conversation evolves, you look them in the eye, while they are sipping their latte, or maybe crunching into something sweet and buttery, and tell them: “We noticed that you had a strong record as a scholar, but the thing that drew us to your application was your skin colour.”
And now: try to imagine what hearing that might feel like. Do your best. Get into their shoes. Imagine yourself as a new faculty member who, eight months before, sat through four hours of a dissertation defense, hearing those words mid-crunch into your danish or half a mouthful into your coffee.
I wonder—indeed I doubt—how close you’d get to the truth of what hearing this might feel like. Because, well, you’ve never been in the position of hearing it. So, permit me to help with two personal vignettes. Perhaps in this era of “lived experience” we might finally put lived experienced to good use, leveraging it into a sound rational argument about merit that may not be quite enough on its own.
I was hired to teach methodology. I had plenty of experience teaching quantitative methods, introductory statistics, and introductory research methods, while in my doctorate I drew on a range of qualitative methods. I was a relatively rare bird, straddling both methodological worlds. At the time of my hire, my research arc—expressed through my dissertation—focused on gay men’s health.
The first few years of my career were, I suspect, like those of most any academic. Though once enamoured of the idea of being a professor, things became less magical with my feet on the ground. The proverbial look-into-the-sausage-factory let me understand that things were a bit messier than I’d imagined. The most puzzling matter was the hiring process (many of my readers have just nodded their heads). And while I can’t share the boring details of what I experienced (because of a collective agreement and confidentiality clauses), I know that any academic who keeps an eye on SAFS can imagine the conversations that led to a job ad like that put out by the Mount.
I can, however, share the following detail. Because it is mine to tell. A bit of lived experience, as it were. One afternoon I sat in my office with a colleague; we were disagreeing. After my colleague’s lengthy argument, I responded by explaining that I could only take academic merit into consideration. For a moment, my colleague gazed into the empty space between us, something perched on the tip of their tongue. When the silence broke, this is what I heard: When you were hired, I voted for you because you were gay.
I do not know what my colleague was thinking, telling me this in sight of the degrees hanging on the wall above my head. Perhaps this information was shared in the belief that it would change my mind. Make me feel special. Perhaps leave me grateful. It did not. It left me flushed.
Years before: we were walking home together after work. I heard a lament about a racialized colleague and the observation that the city in which we lived was hard on minorities. I could sort of understand, I said. As a dude into men, the city wasn’t easy to break into. My colleague nodded sagely, and then said: “But you can pass.”
My silence was taken for assent. I hid behind the mistake, disguising myself in small talk.
Between little words about sunshine and the beautiful blue sky this time of the year, I thought about my assailant. Wondered how different things might have been had I been able to pass when he was bashing me, leaving me stunned on the cold sidewalk 200 steps from my apartment. A few more moments of conversation about the end of the week coming up and my colleague and I parted ways at a corner. The same corner where two men, leaning out an apartment window, called out to me “Hey, faggot!” (twice in as many months). As we went our separate ways, an empty chasm, whistling with breathtaking arrogance, stretched between us. I turned toward my home, a few blocks away.
Still imagining what it feels like to be told you were hired because of some sliver of your identity, something utterly unrelated to your intellectual capacity, your ability to make an argument or to advance knowledge? Let me answer the question for you. Because you’ll get it wrong. Because you’ve never had to hear it. Because you will never hear it.
It feels like a kick in the guts, whose force travels through your lungs, into your throat, and explodes in a red embarrassed flush on your cheeks.
It blows up the same part of your brain that turns to fire when you drop to the ground after a stranger in the dark clocks you on the side of the head with a fist.
It produces the same searing gut clench that sticks you in place, mid-step, when hear the word faggot from an apartment window, 200 dozen steps from your home.
It explodes the same part of you that seizes in place when someone makes the irrelevance of your appreciation for certain pink bits matter in ways that it does not—cannot—matter.
People change of course. So, I wonder how my colleague might react to their decision to hire me now that I am—after twenty years of loving men—seven years into loving a woman and trying to get a toddler to bed. Would I merit a vote now?