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Undergraduate Education


Confronting the privilege of professorship

As educators, we owe it to our students to reflect on our relationship to power and privilege

by Paulette Vincent-Ruz, special to C&EN
December 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 44


An illustration shows a woman looking through a spyglass at her various roles as professor, mother, and advocateKTK.
Credit: Kristen Uroda

“What brings you here?” my new therapist asked. An innocent question, an opening so they could start getting to know me. After months of waiting for this appointment, I thought speaking up about what was going on in my head would be like opening the floodgates. Instead, I struggled with knowing where to begin.

Do I start by describing my new job and its stresses? Do I talk about becoming a mother? Or do I talk about the immense responsibility I feel toward the students I’ve been asked to serve as an assistant professor at New Mexico State University? The truth is that each of these things leads to the question: Who is this new person walking in my shoes every day? It’s a question I really have no answer to.

You see, my new job caused a huge change in the way I understand myself and my relationship to others. Many scholars refer to this as my positionality—how the various aspects of my identity shape the way I interact with systems of power and people. Before becoming a professor, I had a pretty good understanding of my privileges as well as the ways in which I am marginalized interacted with the institution where I worked. But becoming a professor at a Hispanic-serving institution an hour from the US-Mexico border has shifted this balance a lot.

If you are a professor, I invite you to reflect on your positionality toward the students you serve in your institution.

I spent the past 8 years in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Many times, people asked me if I intended to stay in the US indefinitely and if I had papers, signaling that despite my White-presenting face, my status as an immigrant made me untrustworthy. It was this experience that gave me the idea of using the word fugitive in my job talk title: “My journey to QuantCrit: How the scientist met the fugitive in the borderlands.”

I was so proud of the title and the cleverness I thought was behind it. Quantitative critical race theory is a subfield of education research that is changing how we use quantitative practices from the methods that have been imposed by White supremacy to ways that advance equity and justice. “Fugitive” was a play on interdisciplinary scholar Leigh Patel’s discussion of learning beyond the colonial schooling system: “To highlight learning as fugitive practice,” she writes, “I connect the ways that learning has been maintained and protected even when it has been forbidden, foreclosed and seemingly withered through colonialism” (J. Am. Educ. Stud. Assoc. 2019, DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2019.1605368). For me, the word connoted how I always felt the US system was trying to catch me making a mistake as an immigrant.

I am still a Latina immigrant. But I am now also a White-​presenting professor in a Hispanic-serving institution near the border. Where I work now, the word fugitive has a stronger connotation related to violence and the border experience. It might send a signal that doesn’t match my privileged existence in Mexico and the privileged pathway I had coming to the US. I don’t want to misrepresent myself, and I think the students I want to serve here deserve my constant reflection on how my privileges interact with them and the history of this region.

I don’t have many answers yet about how my new positionality will shape itself. Positionality is an evolving thing that changes with time, place, and context. Reflecting on it is a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary process, because moving into positions of power also changes the context of our actions and their effects on others.

If you are a professor, I invite you to reflect on your positionality toward the students you serve in your institution. If we fail to recognize how we hold power and privilege over others, we risk centering ourselves and our feelings rather than supporting those who need us to fight for them. When we extend whatever power we have, big or small, to advance justice for others, we start practicing true allyship and engaging in solidarity.

Another thing: people often ask me what they are supposed to put in the diversity statement portion of their job or tenure application. Many with this question feel as if they are very privileged and don’t know what to contribute. They don’t want to just list the names of marginalized students they worked with and use them as tokens to fulfill this requirement. I offer this advice: write a positionality statement. Write about who you are, about your relationship to power in different aspects of your life. And then, write about how that impacts the responsibility you have to the students of that institution.

At the end of the day, our title includes the word professor, and that carries with it the responsibility to educate and serve. It’s a responsibility we cannot fulfill and honor without first answering the question, “What brings you here?”

Paulette Vincent-Ruz.
Credit: Courtesy of Paulette Vincent-Ruz
Paulette Vincent-Ruz

Paulette Vincent-Ruz is an assistant professor in chemistry education research in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University.

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