I have mixed feelings about my experiences in graduate school. As a Black, first-generation Canadian and the first in my family to become a doctoral student, I did not understand the culture of the academy. If I knew then what I know now as an Adjunct Professor teaching part time, I might have made different choices.
Last year, CBC’s The Current explored the topic of equity in Canadian graduate programs. The show, “Black PhD students call out inequity in Canadian academia” featured the experiences of doctoral students, Huda Hassan from the University of Toronto and Sam Teckle, from York University. Both students shared experiences of racism and exclusion.
In fact, what prompted the discussion was a tweet from Hassan that offered to personally help Black students applying to grad school with their entrance essays. Her tweet was shared approximately 2,500 times. The story never left me. That same day, I along with many others reached out to Hassan to share my thoughts with her.
Almost a year later, I wonder if media coverage of the issue of racism and a lack of mentors for Black graduate students has prompted any systemic change in the academy?
I wonder if an ethic of care might support Black and other marginalized students who are struggling with getting into the academy, staying the course and graduating.
Philosopher of education scholar Nel Noddings describes an ethic of care as that which a parent would use towards their own children. Educators must always ask ourselves, “would I make this decision in this way if this were my child?”
Often, graduate programs lack formal initiatives to nurture and support marginalized students. Academic programs, with built-in support systems for first generation immigrant graduate students, are critical to their success.
In 2007, I was accepted into a PhD program at a Canadian university. At the time, I had little knowledge of the new and intricate world that I was embarking into.
I was the first in my family to study at the doctoral level and the first to obtain a PhD degree. My family in Trinidad wore my doctoral-student status with pride and supported me.
However, as a first-generation student, I needed support beyond the confines of my relationship with my thesis supervisor. I needed to belong to a community that would encourage me as I fulfilled key requirements of the program. These requirements included: the completion of coursework, writing the Comprehensive Exam, getting through the ethics process, collecting data, writing the dissertation and defending it.
While my thesis supervisor offered invaluable guidance about my writing and about my dissertation, I longed for something much more culturally familiar. I needed the support of other-mothers in and out of the academy.
Other-mothering can be described as the practice of raising children who are not one’s own. Borne out of kinship practices in Africa, other-mothering is highly valued in African American communities, the Caribbean and the African diaspora. The African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” captures its spirit.
In higher education, the idea of other-mothering is to move beyond the standard curriculum to ensure the personal and academic success of students. However, other-mothering is different from a mentor-mentee relationship.
The care that other-mothers provide may even extend beyond the university campus, to include community members who build relationships with students as they work towards their academic goals.
Other-mothering on campus
In a study on faculty-student engagement at historically Black colleges and universities, education scholar Alonzo M. Flowers and his team found that faculty members who engaged in other-mothering practices consistently used an ethic of care with African American students. They forged positive interactions with students outside of the classroom and mentored students to ensure their academic success.
African American students in the study also emphasized that other-mothering and an ethic of care resulted in feelings of increased connectivity to the campus community, to being academically challenged and to feeling supported in their academic pursuits.
At times, I required the support of an academic other-mother who could remove the veil that shrouded so many of the policies and practices that governed my program. I needed to speak to someone who would keep our exchanges confidential. I needed to ask questions about my future job prospects or to share my experiences of being a mature doctoral student with responsibilities to my partner and new child.
I needed to share what it felt like to be the only Black woman in my building, in my classes, the cafeteria, parking lot, graduate lounge, lecture halls and countless other spaces where my Blackness froze in the icy waters of the ivory tower.
And while I did receive support by reaching out to supportive faculty members in departments across the campus, Canadian doctoral programs must recognize the cultural importance of other-mothering to students from cultures that rely heavily on extended kinship networks for support, guidance and reassurance.
An other-mother would have been helpful to explain those unwritten rules, or the hidden curriculum of the academy, that are critical to a doctoral student’s future. For example, there was little discussion about criteria used when choosing a dissertation adviser, the importance of choosing members of a dissertation committee or how to tackle the dissertation itself. Everything seemed steeped in secrecy and subjectivity.
The research ethics process had “rules” that were applied differently to different students. Often, I discovered what I needed to know just before the event occurred. I found graduate school detached and unconnected from the larger picture that had meaning for my life and my career.
And while I was responsible for ensuring my success in grad school, and I took that responsibility seriously, the development of an academic culture that normalizes other-mothering practices — aimed at nurturing racialized and under-represented students — will reduce the alienation of the first-generation experience, especially when the student is “the only one” or one of few.
Cultural capital & the academy
My graduate program prepared me well to be a scholar. I hope to make this clear. However, some students enter graduate programs with the cultural capital to expertly navigate the academy. This cultural capital will impact how such students forge relationships with faculty members and their ability to work on important research projects.
These practices, along with a strong record of publishing, ensures that the doctoral student will be on the right track in the pursuit of a tenure-track position after graduation. And while many undergraduate programs in Canadian universities focus their attention on reducing the attrition rates of first-generation students, the same effort is not being applied to doctoral programs.
In her book, Starting at Home, Nel Noddings asserts that all people “want to be cared for.” This rings more true in spaces where Blackness is not expected to be. This rings true in the academy where I was often unrecognized as a “doctoral student” or mistaken for everything but who I was, a PhD candidate.
In the academy, Blackness is often read using a discourse of “surprise.”
In his essay “I’ve never had a Black teacher before,” Carl James, professor of education at York University shares how students were surprised that he was the professor of his course.
This discourse of surprise is often accompanied by micro-aggression, micro-insults and micro-invalidations that I endured throughout my program.
Black and under-represented students must be equipped to face the challenges inherent in any doctoral program. They must believe that they possess the resilience and fortitude to overcome them, as well as to thrive.
I wonder if Canadian doctoral programs are ready to start the difficult conversations necessary to make this vision a reality.