This weekend is the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR).
I’ll be giving a presentation in a panel that I organized in one session and serving as the invited respondent in another. I’ll also be spending approximately one-third of my total conference time interviewing candidates with my colleagues for a faculty position at my institution.
This is all to say that I’ll be attending the AAR with a modicum of status and power.
But this was not always so.
In the first AAR I attended while still in doctoral coursework, I remember not recognizing most of the thousands of attendees save for a handful of fellow students and my professors. I remember not knowing that I was supposed to have paced myself by skipping some sessions.
I remember how excited I would become when spotting “celebrity” professors for the first time. (“Wow, I’ve read their books. And they’re standing right there!!!”) I remember eating some meals alone—and feeling lonely.
I also remember wondering what it would be like for me to give a paper someday—to submit a proposal, have it be accepted, write the paper, and then finally deliver it in front of a scholarly audience.
Years later, when I went on the job market and did several first-round interviews at the AAR, I remember feeling terrified that I would be found out in the process as a “fraud.” (I hear that that is a common fear among female graduate students).
Of course, I eventually got the jobs. The more meetings I attended, the more I eventually gave those papers and learned how to navigate the system. The longer I worked in academe, the more friends (and roommates and lunch and dinner companions) I accrued as well.
What led me originally to reflect on my change in status and power this year is the panel to which I’m responding. I am the only woman out of six participants. But I’m also the most “senior” one among us (n.b., I am as the say “mid-career”). The five others are all men of color who are at earlier stages in their career: three are graduate students, one is a newly-minted PhD who is adjuncting, and the other is a professor with an impressive publishing record but who is nonetheless pre-tenure.
So here’s where the issue of my status and power vis-à-vis theirs comes into play. In preparing my remarks, I found myself stimulated by their papers, but not convinced in several cases by their central (not just peripheral) arguments. I then began contemplating whether and how I would temper my criticism. Would I soft-pedal my critique to spare the less experienced panelists from public embarrassment? Or would I simply render what I was tapped to do—provide the best and most insightful response that I could as a feminist ethicist?
What I’ll end up doing is something in between. It’s not, however, primarily for the sake of their potentially febrile nerves. It’s more that my conception of what makes for a good performance has shifted through the years.
I still remember in my days of coursework how my classmates (who were virtually all men in my program) and I operated at Harvard. We were truly friends, no doubt, but we also informally “kept tabs” on who was making the wittiest comments and who was attracting positive attention from our professors.
I also still remember how I comported myself in my earliest years as Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. I was outwardly hospitable and gracious to guest speakers, but took secret delight when audiences would be impressed with an intelligent question I had asked or when I would point out shortcomings in the speaker’s arguments.
I have since changed with more wisdom and maturity. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt the need to prove or establish myself the way I once did when I was first starting out. For the last several years I’ve viewed those just beginning their careers, particularly those still in grad school, as the next generation of scholar-teachers who may now be in need of some mentorship.
This doesn’t mean that I’ll condescend to my panelists or let what I take to be flaws in their arguments to go unnoticed. But it does mean that I will provide the most charitable interpretation possible and highlight virtues in their papers where they are found. It’s not just that I want to do what I can to support my fellow Asian North American brothers in their scholarship. It’s that my consciousness about my greater status and power relative to theirs will make a difference in how I frame my comments.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two book projects. She wishes all attendees of the AAR a wonderful conference.