Pathways to Academe

Moving to See

Fay Akindes

I carry with me a scene from the documentary film Naked Spaces: Living is Round. The camera’s eye/I, guided by filmmaker Trinh T. minh-ha, enters a womb-like house in the remote West African village of Konkomba, Togo. The movement from outside to inside creates an intermittent blindness; eyes/I adjust to the sudden shift from an abundance of sunlight to a near absence of light, to light again.

This movement from darkness to light, from not seeing to seeing, is one that I have experienced countless times as I entered academic spaces from the margins. It is an experience I’ve lived again and again in academe—first as a graduate student, then a full-time novice instructor (still ABD), to earning my Ph.D. and navigating and negotiating my way to tenure then promotion to full professor and most recently to a system administrator. The visual metaphor that Trinh T. minh-ha gifted me is a comforting source of strength, a smooth stone in my pocket. When encountering unfamiliar and potentially terrifying passages, Trinh reminds me to keep moving. Eyes/I will eventually be recentered in light. I will see again.

Trinh T. minh-ha is a post-colonial feminist scholar who theorizes with film. She provided an entry point into academe when I was a graduate student. Trinh, bell hooks, and Haunani-Kay Trask are three scholars who inform my understanding of working in broadcast marketing and promotion in television (PBS and CBS affiliates in Honolulu) and radio (NPR affiliate in San Diego), my seduction by theory into graduate school, and joining the University of Wisconsin-Parkside where I taught for 20 years. Since 2017, I have served as an administrator at the UW System in Madison; in a sense, I have circled back to my life before graduate school.

Grad School—1992 to 1997

Graduate school was an opportunity to redeem myself as a student. My undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa were a blurry distraction of concerts, parties, backgammon games, and frisbee, with occasional studying. I managed to complete my degree once I realized no one would save me, that I was dependent on myself. And grad school was my second chance to succeed as a student.

It made a dramatic difference to be a 30-something married adult. I was attending a university far away from home in a place I had never been where no one knew me. It was the perfect place and time to reinvent myself, to start clean. I spent at least a year preparing myself—studying for the GRE, paying off debts, saving money for a computer, boombox, and winter clothes. I was moving from the touristy military city of San Diego where for nearly six years I worked as a marketing/promotion director at the public radio station. My new academic home was Ohio University in Athens, the foothills of Appalachia. I was awarded a public broadcasting fellowship in telecommunication management (M.A.) with a tuition waiver and stipend.

Before leaving San Diego, I scanned the Athens News’ classified ads and found a basement flat in a house with two undergraduate women. When I first moved into the blue house on Verona Lane, which was next to an elementary school, I sat on the stoop watching the school children play, struck by their carefree and loud laughter. A few weeks later I had a shocking experience : I could no longer hear the children : my brain had adjusted the decibel level of children’s laughter without my conscious knowledge. What other adjustments was my brain making?

In graduate school, I stopped wearing contact lenses and got prescribed glasses, wore jeans instead of dresses, comfortable walking shoes instead of toe-pinching heels, utility jackets in place of shoulder-padded blazers. I didn’t have a car so walked everywhere and occasionally, when sidewalks were icy or I needed groceries, I called a cab which charged $2. After the Fall term, I moved into a Victorian-style house across the playground, house-sitting for a professor teaching in Malaysia. The house had a piano, a library of alphabetized CDs, and a writing room with a wall of windows overlooking back yards, including a tree with a windchime that could be measured in feet, not inches. Snow blizzards were fierce that year; the world was quiet and white.

What does it mean to be a scholar?

On Friday afternoons I visited Alden Library and browsed the stacks. This is how I discovered a collection of books by bell hooks. She saved me from the dense academese of cultural studies and suggested that, perhaps, I could belong in academe. Like her, I came from a working family in a rural communit—though she grew up in Kentucky, and I was from Hawaii. bell hooks’ essays in Yearning and Black Looks introduced me to the interlocking relationship of gender, race, and class, and systems of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  Soon bell hooks and filmmaker Trinh T. minh-ha (Woman Native Other and Framer Framed) were joined on my bookshelf by Hawaiian scholar Haunani-Kay Trask (From a Native Daughter), whose writing called me home. Importantly, Haunani-Kay positioned Hawaii as a U.S. colonized state and suggested why my undergraduate experience at the University of Hawaii-Manoa was alienating. While 75% of the students were brown-skinned, 75% of the faculty were white, many from the U.S. “mainland.”

Collectively these three women scholars gave me the language to make meaning of my life experiences.

Before my first Thanksgiving in graduate school, I was seduced by theory and decided to pursue a Ph.D. When I shared my decision with my then husband Dan, he said—“But you’re a doer!” I had spent 11 years working in broadcast marketing and promotion, honing my skills as a marketing strategist, writer, editor, event planner, publicist, and even a one-time producer of a live, call-in show with Radio Moscow. In my last position at KPBS-FM, we mined data from Arbitron and NPR, sketching a round portrait of our listeners. An important realization was that our public radio audience was fundamentally different from that of our sister TV (PBS) station. Our communication approaches, then, needed to be different. Arbitron survey data indicated that our largest audiences tuned in for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered and that the demographics reflected a predominantly white male college-educated listener who had eclectic tastes in music. So, I forged relationships with local concert promoters, theatre companies, and university activity boards that shared common goals and audiences. KPBS-FM gave away tickets to Eric Clapton, Spalding Gray, Thomas Mapfumo, Laurie Anderson, Bobby McFerrin, and the annual multi-stage Street Fest downtown. (This was a sharp turn from classical music.) We staged the first Afropop Dance Party with Georges Collinet who taught us how to dance the Cameroonian bikutsi, hosted monthly foreign film previews at the Landmark Theatre and, in the process, expanded our database for membership and fundraising drives. The backward design of our marketing/promotion efforts was one that subsequently became common sense when designing a class.

Dan’s (mis)perception of academe did little to dissuade me. After all, I knew little about the process of earning a Ph.D. and, moreover, what I would do with a Ph.D.

After moving cross country from San Diego to the college town of Athens, Ohio, I was in love with academe and the idyllic college town next to the Hocking River. It was surprisingly cosmopolitan with students from Africa, the Mid-East, Asia, and South America. In my communication theory class, I found myself in a group where I was the only U.S. American. My group partners were from India, Taiwan, China, and the United Arab Emirates. A few students were sponsored by their governments, some were from elite families, the children of academics and professionals, and a few were former Peace Corps volunteers. Social class differences were prominent.

I was from a working family from a rural community. My parents were the children or grandchildren of immigrants and their home language was Japanese. I grew up speaking Creole English—a chop suey mix of Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino words mixed with English. It was the language of the sugar plantation where laborers converged from different ethnic cultures and English-speaking managers needed a common language, a lingua franca, to communicate across ethnic borders. What emerged was Hawaiian Pidgin English. I learned to speak Standard English as an undergraduate student in Honolulu, constructing sentences in my mind before speaking. I rarely volunteered to speak in class and later, as a professor, empathized with my international, immigrant, and refugee students and colleagues.

The temporal experience of academe was one theme of difference between graduate school and my media work. In my last professional job at San Diego’s NPR affiliate, I was responsible for writing articles for the monthly magazine that was sent to members of the KPBS-FM and -TV stations. The articles I wrote typically involved interviewing someone who extended the audio documentaries or sound portraits that we were airing. For example, when we aired a sound portrait on Antarctica, I tracked down a professor at San Diego State University who had conducted research in Antarctica and shared a local perspective to the nationally produced story. The challenge in writing these articles was time; I typically had a week between receiving the program schedule and producing articles. I learned to be nimble and creative on command. In my graduate classes, I was thrilled to learn that we had the entire term to research and write papers.

Doctoral studies

My Ph.D. mentor and academic coach was Prof. Jenny Nelson who shattered my stereotypes of a college professor. She had a short asymmetrical haircut, wore purple Doc Martens, and peppered her speech with the occasional f-bomb. She was a single mom of a biracial (Black/White) daughter Avery. I was immediately drawn to Jenny because of her unconventional authenticity and reputation as an incisive editor. She was brilliant. During my first summer as a doctoral student, she invited me to co-teach Age, Class, Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation in Media. Students kept hand-written journals that intersected the personal, popular, and theoretical. Jenny and I read these journals, writing comments in the margins. Initially I was intimidated by this assignment since some of the students were my peers, including Janice Windborne who was the former news director at KPBS-FM. Jenny assured me that I wasn’t judging students, but having a conversation with them. It was a pedagogical alternative to traditional exams. Years later I learned that I was one of many students who benefitted from Jenny’s mentoring and that she had paid me (and other students) out of her own pocket to co-teach the summer class. She also supported grad students who lacked funds for conference travel. She fed us confidence and made us believe we belonged in academe without burying our home identities.

Media theorist Douglas Kellner shares a multi-perspectival approach to media studies that I found helpful not only as a graduate student, but also as a professor and administrator. Triangulating media into categories of the political economy (producer, professor, administrator), textual analysis (product, curriculum and pedagogy), and audience reception (consumer, student) helped me to organize and make meaning of my work.

Over time the lines around these three categories blurred as I began to see the nuances that previously were invisible to me. Everyone in the class, for example, is a teacher and student. Currently as an administrator, political economy analysis translates into tracing the funding sources of programs, such as faculty development programs created by for-profit businesses masquerading as non-profit organizations. It didn’t escape my eyes to see Charles Koch as the largest sponsor at the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) 2020 annual meeting and, not surprisingly, that he was a featured speaker in the program. Koch was a supporter of former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the passage of Act 10 that disenfranchised public teachers in our state.

Teaching—1997 to 2017

My career in broadcast marketing and promotion had an enduring impact on my work as a professor from the start. When applying for a teaching position, I targeted my job search sending out around eight applications as opposed to a classmate who kept an index box of alphabetized cards, each representing a job possibility. The University of Wisconsin-Parkside was the only university to invite me for an interview that included teaching a communication class. I shared an audio performance by Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a social justice artist from the U.S.-Mexican border town of Tijuana just south of San Diego, then facilitated a discussion on identity, communication, and culture. Later the department chair commented on my listening skills, particularly that I wasn’t uncomfortable with silence and that I waited for students to speak.

There were a few memorable turning points in my early teaching, particularly in the first fall, 1997. It was the first time I was teaching alone and the first time I had constructed a syllabus. My teaching was complicated by my family life; I was solo-parenting our daughter (two years old) and son (six months old) while Simon taught in Cleveland, OH. One of the classes I taught that first semester was Communication Theory. Typically I over-prepared for the class, using the textbook as a rigid guide. One day, however, I walked into class without copious notes and improvised. I spoke less, engaged students more, and let their comments direct the discussion. It was a turning point, teaching me to trust my students and myself.

Soon after, Carnegie Scholar and Augustana College history professor Lendol Calder addressed “Throwing Out the Textbook” at UW-Parkside. He challenged the practice of “coverage” and instead emphasized “concepts.” He liberated me from textbooks, inviting me to consider alternative texts and student-centered engagement. He also influenced how I approached my syllabi. In my mind, I was creating an experience, not unlike what a radio or TV producer produces with a sound portrait or weekly series.

Assistant Professor

What my experience working in television and radio taught me was the importance of engaging an audience—including visually provocative images in my syllabi, integrating multi-media and discussions into my classes, organizing experiential field trips, and arranging guest speakers (the most unusual being a Skyped conversation with my grad school friend Hando Sinisalu, now an international marketing expert in Estonia, the country where Skype was developed). In public television and radio, the goal was to turn our audience into members. In commercial TV it was to keep our viewers watching as long as possible, to ensure high ratings that translated into advertising revenue. When teaching undergraduates, my goal was to engage students—to capture their interest and attention, to make class time interesting, to motivate students to read and write and learn whatever objectives/outcomes had been established, to make my teaching role less tedious and never one of policing their attendance or behavior. My challenge was to make class sessions interesting, engaging, relevant, and somewhat unpredictable especially during the first five minutes of class.

Sometimes, I imagined I was producing a season of TV episodes. The first class set the tone, establishing the context for what followed. It gave students a sense of what to expect and what I expected of them—to engage and participate in open discussion, to question and consider a different point of view. One semester I opened my Media & Culture class by playing Radiohead’s Weird Fishes while students filled out a survey. Why Radiohead? They were the first band to release a new CD—In Rainbows—online with a “Pay what you want” pricetag. (At the end of class, a student revealed that he was in the wrong class but stayed because he liked the music. He was wearing a Radiohead t-shirt.) The semester culminated in a season finale which took on an important air—final presentations with invited guests, or a special venue, such as the campus cinema.

Associate to Full Professor

I was told a lie after I earned my Ph.D.: that my tenure clock started ticking when I was initially hired ABD as an Instructor. This reduced my time to tenure from five to three years. Consequently I worked evenings and weekends, sacrificing familial time for job security. I published three essays in a single year and continued presenting papers at academic conferences around the country. Upon receiving tenure, I reclaimed weekends for my family and me. Learning that I had been lied to by someone I trusted was a threshold moment—I walked through the threshold and never turned back. If I look in the rear-view mirror, that person is invisible.

More than 10 years after tenure, I was motivated to seek full professorship when the salary bump was increased from $2,500 to $5,000 for full professors. We had not received raises in years—in fact we had experienced furloughs, pay cuts, and accusations of not working hard enough from the State Legislature. My goal when producing my dossier was to leave no doubt among my peers that I was worthy of promotion; this was the same impetus when I prepared my dossier for tenure and promotion to assistant professor. In some ways, I exceeded the minimal requirements. Was I performing the Asian American “model minority”? I recall a white colleague stopping at my open door one day; she was teaching an evening class and I was at my computer. She stopped and said she admired my “work ethic,” as though it was a choice. Was I over-performing for fear that my work or perceived productivity was lacking?

When the chair of my promotion committee asked for external reviewer suggestions, I shared names of four women-of-color scholars, including a Choctaw/Cherokee-Japanese American, a Native Hawaiian, an African American, and a South Asian scholar. All four agreed to review my scholarship. Rather than being a dreadful experience, the promotion process turned out to be empowering. I chose my voices of authority; they were not from the “center”—those who maintained power in academe—but embodied “marginality as a site of resistance” (hooks, p. 152). In 2015, I was officially promoted to full professor. Two years later after a restorative semester teaching in Dalkeith, Scotland, I ended my 20-year teaching career and joined the UW System Administration.

Once again, I surrendered to intermittent blindness. I was and am moving to see.

***

The author is grateful to the late Ian Donnachie, Professor Emeritus of History, Open University, Scotland, for conversations that inform this chapter. Thanks to Jenny Nelson (Ohio University) and Adrienne Viramontes (University of Wisconsin-Parkside) for reading early drafts of this chapter.


References

hooks, bell. (1990). Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press.

Kellner, D. (2018). Cultural studies, multiculturalism, and media culture. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. Dines G., Humez, J.M., Yousman, B. and Yousman, LB. (Eds.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Trask, H.K. (1993). From a native daughter: Colonialism and sovereignty in Hawai’i. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Trinh, m.h. (1989). Woman, native, other: Writing postcolonialism and feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Trinh, m.h. (1992). Framer framed. New York: Routledge.

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Voices of Practice by Fay Akindes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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