In our first phase of interviews, 13 of our 17 student-narrators were of color. However, only two of these students identified as black. Given that the initial impetus for CLHP was GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso’s desire to better understand the experiences of students of color, we believed it essential to interview more black graduate students in order to give sufficient and appropriate recommendations. After submitting a digital report on initial findings (see ”Phase I - Fall 2016”), which was made possible by a bridge grant from INCITE, Mario and Benji received a second round of funding from GSAS, to focus on interviewing students who self-identify as black. These interviews were conducted during the Spring 2018 semester.
In summer 2018, CLHP welcomed Alissa to the team, and in October submitted a narrative report with six official recommendations to Dean Alonso’s office. Below is a summary of the reports recommendations, as well as a form for requesting the report in it’s entirety.
In October of 2018 we submitted our collected findings in the form of the Columbia Life Histories Project Phase II Narrative Report with Policy Recommendations to the Deans Carlos Alonso, Andrea Solomon and Celina Chatman Nelson. The report was well received by the deans and, with their enthusiastic support, shared with the Office of University Life, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Office of the Provost for Faculty Advancement. Our goal is to produce a public version of the report to eventually be distributed campus wide with the aim of helping to implement our recommendations across the university.
Our second collection of interviews is comprised of 14 interview sessions with 6 new GSAS students, two professors of color, another interview session with Dean Alonso, and follow-up interviews with two students from our first phase. Of the total 14 sessions, this second interview collection consists of approximately 30 recorded hours.
As in our first phase of interviews, we initially sought to recruit black student-narrators through an open call disseminated by each academic department’s Director of Graduate Studies. However, four of our eventual six student-narrators agreed to participate because of prior personal connections we had with them as fellow Columbia students. Again, we did not turn away any students who expressed interest in being interviewed. Of course, our sample of six new self-selecting graduate students is not fully representative of the black GSAS student body.
Of the six black students that we interviewed:
three are female and three are male;
two are M.A. students, three are doctoral students, and one is a M.D./PhD candidate;
four are in the humanities/social sciences and two are in the natural sciences;
two identify as LGBTQ
three are Caribbean or of Caribbean parentage and one is a member of the Afro-Latinx community.
Note: The security of our narrators is one of our paramount concerns. To that end, we have chosen to anonymize the identities of some of our narrators, many of whom are still active Columbia students. Both in our report and on this website, first names have been changed and last names redacted.
Root and frame the institution’s commitment to diversity in a sincere commitment to historically informed and humanistically grounded equity.
In our interviews with Dean Alonso, particularly our second one (conducted in January 2018), we found the Dean to be quite attuned to a number of important thematic issues that would be raised and responded to by our black narrators later that semester. The first of these issues is the distrust that some black and brown students have towards the contemporary discourse of academic diversity. As Alonso put it: “There is an entire set of other categories that dilutes the reasons people are discriminated against, and the ways in which people are discriminated against. And yet, you put them all together under this huge umbrella of diversity. On the one hand, you are benefitting more people, which is true. But on the other, you are also now in a position to claim success in a way that can leave people behind...You improve the circumstances for disabled students and women in science, even though the needle hasn’t moved that much in terms of black and Hispanic students.” As detailed in this report, several of our black narrators bore this observation out.
Dr. Franklin spoke to this idea as well:
I get the reason why diversity is used as this term because it’s based on sort of Supreme Court decisions based on what can be done in terms of expanding the presence of women and people of color on campus. It’s the idea that [laugh] diversity basically is a public good particularly for the majority. At least it’s a part of the way it was argued in the Supreme Court. This is a—it’s a good thing to have diversity because people can sort of have people in the classroom with different experiences that they could benefit from right so the subtext of this is often times that—I wonder it’s not exclusively- but I wonder whether sometimes we think of diversity particularly when we count heads in the classroom in terms of it being a benefit for majority students to have the experience- have a diverse experience. Columbia is a little different in a way because you know it depends on how you count people of color. Particularly in the undergraduate level it is a diverse I was at the graduation the class day and there was a great deal of diversity. I mean racial and ethnic and religious diversity. Visually there.
But when it gets beyond that up into faculty and graduate students it kind of withers away and then you get this discourse of diversity of viewpoints and this sort of thing and it gets away from the intended reasons for this thing that we called diversity. Because before diversity it was affirmative action but you can’t use affirmative action because the courts—want you to- and then you get these things like "oh now we talk about quotas special positions for people" and it gets away from the intended purpose of why we created these programs all along to compensate for historical injustices. But it’s come down to oh can we have sort of a crayon box. But that’s where we are this is what the law will allow us and this is not speaking in terms of Columbia University this is in terms of this is speaking from the perspective of Dr. Franklin. So I think that given the constraints we are living in living in the times we are living in is that I think this is the best policy that can be advanced given the legal constraints that exist. I do like the idea of equity because the equity idea goes back to this idea of historical injustices that I think gets lost in narrative of diversity. And but sort of how that looks on the ground. I’m not sure.
Spearhead a funded initiative to support students and faculty who will work together to make their departments more inclusive
Zane’s story illustrates a basic but crucial point: the soul-craft that occurs in a meaningful advising relationship is, to use a key term from oral history theory, an ongoing intersubjective encounter. There is no denying that this encounter is initially patterned, sometimes even determined, by demographic considerations. Empathy and intimacy are, after all, much easier to establish with someone who shares a Veil with you. An equity agenda, oriented towards meaningful inclusivity, calls for white advisors like Zane to do this work with white students, of helping them notice, interrogate, and gracefully inhabit their own Veils as well as those of others. By the same token, and to an even greater degree, it calls for departments to seek out, attract, and support more faculty of color who can do this with students of color.
Work with departments to create and sustain pipelines for faculty of color
Dr. Faith, recalled undergoing a “crisis” of identity upon receiving tenure, predicated on the question, “How do I cope with the fact that I am now not only officially an academic, a tenured professor at Columbia University, but a privileged person in many ways?” In searching “for ways to make sense of that,” she recalled, “I started to reconfigure my identity within academia as someone who would be in this [institutional] position, to a large extent, to bring those resources, that visibility, and that support to change, in and outside of academia.” Tellingly, she went on: “Many of my students, particularly those who are of color or come from working-class or low-income backgrounds, are struggling with very similar things. They are all of a sudden in a very privileged space. They have guilt sometimes. They feel they don't belong. They have all kinds of complicated feelings about their locations.” To sort through those complicated feelings constructively—to transform one’s Veil(s) into the gift of “second sight”—requires a lot of energy, a nuanced conceptual framework, and a committed human support system.
Improve the accountability and communications (both internal and external) of Columbia’s various institutional and bureaucratic arms
From our study, we conclude that students feel that their labor goes unrecognized by the lack of accountability within student services—especially regarding the timely payment of stipends—and misrecognized by both university officials and classroom instructors who view students one-dimensionally, invalidating, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, their coexistent identities as workers. This lack of recognition extends to the pervasively deflating experience of interacting with student services. To be sure, these interactions may not be as crucial to a student’s sense of self on campus as those with advisors and colleagues, but they no doubt contribute to feelings of either belonging or alienation—far too often the latter. As Ava put it, “Columbia in many ways does not provide some very human things that can be so helpful at the start and can mean so much. That’s when you're really investing in this relationship with your students. So, later on, even if something doesn't go smoothly they have been shown that you care. These gestures really matter.” Our collection of interviews is rife with stories about students being made to feel like “just another paycheck” by apathetic and unhelpful, bordering on obstructionist, representatives of student services, Columbia Housing in particular.
When asked, “What can Columbia do reasonably to alleviate the stresses of being a doctoral student?” Diego answered:
I am a student here and my conditions are very good work-wise, but something that generates [for] me discomfort is the fact that information is difficult to get. For example, just yesterday, I saw my paycheck and it was different from what I was supposed to receive. Not a huge difference, but $25. Nobody can explain to me why, and I would like to have a person who is in charge of telling me why I am being paid like that. If that's the right number, then that's okay, I don't complain. But I want predictability. I want to know how much I will get in my paycheck, up to the cent. I want to know how much tax I will be withheld.
I asked this and they send me a PDF with a lot. The tax law. "Oh, you want information, or how much we are going to withhold? Oh, read this PDF." I open this PDF and I see a link to the IRS with the tax law, which of course, I cannot understand. I know it's supposed to be my responsibility to know how to pay taxes, but the truth is that we students don't know, and we cannot read the PDF. So I would like to have that information, and people who know these things, and are able to tell me.
I got this other e-mail when I was asked about this issue. It said, "Oh, we cannot provide tax advice." I'm not asking tax advice! I'm just asking—you are the person who is writing the number of the dollars I will be withheld. You should know how the numbers are computed, no? You can share this information with me.
That's the only thing I would like to [know].… because if you add up all of these differences, if I have been paid differently during the whole year, that would amount to $500 less, which is almost a ticket to visit my family. So now, I'm concerned if I need 500 more dollars or not. I think, in that sense, Columbia could do better.
Make mental health services universally accessible, more versatile, and better equipped to help students of color deal with the challenges they face in particular
Indeed, as should be increasingly apparent for the reader of this report, a crucial aspect of the way forward that we propose is, to quote Wyatt, “having a level of mental health institution that recognizes that some of the challenges [non-prototypical students] have are distant from what your average, typical college population— that you are used to—experiences. It calls for equity, rather than just diversity.” To this end, in addition to making sure that psychological services are financially accessible to all students at Columbia, we also recommend that the university work with CPS to develop a specialty in the mental health issues that are particular to people of color in the academy, similar to their previous work of establishing whole curriculums for sexual violence prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, and even body image concerns, which are listed on CPS’s official website as major “Health Topics.”
Support forthcoming efforts to institutionalize and develop the Columbia Life Histories Project
What we propose in this report is a more robust and nuanced conception of the graduate student’s dialogical identity-building process, as inflected both by demographic considerations such as race, gender, class, and age, and the countless experiences and reflections that constitute an individual’s life history. It is important to keep in mind the multiplicity and fluidity of an individual’s feelings of recognition, misrecognition, and nonrecognition, over time and across various spaces. As Dean Alonso rightly recognized in our interview, “graduate education is a fairly ritualistic and repetitive enterprise. You know, you take your courses at first for two years, prepare for exams, do your prospectus, work on your dissertation. With different variations, that is the life of a graduate student...But, ‘What are the instruments and the resources that you need to confront each one of those trials?’ is something that we should engage students of color [in answering]...This is something that would be helpful to all students...What we are trying to do is build that kind of professional infrastructure. And then take into consideration the specific needs of students of color that may be inflected by their biography or their specifically academic trajectory.”
Read the full report
As we continue to work on the production of a public facing version of our report, those who would like a closer reading of our findings are encouraged to please let us know. By submitting your name, email, and a brief description of your interest in the Columbia Life Histories Project, you will be at the top of our list to receive a copy of the completed report.