Ana Wu: Could you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Li: I was born in a small village in central China, so I speak a local dialect. I learned Mandarin, the standard Chinese, and English as a foreign language in school. I got my undergraduate and MA degree in China and went to Canada (University of Saskatchewan) to pursue my doctoral studies in Curriculum and Instruction, specializing in Second Language Literacy. After my PhD, I went to University of British Columbia for a year as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Of Canada post-doctoral fellow. After my post-doc, I was an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at University of Buffalo for five years. In 2006, I joined the Department of Teacher Education as an associate professor at Michigan State University.
Ana Wu: You have edited books and written about female minority scholars from different nations and backgrounds, addressing the sociocultural, political, academic, and personal issues they encounter in higher education. Do male minority scholars face similar issues in the USA? If not, could you briefly tell us what challenges they face in the professoriate?
Dr. Li: Male minority scholars also face some sociocultural, sociopolitical, and personal issues in higher education, e.g., racism and prejudice. However, I think they are struggling at a lesser degree than female minority scholars. Being male is an advantage for them both professionally and personally. For example, According to an Institute of Education Science report (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000), male faculty in general have higher salary and are engaged in more research and administrative activities than their female counter parts. Female full-time faculty spent larger shares of their time in teaching or service activities, and smaller proportions in research or administrative activities, than male faculty. Personally, male minority faculty spent lesson time on childcare and other family related responsibilities than female minority faculty.
Ana Wu: In “Strangers” of the Academy: Asian Women Scholars in Higher Education (2006), you wrote about your frustrations of dealing with Asian female (some of them from China, like you) doctoral students who worked for you as graduate assistants. You said that at that time, you assumed your Asian female students would be more supportive and understanding of your achievement as a minority professor. However, you experienced the reserve: They treated you like a student, negotiating assignments and challenging your authority, and one showed a sharp contrast to the respect she exhibited to your White peers. You also noted that they were older than you. Kubota (2002) in Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom, noted that when working in a teacher preparation program for K-12 Japanese teachers as a foreign language, she met a few Japanese students who treated her with disrespect.
a. How would you explain your students’ attitude towards you?
Dr. Li: First of all, I want to clarify two points. First, this is not the case with all Asian female students—many are very respectful. Second, this phenomenon is not unique with Asian female faculties (I have heard similar incidents with female Korean. I have also heard similar stories from African and Hispanic faculty). My explanation is that female minority faculties are under double or triple disadvantage as viewed by minority students of their own race. As I explained in the article, higher education in both their home country and host country is male dominated; further, in Western cultures, higher education is also very Eurocentric or white dominated. Both our students’ (mine and Kutoba’s and many others’) attitudes reflect these inequalities and disadvantaged positions female minority scholars are in.
b. What advice would you give to novice teachers when being challenged by international students from the same nationality?
Dr. Li: My first advice is not to take it personally. The issue is much rooted in the existing (age-old) racial and structural discourses, and it is not personal. Second, focus on your work—it’s hard to know that someone from your own group does not respect you, but don’t let that affect your work. Third, get to know them more and gradually build trust and break those prejudices.
Ana Wu: In Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom, Rong (2002) tells the story of an Asian scientist and university professor. This instructor believed that besides “having to deal with White hypocrisy, Asian faculty also have to deal with discrimination from a few minority faculty members who have bashed other minority faculty, especially immigrant faculty.” From your research, would you say that among minority groups, there is a racial/ethnic hierarchy in which some groups feel to be more entitled to be valued than others?
Dr. Li: In general, I don’t believe that’s the case. However, I think there is more attention to African American and Hispanic issues in the public discourse. Asians are more in the periphery of discussion when it comes to minority issues.
Ana Wu: Cited in Loo and Ho (2006), Dale Miname, an attorney who has represented many Asian Americans in academic battles, made this observation:
“The academic institution is not immune from political considerations in tenure decision…among my Asian American clients in these situations; I have noticed a common attitude. Invariably, they believe in the merit system: If you work hard, you will be duly rewarded. When faced with an adverse decision based on something other than merit, they have difficulty accepting that reality. All too often, they never understand that politics and racism may have as much to do with a particular decision as merit.” (p.145)
Many people think that being politically savvy means to stab someone in the back or to use someone to get something. From your research, what does it mean to be politically savvy? What is your advice to navigate the politics of the culture of the academia?
Dr. Li: This is a hard one. I agree with the quote that often minorities (Asians and non Asians alike) believe in the merit system and that often backfires on them. The problem is that “work hard and you will realize your dream” is the ethos of the American dream, especially one that is believed by the immigrant minorities. Many often blindly trust in the so called “democracy” and “transparency” popularized in Western culture and fail to recognize the fact that there are politics and “hidden curriculum” everywhere.
Personally, I don’t believe stabbing someone in the back is being politically savvy. I agree with Joan Lloyd (2001) that being politically savvy means that in addition to work hard and know how to do your job well, you also need to know people above you and you get visibility for what you accomplish. This is hard sometimes in a work environment that is racist or biased.
My advice is to work hard but also pay attention to the social networks within the department and college one works in. Get to know more of your colleagues, and if possible, form a support group that you can count on for advice and input.
Ana Wu: In Academic careers of immigrant women professors in the US, Skachkova (2007) talks about the ‘brown-on-brown’ research taboo (Reyes and Halcon 1988), which implies that minority faculty do mainly minority-related research. She says:
“(…) studies find that research conducted by faculty of color and women faculty is not recognized as legitimate by their colleagues or is not recognized at all (Martinez 1995; Turner and Myers 2000). Reyes and Halcon (1988) explain that this ‘brown-on-brown’ research is dismissed as minor or self-serving (…) and that minority researchers cannot be objective in their analyses of those problems which are close to their life experiences.” (p.713)
What do you think about this ‘brown-on-brown’ research taboo?
Dr. Li: I think this “brown-on-brown” research taboo is one of the many ways to reinforce the white dominance/superiority. If minority cannot understand or research themselves or problems close to their own personal experiences, who can? The answer is obviously the white majority people. However, in many cases, non-minority faculties are not interested in the well-being of minority faculty and therefore, important research in these areas may not be done. Further, if minority researchers cannot in any way objectively research themselves, the argument would be that they cannot research the white or non-minority either because they are not in a power position to do so. This can lead to a dangerous conclusion from these lines of argument–minority should not conduct any kind of research. So in sum, I don’t think this brown-on-brown taboo is legitimate at all.
Ana Wu: You are the proud mother of twins. Congratulations! How has it been to balance work with family? Are you working on a new book?
Dr. Li: It has been hard. I really had to prioritize things between work and family. Right now, family is my priority. I have to learn to say to no to different work requests and learn to let go a lot of things. I also have to learn to better manage my time as it is very limited! I just had a new book coming out on best practices in English Language Learners (ELL) Literacy Instruction. I am working on some grant applications and a special journal issue but not a book at the moment.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this intriguing interview!
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