Countless barriers confront women, minorities and first-generation college students. External barriers are most visible but some of the biggest are internal. How do academics on the margins get past self-doubt to self-acceptance and hope?
Dr. LaVona Reeves, professor of English at Eastern Washington University, knows the self-doubt of an outsider on campus. The former Nebraska farm girl spoke at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership conference in Lincoln in October. A few blocks from the conference site, boutiques gentrify the former candy factory where her mother worked for 25 years.
“We should never deny our roots. We should always be reminded where we came from, especially blue-collar men and women. It will provide a foundation,” she told WIHE in an interview after the conference.
Mentors, books and sharing stories can help us value ourselves and move forward. We feel less isolated as we read about others’ inner journeys. We learn to recognize and quit blaming ourselves for what is beyond our control.
Her role models and mentors include First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the African-American teacher and writer bell hooks, a distinguished professor of English at CUNY’s City College. Both faced inner as well as visible walls and ceilings. Both wrote with a deep sense of community, without denying their pain.
Like hooks, Reeves was a first-generation college student who earned a PhD and rose to full professor in a field that revolves around dead white males. She attended a one-room country school and then inner-city Lincoln High School. Her mother required the kids to do two things before they left home: learn to swim and finish high school. Her mother had done neither.
Reeves and hooks were both strong students who met unexpected stumbling blocks at university. Reeves found it hard to keep up her studies while working nearly full-time. For hooks at Stanford University—so different from her previous all-black schools—the hardship was the assumption by white professors that African-Americans couldn’t be high achievers. Loneliness drove her to despair.
Eleanor Roosevelt faced different challenges. Her father entered treatment for alcoholism. She lost both parents and a brother before her 11th birthday. She never earned a college degree. Her stands for civil rights brought mockery and rejection. When she chaired the committee that drafted the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948), Eisenhower said he wanted to save America from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Despite their differences, Reeves felt a kinship with Roosevelt too. Like Roosevelt, she raised four sons, lost one to death, and saw another go to war. (One of her sons is African American.) She worked in a children’s shelter in New York’s Lower East Side, where Roosevelt had worked in a settlement house.
Faced with internal and external barriers, hooks and Roosevelt emerged with the confidence to ground their lives in loving care. How did they do it? A third mentor helped Reeves find the way while she was a “scholarship girl” at the University of Nebraska, majoring in French.
Professor Lenore Buford—her first-African American teacher—read the French class a poem by Victor Hugo about his daughter’s death. Reeves sat in the back of the room in tears. After class she told the professor she was sorry for any disruption. “You must never apologize for deep feelings,” Buford told her.
Ethic of care
Abstract principles such as justice rank highest in Lawrence Kohlberg’s scale of ethical development. Instruments based on Kohlberg’s scale regularly identify well-to-do Western white men as most morally advanced.
Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice, 1982) found women’s morality is not lower but different, based on an ethic of care. Moral choices in this framework focus on keeping connections between people from being broken. The alternative frameworks of care and justice are equally valid.
Later researchers established that gender contrasts play out differently by culture. Like women, minority and blue-collar men measure lower on Kohlberg’s scale because they don’t share the dominant ethic of abstract principles.
Founded by elite white men, universities—like most institutions—value principles over connections. Outsiders who bring a different ethic must either adapt or be viewed as less ethical.
Conflict of values was her greatest challenge as Reeves moved through her BA at Nebraska, MA at Teachers College (Columbia University NY) in teaching English as a second language, PhD in linguistics and rhetoric at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and as faculty at Eastern Washington since 1989.
Academics hurt each other. Often in good faith based on principle, academics destroy careers rather than protect them, she found. “It’s pretty hard if you have been raised not to hurt people,” she told WIHE.
Professor Buford’s words after French class affirmed that scholarship needn’t rule out feelings. While universities reward so-called objectivity in teaching and research, there is another way.
“We as women have to say we don’t pretend to be objective observers. We are mostly participant observers in our research,” Reeves said. Her study of bell hooks and Eleanor Roosevelt as personal mentors is a case in point.
“Everything I’ve done is out of self-doubt,” she admitted. She continually struggled to prove herself. What could she learn from hooks and Roosevelt to help her inner journey? How did they overcome their doubts and fears?
When colleagues say they can’t take the pain and anger in hooks’ writing, Reeves refers them to Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), in which hooks tells how her Buddhist mentor Thich Nhat Hanh guided her from anger to love.
Her autobiography Bone Black (1996) describes how another guide helped hooks through the loneliness of her student years. A priest on a church retreat sent her Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929), which she read over and over. Reading and writing poems pulled her back from the brink.
Writing also helped Eleanor Roosevelt through the hardships of youth. In addition, she found a guide in the freethinking Marie Souvestre, headmistress of the French finishing school Eleanor attended in England. Souvestre encouraged her to trust herself, travel, think independently and care for the underdog.
In the summer of 2005 in England, Reeves spoke about hooks and Roosevelt at the Oxford Roundtable on Women’s Leadership. Another panelist was Dr. Zaje Harrell, an African-American assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. Harrell studied young girls in a program for academic success. She spoke of their need to “diminish self-blame.”
Girls can so easily blame themselves for factors beyond their control: poverty, homelessness and single-parent households. Roosevelt could so easily have blamed herself for her father’s alcoholism, her parents’ deaths and her husband’s infidelity; hooks, for the attitudes of white professors.
It’s an easy trap for women and minorities—to figure it’s our fault when others reject us or entrenched powers push us aside. We take what’s outside our control and internalize it. The way past self-doubt is the opposite: Externalize what’s inside us by writing and talking and sharing our stories.
How we teach
“If anybody needs to be in the academy, people who care need to be there,” Reeves told WIHE. “If we teach with an ethic of care, we can help change some of the values in higher education.” Care is at the heart of her teaching in English, Women’s Studies and English as a second language.
Isolation and fear still plague students on the margins. Higher education pathologizes students from blue-collar backgrounds. Campuses aren’t yet free of racial and gender stereotypes. Liberation of mind and spirit comes through an ethic of care.
Readings include some where students may see aspects of themselves, as hooks saw herself in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Reeves saw parts of herself in bell hooks and Eleanor Roosevelt. “There is no substitute for the close and sustained reading of works by women,” she said.
Writing helps students work through the inner journey toward self-acceptance. Reeves and her students write for the first five minutes of every class.
Spirit and deep feelings are welcome in the classroom. In sharing their stories, students diminish self-blame for things beyond their control. Giving voice to their suffering helps them transform pain into connection. Students realize they are not alone.
Contact Dr. Reeves
Sarah Gibbard Cook, PhD