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May 12, 2003

Book: Identity at risk in academia

As much as academia is a symbol of open minds and diverse outlooks, some faculty members feel pressured to conform to a university culture, says Cecil Canton. The criminal justice professor, along with education professors Lila Jacobs and Jose Cintron, found the struggle to maintain identity is a common experience among young faculty of color – because they had been there themselves.

The topic led to a book: The Politics of Survival in Academia: Narratives of Inequity, Resilience and Success. The book tells the experiences of 10 ethnically diverse scholars and features such chapters as “Redefining the Self: from AFDC to PhD” by Jacobs and ”From Slaveship to Scholarship: A Narrative of the Political and Social Transformation of an African American Educator” by Canton.

“It’s about survival, the very real struggle for those coming into the academy in a system where there’s pressure to conform to culture,” Canton says. “The common thread is the struggle in maintaining identity.

“People in higher education seem to change. I didn’t want to be seen as different from my family because of the sobriquet of ‘professor.’ I didn’t want to lose the enduring identity I have of who I am. You need to remember where you came from.”

As they watch the campus continue to grow and become increasingly more diverse, Canton, Cintron and Jacobs feel the message is particularly fitting.

“With so many new folks coming into the system, we wanted to give them a way to achieve success without giving up self,” Canton says. “I hope they will take strength from these stories and hope it will help them in the transformative process to stay authentic to who they are.”

The writers also knew they couldn’t just talk about the experiences of others. “As researchers that often tell other people’s stories, we felt it was important to also tell our own,” Jacobs says. “It was a risk to be vulnerable and to tell the painful parts of our journeys in academia, but the contribution to others made it worthwhile.”

“I never forget that as an African American, especially on this campus. I’m a role model for students,” Canton says. “That’s a level of responsibility you have to take seriously. In corrections, there’s an expression ‘You have to talk the talk and walk the walk.’ I’m talking the talk and walking the walk.”

There were also debts to repay. “Our stories are the stories of many who came through before us. We got the mentoring, the prodding, the guidance from them,” Canton says.

Though the book is written by academics for academics, Canton notes the ideas could work in any profession where there is pressure to conform. “The diversity that you bring is important and the institution is enriched by that perspective,” he says. “It’s like women in the criminal justice system – if they don’t bring in their femininity, they’re not accomplishing anything. You can be proud of who you are and be successful.”

The book is already finding an audience. Canton says incoming CSUS President Alexander Gonzalez has ordered the book and so has California State University Chancellor Charles Reed.

“We have received letters and calls from people who have read the book letting us know how significant it was to see that they were not alone in their situations,” Jacobs says. “And when we make presentations on the book, it is not uncommon for people in the audience to cry.

“That is not usual in academic conferences, and it is evidence that narratives are a way to touch the soul.”

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