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‘Through Laughter, the Power of These Inequities Gets Diminished’

A Tyee Q&A with Ethel Tungohan, host of the equity-seeking podcast 'Academic Aunties.'

Katie Hyslop 10 Mar

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethel Tungohan found herself engrossed in numerous group chats with other struggling academics in Canada.

“There was one chat where someone was like, ‘Is it messed up that I always get called the name of the other Asian professor?’ And then we'd say, ‘Yes, that's messed up.’ And another friend was like, ‘I just landed my first tenure track job, what clothes should I buy?’” she recalled.

“And a lot of academia functions on these networks of friendship, what we call dissident friendships, where it's not just about affirmation, it's also about acts of collective witnessing.”

At the time Tungohan, like many of her academic friends, was working towards a tenured position. But she was also struggling with being a parent and supporting her own parents during a deadly pandemic that put racialized people like her Filipino diaspora family at greater risk.

“Seeing the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on racialized communities, including my own, really shook me. Institutionally, there were a lot of things I was unhappy about with respect to how inequities in academia just flourished,” Tungohan said.

Tungohan’s preoccupation with these group chats inspired her husband, Wayne Chu, also an academic at the time, to suggest she start a podcast about the issues they’d been discussing.

“My partner asked, ‘If you were to have a tagline, catch-all advice for everyone in the academy, especially women of colour, people from equity-seeking groups, what would it be?’ And that's where the tagline 'Take care, be kind to yourself, and don't be an asshole,' came up,” said Tunghohan. And thus the Academic Aunties podcast was born.

Hosted by Tungohan, who is now an associate professor of politics and the Canada Research Chair in Canadian migration policy, impacts and activism at York University, and produced by Chu and Nisha Nath, an assistant professor of equity studies at Athabasca University, Academic Aunties navigates what Tunghohan refers to as the “hidden curriculum” keeping certain groups of people — white, cisgender, heterosexual men, for example — in power, while marginalizing others.

But with topics like pay equity, precarious employment, racism, toxic hierarchies and pandemic parenting, which are as near-universal to the office work experience as they are contentious, Academic Aunties has broad appeal outside academia.

The Tyee spoke with Tungohan about her podcast, the role of exploitation and money in higher education, and the importance — and subversion — of finding joy and worker solidarity in the academy. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: What is Academic Aunties, and why did you start it?

Tungohan: It is really for people in the academy who feel it has become a site of inequity. A lot of our listeners are people who are racialized, first generation, part of underrepresented groups, who feel that the norms of the academy simply aren't working for them.

As it has evolved, it's become more of a podcast that addresses issues beyond the academy, too. One of our most popular episodes is the Encanto episode, where we talked about how intergenerational trauma among immigrant academics still is a reality that we all face.

There's a lot of hidden norms in the academy that never get talked about, and this is an opportunity for us to talk about them. The first episode was me and some of my besties in the academy, Mariam Georgis and Nisha Nath [asking], why are there so many assholes in the academy? [Editor’s hint: the influence of neoliberalism and capitalism on the academy is partially to blame. But you’ll have to listen to the episode for more!]

What is the power of talking about issues not normally talked about?

I'll cite an example. One of my favourite episodes was with Rebecca Major, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Windsor. We talked about money. There is the sense that academia is a calling, that you are an academic because you feel this higher urge to be part of this profession. And in some ways, that's true. To devote all of your time and education on research, saying no to all of these other opportunities, you have to like it a lot.

But in calling academia “a calling,” that justifies a lot of pay inequities. It makes it harder to complain, because how can you complain when really it's “a calling” and “a privilege” to be part of this world. By saying academia is a job, we are entitled to good working standards, to pay equity. That actually sheds light onto some of the practices that we rendered as being normal, but become sites of all of these inequities, too.

We've covered systemic racism in the academy at The Tyee. And the response from universities so far has been equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. How successful has that process been at rooting out systemic racism in academia?

Now it's being called EDID: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization. One of my biggest concerns is that using this vocabulary to show universities are becoming more “progressive” actually puts a shiny gloss over some of the persisting structural inequities that still exist.

A lot of these initiatives have been tied to human resource management: for example, targeted hiring initiatives. Which I completely support; absolutely, there should be programs that recruit racialized faculty, Black and Indigenous faculty, faculty from equity seeking groups.

But EDID programs tend to stop at liberal modes of inclusion where you add more diverse people and you mix it. What worries me is when it's all about adding and mixing without thinking about overturning some of these structural inequities, these initiatives are bound to fail. You can't just stop at hiring, it shouldn't just be human resources. You have to think about the supports available for faculty.

And also, quite frankly, we have to think about redistribution of resources. Why not imagine more grants? Or more course releases for faculty to be able to do their jobs well? Some of the success stories have been cohort hiring where you don't just hire one, you hire entire groups of targeted faculty hires, so they can then provide support for each other.

Course releases are when a professor asks to be released from a course so they can do research. Is that right?

Yes, and usually professors have different kinds of teaching loads. But what we're finding is, for a lot of female faculty, a lot of racialized faculty, there's emotional labour they have to provide that prevents them from doing other parts of the job such as research, which, for a lot of universities, that's the main part of our jobs. An additional course release for people coming in through these targeted hiring initiatives recognizes they already get asked to provide all of this emotional labour and service work that prevents them from actually spending more time on research, for example.

I don't see it as a burden. In fact it's an honour to be trusted by students. But I do think in terms of looking at my time allocations, I did have some colleagues who saw the pandemic as an extended writing retreat. Like, are you serious? And so these measures, course releases, more funding allocations for research projects geared just for Black and Indigenous faculty, will be some of the measures we can implement to redress some of these inequities.

Does that expectation land on racialized female academics there because there's not enough support for students? Or because of the assumptions people make about racialized female academics?

In some contexts, for sure, it's the way we're read. If you're a woman you're read as naturally being more nurturing, maternal. If you're a racialized woman sometimes you're read as having to have that naturally empathetic side of you. But in terms of institutions crumbling, especially during COVID, what I'm finding is because where I teach at York, most of the students are immigrants from racialized backgrounds, they see me as one of the only people who would probably understand what they're going through. Also, because my research is on immigration.

There's a lot of expectations put on being one of the few, and in some ways, it's hard to meet those expectations because we can't do everything. But on the other hand, it's hard because you see how these inequities also affect the lives of your students, especially your racialized students, and you want to be an advocate.

Speaking of having more racialized and international students, this has coincided with the government's decrease in funding for universities. Is it cynical to see that as related? Or do you think something else is going on?

I do see the increase of international students as the neoliberalization of higher education. That's another one of my research projects separate from the podcast: I'm examining the experiences of international student visa holders and seeing how universities and colleges, both public and private, are taking advantage of international students. A lot of whom come here, not because they necessarily want a degree or a certificate, but because Canada increasingly has a two-step immigration program where you come in as an international student first, hoping to get Canadian permanent residency later.

[For universities,] it's basically seen as a way to bolster dwindling revenues, because international students pay triple the price for tuition compared to domestic students. We have an episode coming up with an international scholar who has faced a lot of the same challenges.

It sounds like it's becoming less and less economically viable to be in academia these days. Is that a fair perception?

Vannina Sztainbok talked about academic precarity, the adjunctification of universities, how a lot of universities, quite frankly, treat limited-term contract instructors, sessional instructors, as reserve labour and how we really need to mobilize as academic workers.

And one of the hardest things about mobilizing as academic workers is a lot of people who are on the tenure track don't find solidarity with sessional workers and limited term appointment instructors. It's important for us to see academic workers as a group meriting representation and supporting unions for universities. This is one of the ways in which we can encourage equity in the academy, through unionization.

The New Yorker published an article recently about the decline of humanities enrolment in the U.S. Do you see a link between the abuse of academic workers and the decline in humanities enrolments?

It has to do with the politics of austerity that some provincial governments, especially conservative governments, have promoted. Look at what's happening in Sudbury, where they closed most of the university and focused their attention on what they see as degrees that lead to jobs. It shows an anti-higher education ethos that has led to universities suffering, and I don't know why people don't see it. It's frustrating.

What gives you hope about academia right now?

Initiatives such as Scholar Strike Canada, that gives me hope. Increasingly, a lot of the people I talked to at least see it as being this isolationist tendency of academia where you have to advocate just for the individual. A lot of people are dissatisfied with that. Even in my own university union, the York University Faculty Association, we have a race and equity caucus, we have conversations surrounding the need to have structural change in the academy — that gives me a lot of hope.

It gives me hope that the guests we have, the listeners who've reached out to us, see a lot of these inequities cannot be overturned based on individual liberal solutions, that we really have to work together and think collectively to fight back. It's the collective action piece that I think is the future of the academy. That's the only way that we can survive.

A lot of Academic Aunties episodes tackle serious topics, but you say the most popular episode is about Encanto; and I saw another episode about academic pets. Why is it important to bring topics people might see as less serious into the conversation?

When folks listen to the episodes, there's a lot of joy. There's a lot of laughter, there's joy in subversion. There's also a gallows humour that permeates: when you talk about all of these microaggressions, you just have to laugh. And through laughter, the power that some of these inequities hold over you gets diminished. Because you're reversing the gaze. Then it's not you that's “damaged,” you're just laughing at the person who called you the name of the other Asian prof, laughing at the sheer ludicrousness of it all.

And the light-hearted episodes are just fun. One of the episodes that actually got a lot of listeners was when we talked about Meghan and Harry's documentary on Netflix. Because why not? That's what I like talking about and that's what listeners like listening to, cause sometimes it's also good to have a reprieve from some of the harder moments.  [Tyee]

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