Double-Crossed (or Stabbed Twice), Again and Again (and Again): Reflections on Our Data-Driven Academic Economy

As an academic-unit administrator in a high-quality, public institution of higher education in this era of dwindling resources, I have come to a sort of peace with the way deans, provosts, chancellors, and their minions (of which, I guess, I am one) make data-driven decisions. Thus, I read reports like the MLA’s Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity with appreciation for the careful work reflected in it, and I understand how such reports are useful to those of us who advocate better and more attention to the needs of the humanities in the emergence of new models of higher education. Indeed, in crucial ways, data and analysis of them are the ticket to a seat at the table and the discussion around it.

Having reached this pleasant (albeit restive) peace, I want to also point out that over the past two decades I have read through reports like this one and become accustomed to the regular fact of Native American statistical insignificance in quantitative studies of American higher education. This report uses double crosses, or double daggers, to note that insignificance, and I can’t help exploiting the irony. Cross me once, shame on you; double-cross me, shame on me. Stab me once, shame on you; stab me twice, I guess I didn’t run away fast enough. Nearly every report like this one I have read over the past two decades double-crosses or stabs me with the persistent reality of Native American statistical insignificance in American higher education.

This is the first time anyone has come to me and asked me to address the meaning of Native statistical insignificance, so let me express my appreciation for an opportunity to do some venting. I have a criticism to make of this particular report, but I make it in the context of ongoing support of the MLA’s openness to criticism. Let me start, then, with a recent example that illustrates how I read this MLA report.

Last year, the University of Illinois, where I work, placed an ad touting its commitment to diversity on the same page of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2011 “Diversity in Academe” annual statistical report on the state of higher education that reported the percentage of Native American and other groups of faculty members on our campus. The ad reads, “At Illinois, it’s all about our commitment. … The University of Illinois is committed to cultivating a campus in which students, staff, and faculty are welcomed, valued, and celebrated.” In the table alongside the half-page ad, Illinois lists American Indian faculty as 0%.

I would, perhaps, be less sensitive to such slights if my campus and our program were not as overdetermined as we are. Illinois is, as you may recall, a campus that treated the country to a controversy of nearly two decades over its sports mascot, which was eventually and spasmodically retired in 2007. The university spent millions of dollars defending the rather backward and embarrassing position that having a student dress up in Northern Plains–style clothes and perform dance moves like aerial splits to obviously fake Native-themed music could be construed to honor Native Americans, specifically those from this decidedly non-Plains region of the Midwest. The flimsy argument didn’t work despite those millions.

Thanks to the hard and resolute work of Native and non-Native students, staff members, and faculty members on our campus, Illinois created an American Indian studies program a decade ago. That program, oddly enough, has become regarded by people around the world as a leader in global Indigenous studies. I came to Illinois to direct the program five years ago, largely because of the terrific people who had assembled in it. I am proud to say that we have got even better since then. I don’t know if we are the best, but I do not hear anyone saying that some other program or department is better. So, given this odd confluence, what does it mean that we are in a conversation about having the best program studying Native Americans while also having statistically no Native American faculty members?

As a program director responsible for administering an academic unit with tenure-granting rights, I have participated in meetings at which departmental requests for new faculty lines are vetted. In those meetings, I have sat looking at data projected on a screen detailing how many majors a department has and how many instructional units (at Illinois, an instructional unit is earned for every hour of paid tuition for a particular class) a department produces for every full-time faculty member on its roster. The logic is simple: one can gain a decent picture of what an academic unit will likely produce with a new faculty member by looking at what it’s doing with its current roster.

In my experience, which includes more opportunities than most people in our profession have had to be inside the conference room for this sort of process but which is still limited in comparison with the experience of bigger fish in the academic pond, data that drive this simple logic are part of a longer, often much more complex discussion that involves peering into memos, spreadsheets, and other media to create a context for understanding how to make a decision about a particular academic unit in a particular institution at a particular time. But, however complex that discussion becomes, those data are almost always the entry point for the discussion and can come to represent a trump card for or (much more often) against deciding in favor of a unit’s request to grow.

If you have ever had to compare faculty members across a large department, or if you have ever been part of a tenure and promotion committee, you have probably had a similar experience with teaching evaluations. Those evaluations obviously say something about a course and how a professor taught it, but most MLA members, I would guess, would argue that a quantitative presentation of evaluations provides only one, highly limited view of what happened across the span of time in a course. Was the professor a tough grader? Did she pitch the course at a level slightly higher than the average student in a room? Did the reading list go one notch above what students on that campus could endure? Such questions, none of which are reflected in the data, can affect a decision.

In graduate admissions, I have never been part of a discussion that started with a candidate’s GRE scores (though I have to say I have been in discussions in which admissions decisions unfortunately hinged on those scores). Recently I had the pleasure of being on a graduate fellowship board focused on providing support for underrepresented students—the pleasure coming in part from the shared sense of the experienced board members with whom I have worked that GRE scores rarely say anything significant about a candidate unless they are incredibly high or incredibly low.

So data are for me something worth considering, and I am open to considering the reasons why my colleagues in measurement-based disciplines trust them much more than I do, especially when they are open to my suspicions that we trust quantifiable scores too much. Which brings me to the MLA report.

The first time American Indian or Alaska Native people show up as a number higher than 4 in Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity is in the table listing foreign languages in which doctorates were earned from 1997 to 2006. The total number in that decade is 13, slightly more than one per year, representing 0.2% of all doctorates earned (table 3a). The next chart, table 3b, indicates that 68 American Indians or Alaska Natives earned PhDs in English in the same period, including 10 in 2001 (0.5%). Table 3c tells us that 153 American Indians or Alaska Natives earned doctorates in the humanities during that same decade (0.4%).

Table 4 provides a snapshot of where scholars of color who graduated from English PhD programs found jobs in 2003–04. Only four Native people graduated that year: one found a tenure-track position, one got a non-tenure-track position, one got a postdoctoral position, and one got a job in government, business, or a not-for-profit organization. By contrast, 46.6% of white PhDs in English found tenure-track jobs, and 67%–74% of other people of color found tenure-track positions.

Soon after, the double crosses or double daggers appear. These crosses or daggers, according to the footnotes, represent “[t]oo few cases to report statistically significant information” (table 7). They appear in the American Indian or Alaska Native column of the following categories in the report: research activities of full-time faculty members at four-year institutions by race or ethnicity, hours per week worked by full-time humanities faculty members at four-year institutions by race or ethnicity, overall job satisfaction of full-time humanities faculty members at four-year institutions by race or ethnicity, opinion of full-time humanities faculty members at four-year institutions by race or ethnicity in response to the statement that faculty members who are members of racial or ethnic minorities are treated fairly, and responses by full-time humanities faculty members at four-year institutions by race or ethnicity to the question of whether they would choose an academic career again.

So, what do I learn from this report about how institutions are doing in providing opportunities and support for Native American scholars, and what can you learn? Beyond the basic set of very low numbers, let’s be honest and say that we learn only that language departments have not provided enough opportunities for Native American scholars to even register as significant in this study—despite the fact that the MLA has been involved in the development of Native literature as a legitimate academic field for more than four decades.

To elaborate, the MLA has been involved in Native literary studies more extensively than it has been in any field in race and ethnicity except for African American literary studies. American Indian literatures gained divisional status well ahead of Chicano/a literatures or Asian American literatures. The Association for the Study of American Indian Literature (ASAIL) provided further opportunities for sessions in the association’s structure at an early juncture.

The field’s whiteness surely had something to do with the speed with which American Indian literatures became a structural part of the MLA. Without the non-Native scholars who took the lead in legitimizing the field in their departments and in the MLA, Native literary studies would have had neither the numbers nor the expertise to push forward. Yet a field focused on Native literatures but having the vast majority of its practitioners be non-Native leads to perceptual and representational problems. With so few Native scholars around, non-Natives have been the face of the field. Non-Native scholars do not, by definition, experience the field in the same way Native scholars do, and non-Native and Native scholars necessarily represent Native experience differently.

Twenty years after the initial moves toward the field began, when I first started attending MLA conventions in the 1990s, Native scholars were statistically insignificant in their own division: three to five Native scholars being able to find one another at a session was the status quo. Efforts to make things different eventually helped bring as many as twenty-five Native scholars to the same convention, and for a couple of years in a row, every member of the division’s elected leadership was a Native scholar. Those couple of years when twenty-five showed up created parity of a sort in the division, and to the great credit of nearly all the non-Native scholars who had been integral to the building and development of the division, Native scholars in both small and more equal numbers have been welcomed as colleagues and leaders.

I don’t intend my criticism to imply that the MLA’s four decades of support mean nothing, but none of that work is captured in a report like this one. My question, then, is, What does the MLA plan on doing to reflect its long-standing commitment to this field? The focus or methodology of the report may be fine, but the report’s stance toward data about Native American responses reads like a shrug of the shoulders. Is this “Oh, well, we tried,” or does it open the door to some other avenue along which we all might learn something about what four decades of supporting a field means?

The overall bad news of the report makes me wonder about the extent to which language departments have grown complaisant about the recruitment and retention of students of color in our profession. Thus I offer the following recommendations for the consideration of those who remain concerned about Native participation in the work of Native literary studies.

  • Acknowledge the statistical insignificance and characterize what that means for the MLA. The basic problem is not statistical insignificance but lack of characterization. After forty years, shouldn’t the MLA have something meaningful to say when its own studies don’t capture information about a constituency to which it has, in various ways, committed itself? Do the data, even if they are not statistically significant, point to anything? If not, okay. But let us at least discuss the fact of their insignificance.
  • Consider dedicating association resources to gaining a statistical-quantitative understanding of this field. The MLA’s Language Map uses aggregated data from the 2006–10 American Community Survey to display the locations and numbers of speakers of thirty languages commonly spoken in the United States, and its Language Map Data Center provides data about over three hundred languages spoken in the United States. Beyond these tools, I know of no quantitative project the MLA has sponsored that captures Native participation in the profession. Why not sponsor studies that focus on Native American participation in the profession? At worst, such studies would establish a baseline of how close or far we are to being able to quantify Native experiences of teaching language and literature. At best, they would capture data that other studies have not.
  • Do not allow statistical insignificance to limit the extent to which the MLA refers to diversity in the profession. Instruct all those who speak for the association and those who work with them to include Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and First Nations people in their discussions about diversity. Anytime someone speaks for the MLA and lists underrepresented groups, Native Americans should be able to expect those speakers to include Native Americans.

I hope these recommendations prove useful to the association’s leaders and staff members as they consider what it means to be inclusive of Native people in policy and practice. Action on these recommendations would make the double crosses or double daggers a little easier to endure.

Works Cited

Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity. Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. <>.

University of Illinois. Advertisement. “Diversity in Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education 10 Sept. 2011: B50. Print.

Robert Warrior is professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana. This essay appears as part of a cluster from the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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