“Insider/Outsider: Authenticity in the Academy” by Sumun L. Pendakur, Ed.D.

“What shoes shall I wear to work today?  Do I need to pack a lunch?  I hope I remembered to put all of my meetings in my calendar!  How do I navigate the reproductive structure of the university without losing my authentic, critical sense of self? Did I grab my cell phone?”

Yes, those are some of the questions that float around my head each morning as I prepare to come to work.  And many of you might ponder similar questions each week.  As an Indian American, 2nd generation, person of color, Asian American, ally, educator, multilingual, leftist, feminist woman, I continually negotiate the intersections of my multiple identities throughout the day.  I am truly lucky (NOT “pigeonholed”) to work in a department (USC Asian Pacific American Student Services) where my multiplicities are acknowledged and are integrated into our social justice and educational work.  That’s the personal.  But what about the political?  Like my department, I do not operate in isolation.  My identities are the source of joy, and sometimes conflict, in the institutions in which I have worked. 

Given that conflict, I think often about Paulo Freire’s definition of critical consciousness.  Critical consciousness can be described as an individual’s investigation into the world around her, which allows for a critique of inequitable systems and structures, as well as the space to take on the role of caring change agent. With a critical consciousness, the individual’s motives, interests, and agendas are not aligned with reproductive, hegemonic dynamics in society.  How do I continue to live in a critically conscious way, while acknowledging that I am embedded in a specific power structure?  What tools can keep me grounded, rooted, and authentic?   Is there a roadmap for me and others?

To answer that question, I thought I would provide some notes from my own journey, as well as some of the insights that emerged from my doctoral dissertation on change agents in elite universities.  The following is certainly not comprehensive, but has worked for others and is working for me. 

So…drum roll…a few tips, tools, and questions – as well as ways I maintain authenticity and my social justice sense of purpose while located in an inequitable power structure:

Networks for What Purpose?

Networking to Benefit Students:

Do you network solely for self-gain or professional advancement?  Or does your network building have a larger purpose?  The successful participants in my study built complex, multidirectional, embedded social capital networks. They constructed these networks deliberately as an important tool to counter stratification and oppression in their work to authentically empower low income minority students.  I enjoy networking (I’m a WOO, if you’ve done StrengthsQuest!).  But I am driven by a purpose.  Do you look to build relationships with key partners to enhance your ability to serve students, particularly students who are marginalized in mainstream academia?  Our field is highly relational – oftentimes, relationships are worth more than money.  The networking I do on- and off-campus often serves our students by taking on the form of guest speakers, facilitators, hosts for site visits and service projects, and more. 

For Renewed Commitment:

Building cross-campus and off-campus relationships with supportive, critical allies and comrades has been key for me (and for the participants in my study!).  These relationships keep me balanced, help me re-center my moral compass in case I’m feeling a bit wobbly, and provide a trusting space for me to receive feedback and encouragement.  In addition to professional colleagues and friends, my brother, Vijay, and my father, Manjunath, count amongst these relationships because of their keen understanding of institutional dynamics and their own role-modeling of critical consciousness.   Who, in your network, combines a clarity around institutional forms of oppression, along with the will to strive, achieve, and build programs, and can give you that boost when you need it? 

Mentoring with Passion

You (and I) have heard the advice to find mentors – which is extremely valuable advice.  But we don’t have to rely on positional or traditional leadership to locate mentors.  Find mentors in unlikely places – your mentors don’t have to be Vice-Presidents or Deans.  Or, if they are, find higher-ups who are balancing their responsibilities with their integrity and sense of self.  Equally valuable, I have found, is creating opportunities to serve as a mentor to as many people as I can, in informal and formal ways.  Role-modeling and demonstrating that how I live is a direct reflection of my beliefs and values is powerful, for both the “mentee” and me.  It requires that I check myself and my lived reality for major discrepancies – how can I serve as a mentor if I am not centered?  Living my multiplicities in all contexts is powerful, and I actively try to live that, particularly for other young women of color.  Dialoguing about the conflicts that attempting to live a critically conscious life might entail is also powerful, because it is real. 

Counter-Training – Find Ways to Resist

I cite Bourdieu (2000) in my study because he is eloquent in his description of resistance and the power of the status quo:

And another effect of the scholastic illusion is seen when people describe resistance to domination in the language of consciousness (and) expect political liberation to come from the ‘raising of consciousness’ – ignoring the extraordinary inertia which results from the inscription of social structures in bodies…Only a thoroughgoing process of countertraining, involving repeated exercises, can, like an athlete’s training, durably transform habitus.

Most institutions that garner societal power thrive on reproduction and maintenance of the status quo.  So where do you and I find that countertraining that Bourdieu describes?  It’s certainly not in the best interests of most institutions to provide said countertraining!  So I try to get informed by reading (and analyzing) history and alternative media.  I take that knowledge and manifest it in my work (through the programs we create), in my relationships (centered on authenticity and trust), and by serving in the community (on non-profit boards, through service-learning, and by engaging in street protests).  Here’s an example of what our four-person departmental leadership team did this summer:  we had a summer book club in which we read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  Everybody had to read the whole book, and each team member facilitated the discussion of a six-chapter section.  Our team members hold different values and beliefs, but all four of us were energized and motivated by our reading and entered the academic year excited to imbue our programs with Zinn’s spirit.  Countertraining can happen in big and small ways – what works for you?

Accept Care and Ask Others to Hold You Accountable

Finally, all of the above – networks/relationships, mentoring/role-modeling, and countertraining – are moot if others are not a part of your authenticity journey.  I have partners in my professional and personal life who challenge me, push me, ground me, inspire me, and love me for all that I am trying to be.  But I have been honest with them about my goals, desires, fears, and ambitions.  In my department, Jade serves as a partner in our mission, but also as my “Jiminy Cricket.”  Are we on track?  Are we doing the most we can to implement our mission?  Are you taking care of yourself?  These are the types of questions she lobs at me that help me to invest in our work and in myself.  My life partner, Sunil, and my mother, Roja, help me stay grounded, while offering true, unconditional support.  Sunil makes sure that I am taking time to renew, reflect, and replenish so I can keep “fighting the good fight,” while my mom makes sure that I’m not just talking the talk (while she also worries about the nights and weekends in Student Affairs work!).  

Closing Thoughts

To be fair, my quest for authenticity is made slightly easier by the position I hold now, which actively engages issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more.  The future is yet unwritten, but I hope to maintain my critical consciousness in future positions, in new institutions, and in different roles.  Will it be a challenge?  Probably, given the “extraordinary inertia” that Bourdieu (2000) describes.  But I will follow my roadmap, and the guidance of others, and look forward to meeting you on the journey.



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7 responses to ““Insider/Outsider: Authenticity in the Academy” by Sumun L. Pendakur, Ed.D.

  1. Great blog post, Sumi! I really appreciated the points you made about networking (for others) and mentoring…if you can’t find a great mentor right now, mentor someone else! 🙂 Here at DePaul, we often use the language of self-serving opportunist (networking for self) versus other-serving opportunist (networking for others). Your blog post was a great reminder to me that being an opportunist is not inherently problematic…it’s about your desired outcomes. Very provocative, Sis. 😉 -vijay

    • Sumi

      Thanks for the feedback, Vij! I have sometimes struggled to find true mentors, so multi-directional mentoring keeps me fresh and focused. Appreciate the positivity, Bro. 🙂 – Sumi

  2. Really appreciate the framing of this post in critical consciousness. Thank you for sharing this information – especially the information on the purpose behind networking (for whom is it for? what purpose?). You’ve given me much to think about – which is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you!!

    • Sumun Pendakur

      Hi Julie! Thanks much for the feedback — really glad you liked the framing and the roadmap. I don’t know if you’ve read Meyerson and Tompkins (2007) excellent article, entitled “Tempered Radicals as Institutional Change Agents.” You may really like it!

  3. Sumi! I was at the conference at USC on Friday. I came up to you in the session after you and 3 other wonderful women spoke. I have been following this blog for some time now and it definitely paralleled with the panel discussion at USC on Friday 🙂 Thanks so much!!

    • Sumun Pendakur

      Hi Jayme!
      Thanks so much for attending the WRCSAD Women in Student Affairs panel — I had a blast moderating it! And I’m glad you found parallels between my blog post and the thoughts of the panelists. I know it’s something a lot of us think about…

  4. I loved this piece!

    “How do I navigate the reproductive structure of the university without losing my authentic, critical sense of self?”

    This is the question I have begun to ask myself recently (especially after we met), and most of the time, the answers create dissonance in what the status quo wants to maintain. Yet, it’s a dissonance that reminds me there is much work to be done…

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