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Intellectual Humility

What you read and who you reference—in books, articles, and even everyday conversations—are political choices. These choices, consciously or not, contour your thinking, confer legitimacy upon some voices and not others, and shape the way you frame problems (and the array of possible solutions that occur to you).

In PhD programs, which train students to become expert researchers, new scholars learn, explicitly and by osmosis, what to read and who to reference. It’s part of how students are assessed. Later, scholars learn and reinforce these lessons through the process of writing and publishing. In all these avenues, researchers learn who, what, and which journals and book presses are important to read, and conversely, which are not. As academic careers progress, the works you use to frame your own and the references you choose to scaffold your arguments matter for your ability to publish, build peer networks, and secure that coveted tenure track faculty position. Do it “right,” and you’ll be able to continue your research and teach the next generation of thinkers.

Yet, any good sociologist knows intuitively that none of those choices are “value-free” or “objective.” Knowledge production, or the processes by which “we” decide whose work and thoughts are published and deemed important, has always been racialized, gendered, and sexualized.

For example, as sociologist Aldon Morris documents in his book The Scholar Denied, WEB Du Bois was for many decades purposefully excluded from the sociological canon. For Black women, in general, this exclusion remains stubbornly persistent. In 2017, Christen A Smith created The Cite Black Women Collective to push scholars to acknowledge, cite, and incorporate Black women’s intellectual contributions into mainstream academic disciplines. That’s because Black women’s contributions are continually erased, pushed to the margins, and sometimes stolen by other scholars who use their ideas and work without attribution to publish in more mainstream journals. It is much the same for scholars from a swath of other marginalized communities, who so often suffer similar intellectual fates.

The result is not only a poorer, less nuanced, and wholly incomplete body of knowledge. It has direct and personal impacts too. Scholars of color, particularly Black women and other women of color, are pushed out of departments and institutions, denied tenure, and presumed incompetent. Their expertise is questioned and their intellectual contributions labeled highly specialized and overly narrow. In turn, their work is too often left out of top publication venues, left off reading lists, and regarded as unimportant to the work of white scholars.

Despite being denied a seat at the table and facing constant institutional betrayals,  women of color continue to be brave, challenging the status quo.

That brings us to our own effort to address long-standing practices of intellectual exclusion: we call upon anyone who reads or references articles and books, particularly scholars, to practice intellectual humility.

In a 2018 study published in Self and Identity, psychologists Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann describe intellectual humility as “recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge and appreciating others’ intellectual strengths.” Many psychologists have similarly sought to understand intellectual humility and how it’s correlated to a range of phenomena: openness to disagreement, a growth mindset, mastery behaviors, scrutiny of COVID-related misinformation, epistemic curiosity, cognitive flexibility, and prosocial behaviors. Here, scholars think about intellectual humility as a personal characteristic, testable vis-a-vis experiments.

We take a different approach.

Knowing the politics of citations, knowing how already marginalized scholars in the academy are devalued and pushed to the margins, we define intellectual humility as a set of practices that revolve around the pursuit of knowledge, one that is rooted in understanding of knowledge production as racialized and gendered, and one geared toward centering the scholarship of marginalized voices. Intellectual humility is a call for people to read broadly, to seek out knowledge from the periphery and center it in their research, writing, and teaching.

Our call for practicing this kind of intellectual humility does not discount the need for expertise in everyday life. Instead, our call is to recognize that how and what we base our knowledge on is important, as is the way such knowledge is institutionalized. If we only reference readings and theories learned during graduate training and/or articles or books published by certain journals and presses, we will continue to marginalize the very scholars and scholarship that recent racial reckonings claim to value.

Our call also goes beyond merely adding more marginalized people and their expertise to our disciplines and work. It is a challenge to fundamental assumptions about who shapes our thinking and why. It is a plea to recognize and center modes of knowledge that are too often rendered invisible, and it is part of long-standing calls to decolonize the university.

Victoria Reyes is in the department of gender and sexuality studies at University of California, Riverside, where Sneha George is a PhD candidate in the department of ethnic studies. Reyes is the author of Academic Outsider, and George studies the tensions and antagonisms between queer of color critique/queer theory and antiblackness.

Recommend readings:

Sara Ahmed. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell. 2018. “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus” Feminist Studies 44(2).

Anna Julia Cooper. 1892. A Voice from the South. Xenia, OH: The Aldine Printing House

Trinh Minh-Ha. 2009. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Jennifer C. Nash and Emily A. Owens. 2015. “Introduction: Institutional Feelings: Practicing Women’s Studies in the Corporate University.”  Feminist Formations 27(3).


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