The Power of Praxis

"We're helping create what today's graduate students understand to be normal for academia."

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“We are seeding the future, including our next systems of justice, with every action we take; the fractal nature of our sacred design teaches us that our smallest choices today will become our next norms.” — adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us

“I love that quote,” Julie Posselt PhD ’13 said, “it really highlights why I engage with faculty. With each action we take, each decision we make, with the words that we choose to use or the words that we withhold, we're helping create what today's graduate students understand to be normal for academia.”

Posselt, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, was a 2015-17 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral research fellow and was awarded the American Educational Research Association’s Early Career Award in 2018. Her research examines institutionalized inequities in higher education and organizational diversity efforts, with a particular focus on graduate education, STEM fields, and elite undergraduate institutions. As a graduate student at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, Posselt wrote her dissertation on selective graduate admissions. Her dissertation served as the basis for her first book, Inside Graduate Admissions, which was published in 2016 while she was a member of the U-M School of Education faculty.

In her latest book, Equity in Science: Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education, Posselt asks readers to reflect on a number of outliers in higher education that are accomplishing what many other organizations set out to achieve with regards to equity and diversity in the STEM fields. In one case study, she and her colleague Kelly Slay PhD ’18, found that an academic department increased their racial diversity by focusing on marketing, but lost initial gains after students from diverse backgrounds experienced an unwelcoming climate. “Graduate programs that want to become more diverse need to think systemically. If they don't, any gains will be short lived,” Posselt said. The concept of “bait and switch” is one of the many takeaways from Equity in Science, another is the importance of embodying the values the organization is trying to see in their community. “What we saw in the programs that were able to maintain diversity and become more equitable over time, is that they paid a lot of attention to how the work itself was carried out in alignment with principles of equity and inclusion. They were tuned in to power, to who was at the table and who was not. They expected continuous learning of themselves and of one another, and they held each other to really high standards of conduct,” Posselt said.

Given the focus of her work, Posselt finds many opportunities to reflect on the intersection of research, theory, and practice. This is a practice she tries to instill in her students as well. She often encourages her 10-member research team, or “second family” as she affectionately calls them, to reflect on how the racialized, gendered, and class aspects of graduate education they are studying are not separate from their lived experiences as graduate students. When asked what words of wisdom she would share with current students in the thick of their own graduate education, she said to not wait for tenure to begin cultivating a disposition as an advocate. “It's not just about learning the subject matter,” Posselt said, “it's learning how to be a member of the community, and what it means to listen and contribute.”