March 2019: Taneisha Means, Professor
Dr. Taneisha N. Means is an Assistant Professor of Political Science on the Class of 1951 Chair and the recipient of a National Science Foundation grant for her research project titled "Political Representation in State Courts." We sat down over coffee during Spring Break and had a rich, warm, affirming conversation.
When I asked Professor Means to narrate the story of her journey to Vassar and to this position, she shared that she was “a first-generation college student and my mother was a bus driver and my father was a truck driver and a mechanic. They always promoted education to me and my siblings, and I always knew I’d go to college.” After transferring from a large research university to a small liberal arts college, she was able to find the things she needed, like close relationships with faculty, to grow personally and professionally as a student, and to access resources that helped her realize she wanted to be a political scientist.
Professor Means said that it wasn’t until she “was pulled over by the police in 2008, and had my first ‘driving-while-Black experience’” that she knew what she wanted to study. She was harassed by a white police officer, which was starkly contrasted by her court experience with a Black woman judge. These two experiences were at the very core of her research question in graduate school—she spent the next seven years studying the (limited) existing literature, and interviewing Black judges to write her dissertation. I appreciated how her scholarship is directly informed by her own life experiences and also employs a systematic approach to analyzing legal and political relationships. She responded that “For social scientists, our work is often biographical to some degree. It doesn’t make me any less of a serious scholar to say that who I am matters to what I study, and how I study. That’s the reality of it.”
Professor Means contributes to our campus in myriad of ways in addition to her teaching and scholarship. She’s also a House Fellow in Lathrop, has participated in the Ford Scholars program, and sits on various committees. She said that in all of her work, “it’s about being present....It’s important for us to have a seat at the table, so our perspectives are there. It’s important for substantive reasons, but also for symbolic reasons—to be in spaces that have been devoid of people like us is a signal to others who aspire to one day be there, and beyond.” She linked our conversation on identity and belonging to experiences of “imposter syndrome. It’s a constant conversation that I’m having with myself and with students—not feeling like an imposter, feeling like you truly belong. A space isn’t made inclusive just because it includes people, it has to do much more—and that’s the great work of EPI. It’s not just diversifying the space, but actually changing the parameters and grounds upon which decisions are made and power is distributed and shared.”
This immediately connected to what Professor Means identified as the quality that makes Vassar unique: “its commitment to improving and aspiring to be better. Those in positions of power recognize that while [Vassar] is great on so many levels, there are things that need to change to make it a more inclusive space for everyone in this community.” Describing the work of the multi-constituency EPI working groups, she said that “The institution calls on us, and we call on each other, to be a part of the decisions and creating what the future looks like. It’s not top-down, It’s collective work, collective action... Even once the [EPI] grant ends, if you’ve established a culture, principles, and practice, those will remain as part of what Vassar is… This morning I read, ‘If all your prayers were answered, would it change the world, or just yours?’ I didn’t get to where I am by just thinking of myself; it is about constantly thinking of yourself as part of a community. It is about trying to balance my needs as a whole person with the needs of others, and all the identities, relationships, and connections I hold—and it’s worth it.”