A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide To Success In Academia

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the second part of this two-part essay (see Part I), Grace offers specific tips to working- and poverty-class for self-care and success in academia.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done … Whatever “It” Is

In my previous article, I shared a little bit about the experience of poverty, and how that background can produce unique challenges in one’s graduate school experience. In this second part, I would like to take some time to translate these experiences as I follow my own call to action: to begin a process of resource sharing among poverty- and working-class academics.

One thing that has surprised me is that, while I often feel fairly capable, I have occasionally had the difficulty of not realizing when I needed help, or even realized when or where I could seek help. I was so used to having to do everything myself that I never knew help existed for some problems. Because these experiences are not limited to my own story, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned will be useful to other early grad students, from variously marginalized background, but especially those from working- or poverty-class backgrounds.

As many of us know, the graduate educational process involves a intense socialization into the academic culture. For scholars from underprivileged backgrounds (especially those of us whose parents never attended or graduated from college), this is a powerful, sometimes overwhelming change. It truly epitomizes the concept of academia being its own world!

One lesson that I was amazed to discover was that my working-class peers and I sometimes experienced some of the same types of microaggressions, barriers, and frustrations as people marginalized on other dimensions – a discovery which, while fantastic for building inter-group solidarity, is always difficult. Some class-based marginalizations were institutionally-oriented, and thus sometimes more financially problematic. For example, the nearly mandatory need for a summer scholarship, which might require substantial research output, but pays less than 25% of one’s basic living expenses. I must say that I love my department, which, I imagine, is more understanding and accepting than many. Deciding to stay at my present university was actually a great decision in many ways. But, studying marginalization and oppression does not necessarily mean that people regularly and effectively check their own privileges or hidden biases.

If these stories are familiar to you, you are so not alone. I nearly failed out of my first year in graduate school, not because the classes or readings were too difficult, but because I did not have the skills to juggle other social, departmental, and research demands of graduate life and culture. Instead, I attempted to over-prepare for graduate school by reading the plethora of preparatory articles, and was painfully aware of concepts like “publish or perish,” “network, network, network,” or the implied mandate that, to be hired, one must be seen, must attend major conferences, and must present, present, present. So, I had on my plate a huge, unsustainable list of things that “must” be done, and no idea how people did it all. I assumed that you “buck up” and knuckle down, no matter how many times you break down.

Tips For Surviving And Thriving In Academia

This is the context from which we come, and the situation that I suspect is familiar to some readers. So, here are my recommendations to the ambitious, the driven, and those lacking the many types of capital demanded of the predominantly middle-class world of academia. I cannot promise that any or all of these these tips will work for you, but they got me through my Master’s degree and my pre-qualifying exam semester.

  • You will be told that you MUST do it all, or you will fail. Don’t. You won’t, you can’t, and trying could literally kill you.
  • Instead, explore related articles and resources on Conditionally Accepted and similar blogs, and find a mentor. Ideally, find a few mentors. Realistically, it is unlikely that one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs as a graduate student. And that is okay. But latch onto those who fill some of your checkboxes, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of their expertise. It’s literally their job. This is a service the more privileged colleagues have learned to take advantage of and thus benefit from without giving it a second thought. You are just as worthy to do so, and it can be invaluable to your career and well-being.
  • At times, I did not realize that I needed help when I did, or that I had taken on too full of a load of projects. It may be good to periodically inform your advisor or mentor when or before you take on a new project, especially if you’re still taking classes or working as a teaching, graduate, or research assistant. If you are new to this world, you may not realize the load a seemingly simple project or co-authored paper will add to your term. Use your mentor’s experience to help assess the work involved with those opportunities before you pursue them.
  • Explore the various academic advice blogs about topics such as productivity and time management as needed, but avoid becoming oversaturated with allegedly vital tips for success. I often explored sites such as Conditionally Accepted, Presumed Incompetent’s Facebook page, The Professor Is In, and other blogs for marginalized scholars, but social class is not consistently considered in these resources. Find a couple of things that work for you and stick to them. You don’t need to fit into someone else’s mold for how to become a fully functional academic. Indeed, much advice may come from a different privileged status, or else be meant for an audience facing a different axis of oppression. But you do need to find your own method, and that sometimes may mean adapting or reinterpreting advice to help your unique situation. Experiment, keep doing what is successful, and be kind to yourself when you fail. Know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Try to twist your habits (good or bad) into something that serves your needs. Try to find other scholars from similar backgrounds, or perhaps try to find or form a community where scholars can share their struggles, trials, and tribulations.
  • Find a few methods of self-care that work, and stick to them. Eat nutritious food (if you can secure the funding to afford it), try to get at least 6 hours of sleep nightly (7-9 hours ideally), engage in some form of physical activity, and find a way to give yourself even ten minutes without thinking of work. I have always hated yoga and mindfulness meditation, but those things worked for me, and helped me recover from some effects of burnout.
  • It may be counter to the way you were taught to behave, but be aggressive in finding ways to take care of your financial and personal needs. One can be tactful, but nobody can advocate for you unless you advocate for yourself to even a small extent. People often do their best, but they cannot know your needs unless you tell them. This is especially true in the heavily middle- and upper-middle class world of academia, where even those who try to be helpful may have no idea what your needs are. They may not realize that they have a resource that you need. Further, it will quickly become very easy to ignore your personal needs or shove them aside in favor of your seemingly more vital academic goals. Don’t. This brings me to the final point….
  • No academic goal is more important than your ability to be a functioning human being. Graduate school culture is a place that is perfectly situated to encourage overworking, and we normalize the huge mental, physical, and emotional health sacrifices made to achieve our academic goals. But attending conferences or publishing are pointless, and may be impossible, if you’re so overworked and stressed that you can barely function. Take care of yourself first, and the quality of your work will benefit. Even if self-care feels like a waste of time that could be spent working, you must do it to survive in the long-run.

Never forget: The struggle is real, and so are your experiences. Try to find allies; love them, and love yourself. You and I will get through this.

Confessions Of a Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the first part of this two-part essay, Grace reflects on the invisibility of scholars from working-class and  poor families, and the struggles these scholars face in academia; to rectify this, she calls for community-building among working-class scholars in academia.

Confessions Of A Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

  • I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
  • Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
  • Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
  • It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?

See the second part of my essay, “Getting It Done – Whatever ‘It’ Is,” in which I offer my own tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in academia as a poverty-class scholar.

___

Notes

1 Sandoval, D. A., Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2009). The Increasing Risk of Poverty Across the American Life Course. Demography, 46(4), 717–737.

 

August Blogcation

Beach-Feet

Dear readers,

Yes, we can stop pretending that summer break is actually a break in academia.  If anything, the summer months are an opportunity to shift one’s priorities.  In my case, it’s a time to make research my only major task, while I continue with some academic and community service to avoid the monotony of research alone.  Occasionally I work on my fall classes to avoid the mad-dash to get ready in August.  I’ve also learned that self-care is crucial in the summer, perhaps even more so than during the fall and spring semesters.  I will not be relaxed come late August just because I didn’t teach for three months; rather, I run the risk of being just as burnt out as I was at the end of the spring semester if I do not take a proper vacation.  (And, I will be taking one in August.)

With that said, I will be taking a one-month vacation from the blog, and social media in general.  Inspired by Fabio Rojas’s “blogcation” and Tanya Golash-Boza’s “information diet,” I have decided to take some time away from the unpaid labor of writing about academia, professional development, and social inequality, and, more specifically, the emotionally-draining battle against critics, trolls, and bigots.  I aim to preemptively avoid the mistake that many advocates and activists make in failing to prioritize self-care.  As much as “slow-boil activism” frustrates me, I am painfully aware that we must also take the long-view in our careers and in our efforts to make a difference.  Much work remains to make academia an inclusive and humane place, and to make academic knowledge and research accessible beyond the ivory tower, so I want to be along for a long, long time.  I will return to the blog, and social media in general, in September.

In the mean time, please check out a few recent posts:

Potential guest bloggers are welcome to continue to submit proposed guests posts.  See our guidelines for contributions here, and specific ideas for guest blog posts here.

Tips For Success For Adult Learners In Online Classes

H. E. JamesHattie E. James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho, who has traveled throughout Europe and has spent countless hours in the car traveling around the United States. She has a varied background, including education and history, as well as journalism. Hattie enjoys sharing her passions through the written word. She is currently spending many sleepless nights seeking her graduate degree, but she always sets aside time to enjoy a good cider.

This Old Dog, Her New Trick

The older we get, the more difficult it becomes for us to learn new things. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn new things. What happens is that many of us fear learning something different — we’re like Garth in Wayne’s World. We fear change.

When I decided to go back to grad school, the only thing of which I was afraid was taking classes online. Granted, I am the typical online learner – a middle-aged white woman. This also means that I am a digital immigrant. I was not born with a smartphone in my hand. I still remember how to use a rotary phone and having to go to the computer lab as an undergraduate student.

I’m an ex-English teacher, so I whipped out many of my old teaching and learning habits, like reassessing my learning styles (multi-modal). Not all of us who are returning to the virtual classroom can do this, so I have a few tips to succeed if you’re like me – an older learner trying the newer trick of online learning.

Don’t Panic

The program that I chose, at my alma mater in Idaho, is a hybrid fast-track program, and when I began the program, I panicked. Do not do what I did. My school, Northwest Nazarene University, has an MBA Orientation course that guided me through both the rigors of the Masters program in which I enrolled and the online learning portal. The latter of these two was especially important as NNU had just changed platforms, and I had learned the “old” online platform the week before starting my first class! Having never taken an online course before, I took copious notes.

The teacher in me made sure I paid extra attention in this course, for I had honestly never seen an online learning portal before. The closest I had come was watching webinars as a teacher to facilitate continuing education. This was not the same. If you get lost (and you will), always remember there is a home button.

This may sound silly and a little patronizing, but when you are in the throes of navigating an online course for the first time, it can be overwhelming. Many of my friends and family consider me to the techie one, yet I got lost quite a few times in the first week of roaming around my online courses. Don’t panic – you will eventually get the hang of it.

Take Your Time – And Manage It Wisely

As I was taking my sweet time roaming around my very first online course, I realized that I didn’t have very much time. I had just eight weeks to do sixteen weeks of work! I had to quit procrastinating, which has always been a problem for me. As Thomas Descoteaux and Jared Reigstad of Norwich University state in their presentation Attributes of Online Learning, online learning lends itself to managing time more wisely for adult learners like you and me. It gives us a chance to do our learning when we know we will be at our best. For me, that is in the evening, after I’ve come home from work, had my dinner, watched a little Magnum, P.I.

I tried to read first thing in the morning, before I went to work. I am not that person. I cannot wake up three hours before I go to work, go to the gym, eat my breakfast, and get an hour of homework completed. I tried. For a week. And, I was exhausted. You might be able to do all that, and therein lies the beauty of online learning for us older adult learners – we are self-aware enough (and adult enough) – to know when something is not working.

Adapt And Overcome

When we do become aware of a chink in the armor of our time management skills, we adult learners, especially those of us who have a number of professional years under our belts, have the skills to make adjustments necessary to make online learning work for us.

At the beginning of the program, I warned each of my professors that I asked a lot of questions. For one poor adjunct, I think I became a bit of a pest. He was one of the first professors I had in the program, and it was also his first time teaching an online course. We were learning together! But it’s the ability to seek out assistance when we know we need it that sets up adult learners like you and me for success.

I am a writer and a former teacher, and though I am in an online learning program, there are things I still like to have printed. Many of my professors require digital case studies in addition to the hard-copy textbooks and nonfiction we read. I always print the case studies. I like to underline and take notes in my reading. It’s the English teacher in me – you can take the girl out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the girl.

Perhaps I’m wasting paper. But, for me, this is an important aspect of overcoming a major issue to online learning as I’ve grown older: I can’t see what’s on the screen as easily as I used to. My online program has even caused me to finally relent and get reading glasses – something that I refused to do for more than five years!

Organize, Organize, Organize!

Printing things doesn’t just help me read them, it helps me stay organized. If they remain digital, I forget about them. I may be a writer, but I am also that creative person who is very logical.

I print every syllabus for every class. I read every page of the syllabi, and I print an extra copy of the course schedule, listing all the assignments for each of the eight weeks. Because I rent many of the ridiculously expensive textbooks for my classes, I also buy Moleskine cahier notebooks for each class, and write notes by hand.

Oddly, I also take advantage of the technology at my disposal. Right? Scared about taking an online course, but here I am advising you to take full advantage of any technology at your disposal. It does help. I used some of my federal grant money to purchase a brand new desktop (my laptop was 10 years old and was failing at helping me through the first few courses). I also bit the bullet and actually purchased apps for all three of my platforms: the desktop, my iPad, and my iPhone.

I’ve taken advantage of the student discount that comes with being enrolled in a graduate program again, and having better, more full-integrated technology comes in handy when you work full-time as many of us do. Though we are digital immigrants rather than natives, many of us middle-aged online learners have become tied to our smartphones and our tablets. Use them. If you are a parent (I am not), they are a great way to stay connected to your online learning while staying connected to your family.

Ubiquitous? Maybe, Maybe Not

Many of my classmates are middle-aged like I am, and through various discussions, I have found that the majority of us employ similar techniques for navigating the new-fangled world of online learning. It seems many of us take our learning with us wherever we go – hence the beauty of online learning.

In the end, through traditional adult learners are defined as being over the age of 25, many online learners are even older. Many of us are Generation X, and what we do best is adapt to our environment. Make it work for you, as I have done.

On “Coming Out” As Bipolar In Academia

Seth Selfie

Seth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. In Seth’s first guest blog post, he wrote about navigating academia with bipolar disorder.  In this blog post, he reflects on the power of “coming out” as an instructor with bipolar disorder in order shatter the silence, as well as the stigma, that surrounds mental illness in academia and society in general.

Coming Out vs. coming out

Legendary queer theorist Eve Sedgwick used to write that coming out was a continuous process. She told us that whether we liked it or not, we would be coming out day after day, year after year, because there would always be someone new who did not know “the truth” about who we really were once the office door was closed. And it’s not as though Sedgwick was wrong. I would say I out myself six times a day in terms of a different part of my complex identity in an attempt to gain agency in a world that consistently desires to label me incorrectly. This is not easy or fun, but it has given me access to parts of my dignity that I otherwise would not have maintained through a considerable amount of challenges. And when I am feeling sentimental, I also remember it is Pride month (at the time I am writing this essay), and if I come out maybe someone else in the future won’t have to, or at the very least that it will not be as scary.

In my last essay, in which I discussed my silence surrounding my bipolar disorder, I alluded to the fact I am a transgender man and am out to my students. I painted a fairly positive picture of that circumstance. I told you that we talked about it in class and that the students knew both of my names and that this did not bother me. To be clear: it does not bother me that they do not view me as a cisgender male, but coming out to them on the first day of class was one of the most challenging academic exercises I have ever experienced. I stood up in front of a class of thirty students with varying levels of gender studies experience and told them my preferred name and pronouns, explaining that I was indeed the same person listed in the school’s computer systems—the one with the girl name and the same one they read about on RateMyProfessor.com. I was already shaking from my normal medication and this sudden thrust into my private life made it worse. I put my hands into my pockets and moved on to explain my syllabus and the course requirements.

After that first class, I got several emails from students congratulating me on the coming out speech and telling me that they thought it was great, that they were excited to have me as a teacher. I was not misgendered or misnamed at all that semester. Even though gender dysphoria is still considered a mental health condition, none of my students saw me as sick. They thought I was strong and a role model. The irony of this, like I discussed in my first essay, is that I actually am sick, people just do not know what “type” of sick I am. While coming out to a large group of undergraduates can turn you instantly into some twisted campus LGBTQ celebrity (which seems glamorous at first), the most important coming out experience I’ve had was much smaller and one that I do not bring up often because I view it as a precious moment of self articulation and mentoring rather than a public show. But, I believe sharing it now is important, especially in light of my last post in which I ended with the image of disabled students and faculty coexisting on campus but never directly interacting, something that should and needs to change.

“coming out” As Bipolar

Given my sadness over this academic climate and the material I teach in my courses (which deals directly with mental illness), I have disclosed my disability to exactly one student on one occasion. I believe that moment to have been one of my most scholarly, even if it was risky and gave me no public gain the way my various LGBTQ classroom coming out experiences did. I was teaching a unit on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in my Sexuality in America course. I talked about teens with mental illness being deserving of sexual lives and how the protagonists cultivated sexual intimacy on their own terms. (Interestingly, I was working through this topic in my own life in therapy at the time, given the mood changes from testosterone, and how they were affecting my bipolar symptoms and medications.) Over half of my class disagreed and were vocally ableist. They told me that people with mental illness were too risky to date, that certain non-heteronormative sexual acts did not count as real intimacy, and, perhaps most jarringly, that if both members of a couple had the same disability then the relationship would be doomed from the start.

I tried to stop it, but it was too late; the discussion got out of hand and I felt personally victimized by my own students even though they had no idea. The tone of the class was one of privilege and ignorance, that each student was certain what they had been reading about had no connection to anyone in the room at all, despite constant vigilance on my part to remind them that our course material was sensitive and that they may never know whether someone in our class was personally identifying in serious ways.

A few days later, one of my students emailed me and asked to make an appointment to discuss how she felt during class. We met and talked about the text, the discussion, and how she was processing the climate of the class in general. It was clear she was having a personal identification with the novel (but did not tell me exactly what). She was shaking in her chair and I knew it was because she was used to the stigma of mental illness and that the act of disclosing to a teacher is not easy. I wanted her to keep her dignity, something I missed when I having to “confess” to faculty members years ago. I made an instantaneous decision and said:

You do not know this, but I have bipolar disorder and it is very hard for me to hear my own students speak like that. This book affects me deeply, too. I feel that it is my job to advocate for anyone who might feel unsafe in class or scared. I will go out of my way to make sure this changes. I feel as if you are very brave for coming to me and telling me that our classroom is not ideal. This is exactly what shows me you have academic maturity. Tell me what you need to feel better about class.

Relief washed over her face and we went on to outline a plan on how to talk to the class about ableism and invisible disability. The following week, I implemented the plan and, while it took some time to take effect, eventually everyone in the room was more mindful (including me) about what was said and the tone used. This type of classroom management was extremely difficult, but once it was implemented I feel the class was one of the most successful I had ever taught. Coming out to my student allowed me to merge my personal and professional lives in a small, but significant way that informed my teaching throughout the semester. If I said before that bipolar is always a student in my classroom, then disclosing the bipolar made me a student in my own classroom for the first time. I learned, I taught, and on some days, I felt free. I do not know if I will ever tell another student again, but on that day I needed to tell this particular student she was not alone, or more importantly, tell myself that I was not alone in my own classroom.

Closing Thoughts

When I got my evaluations back that semester, more than a few students noted that I was “sensitive,” “accommodating,” and “fair.” I believe these comments to be directly reflective of the plan my student and I worked on to actively combat ableism. It has also led me to think that students crave this type of classroom atmosphere, but do not have the skills to ask or advocate for themselves. This is not their fault. They grow up learning test scores are more important than feelings.

My advice to my colleagues (if I’m qualified to even give it), especially those who have suffered at the hands of this life-shattering disease (or countless others), is to give your students the education we always needed but didn’t know how to name. Teach with love, compassion, and mindfulness. Give extensions, leave your office doors open just a little longer, believe your students when they tell you they are sick even if they don’t seem to have the sniffles. But, most importantly, I try to remember what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) creator Dr. Marsha Linehan once said about surviving mental illness and then devoting her life and career to helping others with also were ill. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I was in hell.  And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part II

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this second part of a two-part essay (see part I here), Dr. Sumerau reflects on the ways that academic definitions of bisexuality (which differ greatly from how it is defined and experienced outside of academia) actually facilitate biphobia.  Ze offers a few ways to combat these biphobic tendencies.

_____

Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I outlined contradictions that I have observed between academic and non-academic notions of bisexuality. In this second part, I will focus on some ways that academic definitions of bisexuality facilitate biphobia. After almost seven years working as an openly bisexual scholar in the academy (i.e., since my first days of graduate study), I’ve had plenty of time to think about these issues. I would like to offer readers some ways to disrupt biphobic academic definitions and interpretations of bisexuality in their daily lives. While I limit these examples to things I’ve tried myself (to varying levels of success), my hope is that we may begin a conversation wherein people seeking to be inclusive and supportive of bisexual people (as well as bisexual people themselves) can begin the work of moving past academic simplifications and marginalization of bisexuality.

  • When someone says that bisexuals are only attracted to males and females, ask them where they got their information. Point out that some bisexuals are attracted only to male and female people, while others are attracted to all sexes (i.e., their own and others).
  • When people cite or read from academic definitions of bisexuality, ask them who wrote or said it, whether they were bisexual-identified, did they come direclty to the academy after childhood or did they live among non-academic populations for some period of their lives, did they come up with this definition or did they draw it from somewhere else (if somewhere else, ask the same questions about that source). In other words, follow the lead of Black Feminist, Queer, Trans, early Lesbian and Gay, and Intersex scholarship by interrogating where these definitions come from and why they make sense to the people using them. In my experience, these questions will likely lead you to a cisgender heterosexual source at the foundation of the definitions, and thus – like white definitions of people of color or heterosexual definitions of homosexuality or religious definitions of the nonreligious – they should be examined critically.
  • When someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if attraction exclusively to males suggests the existence of only one sex or exclusive attraction to females suggests the existence of only one sex. This may sound silly to lesbian, gay and heterosexual people, but it is the same logic: attraction to X group means there is only X group. If being exclusively attracted to males and females automatically suggests there are only males and females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in binary sex only), then attraction exclusively to males or to females suggests there are only males or only females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in only one sex). I have yet to find lesbian, gay or heterosexual people who believe this, but I have encountered many who quickly recognize this logical fallacy when it is directed at them.
  • At other times, when someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if homosexuality and heterosexuality reproduce the binary. Lesbian, gay and heterosexual people often use expressions like “opposite sex” or “same sex,” which are predicated upon the existence of mutually exclusive and recognizable binary sex categories, but these people are generally not accused of reproducing the sex/gender binary when they do so. If being attracted to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, however, so does being attracted to the “opposite” or “same” sex. Again, in my experience, lesbian/gay and heterosexual people do not like this line of logic so much when it is directed at them instead of bisexuals.
  • When someone says “bi” automatically refers to the existence of only “two” sexes, ask them why they feel that way, ask them why it doesn’t refer to cisgender and transgender, ask them why it doesn’t refer to my sex and others, ask them why they decided (i.e., note that they chose what “two” to which the word “bi” referred) that it must mean two sexes. In my experience, you will very quickly learn that they see the world in binaries themselves, and are thus simply (intentionally or otherwise, with or without malice) seeking to place (or cage or box) bisexual people within their own frame of reference.

Finally, I would suggest readers – whether or not they adopt any of the above strategies in their lives – ask themselves if they have internalized academic or non-academic definitions of bisexuality. One way to do this would be to ask what the academy and the world might look like if we stopped trying to place every marginalized community into binary boxes, and instead embraced the fluidity, variation, and spectra of bio-social-psychological experience in all its forms. In fact, doing away with binary boxes and dichotomous definitions (no matter how comforting to existing academic traditions) might well provide more breathing room for all types of people. It might further help us recognize that (to the best of my knowledge) there is no one universal type of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, fluid, queer, heterosexual, intersex, female, male, cisgender, transgender, or any other “static type” of being. Rather than seeking to place people into “bi”nary boxes based on oppressive traditions, we could seek to map, explore, and celebrate our similarities and variations “bi” treating all people with dignity and respect.

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.

_____

Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.

I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.

I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.

Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.

I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.

As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.

In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.

Academic Bisexuality

When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.

This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.

Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.

This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.

Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.

I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.

In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality.  And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.