Please, #ThankAPublicScholar

PublicScholar

In this morning’s post on academic freedom, I discussed the real dangers inherent in being a public scholar (especially for critical scholars of marginalized backgrounds).  Let me be clear: job security in the face of external threats is not a trivial matter.  Indeed, the lifetime job security afforded by tenure, and the general academic freedom afforded to most scholars is one of the major perks of this profession over others.  But, attacks on scholars like Saida Grundy, Steven Salaita, Anthea Butler, Brittney Cooper, Tony Brown, and Sarak Kenzdoir highlight that tenure and academic freedom are not enough to protect public scholars from libel and slander, hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.

It’s time to be real.  Being a public scholar is dangerous.  And, it’s generally a thankless job that many of us volunteer to do.  Rarely does it count toward tenure and promotion, so we truly are doing it because we believe in justice and want to make a difference in the world beyond the ivory tower.  In line with my call for the creation of supportive communities for public scholars (and in general), I propose a call to action to start supporting and thanking our colleagues who write and speak in public, who critique injustice and oppression, and those who work for and/or with community groups.

  1. Share a public scholar’s work with your networks.  Share blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, listservs.  Forward their work to those who might find it useful for their work, well-being, or understanding of the world.  Include their work in your classes, perhaps as assigned reading or for extra credit.  Help your colleagues broaden their reach.
  2. Engage a public scholar’s work.  If you like a blog post you read, comment or write a response on your own blog.  Tweet a response rather than just reteweeting.  Or, send them a email if you prefer to communicate privately.  Be careful not to convey disagreement as hostility or a character assault.
  3. Say “thank you” and “I appreciate you.”  I recommend this particularly when you see a colleague coming under fire, but this should be a regular habit, too.  Send a short email to let them know you appreciate their work and the time they put into it.  Send a tweet using the hashtag, #ThankAPublicScholar, to note why you appreciate them, and to encourage others to follow them, as well.  If you’re like me, sometimes you get starstruck when you meet very popular/visible public scholars; try to avoid this to simply engage them as a human and colleague (they’ll appreciate it).
  4. Push your department/university to recognize and value public scholarship toward tenure and promotion.  This should also entail offering greater protection to public scholars who may, at any time, become the target of hostility and threats.

I don’t say this because I want to be showered with praise and appreciation.  But, I can tell you that becoming a target with little explicit support from colleagues can feel very isolating.  I would be lying if I said I simply ignored the haters; I have, indeed, been emotionally affected, and spend a lot less time on social media than before.  I relish the ever-growing traffic that this blog sees, but the numbers pale in comparison to a simple note that says “thank you for writing this.”  We, as scholars, are inundated with critique, from peer review to student evaluations to tenure and promotion.  But, those critiques can feel like a pinprick compared to the ugly backlash some public scholars have faced.

So, will you heed my call?  Will you thank a public scholar or two for me?  Thank you.

Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us

Tenure

“One day,” the tenure-obsessed mindset suggests, “I’ll be able to speak freely, pursue controversial projects, and teach on controversial subjects.”  Successful completion of the seven-year-long probationary period will offer me the ultimate goal for any scholar: academic freedom.  As I finish my second year in a tenure-track position at University of Richmond, I already feel underwhelmed with what tenure supposedly offers to my life.

I say that I am underwhelmed with my future tenured life for two reasons.  The first, which I have written about before, is that I am tired of waiting for the day when I can finally be the academic I want to be.  I don’t know that I’ll come out of the other end of the tenure-track in one piece if I keep prioritizing success by mainstream standards over authenticity, my values and identities, my health and well-being, and my happiness.

The second reason tenure underwhelms me is that I am no longer under the illusion that academic freedom will truly protect me.  Maybe I was naive to ever believe that any institution could truly protect me.  The attacks several colleagues have faced over the past year have made this abundantly clear to me.

Academic Freedom As Academic Tolerance

Scholars receive conflicting messages from universities about the value of public scholarship and the extent to which we are protected should the public not like what we have to say.  Some leaders in the academy go as far as to say that it is our obligation as scholars to engage the public.  On the other hand, few junior scholars are under the illusion that service — here, I am including community service, advocacy, and intellectual activism — counts much toward tenure.  I would argue that speaking to (but not with) the public as an expert about one’s research is likely the most valued service; service that falls into the realm of advocacy, activism, and community service is the least valued, perhaps even devalued.  Still, there is a limit to what public engagement universities value, as indicated by the slow movement to count open access publishing toward promotion and to facilitate and support this form of scholarship.  Perhaps the academy simply has not caught up with technological advancements, new forms of social media, and political, social, and generational shifts among academics.

Boston University’s recent handling of the conservative outcry over sociologist Dr. Saida Grundy’s tweets about race and racism highlight that universities will only protect a scholar’s academic freedom to a point.  SoCawlege.com, a conservative site that caters to US college students, featured an article that took issue with several of Dr. Grundy’s tweets about race, racism, slavery, colonization, and Bruce Jenner from the past few months.  It is unclear why the site or the article’s author took issue with Dr. Grundy and her tweets, as she was not already highly visible as a public scholar; she recently finished her PhD at University of Michigan, and will begin as an Assistant Professor at Boston U in July.  That article set off a firestorm among conservative media outlets, including Fox News, all which painted her as a racist (and sexist) bigot who could not be trusted to treat her white male BU students fairly; many called for her termination from a position she has not yet even begun.

Initially, BU’s media liaison noted the university’s respect for Dr. Grundy’s freedom of speech.  However, as the backlash grew, the university’s president issued a statement denouncing Dr. Grundy’s comments:

Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.

Although the university defends Dr. Grundy’s “right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations,” the president argued that:

[W]e also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.

Why did the university initially respect her freedom of speech, but then cease to protect her academic freedom?  Why didn’t the university stand up to a site called “SoCawledge” and notoriously biased conservative media outlets like Fox News?  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom offered a compelling explanation on her blog:

Institutions are inherently conservative. They are built to last. One way that institutions last is by diffusing threats to the status quo across org charts, rules, forms, email chains and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. That is why it is ridiculous to expect college institutions to be radical.

It seemed Dr. Grundy’s critical perspective on racism was acceptable — even protected — until she pissed white people off.  Or, as others have speculated, perhaps Dr. Grundy’s views and public engagement were protected so long as it didn’t hurt the university financially.  Her work, public engagement, and perspective are all protected so long as it does not negatively affect the university.  If this assertion is true, that’s not academic freedom — or it’s conditional academic freedom, or maybe academic freedom with a price tag.  What academic freedom entails is much more limited that many scholars realize.

What’s most insulting is that BU’s public reprimand of Dr. Grundy’s critique of slavery, racism, and hegemonic white masculinity essentially placed her comments in the same category as the racist comments by Duke political scientist Jerry Hough: as hurtful racial stereotypes.  Other scholars and activists didn’t bat an eye at her Tweets because they are supported by a great deal of theoretical and empirical work on racism; her own department at BU was unwavering in its defense of her perspective and scholarship.  Friends, colleagues, and future students stepped forward to express their support for Dr. Grundy, as well. However, the university distanced itself from Dr. Grundy because of gross mischaracterizations of her comments.  It seemed as though the university responded more to the perversion that became her words rather than her perspective itself.  (I’m sure Dr. Grundy’s apology and publicly expressed regret over her words fueled this.)

What I am getting at here is that the university didn’t stand up for Dr. Saida Grundy because her perspective is grounded in prior research.  BU’s president didn’t say, “Dr. Grundy’s critique is important and accurate, though poorly received and misunderstood by the public.”  The university didn’t engage with her perspective at all; it only responded to it from a distance — that she was free to say whatever she wanted, that her academic freedom is protected (unless it pisses white people off).  This, to me, highlights that academic freedom may actually constitute a form of tolerance for scholars’ ideas, research, and perspective with no real engagement from universities.  Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.

What universities actually offer is academic tolerance.  That tolerance appears to be quite low for scholars of color who dare to critique racism and white privilege.  The message to all scholars of color is clear: watch what you say.  There is a white way, and a wrong way, to talk about race.  Choose wisely.

Beyond Protecting Our Ideas And Words

In theory, a college or university’s assurance that it will protect you from external threats to your career is critical and a major perk of an academic career.  Unfortunately, this conceptualization of academic freedom does not match the reality that many scholars face as they brave the risky task of public scholarship.  Countless scholars, particularly women and people of color, have been harassed, been subject to hate mail, or, worse, have received death threats in response to op-eds, blog posts, tweets, and other media appearances.  Too many examples:

  • Earlier this month, (tenured) sociologist Dr. Tony N. Brown was attacked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets and blogs, and continues to receive threats of violence and hate mail — a backlash to an honest op-ed about racism and white privilege in the The Tennessean.
  • Dr. Anthea Butler, a (tenured) religious studies professor at U Penn, is regularly attacked by conservatives and bigots for her  critical views on race and racism (e.g., the verdict for George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin), and religion.  It occurs so regularly, she decided to create a Tumblr, The Things People Say, devoted to hateful and hostile comments she receives from trolls and bigots.
  • Dr. Brittney Cooper (featured, along with Dr. Anthea Butler in this article about backlash), is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and is also regularly subject to trolling, hate mail, and threats of violence.  On a panel we did together at University of Maryland on intellectual activism (around 01:02:00), she shared more details about her appearance being made fun of, and calculated efforts to have her and her colleagues fired from Rutgers.
  • Anthropologist Dr. Sarah Kendzior (writer, independent researcher, and reporter) was subject to threats of sexual violence after being cited in an article at Jacobin magazine on modern sexism.  Many were shocked that these rape threats came from self-identified liberals and radicals.
  • University of Illinois rescinded an offer for an associate professor position to Dr. Steven Salaita, a Native American studies scholar, because of his commentary about Israel on Twitter.  UIUC argued that his behavior failed to meet the university’s standards of civility — a justification that was not supported by the university’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

With the exception of Dr. Salaita, the aforementioned scholars were professionally protected.  That is, despite external threats, even calls for their dismissals from their respective positions, they weren’t fired.  But, what have their colleagues, departments, universities, and professional organizations done to protect them from the intangible harm to their reputations?  From the online trolling and hostility?  From the hate mail and threats of violence?

I suspect the answers to my questions are nothing — they should just be grateful they didn’t get fired.  Or, they should have anticipated these risks as public scholars.  Said another way, they are to be blamed for the hostility and threats they face by sharing their scholarship and scholarly opinion with the public.  (Victim-blaming.)

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium; Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium — Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America: Ethics, Technology, and Constraints

Academic Freedom In The 21st Century

In light of universities’ apparent mere tolerance for controversial perspectives in the academy, and the obvious risks entailed in engaging the public, I wonder — what role do public scholars play in society?  Or, considering the trickiness of public scholarship in the 21st century, Dr. Anthea Butler more aptly asks, “[w]hat is the role of a public intellectual in the age of Twitter and soundbites? Is it to share your thoughts for the public good, or is it to curate the heaps of hate emails, tweets and right-wing articles that trash your intellectual and social work?”

Inevitably, every panel I have served on and attended about intellectual activism and public scholarship engages the crucial use of social media today.  But, the very technological tools that have made it easy for any scholar to become a public scholar overnight has also made it easier for public scholars to become targets of conservatives, trolls, and bigots.  Ideally, the academy will eventually catch up with the technological advancements in order to adequately conceptualize and protect academic freedom in an increasingly digital age.  But, that’s not enough.  Public scholars, particularly those of marginalized backgrounds, will only be adequately protected from public backlash when institutions embody greater academic bravery.  In the mean time, we must forge our own supportive networks and communities to buffer the painful attacks we face when speaking and writing in public.

These two points, academic bravery and supportive communities for public scholars, were raised during the panel on intellectual activism on which I served at U Maryland in April (especially around 00:55:45).  Dr. Brittney Cooper noted that there is a great deal of “academic cowardice” — that, too often, scholars avoid speaking up and speaking out, particularly against injustice and oppression, for fear of professional consequences.  This tendency is likely greatest among pre-tenure faculty.  But, many of us of marginalized backgrounds know that the good (Audre) Lorde said, “[y]our silence will not protect you.”  We cannot prioritize our livelihood as individuals at the expense of our communities; conversely, we cannot engage in our communities too much, for we may risk our jobs in institutions that devalue such work.  This burden weighs heavy on oppressed scholars.

But, this does not have to be our reality.  Our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and the academy in general could be braver in supporting us as we take on the risky work of public scholarship.  Ideally, universities will have more integrity in standing with critical scholars, balking at inappropriate threats to cease donating to and funding them because of controversial scholarship.  Universities that proclaim to promote diversity should be brave in refusing to cater to the demands of bigots and conservatives who are hostile to diversity.  Professional organizations, like my own (American Sociological Association), will actually advocate on behalf of professors who come under attack, rather than staying silent or even adding to the attacks.  If “professors have a right and perhaps a duty to be ‘radical’ in its purest sense,” we can only effectively do our job if we are shielded from hostility and threats from the public when our views are misunderstood or rejected.

That’s a nice dream that I’ll likely never experience in my career in academia.  The reality remains: once I get tenure, I can bank on academic tolerance.  But, all of my public engagement and intellectual activism is at my own risk.  I can (mostly) count on not losing my job if certain groups dislike my perspective and research.  But, I’ll need to turn elsewhere for support when I endure hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.

This is where the need for supportive communities comes in — another point that Dr. Britney Cooper made on our panel.  She noted that her fellow bloggers at the Crunk Feminist Collective serve as her support system to weather the regular hostility and threats she receives.  And, our friends, family, and colleagues with whom we don’t blog also can serve as our support network.  This support system can serve many functions: checking in on us; reading responses to our writing so that we don’t; reminding us to disengage from social media when negativity is heightened, but also to take breaks in general; to counter the negative messages with messages of love, support, and validation.  Let’s be clear about it: being a public scholar comes with risks, and academic freedom isn’t enough to protect us.  We are responsible for building and utilizing our own supportive networks to buffer the risks that arise.  And, this frankly goes for anyone, from part-time tweeter to daily blogger to regular guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, because any public writing can be picked up and taken to task by the media.  (Even scholars who aren’t necessarily engaging the public can come under attack.)

Concluding Thoughts

In general, dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression is dangerous work.  Attempting to do so through, or at least within, academia is dangerous, for academic institutions are hardly separate from the rest of our racist nation.  In the long-term, ideally we can hold academic institutions and organizations accountable for protecting scholars’ academic freedom, period.  In the short term, we are responsible for protecting our selves, and relying on our own supportive communities to weather the storms that may come as we do critical and, sometimes, controversial work.

At a minimum, let’s get real about academia.  Academic freedom won’t protect us.  Tenure won’t protect us.  Our silence in the academy won’t protect us.

Grad Students, Don’t Publish With Your Professors

On Friday, Vitae published my essay, “The Trouble With Collaboration” — check it out.  I have broken my silence about a collaboration with a former professor of mine that he (unintentionally?) held up for years.  With peers — people of relatively equal status in academia — co-authors who don’t do their part are eventually removed as authors.  However, as I learned, neglectful co-authors in more powerful positions (your professors, mentors, or senior colleagues) are harder, or even impossible, to remove.  Arguably, every exchange between co-authors and decisions made about a paper will be shaped by the imbalance of power among collaborators, from the direction a paper takes to where (and whether) it is submitted.  As such, I strongly discourage working “across power lines”; in recognizing this is not possible in certain fields, I also offer advice for doing so if you must.

Also, check out my first Vitae post, “How I Came Out of the Liberal Arts Closet.

Please, Stop Assuming I Am A Graduate Student!

angie millerDr. Angie L. Miller is an Assistant Research Scientist for the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, where she studies creativity, student engagement, and arts training in higher education.  In this guest post, Dr. Miller reflects on her experiences of being mistaken for a graduate student at academic conferences, and the social, intellectual, and gendered power undertones of these interactions.   

_____

I would like to be able to attend just ONE conference and not be mistaken for a graduate student. I completed my Ph.D. 6 years ago. At first when people did this, I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I realize that I do look young. I went right from undergrad to my master’s program, and then right into my doctoral program. I took more than full course loads every semester, and was able to finish before I turned 27. Coupled with the blessing (and curse?) of having no grey hair and also skin that break outs like a teenager’s, many people assume that I am much younger than 32. Although this is not just limited to professional situations (given the countless times I have been carded in bars and restaurants), it is usually where it is the most disconcerting. I’ve been addressed in meetings as a “girl” and been questioned about my dissertation progress during interactions with grant funders.

Because I am fortunate enough to have a research faculty appointment in a well-funded research center at a large university, I present at more conferences than most faculty with more traditional teaching positions. Usually averaging between 4 and 6 per year, I have had ample opportunity to do the “networking” dance of academic conferences. It never fails that at some point during the conference, someone I don’t know will assume that I am a graduate student. People will ask “So what doc program are you in?” or “Who is your advisor?” or “Have you finished your coursework yet?” or “What is the topic of your dissertation?” And then I am faced with the task of correcting them, which in such a forced and awkward social situation usually ends up being an apology on my part for looking so young.

At a recent conference during one of the various university-sponsored receptions, while standing in line for the cash bar a man (who couldn’t have been more than 15 years older than I am) politely said hello, looked at the name and institution on my badge, and said “So you’re a grad student at IU? What program?” From there I began my standard “Actually, I have a faculty position…” explanation. Having the first thing I say to someone come out as a correction, pointing out that he/she is wrong about something, is never ideal.

I have tried several different things, little social experiments with an n of 1, to see whether there is some specific aspect of my appearance that is sending off a “grad student” vibe. I’ve tried wearing my long hair up or pulled back. I’ve tried wearing minimal makeup, and I’ve tried wearing more deliberate eye and lip colors. Skirts and dresses and pants, heels and flats – all at varying levels of “dressiness.” Nothing that I can control seems to make a difference. Perhaps I need to start dyeing my hair grey or drawing wrinkles and age spots onto my face.

When I complain about this, that I find it condescending (or at the very least annoying simply because it happens with such frequency), some people tell me that I should take it as a compliment. I should be elated that I still look young, and that I can pass for a woman in her mid-20s. But the rationale behind telling me to take it as a compliment suggests that as a female, I should value a youthful appearance over everything else, including any of my intellectual accomplishments. I take major issue with that. I worked very hard to complete my degrees and garner all of my publications and presentations since, whereas I did absolutely nothing outside of regular sunscreen use to achieve a young physical appearance. Call me crazy, but I take more pride in the things for which I have actually had to work. So, no, mistaking me for a graduate student is NOT actually a compliment.

Getting To The Root Of It

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought recently, as it continues to regularly occur even as I begin the process of going up for promotion. I sometimes wonder if I am bothered so much by this because I come from a place of privilege in so many other aspects of my life and don’t really have a strategy for dealing with this sort of thing. And this, in turn, makes me feel kind of bratty and obnoxious for caring about it so much in the first place. As a white middle-class heterosexual cisgender woman with well-educated parents, there are a lot of privileges to which I have access, and from which I have certainly benefitted over the course of my life. I am fully aware that if I were a person of color, or in a male-dominated STEM field rather than education, I would probably face many more challenges in my career. But I still think that gender does, at least in part, play a role. In comparing notes with my other coworkers who are approximately the same age, it happens rarely, if at all, to my male colleagues. Conversely, it is a much more frequent occurrence for my female colleagues, one of whom I often travel and present with, thus having witnessed it firsthand. There never seems to be a good way to respond. Is not addressing the microaggression equivalent to tacit acceptance of it?

The assumption that age is equivalent to experience and seniority (also conditional on gender) is not limited to academia. However, considering the varied career trajectories of many who end up with advanced degrees and continue to work in higher education, it makes even less sense. Many people (of any gender) begin work on their Ph.Ds. in their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, so simply being older should not necessarily mean that a person is more established. Perhaps the exemplar of the middle-aged woman “going back” for a graduate degree after she has gotten married and had children plays a role in the development of these assumptions of age, gender, and expertise as well.

But regardless of its origins, the bottom line is when you make the assumption that I’m a graduate student, you undermine my intellectual authority. When I actually WAS a graduate student, I never experienced any sort of imposter syndrome. I knew that I was smart and capable and motivated to succeed, and I never questioned whether I deserved my place in the program. It wasn’t until after I finished my Ph.D. that I began to feel diminished and out of place in academia. When you assume that I am a graduate student, especially if you are a white middle-aged man, you implicitly send the message that you are superior to me in accomplishments and intellect, that you are the more valuable asset to the field. In one single sentence of one single interaction, you take away everything I have worked so hard to accomplish. Not just my Ph.D., but also the 14 peer-reviewed publications and nearly 70 conference presentations, workshops, and webinars I have completed since finishing my doctoral degree.

So please, stop.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

Jackson Wright Shultz Reflects On Conditional Gender Privilege

shultzJackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jackson reflects on his “conditional” male and cisgender privileges — contingent on others’ assumptions about his sex and gender identity — and how they benefit him in the classroom. 

Be sure to check out Jackson’s first guest post, too!

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On Conditional Gender Privilege

At the end of my first term as an adjunct, I nervously awaited the receipt of my student evaluations. From the moment that I submitted the final grades for my classes, I lived in a state of anxiety. I kept replaying the events of the semester over and over in my mind. Did I explain the course expectations thoroughly? Did I make myself available to students often enough? Was I approachable? Did my students actually learn anything? Perhaps my anxiety stemmed from being new to teaching, or perhaps it was rooted in the knowledge that as an adjunct my future employment depends in no small part on the evaluations my students give me, Several weeks after the term ended, my evaluations finally arrived. My hand over my eyes, I peered apprehensively through my fingers, reading each student comment with a combination of dread and excitement. The first evaluation was positive. As was the second. And the third! I continued reading with growing enthusiasm and relief. All of my students provided glowing reviews of my teaching.

For a full two minutes I was elated. My world was an idyllic sphere of thoughtful students who cared deeply about learning and who respected my pedagogical methods. Yet, as I re-read the evaluations, my blissful smile slowly sank into a frown. The words that had comforted me moments ago were suddenly glaring red flags: confident, awesome, interesting, organized, and even one gnarly. I knew that there was little hope, but I still desperately wanted to believe that these were objective, unbiased reviews. So, I called a colleague to ask how she fared in her evaluations.

“Don’t even ask,” she sighed, “One student wrote, ‘I’m not sure what was going on with her hair, but it was very distracting.’ It only goes downhill from there.”

I hung up, disheartened. I had wanted to believe that my teaching was as outstanding and gnarly as my students suggested, but as many women in academia have noted and countless studies prove, student evaluations are all too often biased along gender lines. I didn’t work harder than any of the other adjuncts in my department, and I had significantly less teaching experience than the majority of women with whom I worked. My excellent evaluations were the product of male privilege, and nothing more.

Recognizing And Using My Privilege

As a transmasculine individual and a feminist, it is critical that I recognize and push back on my gender privilege. My students see me as a white, able-bodied man and evaluate me as such. Not only is my male privilege abundantly clear in my evaluations from, and interactions with, students, other faculty, and administrators, my cisgender privilege is, as well. In my case, having cisgender privilege, sometimes heinously referred to as “passing” privilege, means that I am consistently perceived as a man and assumed to be male. It doesn’t matter that I am not cisgender: I still benefit from cisgender privilege. In part, this means that I have the option of whether or not I disclose to others that I am transgender – a luxury and a safety that many trans people can only fathom.

Yet both my male and cisgender privileges are entirely conditional. They are predicated on other people remaining ignorant of the fact that I am trans. They are privileges that can be revoked by coworkers “outing” me to my supervisors or students, by glancing at the extensive list of transgender-related publications on my CV, or by merely Googling my name. In some ways, these gender-based privileges are single use: once my status as a trans person is discovered, the scene roughly equates to the villagers descending upon Frankenstein’s monster with torches and pitchforks. Minimally, once my trans status is “discovered,” my cisgender privilege vanishes, my male privilege dissipates, and my acceptance as an instructor and scholar is retracted. In practical terms, being “outed” could easily result in me receiving negative student evaluations, experiencing harassment in the workplace, or even being fired.

Thus far, I have been extremely fortunate in my academic career to have an open-minded supervisor who hired me in spite of my lavender vita, as well as coworkers whom I can trust. I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’ll continue for much longer in my career without others in my department or on campus realizing that I’m trans. Alas, the internet exists. While many trans individuals in generations past transitioned and disappeared into the woodwork, the anonymity that they were able to achieve is difficult, if not impossible, for a generation raised on the Internet. My online presence is hardly stealth, and comes with calculated risks. By blogging and publishing without the use of a pseudonym, I hazard that my coworkers, supervisors, or students may soon put two and two together, and the consequences for me could be dire if they do–particularly as an adjunct (a topic for future discussion).

For the time being, however, my open presence online allows me to frame the conversation about myself as a trans scholar. Likewise, in the office, my cisgender and male privileges, though conditional, afford me the agency to advocate for transgender colleagues and students who are not in safe positions to self-advocate, as well as to call out sexism and misogyny in the workplace without risking the scorn, scrutiny, and career-hampering that women often face for the same actions. I am fully cognizant that I was once in their positions and could be again, and I act with an awareness that dismantling the institutions that uphold and enforce sexism benefits everyone. My hope is that if and when my conditional privileges are stripped away and I am no longer in a position to self-advocate or frame the conversation about myself, maybe I will have affected enough micro-level changes that my students and colleagues will be able to engage in constructive dialogues around gender and leave the pitchforks at home.

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Biography

Jackson Wright Shultz is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College. He obtained his MALS degree from Dartmouth College (2014), and will begin his Doctorate of Education in the fall. He recently gave a TEDx Talk on transgender liberation and gender equity. His personal research interests include technology law, social media studies, women and gender studies, critical race studies, queer theory, composition pedagogy, higher education administration, and oral history. His first book, Trans/Portraits, will be released in October 2015 from the University Press of New England.

Should You Dress Up For A Phone Interview? That’s Absurd!

manthey headshotKatie Manthey (@katiemanthey) is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric & Writing program at Michigan State University, where she works at the intersections of fat studies, dress studies, and cultural rhetorics. Earlier this year, Katie created Dress Profesh, a gallery designed to challenge notions of what it means to look “professional.” Specifically, her site highlights that professional dress codes are inherently racist, sexist, ableist, classist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, and ageist.

In the guest blog post below, Katie reflects on the absurdity of having to dress up for a phone interview, calling, instead, for job candidates to be comfortable.  Enjoy!

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Dress For Success: (Phone) Interview Attire

I am a humanities graduate student, currently on the academic job market for the first time. I am fortunate to be in a department that has a lot of hands-on mentoring during the final year. Specifically, we have a job market group led by tenured faculty, in which we meet regularly to workshop cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophies, and writing samples. We also receive detailed advice on what to expect and how to prepare for phone and Skype interviews, MLA interviews, and campus visits.

Given my research interests, the most interesting part of this mentoring is the explicit conversations we have had about what to wear as a job candidate. We are advised to wear something “professional, but comfortable” for campus visits, and to pay attention to footwear as there will be a lot of walking. We are also advised to practice sitting in our interview clothes to see ourselves from all angles to make sure we aren’t accidentally “showing anything that you don’t want to.”

I understand the reasons for giving this advice. Each interview or campus visit exists in its own little rhetorical bubble: a savvy candidate will be aware of her audiences, purpose for being there, and social context. As rhetoricians, we should really have an advantage for thinking about dressing for an occasion.

But what about phone interviews? The overall interview advice that I was given was to “play a role;” think about myself as an assistant professor and completely commit to the part—dress up, even though no one might see my outfit. Talk confidently. Use a pad folio for notes.

I took their advice. For my first Skype interview, I dressed up completely. I wore a dress, blazer, tights, and pointy-toed shoes that the hiring committee never got a chance to see. Did it make me feel ready? Confident? More like a potential professor? Sure. But it also made me acutely aware of the ways that I perform “professional.” It felt like I was wearing “academic drag.”

I recently had an interview with a different university — this time on the phone. I decided to go completely in the other direction with my dress practices. I didn’t wear makeup or a blazer or nice shoes. I wore a flannel button down shirt, some winter boots, and threw my hair up into a messy bun (see photo below):

manthey interview outfit

And…the interview went okay, at least on my end. I felt comfortable and was pleased with how I felt afterwards. At the time of writing this, it is too early to know what the search committee thought of me, but I keep reminding myself that these decisions are complicated.

I wonder, though – what did they think I was wearing while they were talking to me? During the interview, I imagined the search committee as being dressed to the nines. Did they even think about it at all? How did they visualize me, someone they had never met, but who sounded enthusiastic and relaxed over the phone?

It strikes me as absurd that what we wear (or what we think people are wearing) matters, especially in academia where many of us claim to “know better” than to judge a book by its cover. Dress codes (explicit and implicit) are rooted in ideas that are racist, sexist, ageist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, ableist, and classist. Shouldn’t academics be at the forefront of rallying for social change in the context of looking “professional”?

I decided to start doing just that myself. I created Dress Profesh (@dress_profesh), an online gallery of photos of people dressing for work—what I call “performing profesh.” Together, I’m hoping that we can collectively challenge traditional notions of what “professional” looks like, and make clear the ways that dress codes reinforce problematic systems of power. So far, over 100 people have contributed, all from various disciplines and backgrounds; and, the site has over 7,000 followers on Tumblr. Clearly, I am not alone in recognizing that “professional” standards of dress are restrictive and exclusive – or at least problematic.

So, what are you wearing today?  Are you working from home?  Are you in your office?  Are you wearing shoes?  Snap a quick photo and submit it to Dress Profesh.