Academia: Uncharted Territory

Belle Isle

…to go where no queer has gone before…

There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia.  Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career.  While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define.  The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor.  But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.

The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.  I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure.  Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example.  Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors).  For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain.  Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.

As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling.  Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others.  Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women.  Women of color know well the status of being a token.  Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever.  While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.

Uncharted Territory

To be completely honest with you, I am scared.  I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search.  Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality.  There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics.  The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.

Strike one: I am black.  I am queer.  I am fat.  (That’s already 3 strikes, right?)  Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism.  Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog).  I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars.  But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.

This is uncharted territory.  That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man.  With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics.  With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways).  But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.

Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available.  On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism.  As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models.  I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today.  At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism.  I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility?  If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?

Paving The Way

I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general.  In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.  I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program.  After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture.  My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way.  Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.

paving the way

paving the way

While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students.  I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded?  will I ever give the suits a rest?  do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself?  A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless).  Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.

But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark.  I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success.  But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together.  I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security.  But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.

How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors?  Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”?  I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model.  I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general.  I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure.  I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia.  But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream.  I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.

Queering Scholarship: Creating Our Own Spaces In Academia

Cat PauséIn this guest post, Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) encourages marginalized scholars — especially queer and fat academics — to create spaces for themselves and their communities by publishing.  She reflects on her experience co-editing her new text, Queering Fat Embodiment, and offers tips for others who may pursue such scholarly projects.  Enjoy!

See Dr. Pausé’s  full biography at the end of the post.

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Queering Scholarship: Creating Our Own Spaces

In many ways, I am living the dream. I was hired into a permanent faculty position at a university in New Zealand. There is no tenure system here, so as long as I do my job well, and the students keep enrolling, my future as an academic in this role is secure. In fact, I just got promoted to Senior Lecturer.

In my role, however, I find myself often an outsider. In some ways, being set apart is an advantage. The prestige that accompanies an American PhD pedigree cannot be overstated. In other ways, however, the outsider status disadvantages me as a scholar. Both my teaching subject and my research subject are marginal within academia. I found this to be especially challenging when looking for a faculty position. I discovered that only around 50 schools in the world have Human Development programs (and most of those reside in the United States). This often led me to apply for jobs outside of my immediate field. I foolishly spent hours preparing application materials for developmental psychology postings, and post docs in sociology. And I found, as my advisor suggested, that the boundaries between disciplines are strictly defined and difficult to transverse within academia. Even as we extoll inter- and post-disciplinary research as a way of the future, departments continue to reject scholars with the ‘wrong’ PhD. In this way, I was very lucky to find a position in a Human Development program.

My commitment to social justice also positions me as an outsider within academia. It disrupts my pedagogy, challenges my scholarship, and often results in the side eye from many whom believe that there is no room for the political within academia. Many have written on this tension, including some for Conditionally Accepted. My colleague, Sandra Grey, has recently published a piece on academic activists, and I am grateful to have her as a sounding board, sympathetic ear, and – more often than not – someone who encourages me to take risks and cause problems.

As a researcher, my focus on fat studies is dismissed by many. This isn’t real scholarship, they argue, but silliness. Fat people? Pffft! As others who choose to study marginalised populations have found, the research dollars are not accessible, and your more mainstream colleagues may humour your expertise, but it’s unlikely that they will respect it. Choosing to study a marginalised population of which you are a member is even more hazardous, as it leaves you open to criticism that you are simply engaging in vanity projects.

One way of moving forward in this, I have found, is through publishing. Colleagues can say what they like about my field of research, but they cannot ignore the growing length of my CV. Now that there is a Fat Studies journal, the likelihood of my scholarship being published in a peer reviewed arena has increased substantially (although there are feminist journals that will publish in this area as well). Edited texts are another avenue for my scholarship; within fat studies, edited texts such as The Fat Studies Reader, Fat Studies in the UK, and Bodies Out of Bounds, become the textbooks of our classrooms and the artefacts of our discipline. (I’m looking forward to the publication of two upcoming texts, The Fat Pedagogy Reader: Challenging Weight-Based Oppression in Education from Peter Lang Publishing, and Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism from Ashgate). And many scholars have taken to blogging and other forms of social media to disseminate their work and promote the knowledge production.

I recently had the chance to co-edit a fat studies text for Ashgate. Working with my co-editors, Jackie Wykes and Sam Murray, we pulled together a collection of essays that consider how fat embodiment may be/is being queered. Our text, Queering Fat Embodiment, was published earlier this year.

Queering Fat Embodiment

The challenges of editing a scholarly text are similar to editing a scholarly journal. Working within deadlines, chasing up academics for revisions, ensuring style and formatting across a range of writers – these are all common challenges of editing. Editing a text, however, is unique from a scholarly journal, in that you do not have the support of peer reviewers until the text is complete. Yourself, and co-editors if you are lucky enough to have them, are responsible for the vision, the quality control, and the end product.

The process, while challenging, is also very rewarding. Each of our contributing authors brought a unique perspective to the central theme of the book. The chapters introduce different ways of thinking of fat embodiment, and draws from different fields and disciplines. I am confident in the contribution this text makes to the field of fat studies, and I am very proud of this cool accomplishment.

I’ve given some thought to what I’ve learned in the process, and thought I would share it for others who may be interested in editing an academic text in the future:

  • Have a great publisher. Working with Ashgate was a dream. Our editor, Neil Jordan, was the perfect combination of firm and flexible. He also supported our vision for the text from the very beginning, and that made a huge difference.
  • Have co-editors. I had never edited a book before; neither had my co-editors. But we all brought different strengths to the process, and our book was stronger for this. Having co-editors also meant that we could draw support from one another, and work through tricky revision requests as a team.
  • Accept that it will take more time than expected. The process of completing Queering Fat Embodiment, from writing the proposal to having it hit the shelf, took almost four years. This is much longer than what I expected going into the project. I think this timeline can be reduced, if you have at least one editor who is working on the book as a priority across the entire project. We had three working academics that focused on the book for periods of time, but often put it back on the shelf when immediate needs arose.
  • Be willing to laugh. There are a lot of absurdities when editing an academic text. Trying to conceptualise how the contributing chapters will fit together in a larger narrative can be giggle inspiring. As is staying up an entire weekend because you decided to index yourselves. (Pro-tip: Let the professionals do this part.) I found that I had to let go of my annoyance when colleagues assumed the title of the text was Querying Fat Embodiment, instead of Queering Fat Embodiment. Reminding myself to enjoy the process, rather than just obsess and stress about the work, is something I tried to do often.
  • Embrace social media. As our contributing authors came from all other the world, we decided to launch the book using Google Hangouts on Air. This allowed many of those involved in the book to be involved; it also let anyone watch the video live and engage with us (and now we have it captured in YouTube). After the launch, we embarked on a social media book tour (which this piece is a stop on; wave!), wanting to reach as many individuals of interest as possible. We have stopped on blogs, online magazines, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc.

If you find that traditional structures aren’t making space for your scholarship, create your own. Edit a collection or a special issue of a journal. Host a conference (hosting it online makes it available to even more participants around the world). Start a blog, or guest post on an established blog. Your work is important, and there are many avenues you can pursue to ensure that your voice is part of the conversation.

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Biography: Dr. Cat Pausé is a Lecturer in Human Development and a Fat Studies Researcher at Massey University, New Zealand. Her research focuses on the construction, revision, and maintenance of spoiled identities and its effects on health and well-being of marginalised populations, specifically fat individuals. She has published in top journals such as Human Development, Feminist Review, HERDSA, and Narrative Inquiries in Bioethics, and her co-edited book, Queering Fat Embodiment, has just been released by Ashgate. Dr. Pausé hosted the “Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections” conference in 2012, and guest edited an issue on intersectionality for the Fat Studies Journal. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo, NPR, and 20/20.  She also writes at her own blog, Friend of Marilyn, on fat acceptance and activism.

On Dealing With Online Criticism And Trolls For Academics

Haters

If you follow me on Twitter — @grollman :-)  — you may have seen me complain about online trolls and other criticism every once in a while.  But, I usually give the caveat that what I have faced from nay-sayers online is a mild irritation compared to the hate mail and threats that other academic bloggers (especially women) have received.  Sadly, even the most seasoned among us do not know how to deal with the criticism and hostility we receive online.  How do we stop it?  Or, how do we at least ignore it?  I have zero expertise to offer on the subject, but I do offer a few tips from things that have (and have not) worked for me.

A few tips, which, in places, will seem contradictory — but, choose what works best for you!

  • Pursue legal action… but, don’t bother.  To be safe, I consulted with the legal counsel at my university.  Free speech, which seems so much freer online, eliminates any real options.  Apparently libel is almost impossible to demonstrate because the (huge) burden of proving you were harmed in some way by it falls on you.  Legal dead-ends aside, I found relief in notifying my university and being reassured that what a few cowardly anonymous colleagues say about me online has no baring on my status or job.
  • Also, notify trusted (senior) colleagues.  Initially, I let my chair and dean know just to be on the safe side.  I would rather be ahead of the criticisms to avoid surprises in formal evaluations.  One expected benefit of these conversations was their appreciation of the risks involved on the work that I do (i.e., blogging).  I suppose this links back to the “you’ve arrived” sentiment; if you are pissing off white supremacists and closed-minded colleagues, you must be pushing the right buttons as a scholar.  I do want to express some caution about letting others know because it could backfire, particularly if you must “out” yourself as an activist or blogger or whatever else you might do that is not valued in your department and institution.
  • To extend the point above — do not suffer in silence.  Talk to someone about what you are going through.  When dealing with online criticism and hostility, the anonymity and amorphousness of the internet can make you feel like you are alone in a hostile world.
  • Don’t seek it out!  Fortunately, the criticism I face is almost exclusively contained in one relatively unknown site.  When I stopped visiting that site, I generally stopped being exposed to online criticism.   I realized I was giving power to cowardly, closed-minded colleagues by welcoming the stupid things they say about me into my life.  At the moment, I feel that the opinions that are really worth my attention are those that put as much time and energy into responding to me as I put into my writing.  Negative tweets and comments on your blog/website are quick and easy, often reflecting an unfiltered, grammatically incorrect rant that one would never say to your face.  (Really, why not extend a healthy dialogue by writing a response on your OWN blog?)  Certainly on others’ blogs/sites, do not read the comments!  The downside of this tip is that it will not work for writers and bloggers who have really eager critics and trolls that take the time to email you or contact you in other ways.
  • Ask someone else to keep up with what is written about you on the internet — and only let you know about the most important things, and maybe anything positive.  Really, if someone really wants you to read what they have written, good or bad, they should be sending it directly to you.
  • Related to the previous point — if others let you know about new criticism online, probably out of concern, you do not have to look at it!  Maybe ask them to give a summary if you want to know anything about it.  Or, let them know that, for future reference, you prefer not to know.  Good friends should appreciate that this approach is best for self-care.
  • Don’t take it personally.  Yeah, even I struggle with this one.  But, once some time has passed and there is some distance between me and some bit of criticism, I begin to see that others’ criticism is often a reflection of something other than me.  When I began blogging occasionally for Inside Higher Ed, I received a few comments that essentially say “I am angry about the adjunctification/corporatization of academia,” albeit in the form of a snarky remark toward me.  You may also find that the hostility reflects implicit rules about who is allowed to speak, especially when critiquing academia, or the status quo, etc.  At this stage in my career, some believe I have no right to criticize the discipline or profession.  Besides age/seniority/experience, it seems closed-minded academics are very intolerant of marginalized scholars (and I include here contingent faculty and graduate students) daring to speak up.  These identities and statuses are personal, but criticism outside of real effort engage in dialogue really says more about your critics and their values.

Some of the above I have borrowed from friends’ advice and the following sites:

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business

WhitakerManya Whitaker, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Education at Colorado College. Though her degree is in Developmental Psychology, she teaches courses centered on social and political issues in education such as Diversity and Equity in Education, Education Policy, and Education Reform. Her research focuses on cognitive and social variables affecting the academic achievement of low-income urban students such as perceptions of self, parental involvement, teacher expectations, as well as race and social class.  Dr. Whitaker is also founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting company that provides trainings and support for urban schools and families. 

In the post below, Dr. Whitaker describes the process of creating her own business, and offers advice for other academics who may consider doing so, as well.

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business, by Dr. Manya Whitaker

One of the joys of being a scholar in an applied field like psychology or education is the ability to work on the ground with “real people.” In other words, as an educational developmental psychologist, my work happens to easily skip out of the Ivory Tower. Though I am trained as a developmental psychologist, my research is situated firmly within education. Largely construed, I investigate the sociocontextual factors that affect low-income students’ academic achievement. More simply put, I work with teachers, admin, and families to improve academic outcomes for marginalized students. For many years, this took the form of teacher in-service workshops focused on parental involvement. Because schools serving underrepresented demographics struggle with facilitating meaningful parental participation in children’s schooling, I help them figure out how to access, communicate with, and engage “hard-to-reach” parents.

As an off shoot of that work, I was often asked to hold workshops at small conferences or to sometimes attend open houses and speak to parents. Once word got out that a young Black woman was working with families in urban schools, I received more requests to give keynote addresses, tutor, or come speak to first generation hopefuls at area high schools. I ended up spending so much of my free time doing such things, I had no choice but to cut way back. But, in cutting back I realized how much I missed engaging with people in ways that affect immediate change. There is something special about sitting in a family’s home, at their kitchen table, speaking with the very people who constitute the “subject” of your research. I enjoyed hearing their stories and brainstorming ways to help their children. I liked being an advocate for families who may not have the time, energy, or information to effectively advocate for themselves.

While talking to a good friend who has much more of an entrepreneurial mind than me, it dawned on me that I could start an educational consulting business. Like a good researcher, I did some investigation into what it meant to run a small business. I spoke with my father who has successfully run his own small business for over a decade. I spoke to friends with all kinds of businesses in varying stages of businessdom. While the initial work seemed intense, the service itself was no more work than I’d been doing for free. And as my father always says “don’t sell yourself short”…so I decided not to.

Before I got into the nitty gritty of starting my business, I paused to consider the implications for my full-time career as a tenure track professor. Was this even ethical? Was I violating some implicit agreement between myself and the Academy? Did my knowledge and skills belong solely to the institution and its concomitants? No, surely not. That’s absurd….right?

The fact that I paused to think about this quandary more than once speaks to the ways in which academics are inculcated into academia in a sometimes unhealthy manner. I’m not sure what it is about graduate school that makes one’s intellectual property feel like the property of others. It might be the fact your advisor or committee has so much control over what you actually produce, that it indeed feels as though your words aren’t your own. Or maybe it’s the publish or perish mantra that really means “it is your duty and obligation to publicly share your thoughts for the good of the public.” I find it odd that in other professions, people are paid well for the knowledge and skills they spend years acquiring and refining. But academics are expected to share their assets solely for the glory and grandeur of it? Yes, tenure is a huge benefit that is often directly correlated with the amount and quality of one’s scholarly contributions; however, other professions have this too. They call it a “promotion” or a “raise.”

Getting Started

I decided that I, too, deserved a promotion and a bonus for all the extra work I do to translate my research into practice. I therefore brainstormed company names (of course that was my first task—it was by far the most fun), chose colors, hired an artist to create a logo, and filed my business as an S-corporation with the federal and state government. Then the school year started.

Being realistic, I knew that starting a small business in August was not the best timeline. I knew once school started my efforts would be 100% devoted to a successful first year on the tenure-track. I made plans to reengage with my business in June of the following year, and I did just that. This past June, I conducted market research on types of services, prices, and timelines of most interest to my target demographic. I also asked them about the possibility of utilizing consulting services via social media and other popular forms of technology in lieu of face-to-face interactions. I was surprised to see that most participants in my pseudo-study were more concerned with the price of services than the mechanism through which they would be delivered.

After creating a list of services and running my pricing models by other entrepreneurs in similar fields, I created marketing materials. Besides business cards, I also ordered rack cards, folders with my logo on them, and printed a “menu” of services with accompanying fees. I considered creating a Facebook page, but that didn’t seem like it would be worth my time and effort. If I know anything about education, I know that information spreads through word of mouth, not written materials. To help spread the word about my business, I did two things: the first was becoming an affiliate member with the gym where I am a member. The second was offering a 20% referral bonus. The latter is how I secured clients 2 and 3. I considered advertising my services in the newspapers of the local colleges, but the cost would offset the potential financial gain, so I decided against it.

I’ve been in business a few short months, but so far it’s going well. The academic year started a few weeks ago and I admit that it’s tough coming home from a full-time job to do more work. But it is very much worth it. My clients are extremely appreciative and more than willing to refer me to their family and friends. That’s more than can be said of the outcomes of publishing in academia.

For the professors who think that maybe they too want to start a business, I have a few bits of advice:

  • Be clear in why you want to start a business. Writing a mission statement should be one of the first things you do. I referred to the Small Business Administration for help in creating a business plan, deciding my business structure, and learning about the legalities of owning a business.
  • Research your market. Ask them what services are of interest, how much they would be willing to pay, and any other information necessary to execute your idea.
  • Apply for grants to help fund your business. There are dozens of grants for women and people of color specifically for small business owners.
  • Similarly, make a budget. And make sure your budget includes the taxes you pay on your earnings. This will also help you decide appropriate price points for your services/products.
  • Be realistic in your timeline for development and growth. Starting a business takes a lot of time and thought. Decide if this is the appropriate time in your life to start such an important endeavor. Once you have clients, it is unlikely they will care as much about your tenure clock as you.
  • Start small. Offer your services/products for free or at a reduced cost for a while. Then, have those clients write reviews and help spread the word about your business.
  • Grow slowly. As you gain clients, it will be tempting to hire more people to help you meet the demand; however, remember that like being a professor, owning a business is a learning process. Consider the pros and cons of having employees and/or business partners. Always refer back to your mission statement as your guiding rule.
  • Continue to improve your product. It is not only articles that benefit from a good R&R (revise & resubmit).

To other professors for whom owning a business is not desirable, I encourage you to find other ways to utilize your talents. Perhaps you could write a blog, or better yet, children’s books! Perhaps you can volunteer in community organizations providing services to those who will not get to meet you within the economically discriminatory walls of academia. Or perhaps you can just talk to whomever you please about whatever you please, without the pressure of “perishing” after the conversation. The knowledge is yours to do with what you choose.

The Radical-Sellout Academic

A few months ago, I agreed to be a guest speaker via Skype for a professional seminar course in a master’s program in sexuality studies.  Per the professor’s request, I spoke about my experiences in academia, particularly navigating the academic job market.  Since that final chapter of my graduate training was one filled with heavy-handed advice yet the greatest level of independence yet, and authenticity and selling out, I necessarily spoke about my job search as a Black queer intellectual activist.  (Indeed, that was the narrative most relevant to this class of sexualities scholars of diverse backgrounds.)  In addition to pushing back against others’ expectations for my career, I also spoke about how I presented myself, including decisions regarding my online presence.

I briefly rambled about my job search, graduate training, and career thus far, and then opened the floor for questions and comments.  One student in the class asked, “you mentioned your social justice advocacy — but, all you do is blog?”  Ouch.  I went on the defense, arguing that, as a new tenure-track professor, all I have the time and energy for once my week is done is to blog.  Teaching and research are the primary tasks upon which I am evaluated; and, service hardly ever means community service, and probably never activism.

What I did not say was, “you’ve got me!  I guess I’m not really an activist.”  In fact, I decided to pursue an academic career because I never felt competent at front-lines activism and community organizing.  I am too sensitive and timid to be at the front of a picket line or going door-to-door to campaign.  I have always felt most comfortable pushing for change in academic settings.  And, from my senior honor thesis onward, I have felt my niche is in pushing for change via research and teaching.  But, as I sit before these students who were brave enough to pursue degrees in sexuality studies — with my dress clothes on, and my PhD in sociology — I did feel called out.  What about my life right now resembles anything “activist”?  (Nothing and everything.)

Later, another student expressed appreciation for my efforts to make change from within.  Yes!  The student named for me my brand of activism in a way that seemed so obvious, but never crystallized before now.  If all who demand change are outside holding picket signs, getting petitions signed, contacting politicians, etc., who is on the inside making sure important institutions even hear these demands?  And, the reverse means all are inside with their hands tied by institutional practices and norms.  Some need to work for change inside, some need to demand change from the outside.  I have long known this, and decided that I am most effective at working from within.  But, I do feel a twinge of guilt that I am not doing “more” (meaning working outside of the system).

Ironically, I have faced the harshest criticism for being too much of an activist.  In publicly declaring my effort to infuse academia with activism, others have disagreed that the two can ever mix.  In specifically challenging the standard of “objectivity” in research and in the classroom, given its implicit valuing of the dominant group’s perspective (i.e., white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West), I have been mocked for daring to bring my own perspective into my work.  Even in simply proposing that more (sociological) social psychological research focus on sexual orientation, I was passive aggressively chided by a professor for being “Mr. Activist.”  The criticism and character assaults I have faced as of late seem to suggest I am the most radical activist to ever work in sociology; I appear to be a threat to the discipline, and must be squashed to protect it.  Even just blogging has rubbed a number of fellow sociologists the wrong way.

I don’t understand — am I just another sellout, drawn to the comforts of a tenure-track career in academia?  Or, am I yet another radical scholar who threatens the academic status quo?  How can I be both?

Do You, Boo!

The summer brought in an unexpected wave of anxiety.  The momentary reprieve from teaching did not bring peace of mind; it seemed to open the door to all sorts of doubts and questions.  The gateway stressor was “what am I supposed to be doing during my first summer?!”  That seemed to lead to asking myself competing questions: “what do I want to do this summer?” and “what kind of career do I want?”  The latter question reopened the door for me to obsess over revisit the warnings I received from my graduate advisors about taking a liberal arts job (e.g., little research productivity, irrelevance in the profession/discipline, become “damaged goods” in the eyes of research universities).  How could I focus on wanting to relax and do some traveling when I am worried about tenure, irrelevance, and others’ opinions?

I have learned to listen to my body when I experience symptoms of/related to my anxiety.  I talked over my worries with trusted mentors, colleagues, and friends, decided to take Fridays off all summer, planned another short vacation, and worked on settling these doubts once and for all.  I recognized that I had allowed others’ opinions — my graduate advisors’, those that I presumed of my current institution, and online critics — to heavily affect me.  And, I had lost sight of the fact that I must work to define my own career my entire life, especially if I dare to create change within and through academia.

As selfish as it feels, I have been painfully aware that I must work on my self-esteem and confidence before I can really get to work to make change.  That means getting more comfortable in my own skin and in the decisions that I make.  I have revisited the writings of Patricia Hill Collins on being an “outsider within” in academia and on intellectual activism. No matter how much change I dare to make in academia, simply being in it will forever mean being an outsider within; if I want a satisfying and authentic career, I will have to work for it and push back against the status quo.  But, I do want to make change.  I want my discipline to better reflect the lives (and perspectives!) of oppressed communities — speak truth to power!  I want academia to proactively work to improve the world beyond the ivory tower  — speak truth to the people!  No matter what, I do not have a choice but to be an activist for the sake of my own survival, and the survival of my communities.

For leisure reading, I picked up Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.  I knew about her “wise Latina” comment, which she was forced to retract essentially upon being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.  But, I did not have more context for the sentiment.  In essence, she is an outsider within in the legal profession.  She is well aware of, and has fought to challenge, the barriers faced by people of color in law and the courts.  And, she intentionally draws upon her background and personal experiences to inform her perspective as a judge (and when she was an attorney); but, which she makes clear, she does not allow her personal perspective trump legal precedence, the law, or the Constitution.  Rather, her perspective as a Latina woman is an asset not well reflected in the law and courts.  All of this mirrors Collins’s argument about the value of a Black feminist perspective in sociology.

Sotomayor and Collins, as well as other “outsiders within” in academia, serve as important role models for me.  Their struggles and triumphs remind me to stay the course — continue to bring about change within and through academia by drawing on my own experiences and perspective.  I cannot afford to waste time and energy on what other people think about or expect of me.  The tall task of advancing a fat Black/multiracial queer feminist worldview stands before me, with the additional challenge of doing so both with and against the mainstream theories and models in my discipline.

Besides, as one grad school professor told me, I will always struggle with the tension between activism and academia; the day I find balance between the two is the day I have gone too far in one direction or the other.  I will forever be a sellout by radical activists’ standards, and a radical by mainstream academics who defend the status quo.  Oh well, this radical sellout has work to do.

Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Source: thebiosciences.com

I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I have drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

source: teen.com

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committees’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken gay Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my own communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.

“I Just Want A Full-Time Job”

The following post was written by Anonymous.

source: adjunctnation.com

I recently took an administrative position in a campus unit that had been formed by the consolidation of several preexisting units. It fell to me a few weeks ago to effectively fire a contingent faculty member who came from one of those previous units. I didn’t want this task, and it turned out to be harder than I anticipated. But I hope that what I learned will help me be a better administrator going forward, and potentially help others. For the sake of anonymity, I will call this faculty member “Jim.” I had never met Jim in person before he came to my office to discuss the reorganization of activities and priorities in my new unit, a conversation that ended with me telling him there was no place for him. Jim was a research assistant professor, and had been employed by my university for about five years. He started out teaching one course each year, and then supplemented that by securing external grant funding that pays part of his salary. He also works for other universities on a consulting basis.

To contextualize this story, my university is a place of great privilege and my own position is among the more privileged in the university. I have tenure, a leadership position, discretionary budgets, and respect in and out of the university. Departments and programs in my university treat our contingent faculty well. I have often thought with pride that, while we shouldn’t be hiring people into such insecure positions, we do better by them than many other universities. Our “visiting” faculty receive benefits and earn a living wage, and our adjuncts earn $10,000 to $15,000 per course. Jim was able to apply for external grants as a Principal Investigator in the same way tenure-track faculty do. So, feel free to say that everything I describe here is a “first world” problem among the universe of adjunct experiences, or that I am naively living in a bubble. I’m well aware that I should have known better.

When Jim came to my office, I knew the conversation would be unpleasant. No one had discussed with him what the restructuring might mean for his position, and Jim had been complaining to staff about some recent changes that had affected him. I also realize now that I went in with the wrong assumptions about contingent faculty that many people have. I assumed that Jim had chosen this mix of activities at my university because he really wanted to live in this city or work here, or that he probably had a spouse who needed to stay in the area. This looks completely idiotic and embarrassing, as well as conceited about my university, when I put it in words. Like I said, you can call me naïve or anything else, but I imagine I’m not the only one who had assumed the precarity of adjunct work was someone else’s problem.

I spent about half an hour talking with Jim, describing the new organization of the unit and discussing how he came to this university and his research. While discussing the combination he had pursued of teaching and external grants, and gently asking him about the potential of one of his other contract positions becoming permanent, I was framing the conversation in terms of what he wanted to do over the next few years. This is a familiar conversation that I have with all my graduate students. When he said “I just want a full-time job,” and his eyes filled with tears, I was shocked to realize all my preconceptions had been wrong. My first instinct at that moment was to give him the full-time job, but that doesn’t fit with the reality of my position. I was trapped in a situation in which I had to tell someone that they were no longer welcome, that it was effectively not my problem if he was unemployed when his current grant funding ends. All I could offer him was a letter saying that he had to leave because of restructuring and not because of any evaluation of the quality of his work. A poor substitute for real support.

My second thought during and after talking with Jim was anger at the faculty member who had hired Jim. He did no one a favor by hiring Jim into a position that was renewable indefinitely and allowing Jim to apply for grants that committed the university to activities over more years than Jim’s initial appointment. While that did give Jim a (part-time) job for several years, it also gave an implicit promise that Jim was part of our community and would be able to continue in his position indefinitely. As a result, telling Jim that he no longer fits with the mission of the new unit felt cruel, and I believe it was a surprise to him.

I take two personal lessons from this experience, and I hope that others can learn from my experience. First, I need more humility; we here at my fancy university are not as exempt as I thought from the inhumane treatment of our contingent faculty. Second, I will never hire any PhD-level scholar/teacher/researcher without a clear term and regular ongoing communication about opportunities (or lack thereof) for retention and advancement.

For those of you similarly moving into positions in which you could hire contingent faculty, including both temporary instructors and research faculty, I would suggest the following:

  • Don’t convince yourself to hire someone with a vague and open-ended informal understanding. If you give vague explicit or implied promises but aren’t willing and able to hire them with a multi-year contract, you are setting them and yourself up for trouble. Eventually letting them go will be hard for you, and their employment at your university won’t necessarily have set them up for success.
  • Be completely clear about what you can offer and what they should expect, no matter how uncomfortable it is to say to someone that they will never get a permanent position at your school.
  • Pay attention to contingent faculty under your purview, and ask them how you can help with their careers.
  • Don’t wait until you are letting someone go and there’s no time left to help, but also don’t assume you know what career they want or what will help them toward that career. Contingent faculty may unfortunately be second-class citizens in our universities, but they aren’t students or children looking for our guidance.