Dr. Mieke Beth Thomeer Reflects On Pregnancy On The Job Market

Mieke HeadshotDr. Mieke Beth Thomeer (@MiekeBeth) is in her first year as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (see full biography at the end). In this guest post, Dr. Thomeer reflects on the challenges she faced while pregnant during her academic job search.  In finding little advice while she was on the job market, she offers her experience and tips to help others who are or will be pregnant on the academic job market.

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Pregnant on the Academic Job Market

Three hours after I found out I was pregnant in the fall of 2013, I received a phone call inviting me to give my first job talk. I rushed to my adviser’s office to get her advice on navigating the job market, although I chose not to tell her about my pregnancy yet because of how early the pregnancy was. My adviser gave me wonderful advice on how to navigate the campus visit. As one piece of advice, she told me to feel free to have a glass of wine with dinner during the interview if everyone else was, as it was a social thing to do. I nodded, but internally started worrying about what the job market would be like when pregnant.

When I got back to my office, I immediately turned to the internet, finding several blog posts about pregnancy and motherhood on the job market: being on the academic job market in your second trimester and trying to hide your bump with business clothes; being on the academic job market in your third trimester and not being able to hide being pregnant at all; finding out that you’re pregnant after accepting the job and needing to take the first semester off; and being on the academic job market while breastfeeding and needing accommodations for pumping. I had heard stories from an academic mentor about successfully interviewing in her eighth month. But I couldn’t find anything about interviewing in your first trimester. As this was my first pregnancy and I really didn’t know what to expect, I hoped that the lack of information just meant that there wasn’t anything I needed to know and that pregnancy wouldn’t make any difference in the interviewing process for me.

A few weeks later I found myself at dinner at my first campus interview. Until that point, my pregnancy had been easy. I wasn’t showing and had experienced very few symptoms. Based on my personal decision to only tell family about my pregnancy during my first trimester, as well as general advice I’d received about not divulging too much of my personal life in interviews (e.g., marital status, parental status), I chose not to tell the department about my pregnancy. As an aside, there’s evidence that women with children are discriminated against in hiring, and based on this, I chose to not share about my family status. This discrimination against mothers may be lessening, and it certainly varies from department to department. Consequently, advice seems to be shifting regarding how much to divulge about your personal life during an academic interview. But I didn’t feel the need to risk it; I decided to stick to talking about research, the department, and Game of Thrones at dinner.

As timing would have it, two bites into that first dinner I was hit by a strong wave of nausea and found I couldn’t eat anything else. I sat through the many courses which characterize interview dinners, unable to eat anything on my plate, working hard to contribute to the conversation and hide how I was feeling. I ended up having a lot of nausea throughout the fall semester, and as I traveled for job interviews, this scene played out again and again at breakfast, lunch, and dinner at different job interviews. After my first visit, my doctor prescribed anti-nausea medicines, which I began to take regularly and made my other interviews so much easier than my first.

I was due in June, so I wasn’t overly concerned with parental leave policies; my child would be two months old when I started a new position. But I appreciated the departments that were very forthcoming with their parental leave policies and told me directly what children do to the tenure clock and teaching schedule. The departments that openly discussed these things would preface this discussion by telling me that they told everyone these policies, that way candidates who were planning to have children soon would not feel pressured to disclose this. This information tended to come up in my one-on-one meetings with women faculty who had recently had children themselves.  I am very grateful to the professors who shared their experiences with me.

Mieke

Graduation day!

Motivated by my own frustration with not finding resources on the internet to prepare me for my interviews, I have come up with some things I wish I had known or done during my job market experience during my first trimester:

  1. Talk to your doctor before you travel to job interviews. Even if you don’t have any “morning” sickness yet, it still may make sense to get and fill a prescription to minimize it, just in case it strikes.
  2. Ask for your campus interview schedule as early as possible, and if you find that there aren’t many breaks scheduled, ask whether one or more are possible. Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, it is better to be safe. You likely do not need to give a reason, but if you do, you may just be able to say that there are medical reasons.
  3. If you do struggle with morning sickness, ask for longer layovers for flights. I had one incredibly awful trip in which I was stuck on an airplane in the middle seat between two businessmen feeling absolutely miserable. That experience would’ve been avoided with a longer layover. Relatedly, if you struggle with morning sickness, don’t assume the plane will have barf bags—pack your own in a carry-on bag.
  4. Pack snacks and a water bottle, as well as ginger chews, hard candies, or peppermints. These are good on the plane, in between the never-ending meetings with faculty, and even after a long job talk.
  5. Don’t plan to work on your job talk in the hotel room. Interviews and pregnancy are both exhausting, and you need to give your body and mind a break.
  6. Be prepared with a response for when someone asks why you aren’t drinking or eating much (or eating a lot if that’s how it goes for you). It is likely that no one will, but it is still wise to be prepared. I found it easy just to say that I preferred not to drink on interviews and everyone was fine with that.
  7. Go to the bathroom as often as you need. It’s okay to be a little late to your next appointment or to leave a little early; professors don’t compare how often you peed. (“Mieke went to the bathroom right after her interview with me.” “Me too! How weird?” is likely an exchange that never happened at any of my interviews.)
  8. Do your research on parental leave policies. You may find this is easy to discuss discreetly with faculty, or you may find it makes more sense to call Human Resources. But it is better to find out now than when you show up at the job.
  9. Even if you’re not telling many people about your pregnancy during your first trimester, have someone close to you with whom you can talk about the stress of juggling pregnancy and job interviews. This is probably especially important if you find pregnancy brings a lot of mood swings for you—better to talk it out than internalize it and let it stress you out.

I realize everyone’s experiences will vary wildly, depending on the timing of your pregnancy and what your symptoms are like, with some people having a much easier and others having a much more difficult experience than me. It can be tricky to navigate the worries and excitements of the first trimester and the job market at the same time, but I was fortunate to survive both. After the whirlwind of the job market, I accepted a job at a very supportive university and department and let them know about my pregnancy when I showed up eight months pregnant for a housing search in the spring.

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Biography

Mieke Beth Thomeer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Thomeer’s research and teaching interests include aging, family, health, gender, and sexuality. In her research, she addresses questions about how relationships influence and are influenced by physical and mental health, with particular attention to gender. Because the lived experiences of relationships are complex, she utilizes both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, with special emphasis on dyadic methods. Her research has been published in the American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Aging Studies, Journal of Gerontology, and Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Our Call For Submissions

LogoCalling all guest bloggers!  We invite you to contribute a blog post (or a series of posts) to Conditionally Accepted to help to broaden the diversity of voices reflected on the blog.  Please read the following call for submissions, and share it with your friends and colleagues to spread the word [download PDF version].  Below the call, I have included suggestions for topics for guest blog posts; feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.  Thank you!

~ Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, Conditionally Accepted Editor

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Call For Submissions

ConditionallyAccepted.com – an online space for marginalized scholars who are “conditionally accepted” in academia – invites guest blog posts (500-1,000 words) regarding inequality, discrimination, and harassment in and related to academia and higher education. The blog offers an unfolding electronic dialogue among marginalized scholars, wherein we share personal stories, advice, information, resources, as well as engage in scholarly debate. Voices from scholars of various backgrounds, disciplines, and career paths are encouraged to contribute. Anonymous and pseudonymous posts are welcome, as well. Submissions should be emailed to conditionallyaccepted@gmail.com. Please briefly describe how your proposed post fits into the blog’s focus. You can see more information in our suggested guidelines for contributions.

Suggested Ideas

Personal narratives from the experiences of scholars who are:

  • Trans and gender non-conforming
  • Disabled, including those with “invisible” disabilities
  • Working-class
  • Fat
  • International
  • Survivors of violence and trauma
  • Mothers and/or single-parents (especially who are also of color and/or working-class)
  • From marginalized religions
  • In the STEM fields
  • Early graduate students
  • Tenured/senior
  • Department chairs
  • Deans and other administrators
  • Postdocs
  • Adjuncts and other contingent faculty
  • Student affairs professionals

Advice on navigating the following processes and milestones:

  • Applying to graduate school
  • Finding a mentor in graduate school
  • Having one’s graduate mentor leave
  • Quitting graduate school
  • Taking time off during graduate school
  • Publishing
  • The devaluation or outright dismissal of research on one’s own marginalized community as “me-search”
  • Co-authorships and collaborations, particularly in “power imbalanced” relationships (e.g., student-faculty, junior scholar-senior scholar)
  • Research productivity at liberal arts or regional colleges, or outside of traditional academic settings
  • Networking
  • The academic job market
  • The non-academic job market
  • Pursuing alternative careers (alt-ac)
  • Dealing with students’ challenges inside and outside of the classroom
  • Tips for becoming a better teacher
  • The pressure to remain “neutral” in the classroom
  • Teaching tips for international instructors
  • Mentoring students
  • Securing letter writers for tenure
  • Success on the tenure-track
  • Tenure denials
  • Promotion to full professor
  • Becoming an administrator
  • Finding a new job
  • Navigating department politics, especially “toxic” departments
  • Disproportionate service expectations, especially related to diversity

Personal narratives on and/or advice for the following barriers in academia:

  • Mental illness
  • Disability and chronic illness
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Motherhood in graduate school
  • Pregnancy and motherhood on the academic job market
  • Pregnancy and motherhood while on the tenure-track
  • Work-life(-family) balance
  • Sexual violence (including sexual harassment)
  • Discrimination and harassment

Other personal issues:

  • Dating in academia
  • Finding friends in (and outside of) academia
  • Self-care

Scholarly perspectives and debates about the following issues in higher education, particularly as they impact marginalized scholars and students:

  • Rising student debt
  • The “adjunctification” of higher education (i.e., growing reliance on adjuncts and other contingent faculty)
  • Better pay, resources, and support for adjuncts and other contingent faculty
  • The “corportatization” of higher education
  • Threats to academic freedom
  • Diversifying faculty
  • Open access publishing
  • Academic blogging and other social media

Sex Researcher Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel In Cosmo Magazine

Sofia Jawed-WesselEarlier this month, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel (biography at the end of this post) was featured in Cosmopolitan magazine as part of its “Sex Work” series.  Dr. Jawed-Wessel spoke candidly about her journey to become a sex researcher, and the reactions she has received from others along the way (particularly her family).  She has kindly shared with us more about her background and academic career — both of which have made her nervous about talking publicly about being a sex researcher.

See Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel’s interview with Cosmo: “How I Became A Sex Researcher.”

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Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel On Her Cosmo Interview

I am a 31 year old, first-generation Pakistani-American woman who was raised by Muslim parents in Indiana. I also happen to be a sex researcher and educator. Last week Cosmopolitan.com released an interview featuring my path to becoming a sex researcher and I am so honored by the overwhelming positive response (holy crap, 1.2k shares!).

Although my 16-year-old self was giddy about the opportunity to be featured in Cosmo, I was hesitant to take the interview and incredibly anxious when it was released. I feel strongly about my work and abilities, but at the same time, I am frequently reminded that I should not be here. I am not accustomed to publicly, loudly hearing a voice that is similar to my own in academia. I am not comfortable with my own voice. When I go to campus and travel to conferences, I rarely meet others who look like me or have faced the same difficulties and barriers, especially within the field of sexuality. And in my personal life, it’s hard to ignore the embarrassment my parents feel about my career.

But each comment, share, and like on my interview has helped me feel more confident that not only is my work important, but my voice is too. Since last week, I received several messages from young women hoping to make it in academia asking for advice and to share their own struggles. For this, I am grateful to Cheryl Wischhover and Cosmo.  Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and connect with others!

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Biography

Sofia Jawed-Wessel, PhD, MPH is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Health Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Assistant Director of the Midland Sexual Health Research Collaborative. Dr. Jawed-Wessel has a PhD in Health Behavior (2012) and a Master of Public Health (2008), both from Indiana University. Dr. Jawed-Wessel has collaborated on several projects and manuscripts related to women and men’s sexual health including sexual behaviors during pregnancy, sexual functioning after childbirth, condom development and use, the use of sexual enhancement products, sexual pleasure, and pelvic and genital pain in women. In addition, Dr. Jawed-Wessel has taught human sexuality from a sex-positive and pleasure inclusive approach to hundreds of undergraduates over the past five years.

Graduate School, I Forgive You

Graduation, May 2013

Graduation, May 2013

Over the summer, I received a notification that my online university accounts at my graduate institution were terminated.  It had been a year since I officially graduated and began working at another school.  I knew that this moment would come eventually, but I was surprised that I felt the slightest bit of sadness about it.  This was it.  That chapter of my life was officially over, and my ties to the institution no longer existed (excluding friendships and professional relationships, of course).

I could not wait to get out of graduate school, but I have continued to struggle to recover from it over the past year and a half.  I had hoped that I would write a few posts to work through what I called “graduate school garbage,” and make available the experiences and resources that were not available to me as I attempted to forge my own career path.  Shortly after, I would shift to providing advice for graduate students and fellow junior scholars.  But, that has not happened yet.  Over a year after I made the public declaration to pursue tenure my way, I continue to struggle with fear, self-doubt, and the emotional baggage of graduate school.

Time To Move On

Although the elimination of my online accounts made the chapter’s end officially official, I already suspected that I was overdue for beginning to move on with my life.  On occasion, I have successfully churned out an essay of advice.  But, I sometimes have to write out the awful experiences that led to suggestions for better ways of doing things; I simply delete that part of the narrative, or use it sparingly to contextualize my advice.  During my last attempt to write a post on advice, I had a page-long rant about graduate school with no advice, which I ultimately deleted.

It seems as though I am not yet at the point where my writing on and conversations about graduate school are exclusively or at least mostly advice-giving.  And, I worry that I am developing a reputation for simply complaining or “trashing” my graduate program (see the comments section of this post).  Even outside of blogging, I find myself blaming the challenges of grad school for ongoing anxiety, self-doubt, awkwardness in interactions with students and colleagues, and uncertainty about navigating academic spaces.  I fear I have become a wounded, broken record.  “Okay, we get it,” I imagine people saying, “graduate school sucked.  Move on already!”

I feel stuck.  Why am I still working through the trauma of grad school?  Am I forever changed, or will the disappointment and resentment dissipate over time?

Forgiveness

Moving on will not be enough.  Or, as we mean “move on” in a casual sense — just stop thinking about the past and focus on the present — will not be effective, at least not as quickly as I would like.  It recently dawned on me that the key to successfully moving on is probably to make peace with the previous chapter of my life.  That is, it is time to forgive everything and everyone related to my graduate training.

What would it mean to forgive graduate school?  I realize that it sounds odd, that I am implying that I have been wronged in some way and have decided to forgive.  I was not intentionally harmed or deceived or excluded by someone or something (well, rarely, if ever).  But, I suspect thinking only of intentional wrong-doing as acts that are forgivable is what makes this seem odd.

I see offering forgiveness, in part, as finding good or positive intentions within a limited, complex, or even oppressive context.  I can use my parents’ journey to accepting me as their unapologetically queer son as an example.  If I refused to understand their initial disappointment and fear from any perspective other than my own, I likely would have stood my ground in cutting ties with them at age 19.  They wanted to protect me from homophobia and the consequences it has in queer people’s lives; but, they failed to see how their own intolerance contributed to those hardships in my life.  After some time, I realized how hard I was on them, demanding immediate and total acceptance (or else kicking them out of my life).  I ignored that they had been raised in a homophobic society, and did not have the knowledge and skills (and confidence) to support a queer child.

Graduate programs have a set of norms, values, and practices that, unfortunately, often do not reflect my own values, needs, and interests.  I came to graduate school as an activist, and wanted to leave graduate school as an even better activist.  Whether I agree with the sentiment that academic careers are not designed for scholars with activist leanings (I surely do not agree!), the heart of graduate training is research with a sprinkle of teaching (if you are lucky).  When put in those terms, it does not make sense to resent grad school for failing to train me as an activist; that is like damning an eye doctor for failing to address my anxiety.  But, to my credit, it was not made explicit until midway through my training that academia and activism do not mix (in some people’s minds).

There were mentors who did support me as an activist, though to the best of their abilities as academics and within the bounds of what graduate training is really about.  This recognition seems crucial to beginning the process of forgiving.  My mentors did the best that they could, and their intentions were to mold me into a strong scholar so that I would have as many professional opportunities as possible.  Since formal training for graduate education is uncommon (does it even exist?), it seems many professors simply mentor in ways that worked for them, or in ways they wish they were mentored as students.  In many ways, it seems like parenting; there are a plethora of books, but no real, universal guide to being a good mentor.  They make it up as they go.  And, as with my parents, my advisors probably struggled with knowing how to mentor a student like me.

Why Forgiveness Matters

I should be clear that, in forgiving graduate school, I am not excusing negative or hurtful things that happened to me.  I see many problems with graduate education that warrant improvement.  And, it seems silly to challenge myself to forget the foundational training of my academic career.  At this early stage — in which I acknowledge I am a novice at this notion of forgiveness — I see this journey primarily as understanding my graduate training from a broader perspective, and choosing to focus on and appreciate the positive aspects of that chapter of my life.

First and foremost, the need to forgive everything and everyone is urgent because I need to move on.  It does me no good to carry baggage from the previous chapter of my life.  I am getting in the way of fully appreciating the current chapter.  For example, as I continue to replay conversations about the kinds of jobs I should (and should not) apply to, I unintentionally force myself to second guess my decision to work at a liberal arts university.  Am I really happy here?   Well, yes, I am!  I am tired of frequently doing the math in my head to remind myself that I fought for this job, a job that is great for me in so many ways, and that I see no reasons to seriously consider leaving.  In other words, it seems as long as I ruminate over the past, I cannot fully appreciate the present.

Second, I tend to ignore the positive aspects of my graduate training by obsessing over the negatives.  I received training at one of the top sociology programs in the nation, which opened many doors for my career.  I became, in my humble opinion, a strong scholar and teacher.  In some ways, I was even supported in developing my own type of academic career.  Overall, I do not regret attending the program, or pursuing a PhD in general.  I made friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime.  As long as I cling to resentment, I hesitate to connect with my mentors, which I now realize is a foolish mistake because they can (and probably will) remain mentors for life.  I actually limit the good that came from my graduate training by maintaining my resentment-filled distance.

Finally, I need to relinquish the victim status I have unconsciously developed.  I tend to think of what I endured and the compromises I made in order to get my PhD; I tend to lose sight of what I gained.  It is too easy to focus on the ways in which I am wounded — fearful, uncertain, lacking confidence — rather than feeling empowered.  In a way, the path to forgiveness will probably entail forgiving myself.  What I endured was not so much loss or compromise as it was an investment for developing the kind of career I want.  I did the best that I could; and, even with a few bumps and bruises, I actually did pretty damn well.  Even just in writing this paragraph, I suddenly feel a sense of pride that is probably stuffed under the resentment, disappointment, and doubt.

Concluding Thoughts

Where this path goes is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you.  I will not be surprised by bumps and setbacks, tapping into pockets of my spirit that I did not know were still bound by anger and hurt.  I hope, once successful, that I can comfortably focus on the present and reflect on the past only to provide useful advice to others.  I will even challenge myself, starting now, to write about the previous chapter of my life only if to offer advice, or privately if it will help work toward forgiveness.

Academia is toxic enough.  I plan to become a voice of hope and kindness.

Our 2014 Recap

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

Although I think bloggers themselves get more out of year-end posts, I cannot pass up an excuse to reflect on the past year for Conditionally Accepted.  The blog has grown enough since my 2013 year-end recap to warrant a recap of 2014.

The biggest change, of course, is the growth of our blogging staff, with the addition of Dr. Jeana Jorgensen (@foxyfolklorist) as a regular contributor. Beginning with her four-part blog series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), Jeana brings to the blog one perspective of the now-majority of PhDs who do not secure tenure-track positions after graduate school.  She recently launched her own sex education business, and continues to blog on her personal site and for MySexProfessor.com.  Welcome Jeana!

First, The Numbers

Popular Posts

As measured by number of views, here are our top 10 posts of 2014:

  1. The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia,” by me
  2. 25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True,” by me
  3. Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia,” by Dr. Victor Ray
  4. Professors Feel Pain, Too,” by me
  5. I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II),” by Dr. Jeana Jorgensen
  6. But, Do #BlackLivesMatter In Academia?,” by me
  7. I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. I),” by Dr. Jeana Jorgensen
  8. I Souled Out,” by me
  9. Giving Up On Academic Stardom,” by me
  10. On Dealing With Online Criticism And Trolls For Academics,” by me

Our Impact

Measuring our impact quantitatively is the easy part, even if site traffic, followers, and guest bloggers are rough proxies for “impact.”  I am still uncertain of ways to gauge a blog’s broader impact.  Are we changing hearts?  Minds?  Lives?  Policies?  Conversations?  Do otherwise invisible people see themselves in our blog posts?  Do otherwise voiceless people feel heard?  Do otherwise powerless people feel empowered?

At a minimum, the blog provides a space for dialogue, advice, and the sharing of resources for those of us who are marginalized in academia.  I certainly feel that as a regular voice on the blog, as I am sure is the case for other bloggers (both here and on other academic blog sites).  But, that does not say much about what our actual and potential readers get from the blog.

I am even more confident than in my 2013 reflections that the blog is far from “navel-gazing.”  In fact, it has begun to sink in that some readers have referred to and shared Conditionally Accepted as a resource; that means, not only are they viewing content on the blog, they are also encouraging others to view it.  For example, I have heard that the blog is listed as a resource in The Para-Academic Handbook:A Toolkit for Making-Learning-Creating-Acting.  And, some blog posts have been been cited for research purposes.  I guess that indicates that we are having some kind of impact in academia!

What’s Ahead?

I have often daydreamed about what will come from our blogging efforts in the years to come.  Advocacy that goes beyond telling our stories and offering advice?  Perhaps a book?  Maybe the creation of an academic professional development organization?  Many have already successfully pursued these efforts, so I hesitate to recreate what already exists.  And, more importantly, I am still an overwhelmed new tenure-track professor!

In the short-term, I hope to see Conditionally Accepted grow just a bit more in 2015 — more readers and followers, more guest bloggers, more topics and perspectives covered, and perhaps even another addition to our regular blogging staff.  As usual, we welcome guest blog posts!  C’mon 2015 — we’re ready for you.

But, Do #BlackLivesMatter In Academia?

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have publicly written about the (recent media attention to the) crisis of police violence against Black men and boys in the United States.  Why have I remained silent for months?  From August onward, different reasons have come to mind to explain (or justify?) my self-imposed silence:

  • I was a nervous wreck the days leading up to the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco, held just a few days after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  And, while at the conference, there was little discussion of Brown’s death — at least that I encountered.  It seemed, as a discipline and academic organization, sociologists were surprisingly silent about the murder and subsequent riots.  Fortunately, some sociologists were talking about Ferguson, and some were even making a plan to act as sociologists.  Still, our collective action pales in comparison to other discipline’s efforts.
  • My father is a white police officer.  I have struggled to reconcile what I know about the sometimes scary realities of his work life with the everyday lived realities of communities that have been anything but protected and served by police.  I have struggled to separate individual (white) police officers from widespread racist bias and violence in US law enforcement.
  • As protests spread across the US, and hostility toward a legacy of racist police violence reached a boiling point, I continued to remain silent and, admittedly, out of touch.  Teaching three classes, including one new course, while attempting to stay productive in my research, felt too overwhelming to sacrifice my precious personal time.  Maintaining work-life balance is hard enough without national crises.
  • As the body count increased, and the murders of Black men by police officers became remained legal and state-sanctioned, it became difficult to remain focused on my usual professional responsibilities.  How could I carry on teaching about the medical institution (in one class) and research methods (in two other classes) when my mind was clouded with a sense of total vulnerability as a Black gay man in a racist and homophobic society?  When white students challenged me about a few points they had lost on assignments, I thought, “you privileged asses don’t know — they’re killing us!  Fuck your 2 points.”

I excused my silence and, frankly, my self-imposed ignorance about the national crisis.  Anxiety about conference presentations.  Mixed boy problemsRaw pain.  I had reason after reason, excuse after excuse.  Eventually, I was forced to name the root issue: fear.  (Ah, and as the tears instantly began forming after typing those four letters, my suspicion is confirmed.)

Fear

I make a point of talking about current events and new published studies at the beginning of my classes — well, at least those that are undeniably related to the course, and usually only in my substantive courses (e.g., Medical Sociology, Gender and Sexuality).  In teaching Medical Sociology and Sociological Research Methods this semester, I never felt comfortable bringing up the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and … (too many).  These tragedies did not seem relevant to lectures on sexual health, or multivariate analysis, or the decline of medicine, or qualitative data analysis; so, I never brought them up.

I suspect, at some level, I feared that a student would even ask, “how is this related to our class?”  Or, that some would later criticize me on course evaluations for focusing too much on racism (when the course has nothing to do with it).  I have been challenged by students enough for this fear to feel at least somewhat rational.  And, as my own pain and outrage grew, I worried that I was not “removed” enough from the tragedies to have a “neutral” conversation with my students about them.  I knew well enough that the pain was too raw to risk having a (white) student demand to know, “why are we talking about that issue here?”

Eventually, I was presented an “excuse” to even utter the word Ferguson in my Medical Sociology class.  At my university, a forum was held to discuss the Grand Jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson and, by the time of the forum, that regarding the murder of Eric Garner, as well.  I mentioned the event to my class, strongly encouraging my students to attend, but made it clear that I did not want to have a discussion in class about it.

At the forum, I admitted my embarrassment for going almost the full semester without ever discussing the national crisis.  And, I pushed back on the few other staff and faculty who attended to stop implicitly asking why the students were so quiet on the issue and, instead, ask ourselves why we had not provided students the space and resources to discuss it and (if appropriate) to act.  I know I am not alone in failing to discuss these important, urgent events in my classes — not in being afraid to do so (as a pre-tenure young Black gay man) and not in feeling it was “irrelevant” to my courses.

Do #BlackLivesMatter In The Academy?

Do Black lives actually matter in academia?  No and no.  On the one hand, Black students, staff, and faculty are woefully underrepresented in higher education.  Nominal diversity aside, there are too many academic institutions that fail to fully include Black people, to offer equal resources and opportunities, to protect Black people from harm.  On the other hand, Black communities and their contributions to society and history are rarely presented as legitimate, primary areas of inquiry in higher education.  Sure, there are a few courses in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race and racism; but, too few schools even offer degrees in Black, racial and ethnic, or cultural studies (sadly, my own university doesn’t, either).  At many schools, students are simply not afforded academic spaces to frankly discuss race, racism, ethnicity, and xenophobia.

The absence of Black people in academic institutions and in academic curricula are compounded for Black scholars.  Some of us are accepted on the condition that our Blackness is downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased.  We run the risk of losing our jobs or being sued if we dare to discuss racism as a legitimate area of academic study.  We risk being dismissed as researchers for studying our own communities, our work mocked as “me-search” while our white colleagues’ research on their own communities is seen as legitimate, mainstream scholarship.  And, despite our credentials and prestigious position in institutions of higher learning, we would be naive to expect to be treated better than a common nigger once we leave our campus offices.

Since Black lives seem to matter little in academia, I should not be surprised by my own silence about the ongoing national crisis of police violence against Black communities.  The culture of academia fails to prioritize and celebrate Black lives.  So, I regularly feel as though I am defending my right to exist before a jury each time I teach about race and racism.  But, I am further exhausted by attempting to toe the line of neutrality, for fear of retaliation from racist- and even “post-racist”-minded students.  My mainstream academic training, which prioritized prestige (i.e., journal rank), theory, and method over activism, social justice, and marginalized communities, did not include critical race theory or much of anything that made race central, nor skills for discussing current events like Ferguson in my classes.  And, my current institution did not make explicit support for me if I decided to discuss the national crisis in my classes.  (As a matter of survival, I do not assume the absence of explicit hostility or opposition necessarily implies the presence of acceptance or support.) Academia, in general, is not designed in a way that would make such discussions obvious material for one’s courses, whether or not they are explicitly focused on racism.

Can you blame me for being afraid to speak?  Without appropriate training and support to speak up, I knew that doing so would be at my own risk.  And, the question is, do I risk my job by speaking up or do I risk my life by remaining silent?  Whether you sympathize with me, or pity me, or even think I am full of shit, I have blamed myself — and, still do somewhat.  I let pain, fear, and uncertainty prevent me from providing my students one of probably few possible spaces to speak about the national crisis. I contributed to reinforcing the message that race and racism are not worthwhile topics in the classroom, particularly if “race” or some similar term is not in the course’s title.

We Must Make #BlackLivesMatter In Academia

I suspect some may wonder why instructors should talk about Brown, Garner, Rice, and Brisbon in the classroom.  I respect others’ academic freedom and, thus, am hesitant to claim that others should or should not discuss this crisis with their students.  But, there are a few reasons that I think others should consider.

First, we should resist the temptation to see this as a recent, temporary, and isolated series of murders.  Police violence, particularly against Black and brown bodies, is not new, and certainly not limited to these four murders (nor to men of color).  I imagine that there is a sizable body of research on race, racism, and law enforcement that should appease educators who are skeptical to engage current events.  Second, by bringing these conversations into our classes, we may equip our students to be able to connect those events with their own lives and communities.  Perhaps we can further chip away at the myth of racial equality and meritocracy in higher education.  Third, we would be contributing to students’ awareness of events and phenomena outside of our classes, even outside of the ivory tower.

But, facilitating a discussion about Ferguson, for example, is radical.  It is radical to the extent that one is pushing back against the hegemonic academic culture of racelessness or “post-raciality” (which, in reality, is simply white supremacy).  So, doing so likely requires some amount of strategizing beyond, “hey, I should probably mention this really quickly in my class.”  Below I list some ideas, mainly from the efforts of others who were brave enough to act and speak up, as well as some that would, in hindsight, have helped me to feel empowered to speak up:

  • Before you talk about the murder of Michael Brown, talk with other instructors first (or at least friends or family), and do your homework about the facts and timeline.  One danger of talking about Ferguson for the first time in one’s classes is not having thought through one’s own perspective and emotions, and not being prepared to hear possible counterperspectives and inaccuracies that students may offer.  Talking with others at your institution first could help to glean the degree to which you are supported and, implicitly, to garner support in case things do not go well in your class discussion.  Speaking for myself, the regular sense of isolation in academia exacerbates my fear and self-doubt in front of the classroom; I imagine I would have felt more empowered if I had already spoken with colleagues about the events that unfolded in Ferguson.
  • But, do not assume that students are not paying attention; yet, do not assume that they have received accurate facts about the murders, either.
  • See what other academics have done.  Read everything on the #FergusonSyllabus.  And, everything that Sarah Kendzoir has written about Ferguson, MO.
  • Use peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes.  But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices of Black people, either in anthologies or even blog posts and news articles.  We must go beyond the recent murders that garnered national media and social media attention.
  • When discussing the crisis, make clear that it cannot be thought of in either exclusively academic or exclusively personal (i.e., non-academic) terms.  Our conversations should not become so focused on the aggregate patterns and problems that we forget about the particular victims of racist police violence; but, we also do students a disservice by discussing these individual murders as isolated events, or purely in terms of our emotions about them.  It is crucial to give social and historical context for these events to prevent our conversations from dissolving into simply interrogating victims’ and perpetrators’ backgrounds, biases, and emotional states.
  • Set an appropriate and safe tone in the classroom for any discussion.  Make sure that you feel prepared to address problematic, offensive, or triggering comments that may be made during class discussion.  Upon reflecting on your class’s dynamics, if it does not seem the conversation will be unproductive or unsafe, consider eliminating discussion to either simply lecture or allow students to privately reflect in writing.  Or, simply forgo any discussion at all if you do not feel it will go well or that you are not adequately prepared.
  • Besides classroom dialogue, consider other ways on and off campus, and on and offline, to act and speak up.  But, also prioritize self-care so that your professional livelihood is not jeopardized by the psychological toll of yet another racial crisis or scandal.
  • Help students to connect the the racist police violence that has recently captured media attention to their own lives, including racial disparities in policing and disciplinary actions in schools.  You can also draw on stories of racist police violence in your own city or state that have likely been overlooked by mainstream media (but, perhaps has been covered on social media).

Closing Thoughts

In some ways, I feel this post is “too little, too late.”  What does writing about my five months of silence add to conversations that have ensued since (and long before) the murder of Michael Brown?  At a minimum, I wish to name the professional, social, and emotional constraints I regularly face as an academic.  I am confident that I am not alone in feeling that my supposed academic freedom is undermined by racist academic norms and practices, isolation, lack of support, as well as the resultant fear and self-doubt.  To others who remain too afraid to speak up, you are not alone.

Ideally, I hope to also make clear how academia is complicit in the silence and ignorance that surrounds racist police violence, and racism in general, in the US.  We fail to provide our students with the critical lens necessary to connect what they learn in the classroom with what is featured (or ignored) by the media.  We fail to demonstrate the relevance of academic scholarship to the “real” world, and to take serious topics such as race and racism in the academy.  White students are not challenged to see their own racial privilege, and how their actions and inactions contribute to the perpetuation of racism.  Many Black students do not see themselves on campus or in their textbooks.  This is in the midst of academia’s role in perpetuating racial inequality, while producing a generation of “post-racials.”

Finally, this post serves to break my silence.  I have once again learned the hard way that my silence does not protect me.

Reflections On Pursuing A Non-Traditional Academic Career

Chris WhiteDr. Christopher White is one of a growing number of academics who have pursued an alternative academic career (or “Alt-Ac“).  In this guest blog post, he reflects on the uncertainty and self-doubt, as well as the joys and triumphs, that he has experienced in defining his academic career on his own terms.  See Dr. White’s full biography at the end.

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I’m Such A Loser (But My Life Is Fucking Fantastic!)

For the past decade or so, I have spent the first weekend of every November at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS – pronounced “quad ess”), a place that has become my academic home complete with a wonderful group of friends who have become a family of sorts for me. It has become one of the most important events of the year for me because it is not only a time for me to learn about the latest work in the field, but also a time to recharge through the love and camaraderie of some of my closest friends.

In a sense, all of us “grew up” together professionally, regardless of our ages. I met most of these folks while we were in graduate school or shortly thereafter as “young professionals.” Over the years, I’ve watched these men and women transition from graduate assistants to junior faculty to settling into their tenured positions. At SSSS, we served the organization as student leaders, on various committees, and most recently we all filled or are currently filling various roles on the Board of Directors. I’m sure that we will continue to do so and will eventually move into the “elder” categories of “past presidents” and such – but let’s rush anything. We’re still relatively young… I think.

Earlier this month, we joyfully gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, spent time catching up over too many cocktails, laughed, maybe even cried, and shared out latest successes and frustrations. I felt incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing, bright, and supportive friends, as I always do when we’re together. This year, though, I felt something else – sadness, envy, and jealousy. It bubbled up in moments when I heard about someone’s latest achievement – a published book, tenure, and new grant award. I wasn’t unhappy for them, quite the opposite. But I felt the creep of self-disappointment, self-criticism, and whole heckuva lot of self-doubt.

 “I’m a failure.”

 “I’m not as smart as these people are.”

 “I’ve accomplished so little.”

 “What have I done with my life?”

 “I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda…”

You see, after I completed my PhD, I made the decision not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia. I moved against the stream and chose a job, no, a career that was not “on track” with what I was supposed to do. I consciously made this decision. I wasn’t interested in the game, the scam – the seemingly never-ending treadmill of writing stuff that no one was going to read to impress the right people into giving me a permanent job with “academic freedom” – whatever the hell that really means. At least, I think I consciously made that decision.

Half-Assed Job Searches And Knowing People

The truth is that I spent a year applying for academic positions right before and after graduation. I got a few nibbles, but the big one always eluded me. I had set parameters that made it difficult for me to land the type of job that I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have followed the advice of my mentors and done more quantitative work, toned down the sexuality stuff, amped up the health education work, and applied for jobs at smaller universities in Podunk towns.

Instead, I pushed my qualitative research agenda and only applied for jobs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, I said, “fuck you and fuck the capitalist system of academics and research.” I was a rebel and was going to do things my way… yeah, that’s it.

Then I got a call from a “prestigious” academic in San Francisco. He’d heard about me from a grad school peer of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him at his center. No academic appointment, no tenure-track, just a job. I said yes.

Let’s fast-forward about seven years. I am the director of a CDC-funded project at a youth-focused, LGBTQ organization. I’m adjunct faculty at three universities and enjoy teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. And I feel like a complete failure – at least, I did a couple of weeks ago when I returned from the SSSS conference in Omaha.

Hearing my friends’ stories about being awarded tenure or about their latest publication made me feel like a complete loser. I’m happy for them, and I want them to be successful. At the same time, with each success that I heard about, a voice in my head said, “You made the wrong decision. You are a loser.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Leave me alone. Go away,” I screamed silently to that other me. The doubter. The critique.

Wait A Second…What’s That Smell?

Then something happened. I got on a plane and flew to New York City to attend a training of health teachers and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors and to meet with NYC Department of Education staff. I spent two days talking about the work they are doing to support not only LGBTQ-youth, but all marginalized young people, and looking for opportunities to support and grow their work. Then I went to Boston and did the same thing there. Next, I talked to some colleagues about a conference we’re organizing to work with 20+ school districts across the US to do the same. And I realized something… I’m really fucking lucky to get to be part of something so amazing, so life-changing for so many people.

So, I may not be getting that letter from the Dean saying that I’ve been awarded tenure, and I may not have my face on the back of a book jacket (yet!). But I am working on an important project, which was funded because of a proposal that I wrote. I travel around the US to major cities and talk to high-ranking school district officials about LGBTQ youth. I get the privilege of training teachers on how to make their lessons and their schools LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly. AND, I get to teach classes, and hear from students that my courses made a difference in their lives. On top of that, I make a decent living and can afford a fairly nice life. Oh my god, wait, the fuck, I AM successful – although writing that makes me feel foolish, but fuck it.

So maybe I’ve lied to myself a little bit about why I chose not to go the traditional/expected route after I finished my PhD. I still got to where I need to be… and I’m not done, yet.

If anyone reading this is questioning their decisions or considering doing something other than what they are “supposed” to do, my advice to you is to find a way to make your career what you want it to be – maybe that’s tenure, or maybe that’s hodgepodging the job you want. Whatever it is, celebrate your friends’ successes, and don’t forget to celebrate your own.

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Biography

Christopher White, PhD, is the Director of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco.  He teaches courses in health education and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and occasionally at Widener University in Chester, PA.  His primary interests are in developing LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, creating supportive schools for LGBTQ students, and promoting gay and bisexual men’s sexual health and well-being. When he’s not working he can often be found “werq-ing” it on stage as his drag persona, “Crissy Fields,” or performing with the dance troupe, Sexitude, as “Daddy Sparkles.” Chris is working on becoming a BodyPump instructor, a health coach, and is an avid cyclist – he’ll be riding in his third AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles from SF to LA) in June 2015. Got a question or suggestion for Dr. White?  Drop him a line at christopherwhitephd [at] gmail [dot] com.