Jackson Wright Shultz Reflects On Conditional Gender Privilege

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

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

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On Conditional Gender Privilege

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

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

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

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

Recognizing And Using My Privilege

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

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

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

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

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Biography

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

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

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

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

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Dress For Success: (Phone) Interview Attire

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

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

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

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

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

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

manthey interview outfit

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

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

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

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

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

Sex Work+Academia=Whorephobia

Juniper Fitzgerald (@juniperfitz) is a graduate student and sex worker, as well as a writer.  In this guest post, Juniper reflects on the presumed contradiction between academia and sex work, detailing some of the challenges and bias she has faced in the academy because she is a sex worker.

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Sex Work + Academia = Whorephobia

juniperAlthough surprisingly adult-like for someone who believed in Santa Clause until the ripe old age of thirteen, I nonetheless remain embodied in my nerdy, greasy-haired self of girlhood. A painfully awkward child, that space of insecurity was further squared off by a single-parent, barely middle-class household in the heart of the Bible Belt. Unattractive, unshaven, and terrified of Homo sapiens – if ever there were an unlikely candidate for sex work, I surely fit the bill. But even the trope of the “unlikely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture]” is uncomfortable at best. Indeed, it necessitates a “likely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture].” Who, exactly, is the likely stripper? The unsurprising porn star? The totally foreseeable whore? In the decade I spent peddling eroticism and intimacy, I never once had the pleasure of meeting such a predictable person.

And yet, discourses surrounding so-called sexual deviants have vested interests in these kinds of distinctions. While exploited sex workers and victims of trafficking necessarily have our cultural empathy, those for whom “victim” is not a salient identity garner less warmth. As someone whose choice to enter the sex industry was only modestly constrained by poverty, I exist in the ambiguity of agential sex work – ambiguous insofar as agency is tricky under a capitalistic, white supremacist patriarchy. Now that I am in academia, that ambiguity is difficult for colleagues, namely because the conversation surrounding sex work has, historically, been one of exploitation. There is a distinct lack of language through which to express my experiences.

And I am not alone. As the bloated face of capitalism pokes its stars and stripes into all that is holy and sacred, as the authentic pursuit of knowledge becomes privatized and as graduate assistantships and adjunct labor become little more than indentured servitudes, more and more people supplement their university pay checks with sex work. And it is certainly a tricky balance. Not only do sex workers navigate two extreme identities, we must also work harder at convincing academic colleagues of our intellectual rigor and of the seriousness of our research (especially if we happen to also focus our research on gender and sexuality). Our struggles are not unlike those of mid-late century feminists and queers. In fact, of her struggle as a feminist in the academia, Caroline Ramazanoglu (1987) wrote:

It is my contention that I am not a crank. I am not a freak. I am not unprofessional. I am not a totalitarian fascist determined to impose my will on others. I am not sexually deprived, I do not seek revenge on men, but I am labeled as these (and worse) to my face and behind my back, because of my lack of deference and my persistent failure to accept my “proper place” as a subordinate female in a patriarchal, competitive, and hierarchical system (69).

Our experiences are similar, though I might replace “I do not seek revenge on men” with “I do not indiscriminately seduce men.” It was almost a decade ago that I was wittingly “outed” by local media—an unexpectedly titillating account of my life of vice. Subsequently, colleagues, professors, and students started propositioning me behind closed doors, a testament to my perceived hypersexuality. As a graduate student, I dull out infinite justification for my research; I wade through tomes of student reviews claiming my “seriousness” is at odds with my research interests, which happen to be gender and sexuality as they relate to the sex industry. Colleagues claim that I am “fringe” and unscrupulously mock my work. I am perceived to be biased or, on rare but notable occasions, suffering from false consciousness. In one particularly haunting example, a national research project was stalled because of my participation in it while working as a sex worker. I am often accused of “inappropriateness” – my dress or my demeanor or my interactions with male colleagues are perceived to be laden with sexual overtures. A battlefield of eggshells, I am constantly tip-toeing over the sensibilities of my peers. My nerdy and bookish sense of self is continuously competing with cohorts’ insistence that I exist only as a perfidious harlot. It is, of course, a form of whorephobia.

Whorephobia in academia speaks to larger issues of sexism and classism in universities. Because of that nagging belief in the “likely sex worker,” academics box their sex-working colleagues into unforgiving stereotypes: vindictive, untrustworthy, unstable and, of course, unworthy, just to name a few. And it is important to recognize that said stereotypes are engendered from a fundamental distrust of women and the systemic denial of bodily agency, particularly as it plays out for poor and blue-collar women.

Supporting sex workers, whether they be colleagues or otherwise, is indeed a progressive position. Acknowledging sex workers’ complicated and infinitely unfolding humanity is one way we, as academics, may begin to close the gap between the ivory tower’s insiders and outsiders.

References

Ramazanoglu, Caroline. (1987). “Sex and Academic Life, or You Can Keep a Good Woman Down.” Pp. 61-74. In Women, Violence and Social Control, eds. Jalna Hanmer and Mary Maynard. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

To Be Conditionally Unaccepted: When You Are Denied Tenure

crowderRev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary (full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Dr. Chowder reflects on the painful experience of being denied tenure, but also on bouncing back, and even seeing the “silver lining,” in this (temporary) professional setback.  She offers some tips for other scholars who have been denied tenure to remain resilient.

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To Be Conditionally Unaccepted

“Isn’t it crazy how the world tries to make us ashamed of so much.” I heard this recently from someone describing shame emanating from unexpected health challenges. Things beyond our control can so quickly become a source of embarrassment. Pride, professional expectations, and pretention easily spiral to chagrin. When plans do not go, well, according to plan, it is common to press the “shame on you” default button. Discussing success is the academy is a no-brainer. Yet, what happens when the publishing path takes a wrong turn? What is our recourse when tenure denial attempts to catapult us off a cliff? There are times when the hallowed halls of academia do not accept us. We become the conditionally unaccepted.

Academia is a polemic. Much of it is public thought and research in the hands private people. Whereas our teaching, lectures, and publishing are on display for all to see, so many of us are introverts. We realize for the sake of survival and networking, we have to share ideas and garner feedback. Social media makes tooting our own horns just a click away…done. However, there is reticence and embarrassment when the things do not go so well. We quickly go further inward, almost regretting that we can out to play in the first place. I believe that instead of shaming ourselves or letting the difficulties of the academy force us inside, painful watershed moments are times to embrace the outside.

A few years ago, I was experiencing my own tenure drama. I knew as the first African American and third woman in this department’s history it was an uphill battle. The percentage of faculty of color at the university in general was dismal. Both an African American and a Latino professor had been denied tenure within four years.

This did not look good for me, and it did not go well. For five years at the end of every semester, I was summoned to the “principal’s office.” A parent’s phone call, a student’s email, an evaluation or comment, and there I was waiting to hear the charges and my subsequent “punishment.” It all culminated in the dean telling me six months before my tenure portfolio was due that I would not get the administration’s support. Forty classes, six hundred students, and numerous missed events in the lives of my children – for naught?!!

My immediate response, of course, was to run and hide. Well, actually, my immediate response was to leave the office, less I spoke or acted unprofessionally. So, I reached out to trusted colleagues and advisors. I told my story. I shared my experiences and sought wise counsel. These actions became life-saving and life-affirming for me.

I offer the following to persons for whom the academy has taken its toll:

  1. Process. Take the time to muddle through and accept your various emotions. Rejection is more than a notion. Anger, embarrassment, and sadness take turns as daily dance partners. Meditate on how you feel. Grab a journal. Write a letter to those who scorned you, but please don’t email it or post it to Facebook.
  2. Tell. Too often we are ashamed when the bad surfaces, especially in the polished, refined world of higher education. Sharing our experiences is cathartic. You must tell your own story. Academia is large and yet so small. Social media makes the private, public knowledge in just a few seconds. People know or will find out sooner or later. So, you tell it. Furthermore, you are not the first or only one to have such a harrowing experience, and you won’t be the last.
  3. Trust. I went to people who had been where I was trying to go. I needed to know what to do next. Surround yourself with people beyond your career grade. Their resources can prove invaluable. If I had not been forthcoming about my own career crossroads, I would not have known about my current opportunity.
  4. Do the do. Just because it did not work out at one institution does not mean you are a bad professor. It could have just a bad fit. For people of color in the academy, there are some colleges and universities that are hard on our spirits. I was able to teach adjunct a year after my tenure experience. My publishing schedule has been amazingly full. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a hospitable context. We must find the place that will nurture the work that our souls must have.
  5. Discern. Try to look for the magnificence in the madness. My interest in biblical studies and pop culture piqued because I was trying to find a way to connect to students at my former institution. That may not have come to fruition had I not wrestled with trying to be a better teacher, even in a hostile environment. To this day I am still intrigued at how the bible appears in peculiar places.
  6. Mentor. There are students and upcoming professionals who need to learn from us. Much instruction emanates from our challenges as well as our successes. The professor-university connection is a relationship. It looks one way during the dating game, but marriage is different phenomenon. Sometimes marriages end in divorce. Sharing this narrative with persons fresh out of grad school is just as important as sharing a syllabus or teaching tips.

The “shame” from not getting to next can leave us devastated. Rejections like gut-punches leave us breathless. Just know somewhere is a space that will indeed breathe new life into you. We must fight to do the work we were destined to do and in the end, accept ourselves.

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Biography

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. She is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary and serves on the ACTS DMin in Preaching Program Committee. She has written numerous scholarly articles and frequently blogs for ON Scripture and The Huffington Post. Her book on womanist maternal thought is due next spring.

I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

Tenure

I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  — explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.

Impatience

A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review — then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

On Being Autistic In Academia

AutismIn this guest blog post, Stella S. (a pseudonym) shares her experiences as an autistic academic, and offers advice for other autistic scholars (and everyone else) on communication, networking, and navigating academia while being visibly different.

The Impact Of Being Autistic In Academia

I’m autistic.

There, I said it in an academic space for the first time and even though I am writing under a pseudonym, it feels good. I was diagnosed later in life, after I became a PhD researcher (which I still am). Just because it took longer for me to know does not mean that you should call me “high-functioning” or “mild” or any other word that is supposed to make you feel better about my autism. I only identify as “autistic,” thank you very much.

I don’t personally know anyone in academia who is openly autistic. Due to this, I find it hard sometimes to make sense of where I belong.

This made me want to write a little bit about some of the ways that academia makes me feel inadequate and how I am trying to mitigate this. I hope that that this may make some people more aware of the issues autistics face. I pass as a neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) and no one in my professional life knows about my autism. This has an effect on my well-being and my mental health, though. As I have started to make sense of my own narrative, I have often felt guilt over my autism. Being publicly autistic does not feel safe due to the amount of people who see it as an excuse or a trend. It is very difficult to consciously care for myself while also having to strain myself to do certain things because I cannot explain why it is causing me distress.

I feel that if more people knew about what it is like to be an autistic academic, they may take us into account. This may, in turn, make us feel more comfortable to be publicly autistic in academic spaces. You should note that autistics have widely different profiles in abilities, so I am not suggesting that my difficulties will be shared at large. Some of my difficulties will also be shared by neurotypicals: the difference between you and me, though, will be their amount, their intensity, and the impact they have.

For this particular entry I will talk specifically about communication, networking, and being visibly different. Although the advice I will suggest is based on my own experience, I am hoping that people of varying strengths and weaknesses, autistic or not, will find them helpful.

Communication

I thrive in clear communication. What I found upon entering the world of academia, though, is a lot of rubbish talk, politics talk, and talk that suggests power relations, to name but a few. I particularly struggle in face-to-face communication, and I may be slower to process what is being said.

My advice:

  • It is ok to ask for clarification in class, meetings, or talks. This may seem obvious, but it can be hard to feel free to ask questions when everyone around looks as though they are getting everything quickly, feeling the pressure to sound and look “clever” at all times.
  • If the situation allows it and you have everyone’s approval, recording a class or meeting may be an option. This will allow you to review what was being said later on, freeing your mind to listen and get involved, instead of having to listen, take notes, and get involved, which can get overwhelming.
  • If this is a meeting where things to do are being decided, you can ask that an email be sent around outlining what will happen next. If this is a meeting with your advisor, you can send an updated agenda at the end with basic notes and ask them to check.
  • Take your time to find out whom you can trust, as well as whom you may not be able to trust. While I find that the “cheerful” and “outgoing” student often seems to be a must (and I am very good at acting “cheerful” and “outgoing” myself), I have realized that people can manage to be this way while not giving away their trust. This is particularly important if you struggle to analyze who is “safe” and who is not.

What autism is not

Networking

Boy, isn’t networking so important in our work? At least that is what I keep hearing, seeing, and experiencing. Networking is extremely difficult for me. I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.

My advice:

  • Observe, observe, observe. Admittedly, I am still in the observation phase, but I am trying to find ways that people use to network so that I can imitate them. That said, not everyone’s style will suit you: don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are completely out of character either.
  • What I struggle with the most is finding how to start the conversation. Once it is going, I can manage a lot better. If you know someone at an academic event, follow their lead. There may also be opportunities for you to talk that will make people want to come and talk to you themselves, such as Q&As after talks and presentations. Otherwise, hovering around seated areas may be a way to include yourself in a conversation.
  • Ask people about their research. People love to talk about their research and this may be an easy way in.
  • Do not talk too much about yourself. Yes, people love an enthusiastic student, but if you’re anything like me, you may struggle with turn-taking in conversations. I find that taking deep breaths at regular intervals can help to give time for the other person to intervene and reply, if they wish to.
  • Twitter! I found that this is a great way for me to network and feel like I am doing something positive. It also makes it easier to connect with other disabled academics, who may not be otherwise visible to you. I still need a limit or I run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, but it works a lot better than face-to-face interactions.

Being Visibly Different

Even though there are lots of friendly people around in academia, it can be difficult to be visibly different. Disclosure involves risks, and it puts you in a vulnerable position. Finding people you can trust with this information is not a given, as autism is so misunderstood. While I don’t feel I have been actively discriminated against, I know that I have missed certain opportunities because of the way I act and talk. On any given occasion, people may assume I am cold and unenthusiastic. At the other extreme, I may be seen as overenthusiastic, which can perceived just as badly. Imposter syndrome put aside, I also know that I can simply come across as “not quite having it together.”

My advice:

  • If you are not already doing so, I would suggest you start looking at the blogs of some autistic activists such as Autistic Hoya and Neurowonderful. There is acceptance and a sense of identity to be found by taking part in the autistic online community.
  • Take small steps. The day I attended a training day and used my usual self-soothing techniques throughout the training (this is called “stimming”) was a liberating day. This involved a “tangle,” an object that I was seemingly “playing” with, but actually helps me to stay focused. No one dared to ask what this was. I acted as though I belonged, like my tangle belonged. I owned it. I acted like it was normal. Because it is – for me.

Closing Comments

Being an autistic in academia isn’t easy. I read all the advice out there for students and feel as though much of it does not apply to me. Sometimes, after a long day of real life interaction, I feel as though everyone is so peppy and good, and I’m just a mess who needs to leave the room regularly for sensory reasons.

Fellow autistic academics – you’re here, though. You made it so far. You belong. Your autistic self also has a lot to offer. Your research probably links to your special interest. You’re driven. The networking and the interviewing and the need to be known (because you need to show that you are making an “impact”) can be overwhelming. But, remember that academia offers you so, so, so many opportunities to be cooped up in front of a computer focusing on what you love.

Advice On Applying To And Choosing A Graduate Program

zandriaDr. Zandria F. Robinson (@zfelice) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Memphis (see her full biography at the end).  In this guest post, Dr. Robinson offers advice to prospective graduate students — particularly those from marginalized backgrounds — on applying to and selecting graduate programs.  In particular, she emphasizes the importance of being able to survive and thrive in graduate school, not merely the prestige of the program.

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Take It From Me: Get Your (Grad Application) Life!

In the fall of 2004, in my second year of a Master of Arts program in sociology at the University of Memphis, I applied to doctoral programs. In 2005, I matriculated Northwestern University, started a tenure-track job at The University of Mississippi in 2009, and earned the PhD in 2010. That same year, I shepherded my first advisee, who recently became ABD at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, through the process. I am young enough to still remember (and be jaded by) the ups and downs of the process but experienced enough to have sat on admissions committees myself and helped students through the process. Based on these experiences, here are a few tips gleaned from luck, trial and error, and social and cultural capital, for how to think about your graduate application process.

If you applied to graduate school last fall for the 2015-2016 academic year, you might be furiously scouring rumor mills (Stop it. Now.), drinking even more than usual (Fine…), and/or cleaning out random junk drawers that you’ve left untouched for months as you wait for decisions (Yes.). If you didn’t apply last fall and are planning to apply this year, then this is just the time to choose your vices and spring-cleaning tasks for next year’s agonizing wait. This is also an ideal time to solicit advice about, develop, and edit your list of schools; to begin thinking about how you will craft your statement of purpose, and prepare your letter writers for the fall onslaught. This post is broadly about choosing a program—both ones to apply to (application fees are expensive) and how to select where to go once you have been admitted.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is that you must choose a program that suits you and maximizes your return on investment. Shortly before I applied to doctoral programs, I experienced a family tragedy that, for a brief period, dramatically altered the way I thought about choosing PhD programs. Instead of going to top programs with the best fit for my work, I considering going to programs that were closer to home but decidedly not a good fit for me. Somewhere along the way, Black Feminist Jesus intervened and reminded me that a doctoral program was a serious commitment, and not just the completion of another task that would result in some additional letters behind my name. This was going to be my career, if not forever, for a significant and non-negligible period. And it was going to cost me money and time and sanity, all of which I had in short supply. I had to go best or not go at all, even if that meant some sacrifices. In my view, going best means going to the most highly ranked school possible that is also highly ranked in your area of specialization and a good fit for who you are as an individual and a scholar. Fit—by which I mean the intellectual environment and support available to your distinctive needs in a place; program diversity; and place/community diversity—is foremost and all the things. A top program into which you do not fit is not a top program for you.

Program, Don’t Kill My Vibe

It is essential that you choose a program whose ideals, feel, and values align with your own. This can be difficult for scholars on the margins, as no program will completely reflect our experiences and worldview. This is also difficult when you are just beginning to generate reflexive ideas about who you are as a scholar in a discipline. But here are some basic considerations:

Can you see your work fitting in with the department based on recent faculty work and current students’ research interests and dissertation titles? Does the program purposely or unintentionally foster competition amongst graduate students by awarding funding to some and not others, or through some other intangible means? Are you an ethnographer applying to a highly quantitative program that has only one star ethnographer? Are you an interdisciplinary scholar applying to a program where people do not interact with people in other departments, let alone collaborate with them?

Why these questions? More than other groups, scholars on the margins have to think critically about the endgame: the post-graduation plan. You need as many choices as possible for faculty to serve on your dissertation committee. Faculty are mobile, even at the associate and full professor levels, and if you have put all of your eggs in one faculty person’s basket, their departure could be highly disruptive and disheartening. You also need as many professors to write good, solid letters for you as possible. For predoctoral fellowships. For dissertation fellowships. For assistant professor jobs. For associate professor jobs. Forever. 5ever. I am saddened by the number of students who contact me whose mentors have been unhelpful, sabotaging, and/or unresponsive. To paraphrase those philosophical sages Sugar Hill Gang: if your mentor is acting up, you need to be able to switch and take her/his friend.

What strategies should you employ to figure out if this program will kill your vibe? Ask current and former graduate students. Do as much diligent investigative work as possible. Write to these students and current faculty with whom you might work with a concise elevator speech about your work and ask them explicitly about fit. And most importantly, do not think that you are Special Snowflake of Color. If a POC graduate student tells you something troubling about his or her experience of a program, do not think that it will not happen to you. Because more than likely, it will. Also, most students will not share negative experiences, even if they are planning to leave a program when you contact them or visit. While most of us do not have mind-reading capabilities, you must read between the lines, triangulate, and use whatever data you acquire to assess what you will be getting into.

Place Matters

You are a person of color or otherwise a scholar on the margins. You are not built to survive in Whiteheterolandia. You need community beyond your graduate program, and you will not have very much time or mental space to be intentional about building community. And even if you do, you should not be using that time to build communities. You should be using it to publish. Do not believe that lie that graduate school is only x number of years and you can survive in White Mayo Bumfuckery Township for that bit of time. Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. The question is, what piece of your soul will it cost you, and can you afford the fee? Can you wait until you go back home to get a decent haircut? If you can’t get a decent haircut, you probably can’t find a decent friend or date either. Place matters.

Sorry, Jill. One Is Not the Magic Number!

You are not a unicorn. You are only a unicorn in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic structure. Don’t go to a program where you are the only one. You ain’t got to be the first one to integrate a thing. This is a warning sign and reflects one of two realities. First, scholars on the margins have looked at the demographic profile of Whiteheterolandia and decided that this place is not even worth it; and/or the program has not made effective efforts to recruit scholars from a multiplicity of backgrounds. This goes for the faculty and the graduate student body. If a program has not made the recruitment strides, then it certainly cannot make the retention strides.

Closing Thoughts

To reiterate, as you are entering the process and making choices if and when you are accepted, take careful inventory of who you are as a person and a scholar, as well as who you would like to become and what you would like to do with your scholarly awesomeness after graduation. Then, match that reality with all of the information you can gather about programs in which you are interested. Don’t dwell on the negatives. But don’t shy away from them either, even if they complicate how you think about a particular program in which initially you had been very interested.

And if you do not get in this year, don’t fret. Strange things happen in admissions deliberations, and this is on top of racism, sexism, classism, elitism (everyone in my cohort had gone to a top 20 and/or Ivy institution save for one other person), homophobia, transphobia, and quota politics. Admission, or lack thereof, is not a reflection of who you are or the value of your work. But, tackling questions of fit and doing your homework on departments will increase your odds in the crapshoot, and will moreover help you rest assured that you did, and are doing, the right thing in your application process for yourself and your vision of the endgame.

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Biography

Zandria F. Robinson is a native Memphian and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She earned the Bachelor of Arts in Literature and African American Studies and the Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Memphis. She holds the PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University. Her research interests include urban and cultural sociology, black feminist theory, and popular culture. Her book, This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), focuses on the intersections of race, class, gender, and region in African American identity. Robinson blogs about race, region, and popular culture at New South Negress and tweets about all manner of things @zfelice.