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.

The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

Jeana performing at a 1st Friday street festival in Kokomo, Indiana.

One of the perspectives that I bring to my academic blogging is that of a professional performer: in addition to having a PhD and teaching at the college level, I teach and perform dance. In this blog post series, I would like to highlight some of the marginalization practices in academia by comparing them with practices in performing arts communities. My hope is to illuminate problematic expectations that often go unnoticed because we have become accustomed to them, although they are precisely the kind of thing we should be challenging and changing.

What Is Undercutting?

This post is about the practice of undercutting, or charging a lower-than-average fee for your services. It’s not a term I hear very often in academia, but I’m starting to think we should be more attuned to its implications for us.

Talk to performers in your community—whether they’re jugglers, fire-eaters, or burlesque dancers—and you’ll hear about the horrors of undercutting.

Professional performers are often asked to teach or perform for free. This is a common woe that you’ll hear us gripe about. But then there’s undercutting, wherein someone charges less than the going rate, either in a conscious attempt to screw over other professionals in the area, or for some other reason like an attempt to compensate for lack of experience.

One of my friends, a juggler, told me that when he first started doing paid performances, he wasn’t charging very much. After all, he was pretty new to performing, and while he was good at it, he didn’t want to overcharge his clients. In part, it was so much fun that he felt guilty asking for money to do it. It wasn’t very long before some of his more experienced circus performer buddies took him aside to have a talk — a “we like you a lot, but you’ve got to stop undercutting us” talk. Because he was doing it as a hobbyist, and they were doing it professionally, needing to pay bills and feed their families with that money, it became problematic when he accidentally started to take their gigs. After that conversation, he kept in mind that he was helping set prices in his town, and raised his rates accordingly.

Valizan, a dancer I know, talked to me about the effect on the community of charging too little for classes:

When new teachers feel they must charge less because they don’t have the experience or the same amount of training, I often think, “then why are you teaching?”  To me they are saying they are not up to snuff. If they aren’t, they should teach for free or do the community centre gig until they ARE up to snuff.  Integrity is the difference between a professional and a hobbyist. If you put out a shingle, you should charge the proper area rate and not drop the price to try to attract students. Because that eventually brings it down for everyone. And FEH [exclamation of disgust] on that!! 

In dance and other art forms, there’s not always a credentialing process to make sure that performers are qualified to teach. So when a dancer decides to begin teaching, often she’ll just go for it and start charging some arbitrary amount, or an amount that’s deliberately less than the going rate…but this has a definite effect on the other teachers in the community, which is where we get into trouble.

The Consequences Of Undercutting

One of the results of undercutting is that the people hiring performers have come to expect people to work for little to no pay. Another of my contacts said, “I gave a speech recently to a group of high level professionals. They explained I should be honored because the previous speakers included Fortune 500 executives, university presidents, and top state officials. And that they had no budget for speakers.” When I asked him to comment on this event, he said: “The point is that people should pay you for your work. And I hate accepting non-paid work or cut rate but I have to.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to creative types, either. I asked Robby Slaughter, a workflow consultant, about his views on undercutting. He said: “Charging less (or nothing at all) for your expertise as a speaker, writer, or artist not only makes you seem unprofessional and unworthy of compensation, but contributes to an ever-growing lack of respect for your profession. Undercut your price, and you’re cutting down everyone who does what you do.”

Slaughter linked me to a blog post he wrote on whether to pay speakers. I gravitated toward this quote from it: “On the one hand, it seems unethical to offer work for free. You depress the entire market. You force other customers to pay those costs. But on the other hand, speaking for free does provide access to audiences. And all speakers and consultants need audiences in order to find future success.”

Undercutting In Academia

So, how does this relate back to academia? We don’t call it undercutting, but we (institutionally) ask people to work for little/no pay, and we (individually) will offer to work for little/no pay. This, like undercutting in the artistic community, has the effect of dragging down the entire academic community, instilling unrealistic expectations in the people who are in positions to pay us.

As an adjunct, I have to face the unpleasant reality that I am part of the problem. If I were to refuse to work for such ridiculously low wages, and if enough people would follow suit, then maybe we’d be able to make an impact on the system. I’ve been following the news about unionization and strikes with great interest, for this reason.

However, there’s one big disconnect between the artistic and academic communities. In these artistic communities, there’s explicit dialogue about undercutting and how it’s bad for everyone (except, temporarily speaking, for the people making a quick buck). A local dancer shared with me this anecdote: “There is an event I chose not to teach at for this very reason…They are not covering travel, hotel, or conference registration for ANY of the instructors. I think instructors who teach there are undercutting other artists and event organizers. I won’t participate in that type of undercutting. It’s bad for the art.”

In academic communities, on the other hand, I never hear about undercutting. It is as though we simply don’t have the language or concept to apply to our situations, though—as I’m arguing—it should definitely apply.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine, a PhD student who has repeatedly been asked to teach at a prestigious summer institute. He has taught there for free, knowing that others get paid to teach there. (He asked me not to name him in this post for obvious reasons.) It’s a great networking opportunity, and it goes on his CV, and it’s fun, and so on. But working for free, and potentially undercutting other colleagues, makes him uneasy, and he’s not sure if he’ll keep doing it.

Perhaps tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t think in terms of undercutting because they’re not directly affected by it; one could even argue that it (in the form of adjuncting) benefits those holding TT positions. However, I would argue that this is on the whole a devaluing phenomenon, one that has long-term consequences for academics of every stripe, and higher education in general.

If undercutting were regarded in academia like in any dozen other communities, people who did it would be taken aside and given a stern or at least concerned talking-to. Imagine if our mentors told us that it was “bad for the field” to accept a job for less than we’re worth. Think about what it’d mean for colleagues to tell us not to agree to work for free, because it demonstrates that we think our work has no value. Because, with the way things are going, how could we be receiving the message that our work does have value?

Luck Is For White People

Photo by SuperFantastic

Photo by SuperFantastic

To my surprise, I have been referred to as “lucky” on several occasions since beginning my job last August.  I am “lucky” to even have a job, a tenure-track job, particularly immediately following graduate school.  I am “lucky” to have published anything during my first year on the job.  I am “lucky” to have a partner while on the tenure-track.

Well, I do not feel lucky.  Considering all that I compromised in order to be lucky in the ways that I supposedly am, and the ways in which I am not lucky — disadvantaged, really — I would suggest luck is a gift shared only by the privileged.

What Is Luck, Anyhow?

Let’s go right to the dictionary definitionthe things that happen to a person because of chance; or, the accidental way things happen without being planned.  There is no systemic or predictable way in which something occurred.  Also, it is important to note that said “lucky” event occurred outside of the lucky individual’s control.  Instantly, as a sociologist, I balk at the notion that events occur randomly (outside of the influence of social forces) and unintentionally (outside of individual agency).  I cannot say that sociological theories of structure and agency have ever attempted to explain every event, as some things probably are unpredictable and are not regulated by social forces.  However, a good deal of what we consider “luck” certainly can be explained by an individuals’ behaviors, thoughts, feelings, interactions, and resources within various social systems.

I do not invoke sociological theory for the sheer purposes of being a party-pooper.  I often call upon luck for some favorable outcome, and regularly wish friends, family, colleagues, and students “good luck!” for evaluations and competitions in which success is not guaranteed.  I have, indeed, lost a couple hundred dollars in my lifetime to casinos and raffles.  Luck can be fun, but it is a poor explanation for getting a job, publishing an article, finding a partner, and other events that are largely explained by social forces and (to a less extent) individual effort.

Rejecting The “Lucky” Explanation For My Success And Well-Being

I am particularly resentful toward accusations of “luck” as a fat Black queer person living in a fatphobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic society.  I will admit, given these identities coupled with my scholarship, I initially felt that securing a job wasn’t merely luck, but a frickin’ miracle.  And, I partially attributed the success of publishing an article in my first year to the editor’s favorable view of the topic.  And, I allowed myself to feel fortunate in having a partner when other assistant professors begin the journey toward tenure without the support of a partner.

But, two things have led me to reject the “lucky” hypothesis.  First, a good friend of mine called me out on Facebook for ignoring all of the hard work, perseverance, talent, and support that went into my dissertation and subsequent job offers by buying into the “lucky” explanation.  I unintentionally reinforced the notion that marginalized people cannot succeed in academia on their own merit; those who are not so lucky, then, obviously have no hope for the kind of success I have seen in the past couple of years. This also erases the ways in which white middle-class heterosexual men are systematically advantaged in academia, including their ease of finding mentors, minimal concerns about their pregnancy or parental status, no questions about why they were hired (e.g., spousal hire, diversity hire), and little concern about the narrowness of their research because they study themselves.  How can I be “lucky” when I would probably have had to stay in graduate school an additional 2 years to achieve the publication records of white heterosexual counterparts who didn’t waste the first two years on misery and self-doubt?  Fuck lucky.  I earned my degree and this job, albeit with the support of mentors, friends, and family.

The other reason I have grown increasingly wary of the “lucky” thesis is the insistence with which it is applied.  I have heard “you’re so lucky” on multiple occasions from the same people.  By the second, third, fourth times and beyond, I began to question why I kept hearing it.  Should I see myself as somehow privileged because I “beat the odds” in this increasingly adjunctified era of academia?  Should I see myself as privileged because I am in a long-term same-gender relationship?  Should I feel guilty?  Eventually, I learned to see the accusation of luck as a reflection of the lives and conditions of the people saying it.  There may even be an element of envy or resentment behind “you’re so lucky.”

Concluding Thoughts

I suspect that the core problem is making assumptions about my life and how it has unfolded without knowing me very well, and without the respect of finding out.  Knowing only the outcome, the individual jumps to the conclusion that it is the product of luck.  Really, we know what happens when you ass-u-me.  “Lucky” erases my own efforts, survivorship, aspirations, and the support I have received from others.  “Lucky” overlooks that I sacrificed so much along the way, and still live with the emotional scars of graduate training.  “Lucky” somehow ignores that my partner and I just gained the right to marry in this state a few weeks ago, and still face other challenges as an interracial queer couple in the South.  “Lucky” does not know that I am the sole breadwinner because, after struggling to find a job most of last year, my partner is now back in school.

Sure, we can talk about the ways in which I am privileged as a man, as a person from a middle-class family (albeit upwardly mobile from their working-class roots), as a person without disabilities, as a US citizen, and, really, even as the son of a white (Jewish) heterosexual man.  And, we can certainly talk about what I have lost out on as a queer person, a (multiracial) Black person, as a fat person, and the intersections among these identities.  But, I refuse to have a serious conversation about the role of “luck” in my career and my life.  Lucky doesn’t live here.

Jeff Kosbie On Being A “Luxury Hire” In Academia

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jeff discusses his frustration with constantly hearing that his job prospects are slim because he studies sexuality.  While typically well-intentioned, these messages from colleagues implicitly (or even explicitly) suggest that the subfield of sexualities is not of central importance to the discipline.

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On Being A “Luxury Hire”

“Just be careful — you don’t want to seem like a ‘luxury hire.’” “Be aware that you can’t get hired just for studying sexualities.” I’ve heard variants of this since I started graduate school, but especially this year being on the market. And it all comes from well-meaning people. People who really want me to get a top job as a professor. And, yeah, I get where they’re coming from. Sexuality should be central to the curriculum in law and in sociology. But it’s not. At least not how it should be. So, I need to be aware that there might be fewer jobs for people who do sexualities than for people who study federal courts or criminology or business organizations.

Strategic advice aside for a moment, I want to address the psychological impact of these messages: they really breaks you down! The cumulative impact of this is huge. It’s essentially hearing again and again that what you do just isn’t in the mainstream of the discipline. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until some recent discussions about diversity and microaggressions. I shared some of my experience hearing these comments, and then it really hit me, wow that hurts.

I’m never anxious or stressed, even when I “should be.” But this year I’ve become anxious. A lot of the anxiety comes from how fundamentally the job market has changed since I started grad school. Anyone with my current research and publication record would be getting several interviews on both the law and sociology teaching markets in 2006, when I started grad school. Subject area aside, the expectations for getting a job have changed. It’s like I got to the finish line, only to find that the finish line had moved. So, the fact that I’m facing uncertain job prospects plays into the anxiety. But, some of it also comes from the cumulative impact of these comments.

The flip side of hearing that you could be a “luxury hire” is that if I get a job, the implication might be that it is because I study sexualities. The fact that I do really good work becomes secondary to the fact I add an extra “luxury” to a department. And somewhere implicit in this is some comment on my identity as a queer scholar. The people making these comments mean it as a comment on my scholarship, of course, but it’s hard not to take it as a comment on my identity. It can feel like a comment on whether queer scholars belong in the heart of the academy at all.

Now, of course, everyone who has said this to me has meant well. They have all had my best interests at heart. Maybe some of them didn’t think sexualities should be central to the discipline (law or sociology), but most of them did. Most of the people saying this to me support my work, want me to succeed with it, and think it is important. They saw themselves as giving me strategic advice.

So, part of the challenge is how to impart this strategic advice without the microaggression that devalues my work and identity. And I want to recognize that strategic advice is important! Even if the cumulative impact of hearing it is harsh, the truth is that I don’t know of any law school that is hiring just for law and sexuality. Some sociology departments hire for sexualities, but those positions are few and far between. So yes, any scholar studying sexualities should probably address other academic areas, as well. If I were mentoring a new graduate student interested in sexualities, I would be remiss not to mention that.

What Are the Real Concerns Behind This Strategic Advice?

There are ways to give this advice that reaffirm the importance and centrality of sexualities to the disciplines of law and sociology. For starters, at least reaffirm that you think that sexuality is or should be central to the discipline. That actually goes a long way. There’s also a difference between hearing “it’s okay that you research law and sexuality, but you need to do something mainstream as well” and “how can we package your work to show how you speak to more mainstream concerns with a unique and important voice because you research law and sexuality.” The latter implicitly values sexualities and asks how we can make it relevant to the mainstream in a way that the former message doesn’t.

One of the most common concerns about studying sexualities is that I might be too specialized. But this is not unique to sexualities. Every scholar faces this concern. We all have to be specialized enough to have command of some area and to add our unique insights. But, we cannot be so specialized that we are only speaking to ourselves. We certainly need to be able to teach classes that are much broader than our individual research. So like most graduate students, I can benefit from mentoring on how to talk about how specialized my work is. But the concern should not be that I’m too specialized because I study sexualities. People who study tax law might be too specialized if they can only teach a particular class on corporate tax and nothing else. The real concern is my ability to use my research on sexualities to speak to other literatures and to teach classes. So let’s talk about that, and not whether sexualities is too specialized.

What about the concern that I won’t find a job? There are just not enough (or any) jobs in law and sexuality. But this concern also isn’t unique to sexualities. People doing legal history or sociology of culture also face this concern. For almost all of us, it probably does not make strategic sense to only apply to jobs in our subfields. We need to think about how we can apply to jobs beyond our own subfields and make strategic decisions about how broadly we want to try to do that. Sometimes it means taking two runs at the market: once with a more focused, only-in-my-subfield approach, and a second time with a broader anything-I-can-conceivably-get approach.

I guess it comes back to the idea that there’s a big difference between being told: “the discipline doesn’t support sexualities as much as it should, but you bring a unique and important voice to the core of the discipline because you do sexualities, so let’s figure out how to sell that” versus “you need to recognize that sexualities isn’t valued as central to the discipline and you could be seen as a luxury hire so you need to do something to address that.” All of my core advisors fall into the former, far more supportive and helpful camp. But I’ve heard advice from the latter camp enough that it’s still a strong current.

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About Jeff

Jeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. He will defend his dissertation and receive both degrees in Spring 2015. Jeff’s research theorizes law as a field for constructing and contesting identities around gender and sexuality. He studies how law creates and perpetuates inequalities and how it is used to challenge inequalities. His dissertation uses original data to tell the history of the major LGBT legal organizations. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, he argues that internal organizational debates drive strategic decision making processes at these organizations. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern University, and The Graduate School at Northwestern University. Jeff’s website is at jkosbie.com.

25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.

I Don’t Exist (Yet)

Me - Tower Dark

Some time ago, I shared a secret with two friends: I find myself frequently searching for things that move me.  A deep, insightful book.  An exciting new song.  A novel movie.  An unusually critical article.  An event that pulls on my heart strings.  Something that will feed my spirit in a way that most things do not.

One of these two friends responded, “doesn’t that seem unhealthy?”  She worried that having spiritual food located externally, and its actual whereabouts unknown and fleeting, was no way to live a self-sustaining live.  I had never thought of this kind of hunger as unhealthy.  I had actually convinced myself that this was my way of searching for meaning in the world, specifically for my own life.  Isn’t it a good thing to want more from life, to proactively look for more and better rather than simply accept what is?  And, don’t we all get excited when something “gives us life”?

My friend’s concern came to mind recently as I browsed a local bookstore.  I sat on the floor before the disappointingly small selection of books on LGBTQ issues.  I found myself looking for… well, myself.  Where is that story about people like me?  It finally clicked.  Maybe this is not exactly what concerned my friend.  But, it definitely concerned me.  I am not (only) looking for meaning; apparently, I am desperately searching for myself, something more than my own reflection in the mirror.

The media.  My workplace.  My family.  Politics.  Religion.  My own racial and sexual communities.  People like me do not exist, apparently.  I am invisible.  Or, maybe I do not even exist.

Fuck intersectionality.1  As one part of myself becomes visible, the other parts remain invisible.  Black is straight.  Gay is white and thin.  Black and white cannot coexist, so where does that leave me as a multiracial person?  Where does this leave me, Black, white, queer, fat, something other than hypermasculine yet male-bodied?  Fuck intersectionality.  Fuck being unique.

It takes energy everyday to exist — to dare to enter the world as the other other Other.  Some days, I am exhausted from it all, from forcing the universe to see me, from trying to carve out space in the world for myself.

But, that is the key to my survival.  My existence is not a given.  It is the outcome of a lifelong fight against invisibility, bias, exclusion, and even conditional acceptance.  It comes from not giving up, or settling into subordinate status.

I will exist — or die trying.

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Notes

1 To be clear, this statement reflects my frustration with existing at intersections among multiple oppressed statuses, not the theoretical framework of intersectionality.  Indeed, intersectionality and Black feminist theory in general have been instrumental in making visible such intersections and highlighting the critical importance of studying them in academia.  Intersectionality as a framework “gives me life” in so many ways.

101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

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Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your own ideas in the comments section!

  1. Educate yourself about the state of higher education, particularly in terms of inequality, increasing student debt, and the growing reliance on contingent faculty.  Learn about the leaky pipelines for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
  2. Let go of the myth of meritocracy in academia once and for all.  Do not perpetuate the myth by claiming or assuming that things are fair and equal.  Speak openly and honestly with colleagues and students about inequality in academia.
  3. Recognize community service as a form of service for yourself and others.
  4. Learn more about open access and other ways of making academic research and knowledge publicly accessible.
  5. Redefine “impact” to move beyond impact factors and citation rates.  Consider the impact your work has outside of the ivory tower.  Allow yourself to determine the value of your scholarship, rather than relying exclusively on what departments, universities, and disciplines value as important and meaningful.
  6. Stay true to your goals and values.  Do not let tradition limit your imagination.  Thinking outside of the box is good for science and higher education.
  7. Be brave.
  8. Speak up when you feel safe to do so.
  9. Empower your students and colleagues to speak up.
  10. Ask questions.  If a conversation or meeting raises concern, ask for further clarification.  This allows you to appear curious or possibly confused without automatically challenging someone else.
  11. Prioritize self-care.  Encourage others to do so, as well, or at least respect others’ need to make certain decisions at work based on personal and family needs.
  12. Talk to your students and junior colleagues about what academic careers entail for marginalized scholars.  Be clear that you are not attempting to scare them, rather you are preparing them for challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.
  13. Support graduate students no matter their career plans after graduation.  Begin a mentoring relationship with a conversation about their plans, and be sure to revisit this conversation every year or every other year.
  14. Educate yourself about alternative career paths for PhDs, or at least find resources to offer to students considering them.
  15. Be aware of the artificial hierarchies and rankings in academia and higher education, but do not let them influence how you interact with colleagues.
  16. Check your biases, stereotypes, and assumptions.  If you find that you hold them, find out how to eliminate them, or at least to suspend them in interacting with and evaluating others.  Ask trusted colleagues to call you out if you demonstrate bias; when they do, listen without getting defensive or feeling guilty.
  17. Check your privilege.  Avoid dismissing another person’s experiences or perspective just because it does not mirror yours.  Never tell a marginalized student or colleague about their own experience.  Figure out ways to use your privileged status to make a difference and to make space for marginalized people.
  18. Ask your students and colleagues for their preferred name and pronoun, and give your own.  Work to make these seem like a normal practice, rather than a special event when a transgender or gender non-conforming person is present.
  19. Blog and use other forms of social media.  Allow yourself to appear as an imperfect, evolving, thinking, and feeling human — not simply the static, perfectly-put together researcher reflected in articles and books.  Make yourself available outside of the ivory tower.
  20. Share your own narrative with colleagues and students, whether it is one of privilege (which you acknowledge), serendipity, or adversity.  Let’s stop pretending that there is one, clear, linear path toward becoming a professor, and that it is the only possible path after graduate school.
  21. Let go of the myth of color-blindness, gender-blindness, and other forms of “blindness” to others’ identities and experiences.  Rather, be conscious of difference and inequality, and find ways to proactively work against systemic discrimination and exclusion.
  22. Without resorting to tokenizing, be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives on conference panels, course syllabi, references, edited volumes, guest blog posts, etc.
  23. Get comfortable with self-promotion, especially if you are a member of one or more marginalized groups.  And, respect others efforts to promote their work, particularly because it is necessary to be successful in academia.
  24. Promote your colleagues’ and students’ work, particularly those from marginalized groups.
  25. Go beyond telling junior colleagues and grad students to “be careful” — and never say “shut up”/”be quiet.”  If you actually have a reason to worry about a particular individual (that is, stop automatically assuming junior scholars will be reckless anarchists), offer specific advice on navigating departmental, university, and disciplinary politics.  Explain why you are giving that advice, namely that you care about their success, well-being, and livelihood.
  26. When possible, make every effort to ensure that students or junior colleagues do not fall through the cracks or bear some burden because others could not be bothered.
  27. At least say hello to familiar faces — students, new colleagues, contingent faculty, administrative staff, etc.
  28. Avoid viewing colleagues as potential competition, even if you are applying for the same opportunity.
  29. Have lunch with students and junior colleagues, and make an effort to talk about something other than work or classes (if you/they are comfortable doing so).  It can be incredibly reassuring to see that one’s professors/senior colleagues are human, too.
  30. Don’t be an asshole.  Period.
  31. Learn how to disagree with someone without attacking them as a person.  If it is not really a right-or-wrong issue, find a way to offer a different, rather than “better,” view.
  32. Step up and step back in meetings.  Avoid dominating the conversation.  If you are chairing it, make an effort to allow everyone to speak.  Pay attention to see if junior scholars have remained silent or were silenced.  But, find a way to gently nudge if someone needs encouragement; avoid putting someone on the spot who may really not have anything to contribute.
  33. Learn about your department’s and university’s policies and practices regarding contingent faculty.  Find out whether there is anything you can do to improve the situation.
  34. Do not treat contingent faculty like servants, outsiders, or somehow inferior.  Treat them like humans first, and colleagues second.  Understand that their circumstances may be shitty, if not outright exploitative.
  35. Serve on important departmental, university, and disciplinary committees.
  36. Serve as department chair or a higher level administrator.
  37. Keep an eye on the balance of service in your department.  Definitely watch for disproportionate service falling on women faculty, either assigned or volunteered (especially as men faculty avoid it).
  38. When accounting for and advancing diversity, avoid nominal diversity — that is, simply counting “women and minorities.”  Find ways to embrace and celebrate diversity in the department/university culture.  Once marginalized students/scholars are in the door, make sure that they feel equally supported and included, and are making good progress in their work.
  39. Move beyond considering only race and gender as diversity.  Broaden race to race, ethnicity, nativity, and immigrant status.  Broaden gender to consider the inclusion of women and transgender and gender non-conforming people.  Begin to recognize and advance sexual identity, disability, social class, weight, religion, age, and family structure as other important dimensions of diversity.
  40. Move beyond a single-identity conceptualization of diversity.  Begin attending to the intersections among identities.  This will help to avoid systematically hiring the most privileged members of oppressed groups (e.g., white women, Black men).  This will also help to understand each individual’s lives holistically; for example, be careful not to view Black women simply as women or Black.
  41. Support working parents.  Educate yourself about your university’s family leave and other policies.  If possible, be willing to offer additional support using the (likely conservative) university policies as a minimum level of support.
  42. Go beyond being “not prejudiced.”  Be aware that oppressed groups, as a matter of survival, must be wary of intolerance or even violence.  Do not assume that not intentionally discriminating is enough for others to feel welcomed and included.
  43. Challenge biased comments and microaggressions in your classes.  Do not wait for students to speak up, as they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may even fail to see the problem — you are the instructor.  If you do not want to alienate the student who made the comment, foster dialogue about it rather than silencing or chastising them.
  44. Allow yourself to view your class as somewhat flexible and organic.  If something relevant or important is going on it the world or on campus, spend a few minutes at the start or end of class discussing it.  Having an honest, intelligent conversation about racism on campus, for example, may be more important in the long run than sticking rigidly to the syllabus.
  45. Let go of the myth of objectivity in research and the classroom.  Or, at least acknowledge that some cling to “objectivity” without noting that such a perspective is conflated with (or only afforded to) the view of white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West.
  46. Where possible, include overlooked and marginalized topics in your courses.  For example, cover transgender health in a course on health/medicine to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the topic (and trans communities in general).
  47. If you (must) use a textbook that excludes or distorts the lives of oppressed communities, explicitly point this out to your students and consider adding additional readings by and/or about members of these communities.
  48. Consider countering the systemic invisibility of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed communities in academia with the systemic exclusion of white middle-class heterosexual cis men without disabilities.  Start with oppressed voices, and only include those of the privileged if they are a useful complement.  Unfortunately, I must also advise being ready to defend this system against charges of “reverse discrimination.”
  49. Speak truth to power.  Do research that challenges others’ exclusive, biased, or distorted research.  Embrace your unique perspective (if you are marginalized) to influence a new way of viewing the world.
  50. Let’s be honest about pervasive mental health problems in academia.  Find out what resources exist on campus, in the local community, and online.  Recognize that many campus health centers fail to effectively address the needs of graduate students.  Be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing others’ well-being as “not my problem.”
  51. If you use images in your lectures or presentations, take a little extra time to ensure that you reflect diverse people and interests.  If you lazily choose one of the first images that comes up, you may end up exclusively with pictures of white men.  (For example, do a Google image search of “professor.”)  Make an effort to counter the stereotypical images that many students will carry.
  52. Educate yourself about universal design for learning.  From the start of developing a course, make efforts to make the material and discussion accessible to all students.  Avoid the pattern of simply accommodating students with disabilities when they are in your courses.
  53. Become critical of standard measures of academic ability and achievement, including the SAT, GRE, and other tests, grade point average, etc.  Educate yourself about the bias inherent in these exams that likely contribute to inequality in admission, retention, graduation, and funding.
  54. Acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses — targeted against students and staff and faculty.  Learn about your university’s practices for handling reports of violence, and realize that few incidents are reported, and even fewer yield justice for the victims.  Educate yourself about ways to support survivors of violence.  Consider advocating for improving how sexual violence is reported and prosecuted.
  55. Respect or even encourage your students’ and colleagues’ activist efforts.  Avoid telling them activism is akin to bias, or cannot co-exist with academia, or is a waste of time.
  56. Be authentic.  Let students and colleagues see diversity in academia.  If you are marginalized, do your best to avoid sending the message that one must sell-out in order to succeed in the academy.
  57. Investigate whether your campus offers gender-neutral bathrooms.  If it does not, pressure campus administration to create gender-neutral bathrooms that are of the same quality and are as conveniently accessed as sex-segregated bathrooms.  If it only has one or a few gender-neutral bathrooms, push for the creation of more.  Create a map of campus that pinpoints where these restrooms can be found to publicize their existence and location.
  58. Educate yourself about the conditions for staff on your campus.  Are wages fair and equitable?  Are working conditions safe?  Are staff given a voice in administrative affairs?
  59. Attend your university’s safe zone/safe space training program.  Encourage your colleagues to do so, as well.  If they reply, “but, I am already so LGBT-friendly, I don’t need extra training,” explain that taking that extra step to demonstrate friendliness is necessary because many LGBT people assume the absence of it may mean hostility.  (It is a matter of survival in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic world!)  If your university does not have a safe zone/space program, consider starting one.
  60. Explicitly tell your students that you want them to do well in your courses — and mean it.  (I have always done this, and was told just recently that most professors don’t and, as such, students’ don’t assume it.)
  61. Encourage your students to meet with you during office hours.  It may help to offer an incentive, but I hesitate to encourage that it be required.  Be sure you have explained the purpose of office hours when you mention them.  If there are students whose performance concerns you, do not hesitate to (privately) ask them to meet with you — but, make clear that they are not being punished.
  62. Avoid trivializing students’ health concerns, including (and maybe especially) mental health problems.  Refer them to the proper health professional if necessary.  Do not attempt to assess the problem, how severe it is, or how to “cure” it if you are not a qualified health professional.
  63. When you give advice, still respect that others may ignore it.  Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them.  Do not pressure a student or junior colleague to do what you think is “best,” especially if you do not know them beyond a professional relationship.
  64. Be mindful of power dynamics, particularly where you are in the higher position.  Students, junior colleagues, and others in the subordinate position may feel that your suggestions are demands.  They may hesitate to challenge you, correct your assumptions about them, and even to share certain (personal) details with you for fear of harm to their grades/job.
  65. If you are a mentor, encourage your mentees to consider having additional mentors.  Avoid presenting your perspective and advice as the only way.  If time allows and mentees are comfortable with it, consider holding joint meetings with their other mentors; this may save them the time of holding individual meetings about one issue, and then having to navigate potentially conflicting advice.
  66. Learn about contrapower sexual harassment.  If you teach about sexual violence, include this topic in your courses.
  67. Write op-eds and letters to the editor to the school’s newspaper about issues on campus or in the local community.  You may even offer a scholarly perspective to demonstrate how our everyday lives are actually connected to what we learn in the classroom.
  68. Make some concept or trend in your discipline accessible by writing op-eds and letters to the editor to local, national, or international media.  Or, write about your own research.
  69. Just as you ensure that working parents are not burdened by work, make sure that colleagues who do not have children are not asked to pick up additional work.  No matter one’s family situation, or reason for needing to leave work by 6pm, every worker’s personal life should be respected (especially if they are not officially paid for extra hours).
  70. On Twitter, participate in #SaturdaySchool, and then help build academic online communities by participating in #ScholarSunday.
  71. Work with your department and university — or demand of them — that standards for tenure and promotion be stated as explicitly as possible.  Ask that the rates of successful promotions be provided, including a comparison by race and ethnicity, gender, and other important statuses.
  72. Teach community-based learning courses.  Or, find less intensive ways to encourage working with the community.
  73. Start a scholarship.
  74. Commit to recycling and cutting waste.  Start a recycling program if your university does not already have one.  If you must print documents, use double-sided printing.  Encourage (or even require) students to email assignments.  If you scan documents that will be printed, take the time to eliminate dark areas to reduce wasted ink.
  75. Participate in your department or university’s Dr. Martin Luther King day celebrations.  If your school is closed, take a second to explain the significance of the day — don’t just call it a holiday.  If it is not closed, advocate for closing to observe MLK day or at least hold a meaningful ceremony to honor his legacy.
  76. Participate in Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, LGBT Pride month/week (varies by school), Disability Awareness Month, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other national and regional celebrations.  If these celebrations are not recognized, start a committee to plan events for them.
  77. Participate in Take Back the Night and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.
  78. Invite graduate students to participate on important departmental committees.  Consider encouraging the graduate students to create and elect a representative position — or even multiple positions — and give them a vote.  When they vote or otherwise participate in discussion, genuinely listen and consider their input.  (Grad students are not dumb.  They will sense that you have only included them out of obligation or to appease them, but do not seriously consider what they have to say.)
  79. Take a developmental, rather than destructive, approach to the peer-review process.  View your role as a reviewer as one to advance a paper, which will ultimately advance science, rather than one of a gate-keeper or critic.  Avoid looking for ways to advance your own research or agenda.
  80. Put extra copies of books that you assign on reserve at the library and announce that you have done so in your classes (twice).  Some students will attempt to find ways around buying expensive textbooks, including some who will never obtain a copy and thus suffer in the course.  Do your best to find cheaper or free options in the first place.
  81. Investigate whether every building on campus is accessible.  Pressure or even work with university administration to renovate buildings that are currently inaccessible to all people, regardless of ability.
  82. Check your own and others’ classist beliefs.  Assume class diversity.  Do not assume that anyone in academia, whether student or faculty, comes from a middle-class or upper-class family.  Where possible, try to minimize out-of-pocket costs for classes, extracurricular activities, conferences, and professional development.  In evaluating students or colleagues, be mindful that some simply cannot afford special, or even some basic, opportunities.  Avoid confusing lack of resources with lack of commitment, motivation, or aptitude.
  83. Advocate for needs-blind admission into your university.
  84. Refrain from criticizing the ways in which oppressed people survive in oppressive institutions and societies.  If you are unwilling to support others’ survival, at least avoid adding to their plight with your judgement, criticism, or questioning their identity and politics.
  85. Teach your marginalized students how to survive in oppressive institutions and societies.
  86. Organize a fair or event with information and resources for maintaining healthy relationships.
  87. Investigate whether racial profiling occurs on/near your campus by campus or local police.  If it does, work to raise awareness about it, and with law enforcement to eliminate unfair and discriminatory practices.
  88. If you serve as an academic advisor, be proactive in reaching out to your marginalized and first-generation students, especially during their first year.  Encourage them to get involved with at least one group on campus or in the local community, and to meet with career services as early as possible.
  89. Honor the work of administrative staff in your department and elsewhere on campus by celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day.  But, be sure to thank them for their work throughout the year, as well.
  90. Propose a conference panel on professional development tips for marginalized academics or on public scholarship.
  91. Practice random acts of kindness.
  92. Organize a social event for your department to get your colleagues out of their offices.
  93. Propose a newspaper program that provides local and national newspapers free to all students, staff, and faculty.
  94. Serve as a faculty or staff advisor for a student organization related to social justice.
  95. Conduct a campus-wide needs assessment for all or particular communities of marginalized students.  Make recommendations for change based on their needs and the campus climate.
  96. Stage a rally or protest about an issue about which your college has remained unresponsive or ignored completely.
  97. Create a campus resource center for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, international students and scholars, people with disabilities, first-generation students, or another disadvantaged group.
  98. Advocate for the creation of accessible, clean, and private spaces for breastfeeding and other needs of parents with young children.
  99. Challenge yourself to be more educated about social justice, more empathetic, kinder, and open to difference and change.
  100. Create an academic program or department that focuses on marginalized communities (e.g., racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies).
  101. Join the fight to minimize or eliminate the growing problem of college student debt.

Please add your own big and small ideas in the comments section.