Should I Go Back On The Academic Job Market?

Photo by kate hiscock

Photo by kate hiscock

At a recent conference, three colleagues asked me whether I was currently on the academic job market, and revealed their own ongoing job searches.  Their questions echoed a voice in my own head that I’ve almost successfully silenced: am I supposed to go on the market now, in my third year on the tenure-track?

Initially, I felt offended that they would ask.  Their questions about changing institutions were innocent enough — even based on good intentions; but, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because my career choices have been questioned since I added my current position to the list of jobs to which I would apply.  I had to push back against my grad school professors’ “encouragement” to pursue a career at a research I university.  Since then, I have, on occasion, been not-so-sublty reminded that “you can always go back on the market” (to get a “better” job).  As early as spring of my first year, I heard that there were rumors that I had been applying for a new position — in my first year.  So, I haven’t really had a moment yet in which I wasn’t being asked (or asking myself) whether I could or should go back on the academic job market.

By the end of my first year in graduate school, I became aware of the narrative — perhaps even expectation — that professors, at some point, pursue a “better” job.  In just my six years as a grad student, four professors left for new positions, typically right after earning tenure.  Initially, it seemed these professors stuck it out to get tenure at that school to then move to a school or location that might be a better fit for them.  I’ve never had a chance to actually ask any of these professors why they left and why, specifically, they left when they did.  But, rumors among fellow grad students were that some left because their families were miserable and needed a new location, some threatened to leave to get a raise (but didn’t get it, and then had to actually leave), and some left because of the “two-body” problem.  These caveats made it seem as though going back on the job market was not solely about the job or institution itself; however, these moves were not driven exclusively by personal reasons, either.

What about assistant professors who change jobs — and not to be immediately promoted to associate professor with tenure at the new institution?  That never happened while I was in grad school.  But, while on the job market myself, I saw what seemed to be just as many assistant professors vying for jobs as I did grad students.  One speculation I commonly heard was that these were “underplaced” scholars who had to take a less-than-desirable job initially owing to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession on the academic job market.  Since then, I have seen a couple of colleagues move to higher-ranking institutions, and a few others who moved to accommodate the needs of their partners or children.  Generally, I’m not sure that it’s a common occurrence.

Aside from moving to advance one’s professional status (i.e., because one was “underplaced”) or because of personal or family needs, there still seems to be an expectation to move — and soon.  In hopes of softening the blow that I had decided to accept a position at a liberal arts college, I offered to my advisors that it would be my mistake to make; more explicitly, I noted that I could always go back on the market, which meant staying active on the publication front (thereby exceeding my own institution’s expectations).  Two of my professors told me moving happens a lot in academia.  (Ironically, they have only been professors at one institution for their entire twenty-plus-year careers.)  The three colleagues I mentioned at the start of this essay have their professional or personal reasons for returning to the market; but, I also sensed that they felt they needed to move just because we’re expected to move once we hit our third or fourth year on the tenure track.

The short answer to their question is no, I have no desire or plans to apply for other academic positions (or non-academic positions for that matter). But, what the heck, I’ll give the long answer, too.

Potential Drawbacks Of Applying For (And Starting) A New Job

  • There is no real reason to leave.  Outside of the academy, I’ve observed that friends and family begin searching for a new job for practical reasons — that is, I’ve yet to hear “should” or “supposed to” or “expected to.”  They look for a new job to get promoted; that is, when one cannot move up the hierarchical ladder in one’s own workplace, one has to take a higher-level position elsewhere.  They simply get sick of their current position, owing to boredom, need for change, growing hostility or bias, etc.  They cite non-work-related needs like health problems, the needs of their partner/kids/parent (especially if dependent or sick), or having to or want to move to a new city.  Fortunately, I accepted a position that brought me closer to my family, offers the pace and expectations I’d like at work (and that are helping me get a handle on lingering mental health problems), and supports my approach to being an academic.  My partner has finally started working as a fifth-grade teacher; a move would mean asking him to pick up his life and start over again.  Since work is good, why would I disrupt my (and my partner’s) life and career just because of some informal expectation to change jobs?  That’s foolish and selfish.
  • I like my job.  Unless it’s not clear from the previous point, I actually like where I am.
  • Starting a new job is hard.  Starting a new job, in a new department and school, in a new city was incredibly hard.  Sure, this time I wouldn’t also be new to being a professor; but, that’s still a lot of new-ness to which I’d have to adjust.  I’ve finally made genuine friendships — those kind in which you hang out outside of work, and have other things besides work to talk about.  It only took me two years to find them!  And, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the communities in my department, university, and to a tiny extent in my local community (at least among those working for the LGBTQ community).  Others may feel invigorated by the adventures of moving and starting a new chapter of their lives, but I dread the idea.  The world is not filled with people willing to have genuine friendships or positive working relationships with an outspoken Black queer scholar-activist; my energy is better spent on building community where I am.
  • Starting over is worse.  I am too early in my career to realistically hope to take an associate professor position with tenure at a new institution.  So, I’d be starting a new tenure-track elsewhere, with a different set of expectations (formal and informal, transparent and not).  Worse, I may “lose” some or all of the years I’ve already completed on the tenure-track.  That is, there is a good chance I would have to start over.  No thanks.
  • The job market takes up a lot of time.  Starting the application process again would take up a great deal of time.  All of my application materials would need to be revised because I can no longer sell how awesome my dissertation is (was).  In my job talks, I would need to present new work that, ideally, will last me through tenure.  However, I’m currently in the thick of polishing the last couple of chapters of my dissertation and sending them out for publication; I don’t have anything really “new” at the moment.  And coming up with a new project and rewriting my application materials will cut into time I’m spending to finish work based on my dissertation.  I just don’t have the time (or energy) to present myself as a new shiny package again.
  • It’s too late.  Even if I were interested in applying for other jobs, it’s already too late in this year’s job market season (in sociology).  And, I think it would be foolish to devote any of my year-long research leave next year applying to jobs. By that point, I would be in my fourth year (two years shy of filing for tenure); I would start the new position in my fifth year — the year I would actually begin putting my tenure dossier together.
  • I need to work on my health.  I still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and recently discovered I was traumatized by graduate school.  (The latter falls into the category of complex trauma, which doesn’t appear in the DSM, but its symptoms are no less real for me.)  Thanks to these ongoing mental health issues, I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Wonderful, just wonderful.  All of this oversharing of health problems is to highlight that taking care of myself and getting healthy is of far greater importance than worrying about and attempting to appease some informal expectation to find a “better” job.  Indeed, my colleagues are aware of my ongoing health problems, and have been incredibly understanding and supportive.  Again, why would I give that up?  Health wise, it doesn’t make sense to reintroduce the stress of applying for jobs, going on interviews, losing sleep because of uncertainty, moving, and starting a new job into my life if it is not necessary.  I’d go as far as to say moving around so easily is a luxury for those in good health.
  • The job search is an awful experience.  As I’ve noted above, the stress of being on the market alone is enough of a deterrent.  My anxiety was at its worst while I was on the market in my final year of graduate school.  I was moody and self-absorbed.  It seemed every conversation I had was about how the market was going — and, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t help but bring it up.  I imagine doing so with some level of secrecy at my current job would be even harder — especially because I have many more demands on me now than I did as a dissertating grad student who wasn’t teaching.  My job would have to be bad enough and/or the need for change would have to be severe enough to even consider sticking my toe into the turbulent waters of the job market.
  • I’ve got baggage.  And, not in that romantic, magical way like Mimi and Roger in Rent.  I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of the academy, specifically sociology, and most specifically my own graduate program.  Do I dare to ask my dissertation committee members for recommendation letters?  Would they even say yes?  Would they be positive in their letters?  Do I even want their letters?  With little contact in three years, would their letters even be useful or appropriate?  (Baggage aside, I really don’t know to whom assistant professors turn when they go on the job market.  Asking your current department colleagues seems like a risk if you’re secretly apply for jobs, are leaving on bad terms, or don’t want to disappoint or hurt them.)  Besides the letters, I imagine a number of departments will want nothing to do with me because of my blogging and public presence.  Staying active on the research front can only trump concerns about “fit” so much.
  • There are few places that would be a good fit for me.  I am of the mindset that my happiness, health, and quality of life are more important than the prestige of a school.  That means I prefer to work at a school and live in a city that is safe and inclusive for gay interracial couples (my partner and me).  Realistically, no place in the US deserves such a characterization, but there is variation.  Since climate matters (in the department, on campus, in the city, in the state), that rules out most (all?) places in the country.  The odds of finding a good school in a hospitable city for me, an outspoken Black queer man, are too slim to waste my time even looking.
  • There are no guarantees on the job market.  Let’s say I went on the market next year.  I would be limited to the positions that are advertised in that year.  They may not fall into my areas of specialization.  They may be in undesirable locations.  They may include schools for which I don’t want to work.  I could, in the end, not want to accept any position or, worse, I not receive any job offers.  That is time, energy, and hope I can’t get back.  And, what if word got out in my department or college?  Unless I was dead-set on leaving because I had legitimate reasons to do so, it would be incredibly awkward to continue to show my face after the failed job search.  I worry, too, other colleagues might consciously or unconsciously hold it against me.  Maybe they wouldn’t invest as much in me because they assumed I’d be gone the first chance I could get, or that I was never truly invested in staying.
  • Greener grass is deceptive.  I’m going to quote lyrics from two songs.  In the song, “Better Than” by The John Butler Trio (JBT), there is an incredible lyric: “All I know is sometimes things can be hard // But you should know by now // They come and they go // So why, oh why // Do I look to the other side // ‘Cause I know the grass is greener but // Just as hard to mow.”  And, as Big Sean says in Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” “the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it.”  JBT’s wisdom points out that a new job may appear better from your current location, but it won’t necessarily be easier.  And, Big Sean’s career advice suggests staying where you are to make the job better, rather than jumping ship when things get tough.  My current job, department, and university aren’t perfect — and, I’d be surprised if any of my colleagues are surprised to hear me say that.  But, as I surmised from my campus interview when applying, and in the two-and-a-half years since, they are all willing to change and grow.  I’m in a place where colleagues don’t remind me of my “place” as a junior faculty member; rather, I’m encouraged to have a voice and be an active member of the campus and department communities.  (We’re simply too small to go 7 years of having any faculty members simply “seen but not heard.”)  It would be naive of me to think I can just shop around for a problem-free, egalitarian, truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-cissexist, anti-fatphobic … institution.  But, it was certainly worth finding a place that is trying to become that, and working within it to make real change.

Potential Drawbacks Of Staying (And My Responses)

  • Don’t settle.  I can already hear concerned voices shouting at their laptops/mobile devices, “NOOO, ERIC – WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”  I’ve heard the advice to treat the tenure-track like dating.  There’s no ring on this finger (for now), so perhaps I’m naive to settle in this position and, worse, to publicly declare that I’ve settled.  (I mean “settle” in the sense of getting comfortable, not as in lowering your standards.)  I agree that it’s healthy to know that there are other options and, more importantly, to keep oneself competitive (to an extent) in case the time ever comes to apply for a new job.  But, I have learned from experience that a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude in a relationship takes a toll.  It makes others resentful, just waiting for the day that you finally leave or quit; and, you don’t fully reap the rewards of being committed to something/someone, even through the tough or uneventful times.  So long as my institution is committed to me, I will commit to it.  I sense that we both share the goal of making it a lifelong commitment.
  • Being taken for granted.  I suspect the underlying concern with the previous point is that your colleagues or institution will take you for granted.  The best way for them to bow to your feet is keep them guessing whether you plan to stay.  If more is desired, you can actually actively seek out a new job — thus, the threat of leaving.  Fortunately, I’m in a place that respects and values me because I’m here and committed; I don’t need to play psychological or emotional warfare to demand respect and attention.  (Frankly, that seems really unhealthy to me.  Imagine if I had to threaten to dump my partner every time I wanted him to buy me flowers.)
  • Know my value.  I’ve heard, on occasion, it’s good to toss an application or two (or 20) out just to see your value (presuming your department or university isn’t valuing you at your actual worth).  You can get a self-esteem boost from getting interviews, or even offers.  Nah, I’m good.  I’m working to get to a place where I don’t derive any of my self-worth from an institution.  That means not suffering six months of depression if I were denied tenure, nor throwing myself a party because another school said they like me.  I do not intend to criticize those who use this as a power-play or even a self-esteem boost.  I just feel I have better ways to use my time, like pursuing the things I value, rather than playing games at work.
  • Increasing my status.  Related to the previous point, I never set out to land at the “best” (i.e., highest ranking based on some convoluted way of placing schools in a hierarchy) school.  I don’t want others to give a damn about me because I’m at Harvard or Wisconsin or UT Austin.  I prefer to be recognized on my own merits, for the specific kind of work I do.  At conferences, when eyes gloss over “University of Richm…” on my name tag, and then dart to find another, more worthy person to talk to, they’ve saved me 15 minutes of meaningless conversation.  I’ve always been skeptical of academic fame because it seems we go out of our way to make ourselves feel important because, at some level, we realize we’re not seen as important in the rest of the world.  Being a “somebody” to other (elitist) academics seems at odds with making a recognizable contribution to the community.  With few exceptions, the more popular you are among academics, I assume the less you and your work matter to the world outside of the academy; the more involved you are in your community, the less other status-obsessed academics care about you.

Closing Thoughts

“Okay, so you’re not leaving,” you might say.  “Why write a blog post about it,” you might even be asking.  My intention here is to highlight the unspoken (though sometimes explicitly stated) expectation that, on top of trying to earn tenure at one institution, junior professors should also be looking to start a “better” (i.e., higher-status) job.  The question, “are you on the market,” doesn’t come from prior knowledge that I’m unhappy, that the job is a bad fit for me, or that I or my partner need to move.  It doesn’t suggest that applying for a better job is the only way to get promoted because I’m already working my butt off to get promoted in my current position; leaving could actually set me back and introduce new challenges.  Rather, at the root of it, the question just reflects pressure to advance one’s professional status (even if it’s at odds with your personal needs).

In the spirit of promoting self-care in academia, I ask that others rethink this mindset of going after “better” jobs purely to advance your status. Specifically, I mean not relying heavily on your institution to signal your worth to other academics.  You can do so by publishing another great article, or winning a teaching award, or being awarded a fancy grant, or putting research into action (either in the classroom or in the community), etc.  I think a healthier approach is to 1) think long-term to advance professionally and 2) place your professional status in the broader context of your life.  On point number two, I worry, for example, about those who neglect their health or continue to be single and miserable as they jump to a better job; I doubt there is any direct (positive) relationship between the status of one’s institution and one’s own happiness/health/self-esteem/purpose.  But, I’m aware this all depends on your values and goals, particularly as it relates to your career.  I just don’t see the point of being at an Ivy, for example, if I don’t have a community, am miserably single, in therapy, and am far away from family; the status alone isn’t enough to sustain me.

I can’t help but think about a romantic relationship as a parallel here in my suggestion to consider staying — or, at least consider not automatically leaving when the getting isn’t necessarily good.  If we constantly look for a “better” romantic partner, then we are taking energy and investment away from our current relationship.  We’re not fully committed, and thus our partner may not fully commit to us because they can sense we’ve got our eye on the door.  (I know this from a past failed relationship, unfortunately.)

I should note that I’m not naive enough to ask that others commit to a department or institution while they are on the tenure-track; don’t commit to an institution that hasn’t fully committed to you (yet).  But, by hiring you, they’ve made some level of a commitment; your colleagues are “dating” you and, in places that aren’t sink-or-swim or practice academic hazing, they actually hope dating becomes marriage for life.  You can, however, make a commitment to make your job more satisfying for yourself.  To the extent that you can without jeopardizing tenure, take on fun projects, teach fun classes (or at least a few lectures within a class), make at least one friend on campus (there are faculty in other departments and, gasp, there are staff members, too!), or volunteer for a community organization.  Outside of work, join a club, take a class, make an effort to find community, get an account with MeetUp/OkCupid/Tinder (whatever other apps kids are using these days), go to a community event, etc.  Even if you one day leave, at least you’ll have made an effort to make your present situation harder to leave without saying goodbye or shedding a few tears.

Additional Resources

If you are considering going back on the job market, or at least open to the possibility, check out what others have had to say about it.

“Code Switching”: Biracial Identity & Higher Education

Daphne StanfordDaphne Stanford (@daphne_stanford) is a community radio deejay and writer of many things: poetry, essays, and hybrid forms.  She hosts a weekly radio show called “The Poetry Show!” on KRBX, Radio Boise.  Hiking the Boise foothills and engaging in good conversation with friends & family are some of her favorite pastimes.  In this guest post, Daphne reflects on the experience of “code switching” with her family — initially between English and Spanish and, later in life, between academic and non-academic registers.


I was raised by a mother from Jalisco, Mexico, and a father from Alliance, Ohio. California in the eighties was plagued by naysayers of bilingual education warning of “language confusion,” so my parents, being good Reagan fans and fearing that my brother and I might get “confused” by the presence of both English and Spanish, tried to keep the conversations in the house to English. Not that they had to try very hard. My mother was all about practicing her English: she had been working on it for a while by the time I was old enough to remember, so there were not many opportunities to speak Spanish with her.

I did practice with my grandmother, who lived with us for a while. She was happy to tell me how to say things in Spanish. I remember asking, “¿Como se dice esto?” (How do you say this?), and pointing at various objects in the house. Unlike the grandmother and granddaughter in the children’s story Mango, Abuela and Me, my grandmother was never concerned with learning how to speak English. She never had to. We learned to communicate with her. I learned some vocabulary gradually and awkwardly this way, but it wasn’t until I started taking Spanish classes in high school that I learned to communicate more fluidly—with past and present tense and comprehensive sentence structure.

The only other times I employed Spanish in a home setting was when we visited my uncle’s house. His family spoke Spanish at home and English at school and work. According to my aunt, Tía Abdulia, it would have been preferable for my mother to speak Spanish, rather than English, with us at home to preserve the language. When I started taking Spanish classes I asked my mother to practice with me. But, whenever it came up, she would comment, “Why are you taking Spanish? Take French or German!”

I continued taking Spanish classes through college. There was a notable difference in my mother’s feelings about speaking to me in Spanish after I moved to Portland for school. It became a different way for us to communicate over the phone. The switching into Spanish seemed to bring more closeness and intimacy to our conversations—in terms of both tone and subject matter. While many college students take Spanish because it makes them more competitive in the job market, post-graduation, I continued because I wanted to remain connected to my mother. Although I’d felt keenly stifled by her overprotective instinct as an adolescent, going away to college brought us closer together. I suddenly wanted to learn more about my heritage and was more proud of my mixed ethnicity—perhaps because it carried more cultural capital in college. Other languages meant that I was cosmopolitan and worldly, and that I studied comparative literature!

Juan Felipe Herrera, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, brings this mode of expression to the foreground. In his poetry, he regularly switches between English and Spanish—as in the beginning of “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way”:

Let us gather in a flourishing way
with sunluz grains abriendo los cantos
que cargamos cada día
en el young pasto nuestro cuerpo
para regalar y dar feliz perlas pearls
of corn flowing árboles de vida en las cuatro esquinas
let us gather in a flourishing way
contentos llenos de fuerza to vida
giving nacimientos to fragrant ríos
dulces frescos verdes turquoise strong
carne de nuestros hijos rainbows

Herrera employs entire lines of Spanish throughout the remainder of the poem, allowing English and Spanish to meld, blend, and respond to each other. Although this mode of switching back and forth continuously might seem unnatural to many, this type of linguistic interplay was common at my uncle’s house.

My aunt, uncle, and three cousins regularly spoke Spanish amongst themselves, switching back and forth when my family visited. This was partially by necessity, as my father doesn’t speak Spanish, and my brother knew less than I did. Sometimes my aunt and uncle switched to Spanish when communicating a private directive to one of my cousins, for example, so that it was it was less on display. It was almost as if, as Richard Rodriguez notes in his memoir, Hunger of Memory, Spanish is more of a “private” language than English, for Mexican-Americans, while English becomes the “public” language—to be employed while out on the town or on display for the English-only speaking relatives.

Multiple Ways Of “Code Switching”

After my grandmother moved away, going back and forth between English and Spanish at home was no longer necessary. In fact, I also developed a new form of code switching, changing the register in which I interacted with those around me while speaking English. While at school, I regularly engaged in philosophical conversations about books that I was reading and ideas that I encountered in those books, as well as in my own life. While I was back home from school, however, I suddenly had no one with whom to discuss these ideas. I felt, as Rodriguez often did, like an outsider—someone who didn’t belong in the world of my home town anymore. While the love of family trumps topics of conversation, Chad Nilep echoes this observation of different registers as being analogous to switching between languages. These different types of switching—between registers or between languages—is again connected to the difference between public and private, formal and informal, detached and intimate.

This is similar to Gloria Anzaldúa’s discussion of her “forked tongue” in Borderlands that switches back and forth between English and Spanish in eight different registers and dialects: standard English, working class and slang English, standard Spanish, Standard Mexican Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, Chicano Spanish, Tex-Mex, and Pacheco (or calo). The first time that I came across Anzaldúa’s list of dialects, I felt relieved to recognize some of the different codes that I’d employed, without even realizing it. That there is a difference between “standard English” and “working class English” was news to me. What about the difference between university-speak and home-speak?

Code switching is complicated by the distinction of academic and non-academic worlds because, in addition to different languages, there are different registers. These differing registers amount to different dialects, in a sense. Not only do they employ different language, but both types also necessitate different ways of communicating, such as via body language and reading between the lines. There are certain topics of conversation that are considered more taboo in traditional society—religion and politics being prime examples—whereas intellectual circles are drawn to the analysis of politics and religion as a matter of course. In fact, popular culture itself becomes a subject of discussion—something which is too “meta” for typical dinner conversations in the U.S.

Moving back and forth between different subcultures has made me aware of the self as performative—but also hybridized. However, there’s a sort of existential aspect to performative existence: it’s feeling as though you are watching yourself on a screen, or that you’re constantly starring in a movie about yourself in which you play different roles—depending on the setting or other characters on the screen at any given time. This element of performativity breeds a sense of self-alienation where you never know who you’re most authentic self is. However, perhaps it’s not necessary to identify with one culture over another. Maybe it’s better to adopt, like Anzaldúa, a sort of fluid and ambiguous definition of self—one that is in a constant state of creation. It seems the fate of writers to feel like outsiders, regardless.

In the end, the language that translates the best across experiences and generations is the one that seeks to understand, despite departures and differences in life choices and educational degrees. We can strive for empathy, despite choice of language or life circumstances. That openness, along with patience and generosity, allows for understanding that can bridge words.

“Centering Down” For Faculty Of Color: Reflections From A Retreat

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor. Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis. Spit-Fire:

Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis

In late July, right before my one-month hiatus from blogging and social media, I attended an overnight retreat for faculty and staff of color at Spelman College, and co-hosted by the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS): “How Good It Is to Center Down: A Courage and Renewal Retreat for Faculty of Color.”  Seventeen other people — mostly women of color (especially Black women) faculty — and I participated in a contemplative retreat  to “pause, reflect, and renew—and prepare for the 2015-2016 academic year.”

My only complaint is that the less-than-48-hour-long retreat was much too short; but, I am confident that the retreat simply planted the seeds I needed to continue to grow as a scholar.

Invitations And Introductions

We kicked off the retreat with a delicious meal and light conversation.  The energy in the room reflected our excitement to get started, meet other faculty of color at liberal arts colleges in the South, and be away, albeit briefly, from our usual routine.  After lunch, Dr. Veta Goler and Dr. Sherry Watt, serving as co-facilitators and -organizers, welcomed us and explained the structure of the retreat.  For activities and discussions involving the full group, we were seated in a circle, with a small table with flowers and some information in the center.  Rather than pressuring us to “share or die,” the co-facilitators invited us to participate and to “speak into the circle.”  This set a tone that felt safe, that one could simply listen if necessary or speak if desired.

We were invited to introduce ourselves, including our names and institutions, what we hoped to gain from the retreat, and anything we needed to set aside to be fully present at the retreat.  (I appreciated the recognition that we are human, and thus are carrying a lot with us into any given event — pain, excitement, emotional baggage, dread, illness, joy, etc.)  Only a few attendees had introduced themselves by the time the first person had become emotional.  Just acknowledging that the space invited us to practice self-care, and reflection, and be in community moved some of us to tears; we had permission to actually care for ourselves and be whole human beings.  No one shared specifics, but there seemed to be a universal allusion to pain and trauma from repeated experiences of microaggressions, harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence.  I was particularly struck by hearing Black faculty who work at HBCUs — even Black women who work at Spelman — say, “this was a toxic year.”  Apparently, none of us are safe from racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression in academia.  And, without regular reflection, self-care, and access to community, we don’t even realize how much pain we carry around with us on a daily basis.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Reflection

Unlike typical academic gatherings (e.g., conferences, department and faculty meetings, classes), the retreat was nontraditional and unconventional in its emphasis on meditation, mindfulness, and reflection.  There were a few moments of meditation, quiet reflection, private journaling, as well as walking and talking to reflect with a fellow attendee.  I’d say the most enjoyable of these activities was walking through Spelman’s labyrinth (see below).

Photo by Germaine McAuley.

Photo by Germaine McAuley.

Some activities were introduced by the group reading of a poem related to the activity.  Attendees took turns volunteering to read part of the poem; then, we were all invited to speak into the circle certain lines that resonated with us.  It felt as though we were invited to savor the phrase that left our lips.  We moved beyond merely reading the poem to actually feeling and, eventually, experiencing the poem.  For example, we participated in an activity called “Where I’m From,” wherein we wrote a poem about our upbringing and home.  We started this activity by group-reading (and savoring) George Ella Lyon’s poem — “Where I’m From.”  The imagery of his poem — “I am from fudge and eyeglasses // From Imogene and Alafair.  //  I’m from know-it-alls // Ad the pass-it-ons… — helped to put me into the reflective and creative mindset to write my own poem.

I admit that some of the more creative activities, including drawing, painting, and making a collage, initially felt silly to me. As a quantitative sociologist, I deal with numbers and statistical models.  But, as I actually started to participate, I felt a part of my brain (and my heart and soul) opened up to reveal things otherwise unacknowledged by me.

In one activity that emphasized self-care, we were invited to reflect on, and then draw, the “work before the work”; that is, what did we need to do to prepare for work, to be fully present at work, to enjoy our work.  This is somewhat akin to the practice of free-writing, wherein you start a writing session by reflecting on your personal connection to the topic; the personal (at least in my field) tend to be stripped away from traditional academic writing, so this practice can help to ease the process.  But, the “work before the work” can be much broader.  Through this reflective practice, I realized that I needed to feel that my academic career was connected to my social justice values and advocacy (see below).  I cannot feel whole if I must leave my Black queer activist self at home while I go to work in a suit and tie.  The task that lies ahead of me now is to find ways to do so.

The "work before the work."

The “work before the work.”

In the collage activity, we were invited to visualize what self-care looks like.  In my interpretation of the task, I chose images of freedom, authenticity, and uniqueness (see below).  Once finished, we were invited to share our collage with another attendee, who was invited to ask questions that help us dig deeper into self-discovery.  With my partner, I realized that all of the images I selected were of women — women who look strong, brave, and free.  For the most part, the reverence I hold for femininities is unsurprising to me, particularly as a genderqueer-identified man.  But, that these images were reflected at the exclusion of pictures of men and masculinities did surprise me.  I suspect the affinity I feel for strong, brave women is that they are defiant in being themselves, while, for men, strength and bravery are demanded, expected, and rewarded.  At any rate, what initially felt childish proved to be quite insightful.  In no way were we asked to enjoy every part of the retreat, or promised that every activity would prove useful to us.

My self-care collage.

My self-care collage.

In a third activity, two other attendees were invited to paint a reflection of your “birthright gifts” — the positive things that you offer to the world.  We began this exercise by reflecting on the five people we would invite as our guests to a dinner party.  I selected Oprah, Ghandi, Audre Lorde, Martin Luther King Jr., my late cousin Danny, and my late grandfather Sylvan.  The first four represent significant activists and difference-makers who are important to me; the latter two are relatives who lived life meaningfully, who didn’t waste a day on negativity or to adversity.  As I shared my dinner guest list, two other attendees painted surprisingly similar pictures: a utopian world either protected or created by me as I overcome oppression, violence, and hate.  I’m sure I’d probably offer a more humble version of this description of myself.  But, it is quite affirming to see what you value reflected in how others see you.  And, more importantly, that others see you as valuable, and see the gifts that you offer to the world.

On Day 2 — a short, but no less impactful day — we were introduced to Parker J. Palmer’s concept of the “third way” from his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life:

[W]e learn a “third way” to respond to the violence of the world, so called because it gives us an alternative to the ancient animal instinct of “fight or flight.”  To fight is to meet violence with violence, generating more of the same; to flee is to yield to violence, putting private sanctuary ahead of the common good.”  The third way is the way of nonviolence by which I mean a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul (p. 170).

Nonviolence — the third way — involves asking honest, open questions, inviting others to share their stories, and encouraging truth-telling in organizations.  But, Palmer warns that this third way is no easy task — as to be expected for choosing an alternative when society presents us with only two appropriate actions.

He goes on:

So people who wish to serve as agents of nonviolent change need at least four resources in order to survive and persist: a sound rationale for what they intend to do, a sensible strategy for doing it, a continuing community of support, and inner ground on which to stand (p. 171).

I have yet to read the full book, so I lack more context for his proposal.  But, the possibility of a third way of living and, specifically, of trying to make the world a better place, struck a chord with me, particularly the notion of acting “in every situation in ways that honor the soul.”  Thus far, my career has felt limited to two options: fight or flight.  Conform or retreatDo well by mainstream or traditional standards or reject everything.  Palmer’s proposal — but, more importantly, reading his proposal among other scholars of color seeking a better way of living — felt like the now-obvious alternative approach.  It allowed me to give myself permission to prioritize authenticity, and to recognize the ways I have already been authentic in my career.  This career will be so much easier when I remember that there is always a third way.

Planting Seeds

Veta and Sherry, our co-facilitators, noted that most of the retreat was based on the practice of “courage work” — the writings of and workshops led by Parker J. Palmer.  Feeling energized by the retreat, I decided to pick up a copy of one of Dr. Palmer’s books.  To my surprise, I had already purchased a copy of The Courage to Teach without knowing anything about the book, its impact, or the perspective and politics of Palmer.  I decided to take it on my August vacation/blogcation, hopefully continuing the work I started at the retreat, and mentally and emotionally preparing me for the new academic year.

When I sat down to read the first chapter of Courage, I felt something within me that suggested this book would be transformative for me.  One chapter in, I was both hooked and felt Palmer spoke to the demons I’ve been wrestling with for years.  His first chapter is on identity and integrity in teaching.

By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self: my genetic makeup, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and to my self, the experience of love and suffering — and much, much more… By integrity I mean an whatever wholeness I am able to find within that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life.  Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my selfhood, what fits and what does not — and that I choose life-giving ways of relating to the forces that converge within me.

Palmer argues that a good teacher must be whole, that dividing one’s self into personal and academic will ultimately lead to frustration, burnout, and resentment.  He takes a strong stance against the “objective” approach to teaching and, instead, teaching from the heart; this is a healthier approach for teachers, and proves more enjoyable for students.  In general, he calls for a more communal approach to learning, as well for teaching.

His anecdotes of “divided selves” and “dismembered” teachers read like a future eulogy for me at the rate I have been going in my career thus far.  As I was taught, I have practiced an “objective” approach to teaching, hiding behind facts just as much as I hide behind suits and ties.  I have felt equally detached from my own research, which has demanded objectivity.  In my heart, I have predicted that I would quit before I even went up for tenure if I continued to work as I have.  To my credit, this has been more about fear than than valuing objectivity in teaching and research; nonetheless, I’ve lacked the courage to teach the way that my heart demands.

Final Thoughts

In the past year, I’ve become fed up with the dissatisfaction I’ve felt with doing things the way I was trained to in grad school.  I’ve made my bed, and now I’m fortunate enough to lie in it.  I’ve pursued a career that equally values teaching and research, and an institution that celebrates my intellectual activism rather than asking I hide it or wait until who-knows-when.  Through my own desperate search, I am finding that there are other, better ways of being a scholar.  In fact, I now believe that there is no one way to be a successful scholar.  And, more importantly, there are other ways to be professionally fulfilled besides “success” in a conventional sense.  Others have already discovered this, perhaps after pulling themselves out of a professional rut, too.  I need not reinvent the wheel, nor do I need to continue to suffer.  I have the power and, now, resources to create a self-defined career — one of synergy among teaching, research, service, and advocacy, of authenticity, and of self-care and self-discovery.

Would my life have been easier if I had stayed true to my values from the start of grad school?  I don’t even want to entertain that thought.  With great clarity, I recall my decision making process.  I pursued a degree that would open the most doors in academia; I earned it and it helped me to get my current position, so I need not feel a twinge of guilt or regret.  I’m choosing, instead, to see the good that has come out of all of this — a tireless effort to envision a different way to be a scholar in the 21st century.  To get there, I will continue to attend retreats like this one, devour all that Parker J. Palmer has written, and pursue other resources that promote authenticity and social justice in teaching.  With time, I hope to offer these resources to future generations of scholars and scholar-activists.

Excellence Is Not Enough for Black Womyn Academics

D. CopelandDellea K. Copeland (@delleacopeland) is a graduate student in Political Science at Penn State University (full biography at the end).  In this guest post, Dellea responds to her March guest post on excellence as a survival strategy for Black womyn in academia; now, she feels excellence is not enough.  Black womyn must be excellent, they must show up — but, they also have to strategize and build supportive networks in order to survive and thrive in academia.


Excellence Is Not Enough

A few months ago, I wrote an essay here on excellence as a survival mechanism for Black womyn in academia. In response, I received positive messages from people who are considering academia or are in the midst of it. Most importantly, I received an email from someone who pointed out excellence is not enough. You must be strategic in your actions and work. At the time, I didn’t know how to respond to this email as it was both critical and insightful. Since my post was published on Conditionally Accepted, I found myself struggling to take my own advice. I am not always the best student, so how do I survive if I am not consistently winning?  I made the following video to reflect on my change of heart:

The aforementioned email came from a womyn who has been through graduate school and has cultivated a career in academia. She pointed out that no matter how great we are, the challenges that we face as Black womyn never go away. Whether I’m on my game or not, I owe my survival to select people in and outside my department. I became aware of the people with whom I was associating myself and how that reflected upon me. I learned to drop those who distracted me or didn’t have my best interests at heart. I found out whom I can trust with information and whom I can’t. Most importantly, I have learned to read between the lines, think before I act, and let things go.

This was not without trial and error. I only learned to strategize when I took time to listen and learn about how my department and field work. Yes, it’s important that you demonstrate your worth by consistently showing up. But, it is simply not enough. Your research may be on point, but no one will know your name if you aren’t smart about how you move through the (mine)field.  Be mindful of who you socialize and work with, think before you react, and take time to figure out who you can trust. Excellence and strategy are the two things you must keep in mind.

You may face different challenges and have other tools for survival. If this is you, please share in the comments below! I am sure there are others that can learn from you. For example, whenever I feel as though people are tying it, I imagine a miniaturized Harpo on my shoulder saying, “Don’t do it, Miss Dellea.” Don’t judge – just try it.

I would like to emphasize this is my experience as a graduate student. It is both unique and universal. As I continue on this journey, I expect my philosophy will change as I move on up. I hope to share my experience with anyone who will listen – this includes the times I take one step forward and two steps back. I hope that you can relate to this process and are down for the ride.

I thank y’all for reading, responding, and watching. Stay excellent.



Dellea K. Copeland is a graduate student at Penn State University. She studies authoritarian regimes, democratic breakdowns, protest movements, and the Middle East. Fingers crossed, she will graduate in 2019 with a PhD in political science. As an undergraduate, Dellea was a part of the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program dedicated to diversifying higher education. She has published in two undergraduate journals and presented her work across the country at multiple undergraduate and professional conferences. She hails from Austin, Texas and will be your research assistant in exchange for street tacos.  Be sure to check out her website,, and follow her on Twitter (@delleacopeland).

How I Became An Intellectual Activist

Ford panel

I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school.  This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early.  Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline.  The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.

At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.”  My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me.  I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months.  (Can you imagine it?  I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)

“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia

Activism In Childhood And College

My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK.  My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].

I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it.  Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.

Graduate School As Trauma

Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.

Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.

When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:

  • First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
  • Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
  • The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
  • The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.

Conditionally Accepted in Academia

I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.

Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.

Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.

Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership.  Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.

The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism

I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.

Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.

So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.

But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.

On Being Bipolar: A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative


Seth is a PhD candidate and lecturer at a large public university. His work tackles issues of affect, psychiatry, and sexuality in the post WWII American novel. He has taught courses on gendered violence, feminism, and American sexuality. Seth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 7 years ago. He has been sober for over 19 months. In this guest post, Seth reflects on one aspect of managing bipolar disorder that no one talks about — weight gain — and his struggle to adjust to his new body. 

You can see Seth’s previous guests posts here.


A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

I’ve read a lot of recovery stories on a lot of different popular websites. I’m sure you know the ones I’m referencing. They all kind of say the same thing, give or take a few elements: life is much better, colors dance in the warm sunlight when before everything was black and white, the author wants to live, love and marriage are possible. I’m not going to say that that narrative is a lie, or wrong, because for some people (who are lucky) it is truly like that. For them, mental illness is a one-time occurrence; the meds or therapy work well, and the only reminder of the horrible times (for them or those around them) is the daily dosage or faint memories.

However, what I will say is that for a large number of us, recovery is not an invisible process; there are a variety of visible signs that we have been (or are) sick. Sometimes navigating these signs is harder than the actual illness because we as a culture do not celebrate ongoing progress or struggle. For example, we praise new mothers who lose pregnancy weight quickly by telling them that they look like they never had a baby in the first place. In other words, we tell women whose bodies just completed an extraordinary physical and psychological act that their ideal state should be where there is no marker of this occurrence at all, except a well behaved, non crying, visibly “healthy” baby. Struggle should be hidden or washed away.

Rehabbing Gender, Managing Bipolar

Managing bipolar and medication side effects is hard because you never know what your recovery will feel like – whether a certain medication will send you back into the hospital or into sanity or simply into a larger clothing size. This has all been intensified by the fact that my gender identity as a man largely was tied to my sexuality and ability to be sexually attractive to women and, to me, fat was not sexually attractive when I was the one wearing it. The models of masculinity I grew up with demonstrated to me consistently that being a man meant women and lots of them. As I came into my various identities, I was able to date easily and readily, always having beautiful women on my arm whom I treated poorly because I was sick and manic, looking for affect in anything I could touch. I used with them, drank with them, and moved on. I emulated the successful men I saw in my own life and in film. My own father was a mix of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, so I thought I had to be like that, too.

For a while, it worked. I was at the height of my dating game when everything crashed. I almost ended up in the hospital multiple times. There were more than a few instances with drugs and alcohol where friends nearly called 911. I was teaching gender studies and living out all the worst stereotypes of what it could mean to be a man. I have since separated myself from this behavior and people who encourage it, but large parts of my management from bipolar has been rehabbing my own ideas about masculinity and how to be a man in public and private. They are always linked for me – my disability and how my masculinity comes out in times of stress or calm. I’m still not the nicest or best person in a relationship, but I try harder than I did before and that matters to me. I don’t cheat.


Even though I was first diagnosed seven years ago, it was not until a year ago that I was put on the drug that would save my life and stop lots of the behaviors I discussed above: lithium. My psychiatrists had tried nearly every other medication and type of therapy, always avoiding lithium because it’s serious. But when a particularly suicidal episode sent me to the doctor yet again, I no longer had a choice. That day, it was lithium or the hospital. I chose lithium because I was embarrassed by the thought of the hospital (I still am; this is a cultural thing for me). I knew the drug could eat my kidneys and thyroid, resulting in weight gain and epic thirst, among other things. There’s the general feeling of fogginess and being constantly tired, plus the tremors I have every day, especially in the morning.

It wasn’t until I reached therapeutic levels of the drug (which for me is a very high dose) that the weight gain started. Before I started, I was not a thin person by any means. My natural frame is athletic and stocky. I ran triathlons and took spin classes, but celebrated muscle bulk, not being “tiny,” even when I still identified as a woman. Testosterone has only made my frame stockier, my muscles larger. Those in the queer community would call me a bear cub if my beard was thicker. I’m not long, lean, and androgynous at all, but I was in good shape and was in a healthy weight range according to my doctor, albeit at the heavier end of that range. I wore men’s skinny jeans from stores that favored slender bodies even if they were in the 30 sizes, not 20s.

On lithium, I am definitely chubby and I hate it because between the testosterone and the lithium it’s an uphill battle to lose weight; even my endocrinologist acknowledges that it might never really happen like we want it to. Most of the time, I try to stick to a low-sugar high-protein diet because I physically feel better and sugar makes me depressed. But, there are times in which I get overwhelmed with restricting so much when I’m already sober, trans, and taking these meds. I feel as though I don’t deserve to worry about my weight and hate the way I look after all that I’ve been through. I know that doesn’t sound very good, but it’s an honest sentence. And recovery should be about honesty.

There is nothing that highlights this reality better than standing in front of your closet after six months of lifesaving lithium treatment and finding that none of your clothes fit. I had spent months manically not wanting to leave the house or get dressed, but when the time had come for me to actually do it, it was almost logistically impossible. No one tells you recovery looks like this. You are alive, but so what? Socially you have lost lots of power and comfort. The person you saved from the black hole of mania, depression, and suicide looks nothing like the one crying in front of the closet. So many days I ask myself why I bothered to try all those months in therapy when the end result hasn’t been super great. It was mediocre at best. Therapists tell you that life is amazing, but I have not gotten there yet. I’ve gotten to mediocre. Is my life the exciting, passionate death pit it used to be? No, but the doctors tell me that’s a good thing. So I’m fat and mediocre. I used to be manic and exceptional.

Recovery, and Transformation, In The Classroom

Teaching with this type of shift in gender and body shape has been very difficult. Clothes that I wore for years and spent lots of money on no longer fit me and may never again. I may never be thin (by my standards) because lithium actively works against this by making me retain fluid and slowing my metabolism. By now, I’ve basically stabilized, so I am starting the massive endeavor of remaking my wardrobe and personal style for teaching and life. My weight has gone down a little bit with a lot of work – that’s for my health, not solely for aesthetics. But, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I liked the way it felt to get weighed and see a smaller number.

I used to say that the classroom was my personal runway. I loved dressing for class and I wore a tie everyday. I wore lots of color. I wanted to be a cool queer teacher who was stylish and who my students could look up to. In this past year, I can count the number of times when I’ve worn a tie on two hands. I wear mostly black as if I’m in mourning for my previous not-fat self. And, I guess I am. I miss feeling confident and put together. It angers me that “confident and put together” equals thin. It shouldn’t. Fat Seth deserves to feel professional and good just like thin Seth. No one ever told me that days of recovery would feel worse than days of sickness. I survived bipolar, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll survive my meds.

Getting fat has taught me a lot, especially about the amounts of privilege that I still have in terms of my size. I’m not big enough to get comments from strangers. I can still shop at straight size (not plus size or big and tall) stores. I can go into mainstream retailers and leave with a suit, as I just did for my sister’s wedding, not to mention shopping without being followed or hassled because I am an educated white person in a racist city. Until this past year I would have told you that I believed thinness and fitness to be about “discipline,” not a carefully socially constructed set of images combined with winning the genetic lottery. I would have told you that overweight people were lazy; medication was an excuse. I used to tell my female students in class they could be beautiful at any size but tell friends in private that I didn’t eat carbs. I was a jerk and a hypocrite because I wanted to be what dominant queer culture viewed as attractive, which was masculine, lean, and dapper.

This is where I think queer culture has a lot of work to do. It needs to call out the celebrated androgynous aesthetic and displace masculine individuals from the top of the food chain because it just reproduces heteronormative notions of power and control. Women and femmes keep coming in last. It cannot be like that anymore. I was a person who championed that culture and saw the damage I did on a personal level to others and myself. What if we all took a look at our actions and feelings, working to fix them? If any of the women (or men) whom I ever dated are reading this, I’m sorry for everything I did.

Lithium changed the way I looked at fatness and weight, both mine and others. It also changed the way I thought of myself as a man because I no longer can fulfill my own twisted fantasies about what an “ideal attractive” man should look like. It taught me to be a nicer person and someone who was more patient with students and myself. It taught me to learn that recovery was not a black and white experience in which one was guaranteed to look like they had never suffered. However, I think the most important thing it has taught me is that being present for the students – in either workout pants, jeans, or dress pants – we we are all bodies in the classroom who struggle. It is okay to show, honor, and give space to that. I’m no longer hiding. Lithium made me fat, and I refuse to lower my voice or wear clothes that I do not like just because they help me “pass” more or make me look “thinner” in ways that are culturally constructed.

This semester, I’ve been making an effort to honor the struggles present both in myself and in my students. It has been working. We approach the material as individual people with wounds, large or small, and talk through these feelings and identities as they are reflected in our course material. I’ve started to slowly wear ties again and catch myself looking in reflective surfaces more, despite pretty much looking the same (this isn’t a weight loss before and after story, sorry). My students speak more openly and generously during class. No one is perfect and everybody hurts, but, it seems, when we hurt together we shatter the facade of perfection and find beauty in the shards of glass we pick up along the way.

Pregnancy And Motherhood While On The Tenure-Track

LuciaTaylorIn this guest post, Lucia Taylor (see her full biography at the end) reflects on her experiences of becoming a mother as she finished her PhD and started a tenure-track position at Dixie State University.  She struggled to balance work life with the needs of her family.  The societal expectation to be a “super mother” exacerbated the problem.  Fortunately, unlike the horror stories she had heard, she found support from her colleagues and department to help her balance those demands.


I am Spanish citizen who came to the United States six years ago with a scholarship to enroll in a Master of Language Pedagogy and teach at the University of Utah. My plan was to stay for a year and then move back to Spain where I could apply everything that I had learned. During that first year, I missed my family, my friends, my culture and, definitely, the Spanish food. However, during that year I also met new friends, and I met my husband. I also discovered a new way of working in academia that was entirely different from what I had known in Spain. In my home country, I was a PhD. student and I had been teaching Spanish as a foreign language for 4 years.

Once I graduated, I was hired as an instructor at the same university, and during that third year in the USA, I got married. I was ABD (all but dissertation) in my PhD, and I started attending conferences, presenting at them and building relationships in the academia setting. After multiple interviews, campus visits, and also rejections, I got a teaching position in Dallas, Texas. My husband, our dog, and I moved without thinking twice. After a couple of months in Dallas, a position opened at Dixie State University (college at that time). Although the idea of going through the process of applying for a job was not exciting, the idea of getting a tenure-track position was appealing enough for me to try. I was beyond excited when I was offered that position, and after a semester in Dallas, my family started the move all over again. In January, I was ready to start my new job and I was lucky enough to be a part of the transition from college to university status.

My First Pregnancy, And Some Unexpected Support

I was hired as an instructor until I complete my PhD, with the understanding that the time would count towards the tenure. That very first semester I got pregnant. Obviously, at the beginning, I freaked out… I had thought about having kids, but not until I had set my professional path. I had imagined it would happen after I was tenured. Far from that, I hadn’t been at Dixie State for a whole semester, I still had to attend “New Faculty” training, and I felt like I was already “causing problems.” On one hand, you know that in any job market, it is not a good start to tell your boss “thanks for the opportunity. By the way, I’m pregnant!” On the other hand, I was hired to start a new section in the Spanish program, I was going to take linguistics and pedagogy and teach new courses every semester. I knew nobody would be able to substitute for me, so I was definitely in trouble.

I went to talk to my department chair about my situation, concerned about what repercussions the pregnancy would have. My chair at that time had a little girl of her own, and she got almost more excited than me when I told her the news. After the initial shock of her reaction, I asked her how my situation would affect my position. Since my PhD would be from Spain, I had to physically return to Spain to defend it, which is hard to do when you are pregnant or have a newborn baby.

She told me that she would talk to the Dean and the Human Resources (HR) office to find out, but she was sure there was not going to be a problem since Utah is a state where family is the base of the community. She assured me that no one would blame me for starting my own family. While I was waiting to hear from them, I searched the Internet for different scenarios, yielding the same the same conclusion. Most of the cases ended up with the expectant mothers being fired during the training period. Although I did not find anything specific to academia, it wouldn’t be so different, right? I was expecting to be without a job at the end of the spring semester and fully pregnant. Everybody from HR, the Dean’s office, and my department were supportive of my pregnancy and contributed to granting me peace of mind. I was beyond surprised.

My pregnancy was not easy, although it could have been worse. I suffered 8 months of morning sickness, migraines, low-blood pressure, and falling (including a dislocated toe) – all without being able to take any medication other than Tylenol. I had to compartmentalize my responsibilities and choose the ones that were more crucial for my current situation at the time. I focused on being a teacher and I put the dissertation on hold (although I kept working on it on a regular basis, I couldn’t spend as much time on it as I would have liked).

Rejecting The Myth Of “Super Mom”

My first son was born at the end of October on his due date, which was perfect because it fit into the busy schedule I was managing at the time. I taught on Friday, I woke up on Saturday and had my baby by the end of the day. Since, I hadn’t been working at Dixie State for a year, I couldn’t request time off or make official arrangements to help with this. However, once again, my department was so supportive, they allowed me to take 2 weeks off. My colleagues taught my advanced grammar and composition classes, and since I am the only one in Linguistics, I created online formats for those weeks so that my students would still complete the course without me having a baby “interfering.”

I went back to work after two weeks, a week before Thanksgiving; I was excited to be back. I thought surviving the pregnancy and the delivery was the hard part and I was motivated to go back to being a full time teacher and scholar. However, after a month and half of being a mom, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. I was crying all the way back home from work, I was crying while I was taking care of my adorable, perfect son, and I cried even more when I was on my own. I was not like that before; had always managed well through hard times. Everyone was supporting me, but it didn’t matter and I would still cry and feel like a failure as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a mother. Twenty-four hours a day, I felt as though I was missing something; I could not focus 100% on anything, and I knew, in the back of my mind, that I was not performing at my best on every aspect of my life. I didn’t know that I was such a perfectionist until this point in my life.

My pediatrician was the one who helped me the most. He told me “you are crying all of the time, because you care about this baby. You are being a mother, a good one, so scratch that from your guilt list.” He also shared his knowledge about the increased chances of having postpartum depression among young mothers with Masters and PhDs; academia trains you to work under stressful situations where you can actively work towards fixing a problem. Motherhood doesn’t work this way; I was approaching being a mother the same way I would approach the task of passing a major exam or facing a new course development. I thought that if I was doing my research, applying the methods that I learned, and work hard towards an objective (for example, getting the baby on a schedule), everything should work as planned. After all, that was my experience in life until that point. I had studied, researched, taught, and I had always reached my goals, so this couldn’t be much more different, could it? However, it was not working out that way.

I, once again, went to my department chair and my dean to talk about my situation. At this point, my teaching performance was as good as before. However, I couldn’t focus on the dissertation. I needed another extension. This time, the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Dixie State University got involved. I was granted an extension with the added assignment of coordinating the program assessment as a counteroffer. I took this new responsibility and added a new title to my list. Now I was a teacher, a scholar, an assessment coordinator, a wife and also a mother.

After pinpointing the problem, I was able to accept that I was, in fact, a good mother and with the assistance of medication, the great support from my department, and from my family, I made it through the dark times. I finally got to bond with my new son, I enjoyed going to work AND coming back home. By my son’s second birthday, I managed to finish the dissertation, as well as to complete the program assessment cycle successfully, get appointed as one of the School of Humanities Assessment Coordinators Leads, serve as Dixie State’s representative in the Utah bridge project (which develops “bridge” courses for high-school students in Dual Language Immersion programs), get positive students’ reviews, present at two academic conferences, support my family, and stay mentally and physically healthy.

I was back to being myself, performing at the level that I was expecting from myself. However, this whole experience changed me in understanding how important compartmentalizing is nowadays when you are trying to survive. Women are constantly put under pressure for how they behave as mothers, professionals, women, etc., and much of this pressure comes from the Internet. My darkest thoughts were validated by comments that I found on the web. These days, everyone can Google, search, and find what other people are doing, and everyone is expressing judgmental opinions. Society puts pressure on women based on the traditional roles that men and women are assigned. I had to defend myself because I chose to be a good teacher and I had accepted that I was not going to be a perfect mother; I heard multiple times that I would regret missing my son’s experiences in the future. I had to deal with funny faces when I told people that my husband was a stay-home dad while I was working full time; we were not fitting into the roles society had assigned us.

However, on the other hand, there are also women who are coming together to get rid of the idea of superwomen and supermothers. I found a Spanish online club, Club de Malasmadres (The Bad Mothers Club), where young entrepreneur professional women fight against this alpha/super mother figure that society is expecting from us. Through memes and funny images, these women express out loud what we are thinking but are afraid to say because of the judgments we would receive.

My Second Pregnancy, And A New Outlook

My perception of motherhood has changed since I had my son. I was trying to be an alpha mother who could do everything that everyone expected her to do and to be able to do it with perfection. I am not one of those; I am a proud “bad-mother” whose only thought is always doing what is best for my family, my students, and me. This usually means compartmentalizing and choosing one face of myself over the rest of them. I worked hard to finish the dissertation and when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, I moved into a new one. I am currently 3 months pregnant with my second child, a girl. Once again, I can say that I have nothing but support from everyone in my work environment.

When I tell people about this pregnancy, I also add that everything will be happening according to the plan at work. I still need to go to Spain to defend the dissertation, and I am planning on going during the winter break, when I will be about 6 months pregnant. Hopefully, nothing else will get in the way. My expectations about being a mother again are different from what I was expecting with my first child; I could say that I am less naive. I am not expecting for everything to be perfect, I am not expecting myself to be perfect. Hopefully, this time around I won’t get depressed again; but even if I do, I won’t see it as a failure. My depression made me stronger in the sense of knowing I overcame it. I let my depression define me for a while. I think now know that it will be just another part of myself.

Usually, when I read about academia and creating a family, I run into all sort of difficulties and regrets. I am so thankful for having been in a situation where everybody around me understood that besides being a teacher and a scholar, I am also a woman, a wife, and a mother. I have colleagues who have waited until they are tenured to start their own families. They didn’t want to deal with multiple faces of their own personality. Some have just delayed the experience; some have missed it or found it really difficult to happen for whatever reason. I’m glad that I didn’t have to choose between being in a tenure-track position and creating my own family, although it hasn’t been an easy path.


Lucia Taylor is a tenure-track faculty member at Dixie State University. She was born in Spain, and came to US in 2009, only returning to her home country for occasional vacations. Her research interests are oral proficiency, assessment, and pedagogy. She works at a teaching-centered institution because she defines herself as a teacher who does research to improve her teaching skills. She always thought she was not a kids-person, until she had her own son. But, truthfully, she still likes dogs better than some kids.