A week ago, a comment was posted on our Facebook page to express irritation with memes (like the one I posted, but later deleted) on the difficulties of graduate student life. I replied to ask what should be highlighted instead — what would be a more appealing meme? Lots of great things were offered, with a subtle nod to the privileged status of graduate students, professors, and adjuncts (who have health insurance and decent pay).
I followed up in a private conversation with the commenter to express my concern about implying academics are too privileged to complain about challenges they faced. I felt the point was missed, and I did not have the energy to fight about it so I deleted the post and private conversation. I suppose that is one (passive) way that I agree to disagree.
This Is Not A Pity Party
Let me be clear: Conditionally Accepted, blogs by marginalized scholars, and every other public expression of frustration and pain regarding academic life is no pity party. The kinds of complaints that are raised — sexual harassment, discrimination, exclusion, social isolation, tokenism, stereotypes, lack of support, lack of guidance, lack of funding and resources, etc. — reflect a desire for something better that does not currently exist.
Most people who seriously pursue a scholarly career (be it in academia or beyond) simply want to do good, meaningful work with the necessary tools, resources, and support that it takes to excel. I have met many jaded, burnt-out, self-doubting, depressed, anxious, and abused scholars — but, I have not met a single scholar who throws themselves a pity party for the sake of misery.
To clarify, the commenter raised concern that too much attention is focused on the negatives or the downsides of being an academic. What about how cushy our jobs are? What about the great conversations we have with colleagues? What about the autonomy? Yes, what about them?! Speaking for myself, many of the positive, unique features of academic careers are what led me to pursue one.
But, we must highlight the negative features that prevent some from entering academia (either by force or wearing people down to the point of leaving) or that constrain how successful academics can be. This is how I justify devoting a great deal of time and energy to running a blog site for academics. I aspire to highlight inequalities that exist within academia, hindering the potential of scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Indirectly, these barriers rob the rest of society of the full, unconstrained contribution of LGBT, women, racial and ethnic minority, working-class, immigrant, disabled, fat, and religious minority teachers, researchers, and advocates.
This is not a pity party; this is about fighting for having an equal role in shaping and changing knowledge in society.
Breaking The Silence
And, the recent incidents of sexual harassment in the sciences — namely their public disclosure, the responses, and the outcomes of these events — affirm the importance of this work. If you are unfamiliar with these events that occurred in mid-October, let me give a very brief run-down (full rundown provided elsewhere).
- Dr. Danielle Lee, a Black woman biologist and blogger (The Urban Scientist) was referred to as an “urban whore” in an email exchange after refusing to write a guest blog without compensation by an editor (Ofek) at Scientific American. Her write-up about the incident was removed immediately from the site, and later reinstated after the events were “confirmed.” More (tense) conversations ensued, including the Twitter hashtag exchanges, #standingwithDNLee. The editor who called Dr. Lee a whore was terminated from his position.
- Writer Monica Byrne write on her blog about being sexually harassed by the blogs editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivkovic. Initially, she did not disclose his name. But, like many perpetrators of sexual violence, Zivkovic has harassed other women, including Hannah Waters (who named him) and Kathleen Raven (also named him). Later, Byrne updated her post to name him, as well, which stirred debate about protecting/publicly naming sexual harassers. Zivkovic publicly admitted to harassing Byrne, and offered an apology. He also resigned from his position at Scientific American, and it remains to be seen how this will impact other positions he holds.
- From these incidents arose a much needed conversation about sexual harassment in academia, particularly the sciences. This also included more public naming of the experiences of victims of sexual harassment (i.e., the #RipplesOfDoubt Twitter exchange).
By naming these experiences of sexual harassment, particularly openly (i.e., not anonymous or pseudonymous), and by naming the perpetrators, the silence surrounding these acts is broken. The myth that these incidents are likely misunderstandings or mere isolated incidents is shattered. The powerless regain power by refusing to be silent about an oppressive experience faced by countless women in academia and beyond.
If anything, these kinds of conversations are not about pity — they are about power: reclaiming power and empowerment. Why suffer in silence when the problems I face are systemic, faced by so many other marginalized scholars?
Besides — you can always change the channel if you do not like what I’m saying.