We’ve Moved!

Big News!

Dear readers,

Conditionally Accepted is now a biweekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Our new blog posts will appear on our IHE column, located here: http://www.insidehighered.com/users/conditionally-accepted.  In our first blog post, I remind readers what it means to be “conditionally accepted” in academia — the marginalization, bias, discrimination, and accusations of conducting “me-search” that oppressed scholars face regularly in the academia.

Be sure to tune in to our IHE column every other Friday for new posts from me (@grollman), and regular contributors Dr. Jeana Jorgensen (@foxyfolklorist), Dr. J. Sumerau (@jsumerau), and — introducing — Dr. Manya Whitaker (@ivyleaguelady).  We continue to accept guest blog posts, which can be pitched or emailed to us at conditionally.accepted@insidehighered.com.  (See our suggested guidelines for guest blog posts here.)

Also, you can continue to keep up with us on Facebook and Twitter (@conditionaccept), as well.

Finally, a note of thanks.  Thank you to our thousands (tens of thousands?) of readers for your time and interest, for sharing our blog posts with your friends and colleagues, for returning multiple times to see our latest content.  Thank you to the few dozen guest bloggers who have given away a piece of themselves on this blog.  Thank you to my department and university colleagues who repeatedly reminded me that it was silly to fear that my secret-public blog would cost me my job and, instead, that this work is important and actually valued.  Thank you to friends and family who have encouraged me to fight with my passion, not against it.  And, special thanks to my partner Eric (yes, with the same first name), who has never grown tired of hearing about blog posts, intellectual activism, trolls, the traumatizing experience of grad school, R&Rs, IHE, and everything else related to being “conditionally accepted.”  And, now thanks to Inside Higher Ed for taking a chance on us, taking this little project prime time.

In Solidarity,
Eric Anthony Grollman

My Gender Is A Journey


This essay was originally posted on my personal site, egrollman.com.

Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity.  Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity.  But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.

Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye.  Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.”  He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender.  Instead, she offered him this:

“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”

I see myself in Narkunski’s essay.  And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story.  In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.

My Gender Is A Journey

I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.

For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body

I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.

Me - GI Beyonce

Halloween 2009

At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.

Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.

Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both).  The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.


Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences

From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)

But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values

My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.

However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.

Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).

The Journey Continues

To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.

Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself.  I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.

Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Scholars Of Color In Academia

Image source: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Image source: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Several weeks ago, Audrey Williams June wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education about the additional service burden experienced by many faculty of color in academia:

“The hands-on attention that many minority professors willingly provide is an unheralded linchpin in institutional efforts to create an inclusive learning environment and to keep students enrolled. That invisible labor reflects what has been described as cultural taxation: the pressure faculty members of color feel to serve as role models, mentors, even surrogate parents to minority students, and to meet every institutional need for ethnic representation.”

Aptly, June highlights that this service burden (“cultural taxation”) has grown as student bodies have diversified on college campuses, while diversity among the faculty have lagged. Students of color are disproportionately poor or working-class, on financial aid, and first-generation (i.e., the first in their families to attend college). On top of the challenges of getting into, paying for, and navigating college, many students of color also enter a racially hostile environment, perhaps for the first time in their lives. (I’ve lost count of the number of students of color who have told me they are miserable at my institution, for some, even saying that this is the “worst chapter of their lives.” It’s heartbreaking.) Sure, they can turn to any faculty member, regardless of race and ethnicity, for some challenges; but, students of color may find that racial bias comes from faculty, too – inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, they turn more easily to faculty and staff of color. And, with a sense of linked fate or at least empathy, many faculty and staff of color are ready to be a listening ear, shoulder to cry on, mentor, tutor, life coach, stand-in parent, friend, therapist, financial planner, etc.

To say that few colleges are equipped to deal with the challenges of being a student of color is an understatement. This is particularly true for “Historically White Colleges and Universities” (HWCUs), here borrowing from the language of Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. With few exceptions, American colleges were built by and for white elites; today, they are overwhelmingly led by white presidents and administrators, with a majority white faculty. Racial integration and racial diversity have largely been the products of legal challenges rather than changed hearts and minds. Although it seems diversity is talked about on every college campus, its meaning is hallow. Allowing students of color into otherwise white campuses does nothing to change the racial climate; you can have racial diversity without true racial inclusion and racial equality. (Just look at how racially segregated your campus’s dining hall is.) Diversity in terms of the number of students of color doesn’t change the lack of diversity among the faculty and administration, the lack of coverage of race in appropriate courses, the absence of authors of color from syllabi, the absence and/or underfunding of Black/African/Latina/Asian/Native American studies departments, and so forth.

Short of institutional change, the burden of supporting students of color often falls to faculty of color. This is in addition to disproportionate requests to serve on committees related to diversity. And, in addition to “non-race-related” forms of service, plus teaching, plus research, plus having a personal life, plus navigating racism on and off campus. For my own professional and personal well-being, I have begun saying no to new service requests more and more. But, my heart aches a little (for me and for students of color) when I do; realistically, there aren’t many other people who have the expertise on race (be it research or personal experience). The pessimist in me, however, has reasoned that the institution has already failed students of color. If I give any more of my time away (from research, teaching, or my personal life), I risk having the institution fail both the student and me. Unfortunately, supporting that Black student is not going to be as valued – it may not even “count” as something CV-worthy unless it’s a formal activity; but, sending these articles out to journals is valued. I can’t realistically earn tenure if I’m spending all of my time mentoring students of color. And, I don’t have the time or power to change the institution to improve the situation for them (or myself).

Minimizing The Burden

What can we do in the mean time? In September, I attended the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows – an annual meeting of some of the brightest scholars of color in the US, namely those who have received a Ford fellowship at one time. One of the conference sessions was on “Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Marginalized Scholars,” including panelists Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori), Dr. Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), and Dr. Steve McKay. Without even reading the description, I knew what the panel would be about – and that it would speak to a growing frustration of my own. And, the panelists didn’t disappoint in the advice they offered to reduce the burden of additional and race-specific forms of service placed on scholars of color. I took thorough notes, which I share below.

Think Big, Think Long-Term

  • Gain the knowledge that you need to survive in, thrive in, and succeed in academia. Professional socialization in grad school rarely speaks to the unique experiences and needs of marginalized scholars, so you may need to find your own mentor (perhaps in another department or at another university). Use external resources like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), books like The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul, and blogs like Conditionally Accepted, University of Venus, The Professor Is In, Get A Life, PhD, etc.
  • Have a broad vision to drive your career. As new opportunities or requests to serve your department, college, or local community arise, first assess whether doing so is in line with your vision. In other words, you need not say “yes!” to everything, or use the blanket “no!” to avoid everything; rather, you can prioritize those things that bring you closer to achieving your goals.
  • Have a vision for your life beyond your career in academia. This will help to put the demands, requests, and opportunities in academia into proper context; after all, it is a job at the end of the day, and we are more than just workers.
  • Know your value beyond academia. A healthy mindset is remembering that no job can give you, or deny you, your worth. Do not fall prey to depending on external validation, particularly from an institution that benefits from your labor, to feel valuable.
  • In general, don’t feel you need to get along with everyone. Ensuring you get tenure/promotion and pursuing your personal and professional goals are more important than being liked by your colleagues.
  • Tenure allows you to make a difference for a lifetime. So, think long-term about what’s expected of you and what you value.

 Setting Priorities

  • Decide on the image you wish to portray to others. Are you exclusively focused on your research, only doing the bare minimum of service for tenure or promotion standards? Are you more of an activist or community advocate at heart, pursuing an academic career as a means to that end? Are you a teacher among teachers, always looking for ways to support and challenge your students and grow as a teacher? Whatever image you wish to convey to others, be sure that the service opportunities/request you accept should reflect that image. For example, the committee that awards grants to undergraduate student researchers may not be right for you if you’re a teacher above all else. Or, serving on the curriculum committee won’t make sense for you if you prioritize research.
  • Your energy, like your time, is limited. Devote your energy just to those things that are important to you. In particular, for marginalized scholars, give energy to those organizations that made your career possible; this approach helps you to give back or “pay it forward” so that future marginalized scholars will be supported as you were. By selecting forms of service that energize you, you can avoid or minimize those that drain you. And, in general, dispel the myth that exhaustion or busyness are signs of success; they reflect poor time-management, organization, self-care, and/or prioritizing.

Avoiding The Burden Of Service

  • Do not be flattered that you have been requested for service – any service, no matter how important or visible it is. This is especially the case for service related to diversity and inclusion; notice that your institution is likely not asking white men to serve.
  • Avoid making decisions out of fear. Ask yourself, “what is the absolute worse thing that could happen if I…[fill in the blank]?” Turn to trusted mentors or allies if you feel you cannot decline a service request without professional consequences.
  • If you feel uncomfortable navigating service, specifically declining service requests, assess where that discomfort is coming from – you can learn from it. Consider finding someone you trust with whom you can share these feelings.
  • With these conditions in mind, it is advisable to let “No!” be your default answer to new service requests. “Yes!” should be for the rare exceptions that fit with your vision, reflect the kind of scholar you are, and energize you.

Be Opportunistic About Service Opportunities

  • Pursue service opportunities that are visible on your campus, as well as those that actually have power on campus. This will give you more leverage to pick and choose service opportunities and, more specifically, to decline requests.
  • To ensure that the service you pursue is “counted” and valued, prioritize those that are in line with the university’s mission. This may help to avoid the expectation to take on “important” forms of service because the one’s you are already doing are deemed unimportant.
  • Use service as a means of making yourself an asset to your department or university by selecting opportunities to raise their profile.
  • Find ways to make opportunities for service opportunities for research. (I would add that it could also be opportunities for teaching, especially if you are a liberal arts college.)
  • Pursue service opportunities that build your professional networks and/or leads to additional professional opportunities.
  • Ask for a course reduction in exchange for taking on service, particularly highly time-consuming and high-stakes/high-status forms of service.

Get Help If Necessary

  • Find mentors who have a vision that is broader than academia.
  • Find mentors in and outside of your department, and colleagues in your discipline and subfields. They can serve as a guide for determining which forms of service to pursue (or avoid) and the ideal time in your career to do so.

What has worked for you? Please share your strategies in the comments section below!

Tweets For Liberation: The Promise Of Digital Popular Education

ShayShay Akil McLean is a Sociology PhD student and activist.  He studies the philosophy of biology, medical ethics, bio ethics, and the impact of intersectional inequality on human biology and health inequities.  He works to provide free popular education resources on his website (decolonizeallthethings.com) and tweets at @Pundit_AcadEMIC and @DATTFreedomSch.  In this post, he discusses the urgency of making contextually- and historically-accurate academic scholarship available for the advancement of oppressed groups. He highlights the powerful potential of digital popular education — for example, teaching through Twitter — to liberate us.

The Promise of Digital Popular Education

#BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag, organization, and series of movements has managed to do a lot. BLM is seen as a movement that gives voice to many Black people, not just in the US but across the diaspora. Living in a settler colonial police state that is organized around what Cedric J. Robinson calls “racial capitalism” has very much shaped the experiences of people of color worldwide. The death of Mike Brown was not the first nor will it be the last life claimed by police brutality. The uprising in Ferguson was one of the many boiling points we’ve seen Black communities arrive at after enduring endless violence from police vigilante acts. But now that race is being seen as a hot topic in the media, people from everywhere are weighing in.

What appears to be lacking from the center of the national conversation about racist violence is a strong connection between the public and those who research the social issues impacting their daily lives. One promising way to strengthen such a connection is through popular education, also known as education for liberation. Discussions on #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, and race relations need to move beyond just hot topics.  While discourse for the sake of discourse seems a lot like improvement, it’s not. We can’t begin to move forward in any way if we aren’t having informed conversations about the impacts of white supremacy, cishetpatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and settler colonialism on the lives of Black people, as well as Indigenous peoples, killed by police.

The call for informed discussions about inequality can only be met by empowering people through education. One thing that #BlackLivesMatter has managed to do as a collective movement is highlight the need for the people outside of academe to know what is being said about their lives versus the popular notions that we’ve all been told to believe. Contextually accurate historical information enables communities to more effectively organize themselves, produce platforms that move beyond reform, as well as join in solidarity with other communities.

The contextually accurate scholarship being produced in academe doesn’t always reach the very communities impacted by the research topic. As a graduate student and activist, I can see where the disruptions lie. There are issues blocking the public from having access to information from academic gatekeeping, language barriers, paywalls on scientific research, to the defunding of public libraries and the dismantling and defunding of predominately Black schools across the US. Knowledge being made public via social media is an important and crucial means through which people are working to forge that connection between academe and disempowered communities to promote popular education. Popular Education is education for liberation. It was theorized by Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. Popular education is a process that fosters the empowerment of dominated people to take control of their learning process and contribute to building social change, justice, and equity from the bottom up.

Black Twitter (as a complex number of interactive communities and not a single entity) has changed a lot of the ways in which people create community and share knowledge. There are a number of communities within Black Twitter acting as informed voices of dissent. We’ve seen academics like Dorothy Roberts (@DorothyERoberts), Kimberlé Crenshaw (@sandylocks), Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), Jessie Daniels (@jessienyc), Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman), Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin), Matthew W. Hughey (@ProfHughey) and many others have contribute to discussions about social issues based on their expertise.

You can also find a wide range of reading lists, syllabi, topic discussions, and hashtags around important issues (e.g. #BlackTwitterstorians, #HipHopEdChat, #DATT, #BlackAugustReadingList, #BlackResistanceReadingList, #SaturdaySchool, etc.). These hashtags, storified discussions, Tumblr posts, and other blog pieces are finding ways to realize popular education. Hashtags are not only a means to having discussions but also a useful teaching tool that people organize around to distribute popular education. Making scholarship public through social media is one of the many tools that we see people employing as a means to not only push back against popular narratives in media, but also to amplify the voices of those silenced by intersectional inequities.

And, academics aren’t the only ones chiming in. People across demographics are finding ways to analyze the social issues impacting their lives. There has been a range of digital non-academic and academic knowledge communities formed in attempts to making popular education accessible through digital teach-ins. As a graduate student and activist, I (as well as other students and community members) have worked to make the knowledge we come across accessible to the public. That was the goal of the “Decolonize All The Things Freedom School” (@DATTFreedomSch) that I ran this summer. There was a syllabus, access to all of free reading materials, Twitter chats for discussion, and summaries of the readings written by me and another intellectual activist, Arash Daneshzadeh. I later redesigned the program for online use.   We did our best to avoid difficult language in scholarly text for the program to increase its utility across populations. I, and many others, have used our Twitter accounts to do some of that same work of undoing gatekeeping surrounding academic knowledge.

This year, I attended a couple of academic conferences and noticed a disturbing trend: there is a lot of research about inequality, but most of it is limited to expensive conferences that exclude the public. Researching inequality for the sake of just researching inequality turns social issues into spectacle and inequity into a sort of fetish. It is time for academe to move its research from being “inequality porn” to knowledge in service of the public, knowledge in service of a vision of transformative and restorative justice.

However, relying on an entire institution to provide the education people need to liberate themselves isn’t realistic. The voices of these scholars should not be on the margins of public conversations about the very phenomena influencing the lives of those most affected by it. There are academic intellectuals and community/organic intellectuals who are finding ways to connect and disseminate information crucial to social movements. Making knowledge public through social media is a means through which we can find ways to empower our communities through an informed awareness.

Popular education is what is needed in oppressed communities to foster justice, progressive social change, and equity led by the very communities affected by domination. As stated by Assata Shakur, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And, with that understanding, we can see the need for organizing around education through digital platforms to provide the tools that we very rarely receive from the formal institutions that limit or lock us out of participation. Popular education enables oppressed communities to ground their individual troubles in the larger context of the social issues causing them. The promise and potential of digital popular education is to formulate a means of empowering those on the margins with a means to fight back and organize to build equitable communities.

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: https://flic.kr/p/aiFMox.

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.