Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession:

16 thoughts on “Authenticity Vs. Success

  1. I was fortunate that after a post-doc (in which I transitioned) I was able to find a job in a very supportive department (Infectious Diseases, Public Health). It wasn’t in the discipline I studied in (Sociology) but it did allow me to continue the work I enjoyed and what I thought was needed (trans health). Interestingly enough there seems to be a greater interest in trans health. However, there were many years where I was wondering if I I would even have a career. Doing what I do hasn’t stopped my career but it did slow it down.

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    • Thanks for sharing this, Emilia. I’m familiar with some of your work — i hadn’t even realized you were a sociologist by training. By making that sacrifice, you’ve definitely contributed to making sociology more open to research on trans* communities, and to trans* scholars in the discipline. (Yes, yes… we both know there is still much more to be done on both of those fronts!)

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  2. Thank you for this post; it really resonates with me. I wonder if other careers are like academia in that we experience so much frustration and such frequent breakdowns that our partners/family/etc. are baffled at why we do it. My partner has been awesomely supportive, but there have definitely been questions about why I keep doing this to myself.

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    • Thank you, Jeana. Hm — that is a tough one. I am hesitant to buy into the notion that we are special because we are academics. A career-based identity, even if there is also an associated set of politics, is not unique to us. And, job-related stress is not unique to us. But, there are some unique factors — at least enough that others cannot fully “get” what we’re going through. And, at times, it seems hard to grasp even as an academic — hence being unable to articulate the random low points.

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