In my final semester of grad school, I met one of my academic heroes — one of the most critical sociologists of our time. Those days, I rarely left the house because I was on dissertation lockdown; but, I definitely made a point to see his talk and meet him. He was invited to our campus to speak about his latest research. His visit also included time to meet with a small group of grad students. He joined us a little late and frazzled because of some transportation troubles. Once settled, he invited us to introduce ourselves and our research interests. “Hi, I’m X,” the first student spoke. “I study immigration.” “With whom?” our guest demanded; “who in your department studies immigration?!” We nervously giggled. Given his own research, the grad students who showed up were exclusively race and ethnicity scholars. And, what could we say to defend the department that has few professors who study race, ethnicity, and immigration?
We all knew what he meant. It is a reality we lived with each year of our graduate training. But, what surprised me, and possibly my fellow grad students, was his quick and explicit critique of the department’s lack of race and ethnicity scholars and scholars of color. I thought, “of course we all know it, but you can’t say it out loud!” Why not? He said nothing inaccurate about this weakness of our program. He did not offer a critique that we disagree with. So, why did his outspokenness on the “elephant in the room” make me squirm in my chair, at least initially?
Interpersonal Militance vs. Scholarly Militance
As I later reflected on that interaction and my reaction to it, I finally became conscious of a duality in my life I had not fully named. For our guest, I had expected him to be interpersonally collegial because he was insistent in being academically critical. He does not study and teach about race; he studies and teaches about racism. He has broken the unspoken rule that, at least in sociology, one can study race so long as it does not make our white colleagues uncomfortable, or even implicate them. I learned this distinction, but also that one has to balance this kind of scholarly militance with interpersonal niceness. And, apparently I had been playing with this duality in my own career.
The tension between these two expressions of militance — the explicit and unapologetic critique of oppression — manifests in many ways, big and small.
A few examples:
Small example: In the review process for my first solo-authored article, I added a few more thank yous and other forced niceties to compensate for my resistance to the reviewers’ pressure to “tone down” my language. I refused to speculate about what victims of discrimination may do to bring this kind of treatment on themselves. I refused to delete the word “oppression” from my discussion of intersectionality — the intersection among systems of oppression. These requests had nothing to do with my argument nor my findings; worse, they were offensive. Of course, I did not thank the reviewers for these suggestions, but I had to find other places to amp up my gratefulness for their other (helpful) suggestions.
Big example: While on the 2012-3 academic job market, I framed myself as a mainstream sociologist. I wore a full suit, sometimes even a three-piece, on interviews. For a time, I deleted my Facebook account. And, I scoured my blog and Twitter account, deleting posts and tweets that were too radical or militant. All of this was to compensate for my work on discrimination and sexuality, and whatever reputation had already acquired through my blogging before the job market. And, though I slighted shifted my blogging to highlight my scholarly perspective and work, I did not completely shy away from criticizing academia. In hindsight, I realize it was my benefit to whittle the list of potential schools down to those that would appreciate these efforts and this perspective once on the job.
This is my general approach to navigating my everyday interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators. I make no secret of my politics, including my critique of inequality in academia. But, I exert a great deal of energy to looking the part of a normative academic and being a “nice guy.” In my mind, I figure that I buy myself more wiggle room to be critical in my scholarship, blogging, and teaching by easing others’ (potential) interpersonal discomfort. I suppose some aspect of this is adopting a strategy a family member once taught me: “don’t let them see you coming.” But…
The Joke’s On Me
While I am comfortable in this approach, I am concerned that 1) it does not work and 2) it is slowly killing me on the inside. First, let me address the former of these two, related points. On a number of occasions, I have expressed my surprise to a colleague, advisor, or friend that my politics “were showing.” A few weeks into my first semester on the tenure-track, I was surprised to find out that my department colleagues — and even my dean — were aware of my blogging (and like it!). Yes, it seems a bit silly to think academics are not capable of searching for “Eric Grollman” on Google. I recall being surprised when my advisor suggested, “Eric, you study discrimination… search committees already know [your politics]”. That leaves me wondering what jobs I did not get because of my politics, and other opportunities from which I have been excluded.
The second issue is that this approach is a form of emotion work. I devote a great deal of energy each day to forcing a smile, biting my tongue in battles I chose not to fight, and playing the part of a great team player. In a way, I am suppressing how I actually feel to appease others. And, in this first year, this includes the suppression of feelings of misery and self-doubt as I project an image of happiness and confidence. Needless to say, I am
fucking exhausted when I get home from work. The suppression is so (in)effective on some days that I finally make sense of the exhaustion, tightened shoulders, and tension at my temples when I journal — it takes letting how I actually feel out on paper to realize how awful my day really was.
Besides the impact this has on me, some friends and family have pointed out that being inauthentic robs my marginalized students of a role model — specifically, something more than a brown, queer face in a white heterosexist field. The suit, softened critical perspective, and “nice guy” demeanor send the message to my queer students and students of color that success in academia requires being mainstream and normative — “selling out.” Certainly, my more astute students have figured me out through the subtle expressions of my “true” self — and, again, any can find out everything through a web search. But, I send the general message that they can achieve what have if only they blend in with their privileged peers.
Is Reconciliation Possible?
The aforementioned academic hero of mine appears to be one: militant scholar. I do not know whether he has ever softened his scholarship to compensate for his outspokenness, or vice versa. But, he seems to have figured out a way to call other academics’ bullshit out both on paper and in person. But, I have heard, that came at a major professional cost…
Essentially, it seems marginalized scholars have a few options:
- Be outspoken in person, calling out your colleagues’ unethical and unequal practices. But, leave no question that you are a phenomenal scholar by normative standards. Still, the supposedly objective standards for hiring, tenure, promotion, etc. are not immune to personal feelings and bias.
- Do critical work. Refuse to say you study “race”, for example, because you actually study “racism.” But, interpersonally, do not give your colleagues much reason to dislike you. Unfortunately, the supposed objectivity of evaluation standards may work against you in this approach.
- Play it safe on both fronts. Be realistic about discrimination and inequality in academia. Do not give colleagues a reason to dismiss you, your work, or your teaching. But, are you ever fully immune to the prevalent practice of discrimination?
- Forget all of it. Never give a second thought to trying to placate your colleagues’ delicate sensibilities. But, you may pay in a big way.
I suppose the only real option marginalized scholars have is their poison of choice. Or, you know, you could forgo a career in academia, only to find some other dual-edged sword in another field. I guess if I am going to have to make such a difficult choice, I have decided to pick the one that lets me sleep at night feeling authentic and liberated. I am tired of tasting blood from biting my tongue so much.