I Souled Out

Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search.  “Oh, how nice!”  “Where’s that?”  “Are you excited to go there?”  To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department.  Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.”  But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision.  Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it.  It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.

The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true.  Life goes on.  Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content.  The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job.  I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market.  I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Lucky?

I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control.  Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring?  I definitely buy that.  But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success.  Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again.  I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination.  No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find.  Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job.  And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training.  Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.

I Souled Out

Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began.  Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades.  But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone.  It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.

I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester.  I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible.  I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless.  I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.”  And, it worked.  Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.

I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point.  I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective.  I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end.  In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort.  I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms.  So, I got my tongue pierced.  I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more.  I took it out that same day.

Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year.  I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program.  That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend.  After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends.  I suppose I was not as well as I thought.  I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection.  Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled.  I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked.  My mother was not happy with me.  But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand.  Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me.  I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me.  After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave.  Why waste any more of my life?

Making it work, at times, meant selling out.  I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.”  I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding.  I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions.  I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.

  • I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
  • When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around.  Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor.  I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted.  So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
  • I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population.  That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people.  That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
  • Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.”  How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable?  Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last.  These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all).  Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.

Recovering My Soul

How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school.  I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es).  A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates.  Their reflection struck a chord with me.  Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?

I definitely see it today.  As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study.  A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research.  My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination.  As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body.  Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.

I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.”  This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am.  I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice.  But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently.  What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise?  For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll.  And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students.  Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me.  Why deny them that?  Oh, right — tenure.

But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am.  I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically.  But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others).  I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).


Concluding Thoughts

A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out.  Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer?  Would I have fewer publications?  Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding?  Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together?  Would I ever get a tenure-track job?  Pessimism here is very tempting…

It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after.  But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story.  I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out.  If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative.  Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now.  I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.

I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career.  And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well.  My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia.  The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success.  Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways.  At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.

It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers.  More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship.  Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.