Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

Since the start of my graduate training, I have wrestled with fear related to my career in academia.  As the stakes have gotten higher, and my scholarly platform has expanded, that fear has remained a constant fixture in my life.  This is now my fourth year living with generalized anxiety disorder.  With my anxiety piqued after a recent short post-semester vacation, I began wondering whether a post on fear was relevant to other academics; maybe it is just a symptom of my own mental health.

After a quick Google search of “fear in academia,” I found that others had already written about it — and, that the fear-anxiety link is not unique to me.  Graduate students are afraid their graduate training will be in vain, at least in terms of securing a tenure-track jobContingent faculty are afraid that they will never get out of the trap of temporary academic employment — and that they may face retaliation for speaking out about the awful conditions of many adjuncts.  Those in tenure-track positions fear being denied tenure.  Those who ultimately decide to leave academia fear the unknown beyond the ivory tower — a path for which too few of us are trained.  And, if not controlled, an academic may know fear her entire life career.

I have had many conversations with my colleagues and administrators about my institution’s tenure expectations.  To be honest, the institution could give me an explicit set of guidelines — down to the number of publications, in what journals, the minimum acceptable teaching evaluations and pedagogical enhancement, and “safe” forms of service — and I would still be anxious en route to tenure.  Though I usually ask about research expectations, my concerns often shift to my public scholarship (i.e., blogging).  Is there a chance I would be denied tenure, or possibly terminated well before then, because of my public writing?  Each time, I am reminded that 1) I was hired, in part, because of my public scholarship, 2) it is essentially impossible that a stellar scholar-teacher would be let go over a blog, and 3) it seems strange that I am so worried about this unlikely scenario.

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

To be blunt, I do not offer my complete faith and trust to other people, especially those I only know on a professional basis.  And, I certainly do not trust an institution to have my best personal and professional interests in mind.  (Call it paranoia, if you wish.  I call it survival.)  I will believe tenure and promotion are likely when they are awarded to me.  Though we like to buy into the myth of meritocracy in academia, and believe that scholars and academic institutions are bias-free, I see enough evidence to the contrary in academia.

The oppressed person’s skepticism aside, I have also located this fear at the heart of my academic training.  Graduate school was not simply a time marked by fear of the future.  It was the training ground to become a fearful, obedient academic.  Effective academic professional socialization seems to demand that we hyperinternalize the criticisms of our advisors, experts in our field, anonymous reviewers, journal editors, conference panel organizers, and every other colleague we encounter, as well as our anonymous student evaluations.  Intellectual innovation is necessary to advance in one’s career — yet, anything too far outside of tradition and the mainstream may be punished.  Silence and conformity (and fear) become valued traits of a young scholar’s career.

Even as I publicly declared that I would pursue tenure my way — embracing the values of accessibility, authenticity, and advocacy — I still struggle 12 months later with the professional fear that I internalized in graduate school.  My first year on the tenure-track has been a roller coaster ride of speaking up and retreating into silence, authenticity and conformity, bravery and fear.

On one hand, I successfully fought for a career path that would allow me to be a vocal public scholar.  This work does not “count” (but, does lead to things that do).  I am relieved to find the reactions to this public scholarship ranges between indifference and pride; in other words, at least it will not count against me professionally.  Yet, it feels as though my institution is a bit of an outlier, especially while other universities are formally cracking down on scholars’ use of social media.

On the other hand, I intentionally left the beaten R1 path for the devalued liberal arts path, and actively and publicly pursue intellectual activism.  I often find that I am making it up as I go, with so much available advice that does not fit for me or my priorities.  I remain wary because I have yet to find a role model like me who was successful, despite/because of speaking up as a junior scholar.  Until I see that an uppity fat brown queer feminist activist-academic can successfully win tenure without a hitch, I imagine I will continue to wrestle with finding a happy balance.  I want to be healthy, happy, and authentic, but I also want job security.

I anticipate that I will have more to say on this in the future, hopefully with advice of ridding this fear once and for all!  Stay tuned.