The Radical-Sellout Academic

Rally

A few months ago, I agreed to be a guest speaker via Skype for a professional seminar course in a master’s program in sexuality studies.  Per the professor’s request, I spoke about my experiences in academia, particularly navigating the academic job market.  Since that final chapter of my graduate training was one filled with heavy-handed advice yet the greatest level of independence yet, and authenticity and selling out, I necessarily spoke about my job search as a Black queer intellectual activist.  (Indeed, that was the narrative most relevant to this class of sexualities scholars of diverse backgrounds.)  In addition to pushing back against others’ expectations for my career, I also spoke about how I presented myself, including decisions regarding my online presence.

I briefly rambled about my job search, graduate training, and career thus far, and then opened the floor for questions and comments.  One student in the class asked, “you mentioned your social justice advocacy — but, all you do is blog?”  Ouch.  I went on the defense, arguing that, as a new tenure-track professor, all I have the time and energy for once my week is done is to blog.  Teaching and research are the primary tasks upon which I am evaluated; and, service hardly ever means community service, and probably never activism.

What I did not say was, “you’ve got me!  I guess I’m not really an activist.”  In fact, I decided to pursue an academic career because I never felt competent at front-lines activism and community organizing.  I am too sensitive and timid to be at the front of a picket line or going door-to-door to campaign.  I have always felt most comfortable pushing for change in academic settings.  And, from my senior honor thesis onward, I have felt my niche is in pushing for change via research and teaching.  But, as I sit before these students who were brave enough to pursue degrees in sexuality studies — with my dress clothes on, and my PhD in sociology — I did feel called out.  What about my life right now resembles anything “activist”?  (Nothing and everything.)

Later, another student expressed appreciation for my efforts to make change from within.  Yes!  The student named for me my brand of activism in a way that seemed so obvious, but never crystallized before now.  If all who demand change are outside holding picket signs, getting petitions signed, contacting politicians, etc., who is on the inside making sure important institutions even hear these demands?  And, the reverse means all are inside with their hands tied by institutional practices and norms.  Some need to work for change inside, some need to demand change from the outside.  I have long known this, and decided that I am most effective at working from within.  But, I do feel a twinge of guilt that I am not doing “more” (meaning working outside of the system).

Ironically, I have faced the harshest criticism for being too much of an activist.  In publicly declaring my effort to infuse academia with activism, others have disagreed that the two can ever mix.  In specifically challenging the standard of “objectivity” in research and in the classroom, given its implicit valuing of the dominant group’s perspective (i.e., white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West), I have been mocked for daring to bring my own perspective into my work.  Even in simply proposing that more (sociological) social psychological research focus on sexual orientation, I was passive aggressively chided by a professor for being “Mr. Activist.”  The criticism and character assaults I have faced as of late seem to suggest I am the most radical activist to ever work in sociology; I appear to be a threat to the discipline, and must be squashed to protect it.  Even just blogging has rubbed a number of fellow sociologists the wrong way.

I don’t understand — am I just another sellout, drawn to the comforts of a tenure-track career in academia?  Or, am I yet another radical scholar who threatens the academic status quo?  How can I be both?

Do You, Boo!

The summer brought in an unexpected wave of anxiety.  The momentary reprieve from teaching did not bring peace of mind; it seemed to open the door to all sorts of doubts and questions.  The gateway stressor was “what am I supposed to be doing during my first summer?!”  That seemed to lead to asking myself competing questions: “what do I want to do this summer?” and “what kind of career do I want?”  The latter question reopened the door for me to obsess over revisit the warnings I received from my graduate advisors about taking a liberal arts job (e.g., little research productivity, irrelevance in the profession/discipline, become “damaged goods” in the eyes of research universities).  How could I focus on wanting to relax and do some traveling when I am worried about tenure, irrelevance, and others’ opinions?

I have learned to listen to my body when I experience symptoms of/related to my anxiety.  I talked over my worries with trusted mentors, colleagues, and friends, decided to take Fridays off all summer, planned another short vacation, and worked on settling these doubts once and for all.  I recognized that I had allowed others’ opinions — my graduate advisors’, those that I presumed of my current institution, and online critics — to heavily affect me.  And, I had lost sight of the fact that I must work to define my own career my entire life, especially if I dare to create change within and through academia.

As selfish as it feels, I have been painfully aware that I must work on my self-esteem and confidence before I can really get to work to make change.  That means getting more comfortable in my own skin and in the decisions that I make.  I have revisited the writings of Patricia Hill Collins on being an “outsider within” in academia and on intellectual activism. No matter how much change I dare to make in academia, simply being in it will forever mean being an outsider within; if I want a satisfying and authentic career, I will have to work for it and push back against the status quo.  But, I do want to make change.  I want my discipline to better reflect the lives (and perspectives!) of oppressed communities — speak truth to power!  I want academia to proactively work to improve the world beyond the ivory tower  — speak truth to the people!  No matter what, I do not have a choice but to be an activist for the sake of my own survival, and the survival of my communities.

For leisure reading, I picked up Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.  I knew about her “wise Latina” comment, which she was forced to retract essentially upon being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.  But, I did not have more context for the sentiment.  In essence, she is an outsider within in the legal profession.  She is well aware of, and has fought to challenge, the barriers faced by people of color in law and the courts.  And, she intentionally draws upon her background and personal experiences to inform her perspective as a judge (and when she was an attorney); but, which she makes clear, she does not allow her personal perspective trump legal precedence, the law, or the Constitution.  Rather, her perspective as a Latina woman is an asset not well reflected in the law and courts.  All of this mirrors Collins’s argument about the value of a Black feminist perspective in sociology.

Sotomayor and Collins, as well as other “outsiders within” in academia, serve as important role models for me.  Their struggles and triumphs remind me to stay the course — continue to bring about change within and through academia by drawing on my own experiences and perspective.  I cannot afford to waste time and energy on what other people think about or expect of me.  The tall task of advancing a fat Black/multiracial queer feminist worldview stands before me, with the additional challenge of doing so both with and against the mainstream theories and models in my discipline.

Besides, as one grad school professor told me, I will always struggle with the tension between activism and academia; the day I find balance between the two is the day I have gone too far in one direction or the other.  I will forever be a sellout by radical activists’ standards, and a radical by mainstream academics who defend the status quo.  Oh well, this radical sellout has work to do.

4 thoughts on “The Radical-Sellout Academic

  1. Being a scholar, especially one who researches current-day issues, is an activist! One of the best kind too. Great article, as always. 🙂

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  2. We are 100% on the same wavelength. Again.

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