Jeff Kosbie On Being A “Luxury Hire” In Academia

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jeff discusses his frustration with constantly hearing that his job prospects are slim because he studies sexuality.  While typically well-intentioned, these messages from colleagues implicitly (or even explicitly) suggest that the subfield of sexualities is not of central importance to the discipline.

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On Being A “Luxury Hire”

“Just be careful — you don’t want to seem like a ‘luxury hire.’” “Be aware that you can’t get hired just for studying sexualities.” I’ve heard variants of this since I started graduate school, but especially this year being on the market. And it all comes from well-meaning people. People who really want me to get a top job as a professor. And, yeah, I get where they’re coming from. Sexuality should be central to the curriculum in law and in sociology. But it’s not. At least not how it should be. So, I need to be aware that there might be fewer jobs for people who do sexualities than for people who study federal courts or criminology or business organizations.

Strategic advice aside for a moment, I want to address the psychological impact of these messages: they really breaks you down! The cumulative impact of this is huge. It’s essentially hearing again and again that what you do just isn’t in the mainstream of the discipline. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until some recent discussions about diversity and microaggressions. I shared some of my experience hearing these comments, and then it really hit me, wow that hurts.

I’m never anxious or stressed, even when I “should be.” But this year I’ve become anxious. A lot of the anxiety comes from how fundamentally the job market has changed since I started grad school. Anyone with my current research and publication record would be getting several interviews on both the law and sociology teaching markets in 2006, when I started grad school. Subject area aside, the expectations for getting a job have changed. It’s like I got to the finish line, only to find that the finish line had moved. So, the fact that I’m facing uncertain job prospects plays into the anxiety. But, some of it also comes from the cumulative impact of these comments.

The flip side of hearing that you could be a “luxury hire” is that if I get a job, the implication might be that it is because I study sexualities. The fact that I do really good work becomes secondary to the fact I add an extra “luxury” to a department. And somewhere implicit in this is some comment on my identity as a queer scholar. The people making these comments mean it as a comment on my scholarship, of course, but it’s hard not to take it as a comment on my identity. It can feel like a comment on whether queer scholars belong in the heart of the academy at all.

Now, of course, everyone who has said this to me has meant well. They have all had my best interests at heart. Maybe some of them didn’t think sexualities should be central to the discipline (law or sociology), but most of them did. Most of the people saying this to me support my work, want me to succeed with it, and think it is important. They saw themselves as giving me strategic advice.

So, part of the challenge is how to impart this strategic advice without the microaggression that devalues my work and identity. And I want to recognize that strategic advice is important! Even if the cumulative impact of hearing it is harsh, the truth is that I don’t know of any law school that is hiring just for law and sexuality. Some sociology departments hire for sexualities, but those positions are few and far between. So yes, any scholar studying sexualities should probably address other academic areas, as well. If I were mentoring a new graduate student interested in sexualities, I would be remiss not to mention that.

What Are the Real Concerns Behind This Strategic Advice?

There are ways to give this advice that reaffirm the importance and centrality of sexualities to the disciplines of law and sociology. For starters, at least reaffirm that you think that sexuality is or should be central to the discipline. That actually goes a long way. There’s also a difference between hearing “it’s okay that you research law and sexuality, but you need to do something mainstream as well” and “how can we package your work to show how you speak to more mainstream concerns with a unique and important voice because you research law and sexuality.” The latter implicitly values sexualities and asks how we can make it relevant to the mainstream in a way that the former message doesn’t.

One of the most common concerns about studying sexualities is that I might be too specialized. But this is not unique to sexualities. Every scholar faces this concern. We all have to be specialized enough to have command of some area and to add our unique insights. But, we cannot be so specialized that we are only speaking to ourselves. We certainly need to be able to teach classes that are much broader than our individual research. So like most graduate students, I can benefit from mentoring on how to talk about how specialized my work is. But the concern should not be that I’m too specialized because I study sexualities. People who study tax law might be too specialized if they can only teach a particular class on corporate tax and nothing else. The real concern is my ability to use my research on sexualities to speak to other literatures and to teach classes. So let’s talk about that, and not whether sexualities is too specialized.

What about the concern that I won’t find a job? There are just not enough (or any) jobs in law and sexuality. But this concern also isn’t unique to sexualities. People doing legal history or sociology of culture also face this concern. For almost all of us, it probably does not make strategic sense to only apply to jobs in our subfields. We need to think about how we can apply to jobs beyond our own subfields and make strategic decisions about how broadly we want to try to do that. Sometimes it means taking two runs at the market: once with a more focused, only-in-my-subfield approach, and a second time with a broader anything-I-can-conceivably-get approach.

I guess it comes back to the idea that there’s a big difference between being told: “the discipline doesn’t support sexualities as much as it should, but you bring a unique and important voice to the core of the discipline because you do sexualities, so let’s figure out how to sell that” versus “you need to recognize that sexualities isn’t valued as central to the discipline and you could be seen as a luxury hire so you need to do something to address that.” All of my core advisors fall into the former, far more supportive and helpful camp. But I’ve heard advice from the latter camp enough that it’s still a strong current.

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About Jeff

Jeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. He will defend his dissertation and receive both degrees in Spring 2015. Jeff’s research theorizes law as a field for constructing and contesting identities around gender and sexuality. He studies how law creates and perpetuates inequalities and how it is used to challenge inequalities. His dissertation uses original data to tell the history of the major LGBT legal organizations. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, he argues that internal organizational debates drive strategic decision making processes at these organizations. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern University, and The Graduate School at Northwestern University. Jeff’s website is at jkosbie.com.