I have seen friends and strangers declare 2016 an awful year, from the untimely passing of many pop culture icons crucial to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to the election of a racist rapist with no political experience and the global destruction that looms ahead. In the US, we have collectively experienced a tough year, and we have much to dread about the year to come. But, I think it would be unwise to lose hope; hope will be crucial as we dust ourselves off and get to work to save the country from itself.
One way to keep our spirits high as we enter a new year is to celebrate all of the good in our lives from this past year. Many take time at December’s close to look ahead, perhaps establishing resolutions for the new year: budgeting, losing weight, spending more time with family, taking care of one’s health, giving back, etc. But, I worry we set lofty goals for ourselves that make it easy to get down on ourselves when we fail to achieve them; and, more importantly, we become so focused on how to be better in the future that we fail to celebrate what we have already done that is good.
I believe academics are particularly hard on themselves. We achieve incredible things in our careers — publications, educating the next generation, obtaining grants, serving the academic and local community, scientific discoveries, creative works, etc. — but, the significance of these victories is undermined by an academic culture that suggests that you are only as good as your latest publication. And, the victories are so drawn out that the joy we experience is always dimmed slightly. Do you celebrate when a paper is conditionally accepted? Accepted? Forthcoming? Online? In print? What about once your department votes for you to earn tenure? Or the dean? The college? Or, the sabbatical you finally get after one more whole year of teaching?
When I graduated in early May 2013, I declined my mother’s offer to have a party to celebrate. It wasn’t “real” yet; I submitted my dissertation a few weeks later, and then defended it in June, and then completed it in July, and started my tenure-track position in August. Unfortunately, just breezing through these milestones without stopping to celebrate left me feeling weepy and ungrateful for my accomplishments by that October. I never celebrated, but I learned how crucial it was to celebrate that I was the first in my family to earn a PhD, that I am among the 1 percent of the population that is PhD-educated — and among an even smaller percentage of queer people of color to achieve such a feat, especially with a tenure-track job in hand. No matter your social location, I believe it is absolutely necessary to celebrate your successes; your institution, which measures your worth by your CV, course evaluations, and grant dollars, will never celebrate you as a living, growing, imperfect person.
Celebrate Your 2016 Victories And Failures
So, I’m taking the time to encourage my fellow academics to celebrate 2016 while also looking ahead to 2017. Right now, open a Word document. Start making a list of all that you have accomplished in the past 12 months. A few important suggestions first.
- You should probably open the latest version of your CV to remind you of all of your scholarship, courses, service, and grant activity. However, the list you are about to make should not simply be a replication of your CV. I am not encouraging listing all the ways in which you have labored as an academic; rather, I suggest listing those things that constitute a victory worth celebrating or a failure from which you will learn and grow. (Indeed, we never include failures on our CV, so that is one important difference here.) What is the backstory behind each milestone?
- Do not limit yourself to things that you produced, those things with observable results. Sometimes a publication is just a publication, but sometimes it is an important turning point in your career or even your life. Maybe not doing something was a courageous act and should be celebrated. And, starting or continuing a project is worthy of celebration, even it is not yet complete at the close of the year.
- Include professional and personal victories. Did you find a new bae? Got married or had a kid? Did you end a relationship that hasn’t been good to you for years? Did you find god or a new god or confirmed that you don’t believe in god? Maybe it’s not a singular event, but an ongoing process like prioritizing your self-care and/or family.
- Suspend the voice of judgment as you make this list. It might help to think of yourself in the third person, since we are often better at recognizing others’ strengths than our own and are our own biggest critic. This is absolutely not the space to deny the significance of our efforts or its importance to us, or to add “but, you know, it wasn’t the top journal in my field,” or any of that academic impostor syndrome BS. In fact, this very exercise is intended to counter the voices that aim to motivate you by tearing you down.
- Be sure to acknowledge whether and how others supported you in achieving your victories or helped lessen the blow of your failures. We get by with a little help from our friends. Feeling a boost in self-worth after celebrating your victories is just as important as the boost you feel from active gratitude. You are great, and you are loved.
- Save this list. If you hit low points during 2017, you may want to revisit this list. I hope what you will feel is a sense of accomplishment, courage, and perseverance. I hope you will review the list and think, “damn, I did a lot!” and “wow, I was able to get through that.” Because, you probably did.
My 2016 Victories And Failures
You’ll notice that I did not recommend sharing this list with others or publicly. I’m not sure that such a decision will change the outcome. I think it is useful for me to do so here as a demonstration, but, you may feel as I did when I read Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog post, “A Year in the Life of a Tenured Professor: 2016 in review” (that is, left asking yourself what you are doing with your life — or, maybe what I’m doing with my life). But, I do think it is important that we promote our accomplishments because it is professionally required and necessary for the advancement our respective communities.
You are welcome to review my list, but I ask two things. First, please do not judge me. I am not perfect, and I am figuring this shit out as I go. Second, do not slip into the comparisons game. There is no one way to be an academic, or even a successful academic. We are all on our own journeys, with our distinct career paths and visions. You may not want what I want; we were likely dealt different hands to play in life, including my privilege where you are disadvantaged (or vice versa) and your supportive community where I am isolated (or vice versa). Since I am floundering, trying to find my way as a scholar-activist, and still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and IBS and complex trauma, I strongly discourage comparing yourself to me. You don’t know enough about the crap I have endured, the poor decisions I’ve made, and the privileges I am afforded to make a realistic comparison. This list is intended to be a model for the exercise only — not a model for being a successful (or unsuccessful?) academic.
With that said, here I go. In 2016…
If I measure the success of my year solely by the number of articles I had published, I have nothing to show for my life during the 2016 year. But: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson.
- My partner and I bought a house. We’re now homowners! Fun picture below. (Yes, we are both named Eric.)
- There’s been talk of getting married, but neither of us care for wedding-planning and probably will get hitched primarily for tax and legal purposes since little else will change. I’ve definitely been thinking about this since we moved and had a recent health scare that landed my partner in the emergency room. Given the intense narrative of a fairy-tale wedding that one is supposed to dream of since childhood, I’ve questioned what it means that we’re pretty “meh” about it. It’s only been a few years that we are even legally allowed to wed, and I’m ambivalent about needing the state to recognize us as a couple. Inclusion in an oppressive institution won’t liberate us as queer people. But, not marrying has real legal and financial consequences. Kinda hard to toss and turn at night over egg shell or cream (those are colors, right?) colored napkins when the more pressing concerns are so practical in nature.
- To compliment the traditional Western approach to treating my anxiety and related health problems (i.e., taking Lexapro), I began acupuncture, getting massages, and meditating with some regularity. I also began seeing a nutritionist and fitness trainer to work on my overall health. I tried my hand at yoga for a few weeks, but got busy as my research picked up again in the fall. At present, I still suffer symptoms of anxiety and can’t fit into my dress clothes; but, I am eating better, feel calmer, and can see some nice muscle development.
- I am still pretty isolated on campus and in the community. I have my partner as my main support network, a few close friends, and family only a 2-hour-long drive away. And, I’ve become part of a writing group comprised of several women of color plus me (get in where you fit in, right?), and have Dr. Krystale Littlejohn as my West Coast accountability partner. And, of course, I have many fleeting but not insignificant connections via social media. So, while I may lack plentiful in-person friendships, I rarely feel longing for connection with others.
- After a late 2015 publication of our article on transphobic discrimination and trans people’s health, Dr. Lisa R. Miller and I co-wrote a research brief for Scholars Strategy Network, “Discrimination as an Obstacle to Well-being for Transgender Americans.” Subsequently, I wrote my first op-ed, featured in USA Today: “Transgender Americans deserve protection.”
- I had three articles accepted for publication (and five rejections). They will be published in early 2017. One is “Sexual Health and Multiple Forms of Discrimination Among Heterosexual Youth” in Social Problems, and another is “Sexual orientation differences in attitudes about sexuality, race, and gender” in Social Science Research. The third, on measuring discrimination, will be published in Social Currents. I have almost published every piece of my dissertation! Currently, I have four papers under review.
- I began collaborating with Dr. Nao Hagiwara, who works at our neighbor school (Virginia Commonwealth University), on a series of papers on the health consequences of discrimination. The aforementioned Social Currents papers is the first of many to come. Thanks to Nao, my informal connection to her Discrimination and Health lab will be formally recognized with an affiliate faculty position with her department (VCU Department of Psychology) for at least the 2016-2017 year. And, I have Nao to thank for reigniting my passion about discrimination research; after several rejections, I was beginning to lose hope and interest, which made the research that was moving ahead in peer-review more interesting. But, I’m not done with you yet, discrimination and health! There are several pieces of the puzzle that I plan to identify and put in place in this subfield over the years to come.
- I continued to reclaim my voice as a critical sexualities scholar, reviving a paper I killed after years of a tortuous collaboration with a neglectful, semi-abusive former advisor. I have returned to my research roots, revisiting the very topic that drew me into academia. What was my MA thesis nearly a decade ago is now published, with two follow-up papers currently review, and the idea of a book pinging around in my head. On paper (i.e., my CV), the outsider just sees one publication; in my heart, I feel a sense of liberation and empowerment after years of losing my way and my voice.
- I successfully taught a second offering of Sociology of Health and Illness, appropriately refocused on social determinants of health (my area of expertise) away from medial sociology (not my expertise). However, I stumbled in places during the semester. There remains an overall disconnect between the sociology students and the pre-health students, with the former already equipped with proper sociological training and the latter being introduced to it for the first time. And, this time around, I had two students with preexisting conflict that erupted in the classroom, permanently damaging the classroom dynamic; it remained a good, discussion-filled class, but many students noted holding back for fear of tension, judgment, or even being yelled at or mocked by fellow students. I was not equipped for such classroom dynamics, but learned that I have to be, especially teaching at this small, status-obsessed, hierarchical university.
- I had a successful mid-course review, which I needed for the year-long research leave that I am currently taking. My research productivity is high, with the only expectation that I publish work that I have begun since working at my current institution. My teaching is critical, effective, and organized, criticized only by biased intro level students who feel any discussion of oppression is too much. My subsequent third year review was also successful, recognizing new research that is already under way.
- I have become more vocal as an advocate on my campus. I wrote two op-eds for the student newspaper, The Collegian: “A love letter to Richmond students of color” and “On being trans and non-binary at UR: one (sort of closeted) professor’s perspective.” I wrote two blog posts following my university’s mishandling of two sexual/intimate partner violence cases, one critical of the institution and the other praising the women survivors and advocates who demanded change. To my relief, they sky didn’t fall, the pink slip was never sent, and tenure wasn’t preemptively denied. But, I did not expect to see my blog post featured in print and TV news! Given my LGBTQ advocacy, (to my surprise) I was honored with the Office of Common Ground’s Ally of the Year award. My voice and advocacy have reemerged after years of being beaten down by the anti-activist sentiments in higher education; fortunately, these efforts have been recognized and appreciated by others and aren’t the professional liability I had feared.
- I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart her Sociologists for Justice initiative to use sociology as a vehicle to end racist police violence in the US. We got a Facebook page going and had a successful, well-attended forum at the American Sociological Association meeting held in August. But, we have gotten busy, and things haven’t progressed as quickly as we hoped. We have proposed another forum to be held at the 2017 ASA meeting, so this work is not ending — rather, we’re just getting started.
- I launched the Sociologists for Trans Justice initiative, which I currently co-lead with Dr. Laurel Westbrook. We held a successful, packed forum at August’s American Sociological Association meeting, from which we set an agenda for the initiative and created several subcommittees. This initiative proves to be a fruitful one for eliminating transphobia in sociology, advancing trans scholars, and further developing sociological approaches to trans studies.
- My sexual violence advocacy has expanded a bit beyond blog posts (like this one on sexual harassment at a sociology conference I attended and this one on trigger warnings). I have a limited capacity to pick up another cause; indeed, I gave up on trying to make Sociologists Against Sexual Violence a formal effort because I simply didn’t have the time, energy, or buy-in from other people. So, I resorted to using energies I already have, namely a call for blog posts on sexual violence. Several blog posts on the subject will be published in the spring.
- My baby (this blog) was invited to move over to Inside Higher Ed as a career advice column for marginalized scholars. We began as a biweekly column (publishing every other week), and then moved to weekly. Then, we began publishing a double feature of two blog posts on the first Friday of every month. Now, we have grown so big that we have nearly a six-month backlog of blog posts to be published. While this is a good problem to have, I am hoping that we can find some way to publish even more frequently to alleviate the long lag and capitalize on the growth of the blog.
- I have shared my voice and experiences on other blogs, including, “Black feminism will save my life” on The Feminist Wire, “On Finding A Feminist Academic Community” on Feminist Reflections, and three pieces on Write Where It Hurts — “Radical Reprioritizing: Tenure, Self-Care, and My Future as an Intellectual Activist,” “Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative,” and, just last week, “Activism as Expertise.” I also contributed to a chapter on LGBTQ people of color in academia in Tricia Matthew’s brilliant text, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
- I continued to speak publicly about having suffered trauma during the course of my graduate training, and have made progress seeing a therapist and working with a PTSD workbook to process my experiences and move toward rewriting my trauma narrative.
- With co-editor Dr. Manya Whitaker, I started an edited volume project called BRAVE, which will feature the stories of courage and overcoming of BRAVE women of color scholars. I was discouraged from pursuing this project (especially while pre-tenure) because of the labor involved, but pushed ahead because I felt I needed to hear these stories of academic bravery. What may not be professionally sound on the surface may be exactly what is needed for personal, emotional, spiritual, and political survival. Alice Walker says it best: “In my own work I write not only what I want to read — understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction — I write all the things I should have been able to read.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983, p. 13).
- My academic justice advocacy has continued to expand beyond blogging, including a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at February’s Sociologists for Women in Society annual meeting, and a talk at Hamilton College in April and another at the American Sociological Association annual meeting media pre-conference in August on using blogging for social justice in academia. Dr. Jessie Daniels and I are organizing a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at the 2017 American Sociological Association meeting.
Overall, I am rediscovering my voice and reclaiming my path as a scholar-activist. It feels as though I crossed another hurdle to becoming an unapologetically vocal advocate for academic justice. It opened some door that has been closed for a while; and, I became a kid in a candy store for a while, starting more causes than I have the capacity to pursue. I still waver between feeling I am not doing enough to make a difference in the world and feeling overwhelmed by the causes I’ve picked up to do just that. Nevertheless, I continue to dream of a Conditionally Accepted book or some other book project about academic justice, a talk show — “Academic T with Denise” — featuring notable scholars and activists, and starting a center or organization devoted to the cause of academic justice. But, I realize that earning tenure is hard enough without trying to save the world on the side, and even harder when that work is seen as antithetical to your scholarship.
In reviewing this long ass list, I feel confident in concluding that I had an incredible year. The judgy, elitist academic will only see a gap in my publications for the year 2016. (Shhh! I have at least three that will be published next year.) But, I know in my heart that I have achieved a lot in the past twelve months — much of which is infinitely more important to my personal life and well-being than my job, and some which will never appear on my CV but is significant nonetheless.
Yes, happy new year. But, also happy old year! We’ve all got a lot to celebrate.