Pre-Tenure Scholar-Activist Blues

Me - Blue Looking

This morning’s tears were brought to you by the ongoing conflict between academia and activism.

About an hour ago, I decided to ask for my partner’s advice on a professional matter. Later this month, I am scheduled to give a talk of some sort at a race workshop in the sociology department at Duke University. My concern, on the surface, is time. The event is scheduled just a couple days after the upcoming deadline for accepted authors to submit their full contribution for my co-edited anthology, BRAVE — narratives of courage and overcoming among women of color scholars. Giving, as well as preparing, the talk means having to hold off on beginning to review the essays and provide authors feedback for revisions. That project, too, triggers concerns about time. Given the amount of work involved, the anthology has to become my sole priority for a little while. But, this is a project that will count little for tenure — if at all — and it is one that my department chair explicitly discouraged (at least while I am on the tenure-track).

What I thought was a simple practical matter — should I just cancel the talk since I feel I don’t have time? — was actually the usual internal conflict I experience between being an activist and being an academic. The question really was why the hell am I giving a(nother) talk on activism. Sure, it’s Duke — but it’s not a research talk or invited lecture.  Why the hell am I working on a book to feature stories of bravery among women of color academics?  Not only is this an edited volume, but it also seems to have little to do with my research program.

Maybe my department was right to criticize me in my mid-course review for failing to prioritize departmental service.  Since I actually exceed the expectations for doing service in the department, it remains unclear to me what else prioritizing such service would mean.  And, months after the review, in asking about it, I was told the department hadn’t yet decided what that could mean — besides pulling my weight around the department (which I do, more than I need to).  I suspect it is less about serving the department, and more about prioritizing the “wrong” kinds of external service — namely, anything reflecting or about activism.  Yet, here I am again, trying to spread the gospel about intellectual activism and doing “non-scholarly” work to amplify the voices of women of color academics.

I do this dance at least a couple of times a week.  I’ll say “fuck it” and do work about which I feel passionate (no matter its worth to my colleagues or the Tenure & Promotion Committee); then, I’ll get spooked by something, and return to resentfully conforming.  Early this week, I decided to change my mindset to be that of a professor who already has tenure, who is not concerned that the slightest misstep would cost them their jobs.  Now, late in the week, I’m back second guessing giving a talk on intellectual activism — a talk I’ve already given, and that I agreed to give again months ago.

I admitted to my partner that I am tired.  I am tired of trying to figure out what these people want from me to keep this job.  I am tired of selling out, shutting up, doubting myself, reading between the lines, begging everyone around me to assure me that my department or university or tenure letter-writers won’t attempt to sabotage me when I go up for tenure. Logically, I am in great shape for tenure, with enough publications and good student evaluations, though it seems I could stand to cutback on service to the discipline, profession, and community.  But, the biases that play out in formal evaluation in the academy are not based upon logic; so, I remain vigilant for words that say one thing and actions that say another.  It’s exhausting.

Then, the tears came, surprising both my partner and me.  Between sobs, I said that I was tired of second guessing doing work that is inherently about my survival and the liberation of my people.  I’m tired of holding out for a department or institution to value my worth as a human being, of deluding myself into thinking I would ever get their full acceptance and validation as a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist.  I am tired of feeling unsettled between what is expected of me and what is exciting to me.  Given the self-doubt, and censorship, and contorting, and… and… and… is it really all worth it?  I told my partner that I would never wish this path on another person, on trying to survive within an institution that devalues your worth.

This morning’s meltdown confirms the importance of my work to champion intellectual activism, and, specifically, needing to give this talk at Duke (probably more for me than any audience I hope will attend).  I know that I am not alone, especially in the midst of widespread political turmoil and civil unrest in our country, in wrestling with the (unnecessary) tension between academia and activism.  That is why I have chosen to share this in this blog post.

I don’t have any advice to impart — yet.  I am still in the thick of figuring this shit out myself.  I invite you to stay tuned on this journey.  Though I have a growing list of role models and sheroes who have found their way, the norm appears to be one of tension — between one’s job and one’s survival.

Check out my other writings on being a scholar-activist:

Also:

5 thoughts on “Pre-Tenure Scholar-Activist Blues

  1. I so feel you on this. And I am a staff member who heads a research organization in a public university. I can’t even dream of the protections of tenure. But I am torn, torn daily, between doing what is right and based in research, and doing what is politic to keep my job and my organization going.

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  2. You have all of my sympathy. I’m an independent scholar, so I don’t have to/get to worry about tenure, but I know how you feel. Working for justice is as exhausting as it is important. Self-care is crucial too…so no advice, but a big virtual hug, if you’re the hugging kind.

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  3. Pingback: Repost: What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It – Erika Gisela Abad

  4. I just want to say, thank you. I’m a prospective grad student of color with similar ambitions, and I really, really needed to read this. Eric, you have my best wishes.

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  5. Eric,
    I’m a queer brown faculty member off the TT but I’d argue that your ass will be far more effective an activist if you had TENURE. Jeopardizing that possibility (when so many others don’t have it) while bemoaning this fate is pure hubris. There are levels of activism that one can engage in (namely through student mentoring) that don’t necessary have to come at the cost of achieving tenure when you’ll finally have to chance to effect change on a much larger scale free from the constraints placed upon you while on the TT path.

    You may well be tired of ALL those things (and I can’t blame you) but ultimately you have to decide for yourself it is REALLY worth it. I know personally that all the goddamn obstacles that I’ve overcome to get my Ph.D. would be nothing in comparison to enduring the b.s. that might accompany the long, slow demoralizing and placating efforts necessary in some places to earn tenure.

    But seeing my fellow Latino undergraduates and graduate students see me with respect and as an illustration that they too can make it is more than enough to motivate me to endure ANYTHING to achieve tenure (if I’m ever so fortunate as to be given that opportunity, smdh). My advice:

    HANG IN THERE BITCH!! YOU CAN AND WILL MAKE IT!! XOXOX

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