Reflections On Failure In Academia

eric-anthony-grollmanNote: I recently contributed to Dr. Veronika Cheplygina‘s blog series, “How I Fail,” to offer my own reflections on failure in academia.  See the original blog post here.  And, be sure to check out Dr. Cheplygina’s earlier writing on failure in the academy (here and here).

How I Fail

Veronika Cheplygina [VC]: Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

VC: Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

EAG: I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

VC: What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

EAG: I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

VC: What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

EAG: When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing. While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

VC: What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?

EAG: Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

VC: Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

EAG: As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

VC: Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

EAG: Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

VC: Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

EAG: Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

VC: What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

EAG: To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.

An Introduction To Our Series On Sexual Violence In Academia

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

Amplifying the Voices of Survivors

The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.

In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.

I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.

I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.

But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.

Amplify Their Voices

Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:

  1. advocate for justice in academe,
  2. amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
  3. aggravate the status quo in the academy.

The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.

Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.

Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.

It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.

And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.

Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)

So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.

This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

On Making Black Life Matter in Academia

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk — including the content and her energy — was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?

I left wondering, do Black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is Blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.

I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that Black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for Black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of Black lives on campus — I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing Black life would entail. And then to make that happen.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for making Black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.

Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers

The value of Black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color — indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of Black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is Black. A Black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.

We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs — rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.

Race in the Classroom

We should also assess how to ensure that Black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?

Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat — the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are Black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon Black students to give the “Black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many Black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?

I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students — a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject — I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a Black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.

Institutionalized Racial Justice

To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?

For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for Black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy — which are always already at play (some of it even by design) — we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.

A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center Black lives — not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and Black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.

Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate Black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included — that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that Black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate Black alumni into campus events and initiatives — especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.

To ensure that Black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.

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:

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.

Include Readings By, About, And For Women On Your New Syllabus

End Patriarchy by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

I have lots of thoughts about Historiann’s ( recent essay, “A woman’s work is never done, part II: and even when it is, it’s not on the syllabus.”  I agree with the argument — that pieces by and about women are underrepresented on syllabi in college-level courses.  I also appreciate the suggestions provided to counter this unintentional but systematic erasure of women on instructors’ syllabi, and even in their peer-reviewed publications.  Go read Historiann’s essay first; here is the link again.

I say that I have lots of thoughts because I slipped into a Twitter rant about syllabus preparation, impostor syndrome, and social justice after sharing Historiann’s essay early this morning.  I decided these many thoughts warranted a blog post.

With each new course that I prepare, that dreaded voice of self-doubt — a symptom of impostor syndrome — gets on my internal microphone, distracting me as I develop the syllabus.  As part of the broader struggle I have with the pressure to conform (or not) to the academic status quo, I face the real temptation to teach what everyone else teaches.  I have a tendency to start syllabus preparation by downloading every syllabus on the course’s focus (and some only somewhat relevant, as well); I may even email colleagues for copies of their syllabi if they are comfortable sharing them.  (The American Sociological Association’s TRAILS archive of peer-reviewed syllabi is a wonderful tool.)  But, then, I am overloaded with data.  So, I try to hone in on repeated topics and readings.  “Ah, ok, so covering [fill in the blank] seems expected for this course.”  This approach may be a good “training wheels” way to design a course that is far outside of your expertise and/or for graduate students who are still learning their field.

However, I have learned the hard way that conforming to what seems to be the norm for that subfield — creating the syllabus I believe abstract others would approve of — creates for a miserable course.  It is boring, leaving me few opportunities to teach the things about which I am passionate.  It leaves me fumbling to teach topics I know nothing about; sometimes, it shows, and students call my expertise and competence into question on course evaluations.  (Sadly, this only sets in motion a cycle of feeling like an impostor.  “Why did I think I could teach this class in the first place?”)  And, I do my students a disservice by teaching the little more I know about the subject than they do, rather than exposing them to topics that I know well and care deeply about.  It’s just a mistake all around, makes for a miserable course with crappy student evaluations, and only reinforces my self-doubt.

So, in 2014, I first wrote a blog to encourage fellow instructors to silence the voice of self-doubt and impostorism and, instead, center the voice of authenticity, originality, and passion in designing a new course.  I have learned that I should be teaching what I know and care about rather than following what everyone else does.  I was hired for this position because of my expertise and unique perspective, and asked or allowed to teach X course for those same reasons.  (That is, unless it is one of those rare times when the department is in a bind and has to ask faculty to teach something outside of their expertise.)  So, allowing fear to steer me away from my unique approach makes no sense.  An authentic approach to teaching is more fun for my students and me.  And, it is crucial for challenging the academic status quo.  Conforming to what every one else does may actually be contributing to the systemic erasure of oppressed communities and controversial topics.  The world around us changes, and we must keep up with it; we do our students a disservice by letting tried and true approaches to teaching dictate how we continue to teach and what we teach well into the future.

So, Historiann’s plea for gender inclusion in course syllabi resonates with thoughts I have wrestled with for some time.  As a mere matter of science, it is shameful that we are having to convince our colleagues that they should take the time to include works by and about women on their syllabi.  Excluding women — whether knowningly or unknowingly — is bad science; you can’t name a single field or discipline that is entirely devoid of women scholars and scholarship on women, not even the fields that are dominated by men.  So, if your default approach to syllabus preparation yields lots of pieces by and about men, you’re doing it wrong — and you probably need to assess where this sexist bias is coming from.  It may just be a matter of laziness and comfort — that you don’t want to take the extra time to track down women authors (as though they are hard to find) or to read pieces you haven’t read a million times before and thus keep assigning to save time.  Whatever your personal decision-making process, you may very well be contributing to the systemic invisibility of women in the academy.  If you’re not proactively including women, you are part of academia’s patriarchy problem.

I suspect that some want to take a feminist approach to designing and teaching their courses — here, using feminism in the most moderate terms, of seeing women as people (too) — but, worry about a backlash from students in their formal course evaluations, on sites like RateMyProfessor.com, and maybe even being challenged in class and/or by email.  You’re probably a privileged white heterosexual cis dude currently without disabilities if these are not concerns you have on a regular basis.  These are realistic worries for marginalized faculty, especially those who have the audacity (channeling conservative privileged students here) to teach about their marginalized community.  I share this worry, which is why conformity has been so tempting as my shield — the suits, the delaying of new piercings and tattoos, the fretting over my blogging, the politically tepid syllabi, and so forth.

I’ve got a few responses to these concerns, the first and most pessimistic being that you’ll face backlash no matter what (so, fuck it — teach to your feminist heart’s content).  I acknowledge that this is hard, and encourage you to only push students when you feel ready and have the capacity and support available to weather their (potential) backlash.  But, we only exacerbate the problem of sexism in academia if we repeatedly run to conformity out of fear.  And, I want to remind you that our job is to educate students, which sometimes includes making them uncomfortable; we do them and society writ large a disservice if we only tell them what they (think they) want to hear.  I would say we do our marginalized students even more harm by caving to privileged students’ demand for the expected — biased content that excludes women and centers men’s voices and writing.  They aren’t seeing themselves, hearing people like themselves, and are losing out on having their consciousnesses raised.  I can’t help but wonder why the majority of college-educated white women voted for a known rapist over a woman for US president; yes, their racism played a role — something that also should be better addressed in the classroom — but it scares me that they weren’t moved by a feminist consciousness to vote in a way that would advance their status rather than set them back by a century.  But, I digress…

I imagine that another reason some instructors will hesitate to intentionally insure the inclusion of women on their course syllabi is being turned off by what seems like an effort to push a feminist agenda.  Maybe you’re in the STEM fields and social issues like gender equality seem less relevant to your subject.  Or, you feel you’re just teaching to educate, not to indoctrinate.  But, as I’ve already said, contributing to the broader pattern of centering men’s voices over women’s in your courses is bad science and pedagogy.  You are perhaps failing to apply a critical lens to what pieces are seen as fundamental to your field, to what pieces are considered “classic” texts, to which authors and what topics are published in the top journals of your field, and to whom is awarded grants to carry out their research.  You may not want to advance the political project of feminism by taking the time to include pieces by, about, and for women on your syllabus; but, in doing so, you are actually advancing the political project of patriarchy.  You can’t me neutral on the issue of gender equity; either you are intentionally promoting the work of women, or you are complicit in their invisibility.  What will you chose?  (It had better be feminism, damnit.)

So, I leave you with Historiann’s request: take the time to include scholarship by, about, and for women on your course syllabi.  Failing to do so is bad science, bad for our students and our society, and only perpetuates sexism.