No Erotics Of Professing For Me

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

berkeley_faceI recognize the erotic as a powerful force. In “Uses of the Erotic,” black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource grounded in consensual sharing and exploration. And certainly, education at its best is a sharing of knowledge and skills, consensual and exploratory. The erotic also touches on pleasure and satisfaction, which I am in favor of incorporating in the learning process where possible and appropriate.

Yet as a divorced bisexual woman, I am not in a safe position to be seen as erotic in the classroom when I teach. As a sex-positive feminist, that makes me sad. But as an adjunct, I’m in favor of keeping my job. So there we go.

Bruce Fleming wrote an essay on “The Erotics of Professing” for Inside Higher Ed in which he compared professors to movie actors, stating that students will respond to our bodies the way theater audiences do to an actor, as bodies responding to bodies on a number of levels, including the erotic. And I agree that how we as teachers look and comport ourselves can impact the learning experience.

But I cannot get beyond framing it as “erotics.” Call it “theatrics.” Call it “kinesthetics.” Call it “embodiment.” Call it “metaperformativity” or any other made-up academic jargon-y name, but not “erotics.” Erotics implies sexual availability that is downright dangerous for people in certain (marginalized) identity categories. Being erotic in the classroom is of no interest to me because I am aware that, as a woman, I am already eroticized and objectified when I do not want to be — whether getting catcalled in public or getting hit on while serving on a convention panel. (Yes, that happened.)

Further, the persistence of dualism in Western culture ensures that mind and body remain mutually opposed conceptual categories. Sexuality is relegated to body, meaning that sexual beings are less likely to be thought of in elevated mental terms. This means that my students sometimes do not take me seriously or trivialize my areas of study. On a course evaluation, answering the question “What did you like least about this course?” a student once answered, “That I wasn’t dating the instructor.” No, thanks.

One can’t escape that pesky sexual connotation that the erotic has acquired. And it is here that I feel unsafe attaching it to anything that I do in the classroom. I am totally comfortable lecturing about sexual topics, bringing in my expertise as a sex educator and gender studies scholar. Those things are not about me, my body, my positioning or my sexuality.

Lorde sums up the problem when she reminds us that the erotic is transformed into a weapon and wielded in gendered ways: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.”

I contend that it is professionally risky for marginalized academics to profess too erotically, or even marginally so. Whether you are an adjunct, of an alternative sexuality, a woman — or, like me, all three — you are in danger of being interpreted through the lenses of stereotypes that haven’t died yet. Gay teachers seeking to seduce or convert students. Unmarried women with overheated uteruses. That sort of thing. Outdated, but still pernicious.

Again, I do not have a problem with being more aware of how one uses eye contact while teaching or whether one’s language is suited to the lesson plan. As a body art scholar, I agree, of course, that what we wear impacts how we’re perceived. Similarly, as a dancer and dance scholar, I could analyze someone’s posture, gestures and movement in order to describe the impressions they are imparting to their audience, however intentional.

I am not against professors intentionally shaping their image in order to have a certain impact on students and peers. How we look and sound and move is part of the whole package, and has a definite impact on how our material is received. There are always differing degrees of awareness when transmitting cultural information, on the part of the senders as well as receivers. For every stereotypically oblivious professor, there will be students too enmeshed in their own worlds (electronically aided or not) to really pick up on all the signals being thrown down. Such is life.

I see no problem in academics taking pleasure in how they look, either. I mean, it’s fun to come up with snappy conference outfits that both look professional and express who I am as an individual.

I am lucky to teach in a pretty liberal department; I do not think my colleagues would bat an eye if I brought a male or female partner with me to a campus event. But as an adjunct, I do not feel safe bringing my sexuality into the classroom in any more concrete sense than offhandedly mentioning that I am not straight and “yep, people like me exist.”

And, it’s a bummer for a lot of reasons. When I lecture about the cultural history of belly dance — a dance form I also practice — I know that students are curious about my involvement with it. The stigma and oversexualization of the dance seem too insurmountable for me to ever give in to requests to demonstrate more than a wrist floreo.

It is a shame that women instructors still struggle to get fairly evaluated in the classroom compared to their male peers, pointing at the pervasive sexism still influencing how competence is judged in the ivory tower in connection with gender (and, I’d argue, sexuality). It is a travesty that women professors receive rape threats, as Kristina M. W. Mitchell has recounted. She writes, “Gender bias in academe persists,” and it takes many forms, from misogynist evaluations to rape threats. Her experiences are coextensive with mine, rooted in (among other things) the sexualization of women’s bodies in Western culture.

In sum, I do not want to be seen as erotic (hence a sexual being or sexually available) to my students or colleagues for a couple of reasons: I want to act as appropriately as possible in light of the student-teacher sexual taboo, my contingent position and already being vulnerable to being interpreted as sexually available.

Maybe someday we can all profess as erotically as we wish because we will all be on even footing in terms of both subtle cultural judgments (like sexism and heterosexism) and job security. But I’m not holding my breath.

Mourning My Academic Career

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. (Many of her academic publications are available through open access here). She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and at Patheos. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Feeling Like a Failure

Have you ever looked back and realized that you were grieving, but did not know it at the time?

berkeley_face

My bittersweet return to Berkeley.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a journal issue containing an article that I had published based on my dissertation research. I almost started crying; I felt like such a failure and an impostor, there was no way I could feel good about that publication. Since then, I have written more for Conditionally Accepted about how my expectations and goals around my academic career have been changing (like not working over the weekend, or becoming a sex educator [pt. 1, pt. 2, and pt. 3]). But, I still think that there is a major piece that I have missed.

Recently, I received a bunch of notifications as I logged into Facebook one morning. I had been tagged in a post by a colleague, announcing the publication of a book in which I had published a chapter. This actually caught me off guard. Since deciding go to #altac over three years ago (see pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, and pt. 4 on this), I had carefully pruned my social media presence. I unfollowed colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, keeping connections only with those whom I considered friends, or whose work I was so interested in that it did not matter whether I felt uncomfortable being reminded that I was, by necessity, backing out of the academic job market.

I spent three years applying for full-time jobs before deciding that part-time work was okay for now, and in fact, it was better: I could focus more on writing, which I had always wanted to do, and on sex education, a newfound passion and my career Plan B. Nothing to be sad about, right?

This time, however, when my Facebook notifications went nuts, I decided to dig a little deeper. I remembered how I did not have any publications appear in 2015, which felt weird given that I had made a habit of steady publishing since I was a graduate student. Now, it was 2016, and I had a chapter appearing in a book that I was unutterably proud of which to be a part. The book, about teaching fairy tales, represents something that I am passionate about on several levels: the subject of fairy tales, the importance of teaching as a way to open minds, and the focus on gender and sexuality that I brought to that course in particular.

I was so excited for this book to arrive in the mail, which happened over a week after the Facebook notifications storm. I held it, and snapped some silly selfies with it. Those went on social media, too. And all the while, I thought: why was there a noticeable gap in my publication schedule? Why did I notice in the first place? Why do I even care? I haven’t turned my back on academia forever, but let’s just say that it would take a damn near perfect job to rope me back in on a full-time level.

That’s when it hit me: of course, I would step back from publishing the things I would normally publish. For example, the rest of my dissertation chapters as articles because there is absolutely no reason for me to publish an academic book right now. I did not realize it then, but that was a sign of grief.

Signs of Grief

Of course, I would channel my energy into teaching because I love it. And, I would channel energy into my #altac/sex ed career because I love it, and it uses my current skill set and knowledge base while pushing me to expand in other ways; I can grow it into a career that pays at least some of the bills, maybe someday most or all.

Of course, I had taken a break from doing the types of things full-time academics would do. I skipped attending and presenting at the American Folklore Society meeting last year, for the first time since I gave a paper there over a decade ago as an undergraduate.

Of course, I accepted requests to do peer reviews for journals with ambivalence.

Of course, I responded to well-meaning friends who sent me job postings with terse, polite notes stating that I was not looking for full-time academic work, but thanking them thinking of me.

And, being the stubborn workaholic that I am, I only really stopped trying to do it all in 2015 (the year when I didn’t attend AFS; the year when I had no publications come out), despite ostensibly being #altac for three years now. That is how long it took for me to slowly reach the truth of the matter. I was mourning my academic career, what it could have been, and what it likely never will be.

For over a year now, the part of me that was quietly sad about the future that I thought I had warred with the part of me that is achievement-driven-no-matter-what. And finally, when I learned to let some of that need to achieve go, I was able to be quiet and calm enough to look around, notice the life I created for myself, and feel the sadness that had been present for some time.

I should note that I am not one of those people who mourn easily or quickly. In this case, it took some other life changes to jostle me into noticing how I was actually feeling, as well as the newfound ability to sit still for more than a few moments at a time (thanks, regular yoga practice!).

Why Grieve?

The dream of a tenure-track job that is normalized for many grad students is not accessible to all of us. Yet, for those of us who internalize it as ideal, reaching the point where we can shed it and aspire to other things without feeling like failures is challenging. And because we spend so long in grad school, at least five years and maybe even ten or more, it means we have spent a long time trying on these aspirations, getting used to them, planning how to achieve them. Thus, it makes sense that we would need time to step away from them and eventually mourn them.

I believe that it is normal to feel sad about unmet goals and abandoned dreams. The longer we have spent wanting something, or working toward accomplishing it, the longer we may need to unpack the grief that may quietly (or disruptively) accompany its loss. Yet this is not something that we talk openly about or even make space to discuss. Part of the cruel situation of leaving academia is that when we leave, we leave our communities. Perhaps we still count colleagues as our friends, but the impact of leaving (whether we choose to go #altac or simply “didn’t make it” full-time) is that we often have less access to the community than when we started.

As a folklorist, I know that grieving is frequently a communal process. Look at the worldwide examples of funeral customs, mourning songs, and rites of passage that accompany the end of life as well as other major life transitions. When we process major changes, we tend to do so best with the support of our community. The internet has provided a community for many #altac scholars, but we have not necessarily developed the customs or rituals to help ease the transition and validate the sad or ambivalent feelings generated by occupying a liminal space.

Even with me remaining friends with many of my colleagues, I still had trouble recognizing that I needed time, space, and support to grieve my career. I can only wonder how other scholars are handling this same transition, and hope that they are reaching out when they are able.

The Opportunity

Around the time I was pinged on Facebook regarding the publication of the new book, I received word that I would be teaching at UC Berkeley for one semester. It is not a tenure-track job; rather, it is taking over the classes of a tenured professor while he is on leave for one semester.

I did my undergrad at Berkeley. I will be teaching in the program in which I first became enamored of folklore, and where I was mentored and encouraged to pursue graduate work.

It is a bizarre, temporary little victory: I am returning to the Bay Area for 5 months, and might even make enough money to afford living there. I get to teach in my home discipline, and perhaps inspire some young adults the way I was inspired all those years ago. But best of all, I get to do so with my #altac mentality, my understanding that maybe I won’t land my perfect professor gig anytime soon, or ever, and that it is okay to have some fun along the way.

Will my time in Berkeley help me grieve, or move through the mourning process better or differently, or perhaps even complete the process? As of this writing, on the cusp of the spring semester’s start, I have no idea. If nothing else, I think the experience will help reinforce for me the reality that being #altac does not mean never getting access to prestigious, rigorous, or neat opportunities. But what I have learned recently while mourning what my career was “supposed” to be is that grief is not linear. Just as my career did not follow the track I thought it would, grieving does not follow the simple “do it and move it” pattern that I hoped it would.

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Grieving isn’t fun, and it is even weirder when you do not know that you are doing it in the first place. But giving myself the time to grieve my academic career — even if I just thought I was doing a bad job of churning dissertation chapters into articles — turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Academia may not have made room for me, but I made room for it within myself, in a way that I can live with. That’s been worth the emotional turmoil and the wait. Hopefully I can say the same of my time in Berkeley, come full circle after all these years.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. III

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

As a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, I have written about my professional journey of becoming an #altac sexuality educator. In earlier essays, I have described the impact of sexuality education on my academic career, and, in turn, the impact of my academic training on my sex ed career. In this third essay, I write about the pervasive sex negativity that I have observed in academe. The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity.

Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.

In a sex-negative society like contemporary America, sex is seen as an activity that taints the people who engage in it, resulting in stigma for people like single mothers, sex workers, nonheterosexual folks and people who participate in sexuality subcultures such as swinging, polyamory and kink. Sex negativity has consequences for things that are not strictly related to sexual acts, too; exploring a nonmainstream gender identity is also enough to get one in trouble.

Within education, sex negativity plays out in very specific — and very harmful — ways. Examples abound, like this one: a high school teacher lost her job after a student stole her phone and shared a nude picture of her that was stored on it. When I was writing for MySexProfessor.com, I had a tag just for all the sex-negative crap that kept happening in academe.

Here are some of the major manifestations of sex negativity that I have observed in academe:

  • American academe is a microcosm of the rest of America, which can be sexphobic, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic, and we can see these patterns replicated in university norms.
  • Students are regularly held to different sexual standards than instructors, with student sexuality being framed as a problem only when it is excessive or combative, and with faculty sexuality usually being treated as a problem when it is visible at all (especially for women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups).
  • The most talked about sex topic in most universities is sexual assault, and yet actual policies to prevent and prosecute sexual assault are problematic, in some cases minimal and often thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions that accompany rape culture (e.g., victim blaming, lacking an understanding of how trauma works and so on).
  • The university allows outright censorship of sex topics, as has happened to Alice Dreger, as well as faculty members not being defended when they criticize some facet of the sex-gender system, as happened to Saida Grundy.

And that is just the highlights list. As a sexuality scholar, and as a human who (gasp!) has had some personal involvement with sexuality over the course of my adult life, I have had to tread carefully.

Our time in academe is social, and that necessitates navigating sexuality. I do not mean getting it on in the classroom or office but rather choosing which facets of one’s identity are put on display, if being closeted is even an option. If one departs from the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla norm, then what? For instance, if in the past I have brought a male partner to departmental events, do I have to think twice before bringing a female partner?

Further, the personal and the professional blend in university settings in ways that exceed and contort a scholar’s intentions. When I teach a unit on nonmonogamy in different cultures, am I seen to be advocating for that relationship mode? If I research contemporary sexual subcultures, do I have to think about how it might harm my university’s brand if I am seen doing participant observation at a local fetish night? Surely a scholar who teaches about World War II with interview data from Third Reich leaders is not seen as advocating for Nazism, despite making students read about it and discuss it. But since the way we view sex in America is so pathological, everything about it becomes distorted.

The more time I spend being alt-ac, the less I worry about what anyone thinks of my teaching and research, though I suppose that may be a mixed blessing. If someone wants to take me to task for teaching racy material, well, that is a possibility. As an adjunct, I am extremely vulnerable when it comes to job security. But at the same time, the less that I am wrapped up in the world of full-time academe, the less I feel constrained by these arbitrary norms — by the pressure to be a heteronormative model citizen who looks presentable and does not say things that might offend students or upset the status quo.

One thing that I have learned, and am grateful to have experienced, is that the sex ed community is delightfully accepting, inclusive and sex positive in contrast to academe. I feel safe there to discuss not only whatever sex research I am into at the moment but also anything going on with my own sexuality, gender identification, relationships and so on. That is not because my sex ed colleagues have poor professional or personal boundaries, but rather because we are committed to revolutionizing boundaries that only serve to uphold hierarchies and unjust notions of appropriateness. For all that the university is supposed to be a bastion of progressive thought, free of intolerance and bigotry, I would rather have the vulnerable and more charged conversations with my sex education colleagues than with most of my academic colleagues.

Like most major life transitions, this has been a slow one at times, but ultimately it has also been quite fulfilling. My academic research skills have been a great boon in the sex ed world because, frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sex. My habit of saying, “Citation please?” registers as obnoxious at times, but it helps me do my job better. I suspect that being a sexuality professional in a sexphobic culture will never be easy, but the fit with academe is, thus far, going about as well as I could have hoped.

Sex negativity in academe is, I suspect, especially hard on those of us who are not as sheltered by various facets of privilege. I am a woman who benefits from white privilege, yet as an adjunct I lack the job security of someone who is tenure track or administration. The intersection of identities already impacted more by sex negativity (such as gender and sexuality minorities) with sex negativity in academe makes for a mix of prejudices, silences and constraints. My work as a sexuality educator informs my approach to these topics now, and I would advise, as always, that people try to find the right balance of self-care and activism that lets them keep doing good work in the world.

Easier said than done, I know, but simply having this conversation is a great place to start.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. II

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In Part I of this essay, I described the impact that becoming a sex educator has had on my academic career. The flip side — how I am being received as a sex educator in light of my academic background — is a slightly more complicated topic. Here I will discuss that, along with suggestions for those with scholarly training for breaking into a new field outside of traditional academe.

I have started regularly attending conferences and conventions devoted to sexuality, sex education and sex research. Some highlights include attending a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment (SAR), Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, and an AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma. I have been interviewed on a podcast, landed some paid blogging work on sites such as Kinkly.com, and have befriended dozens of people doing awesome work in sex ed and related fields. So on the networking and learning fronts, I have accomplished tons — especially as this is something I am pursuing part-time while also doing academe part-time as an adjunct.

Some of my attempts to make it as a sex educator have been less straightforwardly successful, though. I am not the only one to struggle with the transition into alt-ac life; I have read several blog posts that resonated with me, such as ones by Elizabeth Keenan and Katie Rose Guest Pryal and by Lee Skallerup. My sense is that other alt-ac folks encounter similar difficulties with adjusting to different types of workdays, dealing with expectations for what productivity looks like and what “counts” as labor, and so on. I’ll give some examples.

In my decade-plus of presenting regularly at academic conferences (two to five per year, on average), I have only had a few paper proposals rejected. And yet, in the sex ed world, I have not been able to land a single presentation. I am not sure whether I have yet to learn how to navigate the field’s social norms and language properly or if the combined approach to folklore and sexuality, which everyone seems to love when it comes up in informal conversations, just isn’t that exciting to conference organizers. At any rate, I will get that figured out eventually; it is probably just part of the normal learning curve that we all experience in entering a new field.

I suspect that some of my slowness to skyrocket to success in my new career is a result of academic hang-ups. Impostor syndrome does not do anyone any favors, but when transitioning to a new field, it can be a major factor in holding one back (e.g., “I just need to do a little more research before I’m ready to publish/present/teach”).

I realized, too, that thanks to academe, I am used to playing the long game: if I am not making a profit or an impact now, well, that’s OK, I will have years in which to change that. Sure, I could pursue more profitable gigs right now or I could continue to build my skill set and knowledge base and become incredibly bad ass at what I am doing. This approach might work fine in academe, but outside the ivory tower, it means moving at a glacial pace, which can be frustrating and, well, not very lucrative (at first).

Academics also seem to do things at not only a different pace but also according to a different mode of judging worthiness. In my experiences of grad school and beyond, I would research something, present snippets at conference, get feedback and go on to publish my research in peer-reviewed journals. In the sex ed world, it seems as though you need to have made a name for yourself by publishing or teaching on your subject matter before you are accepted to present at conferences. And if that is the way it works, that’s fine, and I will adapt to it. But I am used to demonstrating that I have done the research and am qualified to speak on a topic. It seems like a different kind of engagement to have to rely on one’s reputation to get accepted to a speaking gig.

Finally, I have struggled to move beyond what I call the “show up and be brilliant” model of academe. When you are affiliated with a university, they schedule the classes, reserve the room and handle payment (however measly it might be when you are a grad student or adjunct). You just get to do the work on your end and then show up to teach. I have gotten quite good at navigating this model.

However, outside the ivory tower, everything is a hustle. I have major introvert anxiety issues, too, so that has been hampering me when I think of a great workshop idea. Because after the idea and the planning comes having to book a venue, advertising, selling tickets, having a contingency plan if I have to cancel and so on. Perhaps that is why I have had the most success as a freelance writer. Pitching articles and blog posts to paying venues is much closer to submitting my research to journals than any of the other tasks I have pursued.

Based on these experiences, my suggestions for academics branching out into other fields are as follows:

  • Figure out what counts as legitimacy in that field: certain degrees, certification programs, publishing books and articles, work experience? Calibrate your training to those standards as much as is feasible.
  • Work to identify your hang-ups or comfortable behavior patterns based on academic enculturation. For example, if you struggle with impostor syndrome, work on that.
  • If you are used to your academic network inviting you to speak and publish and suddenly you find yourself outside that network, learn to expand your opportunities in other ways.

Decide what kind of impact you would like to make in your new field. Are you interested in using your academic credentials to transition to expert status and become a go-to for knowledge seekers in the general public, or are you more interested in helping build the field from the inside out? Are you hoping to mentor others in your position? Are you going to contribute to your new field’s knowledge base through research, publishing, presenting, teaching, marketing, brand building or some other keyword I have not thought of because I’m new to all this, too?

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. I

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she writes for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

I wrote a series of pieces titled “I Don’t Know If I Want to Be a Professor Anymore” in the summer of 2014. In the final one, I declared my intention to continue to adjunct on a very part-time basis while expanding the rest of my career into adult sexuality education. (See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.) I feel it’s now time to reflect on how the process has been going and how that intention has impacted my time in academe.

In 2013, I was reluctant to call myself a sex educator, despite the fact that I had been writing for the sex education and research blog MySexProfessor.com for three years, and despite how knowledgeable I was becoming. By 2014, I had decided to claim the title of sex educator, realizing that there are multiple paths to this career. Working one’s way up the ranks of being a Planned Parenthood educator or a peer educator in college or a student of public health is only one path. Some of us go other academic routes or completely eschew the academy. Some of us become sex-toy mavens while working retail, while others enter the field from LGBTQ activism, body work and/or sex work.

So how does this all fit in with maintaining an academic identity? For me, it’s been an eerily good fit, although my progress on the business-building front has also been excruciatingly slow at times.

In terms of academic fit, I am fortunate in that I have some leeway in how I choose to design and teach my courses. In spring 2014, I created a course called Sex Education Across Cultures, cross-listed as an upper-division elective in anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies. We learned about historical, contemporary and cross-cultural approaches to sex education — and I truly mean we. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the class was to improve my grasp of the academic study of sex education. My students seemed to have a good time of it. Like most young people I have encountered, the students were hungry for knowledge not only about sex but also about how information about sex is shaped, transmitted and prohibited.

In a subsequent class on women’s folklore, I brought in sex education topics where relevant, whether discussing how an intersectional approach to age and gender necessitates talking about sexually transmitted infections to the elderly, or how personal narratives about sexual assault can illuminate the power of silencing and shame in structuring people’s experiences of their sexuality.

One of the downsides of being an adjunct is that I am never certain how my actions are being judged, both inside and outside the classroom. So, while I continue to receive outstanding student evaluations, and my classes regularly fill up, I do not have any way of knowing whether I am too out there.

As I am a folklorist first, I believe that any aspect of people performing culture is fair game for the classroom, the monograph and everything in between. Since becoming a gender studies scholar and sex educator, I have decided that gender, sex and sexuality are such important facets of human experience that I would be doing a disservice to my students to exclude them.

Not everyone thinks this way, of course. I have taken far too many classes at the graduate and undergraduate level about culture, history or language where gender was simply excluded, and I am committed to never making that mistake.

I warned at least one of my department chairs that I was shifting my career and my research interests in this direction, in case they googled me or something like that. So far, no one at my college seems to have a problem with this transition, but then, I also haven’t done anything really newsworthy or controversial — other than blog a lot about various sexuality topics from a fairly progressive point of view.

On the research front, I’ve found it beneficial to incorporate insights from the sex ed world into my academic work. For instance, while presenting on the TV show Lost Girl and its intersections with fairy-tale materials, it has been useful to bring in concepts about bisexuality and nonmonogamy to account for how the show transforms folk narrative into pop culture. My academic colleagues do not seem too freaked out by the vocabulary and concepts that creep into in my papers, so that is a good thing.

One persistent theme has been my awareness that sex is a dicey topic in the university: on the one hand, sex sells, but on the other, it is a topic that can disturb people. As Kelly Baker points out in her essay “Silence Won’t Protect You,” “academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity and simplified messages.”

Nothing about sexuality is simple, and given my contingent status, I think it is important to be transparent about how the culturewide attitude of sex negativity impacts those of us in the university. By sex negativity, I mean the belief that sex is inherently dangerous, unhealthy and pathological, types of sex that are seen as nonnormative or deviant especially so. Additionally, the intensification of free speech concerns in contemporary academe makes my position — and those of others like me — especially precarious.

But over all, things seem to be going well on the academic front, or as well as they can be going considering that adjuncting remains an exploitative situation. I will discuss another facet of this career shift in an upcoming article. If you ever wondered what it’s like to network with sex educators, stay tuned!

Adjuncting And Academic Freedom

Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In another post here at Conditionally Accepted, Eric asserts: “Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.”

Eric writes from the perspective of a tenure-track scholar, though he acknowledges that tenure won’t protect scholars if the institutions backing them withdraw support in the face of public ire. The question of institutional backing is even more hazy for scholars in adjunct positions, like myself.

Adjuncting In The Context Of Academic Labor

As Kelly J. Baker points out, “The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot.”  In order to give some historical context, Baker traces the origins of tenure as a protection primarily for teaching activities, not necessarily research ones: “The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded.” She advocates for creating a system wherein contingent laborers, like us adjuncts, have both academic freedom and economic security. I would love to have both of these things, but I’m not holding my breath.

Generalizing about adjuncting is tough because we have very diverse experiences. I know that I am not the only one with academic freedom concerns; adjuncts who are also activists have been fired. And as Kate Weber points out, we’re hindered by having a repetitive, overly simplistic conversation about whether adjuncts are “good” or “bad” teachers, when a more apt assessment of the situation would be: “If #highered has to rely so much on underpaid labor, then its foundation is cracked — but not because #adjuncts are bad at their jobs.”

I am in the fortunate position of not letting myself be defined by my adjunct role (neither financially nor in terms of my overall identity).  In fact, it may be better for me to take chances with my public persona because that is the very expertise that I bring to the classroom as an adjunct. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t agonize over academic freedom, or whether blogging about a certain topic in my sex educator persona will be too much.

Controversy And Precarity

I teach controversial topics in my classes, employing what I hope are common sense and empathetic strategies to support students as they confront topics like STIs, sex education, sexual assault, and alternative sexualities. I also blog and tweet (@foxyfolklorist) about these topics in my capacity as a freelance writer and sex educator. My department chairs know that I do this work; my students know, too.  And, if anyone else’s opinion on it matters, it’s news to me.

Despite being a woman on the internet with opinions, I have yet to receive any death threats or rape threats. Maybe I haven’t written anything controversial enough yet, or maybe my writing simply hasn’t come to the attention of the right hatemongers. If and when it happens, though, I’ll face similar problems as the professors whom Eric discusses in his blog post – though without the safety net of tenure. There’s always the chance that my institution decides that the “all press is good press” axiom is not, in fact, their preferred policy when it comes to media attention for their scholars.

In one sense, I’m not in too precarious of a position because I have decided to pursue adjuncting the way it “should” be done (in my opinion): not as a stepping-stone to something better that will probably never materialize, but rather as a way to stay engaged in teaching and maintain institutional affiliation to help me continue to do research. I also don’t do it as a primary source of income. I bring real-world experience and expertise as a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator to the classroom, which, again, is how adjuncting should work in my mind. The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. The sheer amount of work it takes to teach a class means that the pay scale remains on the degrading side no matter how you slice it, but since I shifted my view from wanting to eventually get a tenure-track full-time position to stepping back from full-time academia, my experience of adjuncting has been healthier and more realistic.

So from this perspective, it’s hardly a bad thing that I have strong opinions about the miserable state of sex education in the U.S., or that I reblog essays about polyamory at popular sites like YourTango.com, or that I’m interviewed as an expert in articles on how to incorporate BDSM in your love life. I maintain pretty clear professional boundaries by not talking much about my own sex life on the web or in the classroom, even though someday I’d like to see a world where no one is judged for doing or speaking of any (consensual) sex act.

On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?

Scrutiny And Censorship

As an example, Laura Kipnis published an essay on sexual paranoia in academe. I didn’t care for the essay – but whatever, it’s free speech. Then I read about what she termed her “Title IX Inquisition” [paywall], which included mysterious phone calls, having to meet with people who wouldn’t tell her exactly what the charges brought against her were, not being allowed to have an attorney during these meetings, being taken to task for a single tweet, and so on. That was a terrifying read, and if it can happen to a full professor, what about the rest of us?

The censorship Alice Dreger has experienced (albeit as a part-timer) is also frightening (and relevant for me, since she became internet-famous in part for critiquing the terrible abstinence-only sex ed happening in her son’s classroom).  She astutely observes: “in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.” She asserts that if her contract is not renewed at the end of the next term, it won’t be because of the quality of her work; it’ll “be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.” Is this really how we want our country’s professional intellectuals to be operating? Worrying about losing a job due to their public-facing statements and research not fitting an institutional brand?

Further, it’s infuriating to see the amount of scrutiny that’s happening to professors who write and tweet in attempts to exercise academic freedom in contrast to the extreme oversights happening in Institutional Review Board cases. This NYT op-ede about the medical research mishaps at the University of Minnesota details multiple “ethical breaches, [which] university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics.” This is uncomfortably reminiscent of how many universities handle sexual assault, which is to say, rarely, sneakily, not well, and sometimes not at all.

As the author points out, “In what other potentially dangerous industry do we rely on an honor code to keep people safe? Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners.” It’s bizarre to me that university review boards trust (usually tenured) researchers to carry out ethical research based on this honor code, but don’t seem to trust professors to be ethical in the classroom and in the public eye.

Perhaps what’s at stake is less a scholar’s ethics, and more the potential for unwanted attention based on not only lack of ethics but also anything controversial. After all, how many complaints from an unethical study will have to add up before it comes to the public’s notice, vs. how many student complaints, or tweets from the greater public, can make a scholar sound like a bad person or an unworthy teacher?

Staying An Active Scholar (At What Cost?)

I wish I had some suggestions for how to continue to be active as a scholar in the public eye when one is also an adjunct, but all I’m coming up with is trite advice to be so awesome that they’ll want to hang onto you regardless. At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor pushing that process along. One thing that’s been helpful for me is affirming that my identity remains that of a scholar regardless of my institutional affiliation. I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on digital approaches to fairy tales, “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder,” which was a huge honor. To be deemed worthy of inclusion in a small working group of scholars doing cutting-edge research was great for my self-esteem. However, I haven’t told my institution about my participation in it yet because I don’t know whether they care about my activities outside the classroom.

In closing, I’m curious about whether other adjuncts have thoughts to share here. I know I’m not the only one who makes an effort to stay active in scholarship and the public arena while simultaneously trying to make sure I do the right things to keep my adjunct position for as long as it benefits me.

The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

Jeana performing at a 1st Friday street festival in Kokomo, Indiana.

One of the perspectives that I bring to my academic blogging is that of a professional performer: in addition to having a PhD and teaching at the college level, I teach and perform dance. In this blog post series, I would like to highlight some of the marginalization practices in academia by comparing them with practices in performing arts communities. My hope is to illuminate problematic expectations that often go unnoticed because we have become accustomed to them, although they are precisely the kind of thing we should be challenging and changing.

What Is Undercutting?

This post is about the practice of undercutting, or charging a lower-than-average fee for your services. It’s not a term I hear very often in academia, but I’m starting to think we should be more attuned to its implications for us.

Talk to performers in your community—whether they’re jugglers, fire-eaters, or burlesque dancers—and you’ll hear about the horrors of undercutting.

Professional performers are often asked to teach or perform for free. This is a common woe that you’ll hear us gripe about. But then there’s undercutting, wherein someone charges less than the going rate, either in a conscious attempt to screw over other professionals in the area, or for some other reason like an attempt to compensate for lack of experience.

One of my friends, a juggler, told me that when he first started doing paid performances, he wasn’t charging very much. After all, he was pretty new to performing, and while he was good at it, he didn’t want to overcharge his clients. In part, it was so much fun that he felt guilty asking for money to do it. It wasn’t very long before some of his more experienced circus performer buddies took him aside to have a talk — a “we like you a lot, but you’ve got to stop undercutting us” talk. Because he was doing it as a hobbyist, and they were doing it professionally, needing to pay bills and feed their families with that money, it became problematic when he accidentally started to take their gigs. After that conversation, he kept in mind that he was helping set prices in his town, and raised his rates accordingly.

Valizan, a dancer I know, talked to me about the effect on the community of charging too little for classes:

When new teachers feel they must charge less because they don’t have the experience or the same amount of training, I often think, “then why are you teaching?”  To me they are saying they are not up to snuff. If they aren’t, they should teach for free or do the community centre gig until they ARE up to snuff.  Integrity is the difference between a professional and a hobbyist. If you put out a shingle, you should charge the proper area rate and not drop the price to try to attract students. Because that eventually brings it down for everyone. And FEH [exclamation of disgust] on that!! 

In dance and other art forms, there’s not always a credentialing process to make sure that performers are qualified to teach. So when a dancer decides to begin teaching, often she’ll just go for it and start charging some arbitrary amount, or an amount that’s deliberately less than the going rate…but this has a definite effect on the other teachers in the community, which is where we get into trouble.

The Consequences Of Undercutting

One of the results of undercutting is that the people hiring performers have come to expect people to work for little to no pay. Another of my contacts said, “I gave a speech recently to a group of high level professionals. They explained I should be honored because the previous speakers included Fortune 500 executives, university presidents, and top state officials. And that they had no budget for speakers.” When I asked him to comment on this event, he said: “The point is that people should pay you for your work. And I hate accepting non-paid work or cut rate but I have to.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to creative types, either. I asked Robby Slaughter, a workflow consultant, about his views on undercutting. He said: “Charging less (or nothing at all) for your expertise as a speaker, writer, or artist not only makes you seem unprofessional and unworthy of compensation, but contributes to an ever-growing lack of respect for your profession. Undercut your price, and you’re cutting down everyone who does what you do.”

Slaughter linked me to a blog post he wrote on whether to pay speakers. I gravitated toward this quote from it: “On the one hand, it seems unethical to offer work for free. You depress the entire market. You force other customers to pay those costs. But on the other hand, speaking for free does provide access to audiences. And all speakers and consultants need audiences in order to find future success.”

Undercutting In Academia

So, how does this relate back to academia? We don’t call it undercutting, but we (institutionally) ask people to work for little/no pay, and we (individually) will offer to work for little/no pay. This, like undercutting in the artistic community, has the effect of dragging down the entire academic community, instilling unrealistic expectations in the people who are in positions to pay us.

As an adjunct, I have to face the unpleasant reality that I am part of the problem. If I were to refuse to work for such ridiculously low wages, and if enough people would follow suit, then maybe we’d be able to make an impact on the system. I’ve been following the news about unionization and strikes with great interest, for this reason.

However, there’s one big disconnect between the artistic and academic communities. In these artistic communities, there’s explicit dialogue about undercutting and how it’s bad for everyone (except, temporarily speaking, for the people making a quick buck). A local dancer shared with me this anecdote: “There is an event I chose not to teach at for this very reason…They are not covering travel, hotel, or conference registration for ANY of the instructors. I think instructors who teach there are undercutting other artists and event organizers. I won’t participate in that type of undercutting. It’s bad for the art.”

In academic communities, on the other hand, I never hear about undercutting. It is as though we simply don’t have the language or concept to apply to our situations, though—as I’m arguing—it should definitely apply.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine, a PhD student who has repeatedly been asked to teach at a prestigious summer institute. He has taught there for free, knowing that others get paid to teach there. (He asked me not to name him in this post for obvious reasons.) It’s a great networking opportunity, and it goes on his CV, and it’s fun, and so on. But working for free, and potentially undercutting other colleagues, makes him uneasy, and he’s not sure if he’ll keep doing it.

Perhaps tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t think in terms of undercutting because they’re not directly affected by it; one could even argue that it (in the form of adjuncting) benefits those holding TT positions. However, I would argue that this is on the whole a devaluing phenomenon, one that has long-term consequences for academics of every stripe, and higher education in general.

If undercutting were regarded in academia like in any dozen other communities, people who did it would be taken aside and given a stern or at least concerned talking-to. Imagine if our mentors told us that it was “bad for the field” to accept a job for less than we’re worth. Think about what it’d mean for colleagues to tell us not to agree to work for free, because it demonstrates that we think our work has no value. Because, with the way things are going, how could we be receiving the message that our work does have value?