Advice For Academics On Using Email More Effectively

Note: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. She runs the blog Get a Life, PhD and tweets @tanyaboza.

Three Rules for Email

Tanya Golash-BozaEmail has become a fact of life for academics. We all know that it facilitates communication, yet it can also be a tremendous distraction. As a tenured professor with more than my share of committee work and students, I receive about 100 emails every weekday. Without a system to respond to them, I would quickly fall behind. Instead, I finish out each week with a zero inbox. (See more about that here.)

If you are not ready to take the plunge and get to a zero inbox, you can still minimize the extent to which email controls your day. I offer three rules that will help you manage your email on a daily basis.

Rule #1: Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. I bet you have heard (and ignored) this advice. Many of us roll over in bed each morning, pick up our smartphones and begin scrolling through our email before doing anything else. I will admit it: I do it at times, as well, even though I know I shouldn’t.

But when you check your email first thing in the morning, you are attending to everyone else’s needs before even thinking about what is most important for you to accomplish that day. When you check your email, you are reminded of the paperwork you need to finish for grant applications, the papers you need to grade for classes, the bills you mustn’t forget to pay and the sibling you need to call, among other concerns. Because of the way memory works by association, each email that you open, or even delete, brings a flood of thoughts to your head.

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning and see what thoughts come to your head if you don’t check your email first thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to wake up your kids and have your coffee without thinking about the many mundane and stressful tasks that await you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and ponder what you’d like to accomplish in the day before finding out six new things people want you to do? Wouldn’t it be amazing to meditate first thing in the morning?

Usually, when we check our email, we are reminded of all of the tasks we need to accomplish, which can be distracting. Sometimes, however, email can provoke much stronger emotions. On rare occasions, these emails are great news: a book contract, acceptance of an article or an invitation to give a talk with a great honorarium. Other times, we get much less pleasant news via email: a student questioning a grade, a superior asking us to serve on yet another committee or some other request that somehow raises our ire. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you are opening a Pandora’s box and might find a message in there that could completely derail your day.

Wouldn’t you like to start your day focusing on something you see as valuable and important before opening those floodgates?

Instead of opening your email first thing in the morning, set aside a specific time of morning when you will dedicate 30 minutes or an hour to respond to important emails. Then set aside another time in the afternoon when you will take care of the remaining emails. In other words, respond to your emails intentionally instead of each time you get an email notification.

Rule #2: Close your email and all notifications while you are writing. Of course, you need to check email at some point during the day to manage the massive influx. That, however, does not mean that you need to check it all the time. You certainly do not need to check email while you are writing.

To write, you need to focus. To focus, you need to avoid distraction. Imagine yourself fully immersed in thought and composing the perfect sentence when you catch a glimpse of a notification on your computer or hear a little buzz from your phone. Now, instead of focusing on your writing, you are reminded of other tasks that you must complete — emotions that you feel with regard to certain people or worries you have over a pending deadline.

The solution to this is pretty straightforward: turn off those notifications. Both your phone and your computer should have “Do not disturb” settings. On a Mac, you can turn off all notifications under “Settings.” Your phone, your tablet and your PC should have similar options.

If you set aside 30 minutes or an hour each day to write, you can give yourself permission to be unavailable over phone, email or social media during that time. If you teach, I presume you turn off your phone during that time. Do the same when you are writing.

It may seem productive to be multitasking: alternately responding to emails, checking your social media, writing and preparing class all at the same time. However, it is not. It is much more productive to set aside specific times of the day for each task, giving it your undivided attention. (I explain one way to do this here.)

Rule #3: Unplug every night. Decide on a time each evening when you will unplug yourself from the Internet. Just as it is not a good idea for you to be on your screen first thing in the morning, it also is not a good idea for you to be on your screen just before going to bed.

I recommend that about an hour before your bedtime, you put your laptop, tablet and phone away. If possible, keep all those devices out of your bedroom. At the very least, keep them out of arm’s reach when you are in bed.

In order to have a restful night of sleep, you need time away from devices that light up. Scientists have found that these devices send a subtle signal to your brain that it is not yet time to sleep.

These devices also send much less subtle signals. You may be just about to go to bed when you decide to check your email one last time, only to find out that your latest paper has been rejected. Now, instead of peacefully going to sleep, you toss and turn all night worrying about your publication record. Just because we now can get news instantaneously does not mean we should.

In sum, in order for email to have less control over your life, you need to start to take control of it. This article has provided three ideas for how you can establish boundaries. I’d love to hear from you about other ways you’ve found to be helpful in setting them.

Advice For Dept. Chairs: “Beware of the Curse Of Small Things”

PlainspokenNote: the following blog post was originally posted on our Inside Higher Ed column. Professor Plainspoken (a pseudonym) has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She is committed to helping young professors succeed in academe. Plainspoken belongs to House Tyrell and is looking forward to the defeat of Queen Cersei, the Evil One.

Beware of the Curse Of Small Things

In a previous article, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of chairing an academic department and offered my post-chair analysis of my performance. In this essay, I talk about the skill set needed for drama-free delivery of your curriculum and reasonably happy colleagues.

We all know the saying “the devil is in the details.” It means that sometimes the success or failure of projects, careers, parties or performances hinges on some detail that was either poorly planned or neglected. Once I took an exam to be hired by a large corporation that used bubble sheets. I brought with me, as instructed, two pencils for the task. I carefully selected them, and they were freshly sharpened and gleaming. If only I had thought to check whether they were No. 2 pencils. The proctors for the exam, who were also human resources executives, gave me that tsk-tsk look as they handed me the stubby in-house pencils. Ultimately, the wrong leads dashed my dreams of carrying a platinum card by American Express and cruising in a European luxury automobile.

What a blessing. Instead, I found my way to the professoriate, where I could abandon concerns about the little things. I think, and write, about big things. Little things be damned. I love being a professor. I can read as many books as I can fit into the day. Tender humans come into my life every year, and over the next four years, I watch them try on their adult selves. Then I get to celebrate the unveiling of the first model of the grown-up they will become. As I greet the parents and tell them what I know about their offspring, I am grateful for my small role in the production of said young adult. Grand stuff.

What I do not have to do as a regular faculty member is order office equipment, review budgets, schedule courses, sign student forms or shoulder any of the other duties that make academic life work. The chair and departmental administrators take care of all of that for me. Yay!

But when you become department chair, you have to shoulder those kinds of duties and more. You have to sign numerous documents — graduation audits, major declaration forms, purchase invoices. Working out class schedules is not difficult, but it is tedious. Minutes, hours and days go by as you run as fast as you can on the paperwork treadmill. Make no mistake — taking care of those duties matters.

Here is the fundamental challenge for a department chair: you cannot trust any process to go smoothly for you. Yes, you sent in the course schedule with all of the preferred times for your faculty members. It comes back to you with many errors. You return a corrected schedule, and when it comes back again, you don’t check it because you are confident that everything is golden. After all, you cannot insult the scheduling czar by sending back the same corrections as before.

But as registration begins, your faculty members soon learn that their course schedules are not as ordered. Yikes! Caterwauling ensues. You wonder whether irate colleagues are going to jump you in the parking lot. You stammer through excuses and keep saying, “I’ll fix it,” as your colleagues complain, “Why is scheduling so hard for you?” and “I told you about my weekly Pilates class weeks ago.” Ouch! I suggest that you examine iterations of the teaching schedule carefully. And ask a colleague and the administrative staff to proofread for you. Share the blame!

And now we come to Professor Plainspoken’s second maxim for chairing an academic department: teaching schedules you must handle with extreme care. Check, double-check and triple-check. And always beware. Mistakes in scheduling are Satan’s tools — for ensuring that you always look like a fool.

Also, when managing teaching schedules and room assignments, never trust that a single communiqué will do. Communicate with the registrar’s office verbally after you send each draft of the course plan. Using two forms of communication should help to guarantee that the correct information is received and understood. The curse of small things is that tiny things, when they go wrong, are one big thing. Unfortunately, the big thing then becomes a key indicator of your competence to your department colleagues. It is understandable, since it is usually the small things that make a difference in the way you spend your days. One or two small stumbles are forgotten — more than a few, especially when you are a nontraditional chair (e.g., a woman of color), seems especially egregious. In time, the curse of small things lifts as you determine the most efficient and foolproof way of getting things done.

We may blame the curse for most of our stresses. Someone once said, “The best way to reduce stress is to stop screwing up.” I think I repeated that one to myself every day. Screw-ups are inevitable. The key is finding ways to avoid beating yourself up about them.

Would-be department chairs need what I often lacked in my position as chair: perspective. Did anyone ever end up teaching a horrible schedule because of a mistake I made? No. But they almost endured an awful schedule. The almost was enough for me to keep a running tally on my bureaucratic near misses. I was treating myself like an air-traffic controller. A near miss was cause for concern about my fitness for the job. I wanted to execute every duty with precision and perfection. Ha! My dentist, who would spend hours reshaping a tooth after a filling, told me a patient said to him after being in his chair for hours, “Perfectionism is the enemy of good enough” (his modification of the saying “The perfect is the enemy of the good”).

Perfectionism. It’s the hobgoblin of marginalized people. It is also the result of parents, who — in their effort to inspire you to do your best — dwelled on your mistakes far more than your successes. I am impatient with myself when learning anything new. I want to get it right right now!

When you add to the mix of perfectionism and impatience the competitiveness of academe, it is a nasty brew. Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that being kind and patient with myself was self-indulgent. I am unlearning this now. Should you become chair, you cannot afford not to be kind and patient with yourself.

And now, the last of the maxims for today from Professor Plainspoken: to yourself you must be kind and nurture a healthy state of mind. The curse of small things you can prevent, and your days as chair you will never lament.

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.

***

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.

(Marginalized) Professors Were Already Being Watched

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me

Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.

That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.

In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.

I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”

First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.

On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.

Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?

A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.

The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.

The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.

Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students.  The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.

Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)

I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.

Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.

Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.

On Living With Cancer In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Margaret Meningioma (a pseudonym) is a social scientist at a university in the Midwest. She is one of the estimated 77,670 people in the United States who will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year. She decided against radiation and had brain surgery in June. She is still recovering and discovering her next new normal. For more information on brain tumors, including symptoms and sources of support, visit The American Brain Tumor Association.

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A New Normal

Months ago, I met with a radiation oncologist about my brain tumor. He suggested radiation, which would hopefully arrest the tumor’s growth. When I told him that I could not live with the medication that I was on and the symptoms that I was experiencing for the rest of my life, he assured me I would. He told me that I would discover a “new normal.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I am an academic.”” A new normal would not do.

After 10 years on the tenure track, normal for me often included starting before 7 a.m. It is not that I worked incessantly — I thought of myself as someone who had a good semblance of balance — but that I could work whenever I wanted. If I wanted to pull an all-nighter or attend a conference with a full day of presentations and an evening of social events, I could do so without a problem. I could sit down and write from sunrise to sunset or squeeze in a last review before I called it a day.

Even while serving at the same time in a more administrative position, as director of graduate studies, I had almost complete control over how my day went down. One of the things I loved most about my job as an academic was the autonomy. I was sad — and angry — at the thought of losing it.

What I did not realize until earlier this year was that this autonomy was not only predicated on my position but also my health. In the months before my diagnosis, doing the things that I loved had become more difficult. My concentration was not what it used to be, making it challenging to read an entire article or to follow multiple conversations in my graduate classes. I was forgetting things as simple as where I parked my car at the local grocery store. I had a constant headache. I would come home and sleep, completely tapped out, unable to find the energy that I once had to cook dinner for my family or to do anything after we ate. Maybe I was depressed, or stressed? My mother recommended breathing exercises. My doctor tried prescription after prescription. Nothing helped. I fell farther and farther behind at work.

This was not the first time that keeping up at work was a struggle or that my autonomy was undermined. I started graduate school a month before my son’s first birthday. Throughout my classes, comprehensive exams and dissertation, I had to organize my work around motherhood. Having less time than my peers, I tried to use it wisely. I also cut myself slack. My child was more important than my career, and I was convinced that I could be a successful academic without sacrificing our relationship or my son’s well-being. As he grew, and I graduated, the demands of work and motherhood shifted, but I was always comfortable with the compromises I made in either realm. The truth is, I had never known what being an academic was like without a child. I had never had to transition from one orientation to another. I had never had to find a new normal.

As I drove home from that appointment with the radiation oncologist, I wondered whether I would have to quit my job. My life and my livelihood was my brain. I depended on it functioning, when and where I needed it to. How would I continue at the pace that I was going? Would I ever catch up? Would I ever be able to keep up? Would I still be an academic if I was not actively teaching, writing and publishing? Who would I be without my career?

I threw myself a giant pity party.

At some point, I turned a corner, transitioning from the sixth to the seventh stage of grief, and I began to accept the things that I could not change. I tapped into the spirit of compromise that I had when my son was young. Rather than fighting my body when it told me it was done, I began listening to it. I learned that if I took a short nap — at home or on my office floor — I often had the energy to tackle more tasks later in the day. I tried to finish things long before the deadline so that it would not be as catastrophic if I were not feeling well on any particular day. I learned to say no and to ask for extensions without fretting about disappointing people. I worked when I felt well and took it easy when I did not. I began to see a counselor who specializes in helping people with chronic medical conditions.

Things changed at home, too. I felt no guilt if we ate takeout or the house was not clean. I encouraged my now teenage son to think about ways to lighten my parenting load. In the same way that I had always protected time for motherhood, I protected time for my health. Slowly but surely, I was discovering a new normal. Once I started to work with my circumstances rather than against them, I began to feel productive again. I had renewed energy and optimism, and I was better able to do my work.

Sometimes terrible things are simply terrible, but, for me, misfortune has a silver lining. Less time to work has meant more time with the people whom I love and significantly better productivity when I am working. An uncertainty about what the future holds has taught me to appreciate the present and to focus on what I have accomplished rather than what I have left to do. These are valuable gifts. I have also learned to be kind to myself and to let go of my staunch conceptions of what it means to be a good academic, to be productive and to be successful.

Without a doubt, this entire experience has been easier for me than for many others because I have tenure. I have health care and a paycheck. I only have to worry about making time for appointments, not whether I can afford the care. I only have to worry about fulfilling my obligations, not whether my output will be deemed worthy of tenure. I work a nine-month contract. Although it is unusual to be away from work or the office over the summer, I am not committed to anyone during those months. Those are things I do not take for granted.

Life can change in an instant. Today, for me, it is a brain tumor. For other academics, it might be a difficult pregnancy or a parent with dementia. Tomorrow, it might be a foreclosure, a divorce or a partner with cancer. Regardless of what might arrive and pull you away from work and what is normal to you, I recommend that you resist struggling against the current. Instead, find a way to swim with it, to harness whatever it might have to offer. Fighting against the circumstances of our life — trying to continue full steam ahead despite difficult conditions or illness — does more harm than good. It is exhausting and inefficient. Besides, you never know what you will discover if you begin to approach work and life differently than you did before. If life requires a new normal, I hope you embrace the opportunity to establish one.

How Administrators Can Support Trans Students And Faculty

rachel-mckinnon-profileNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Rachel McKinnon is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Her research primarily focuses on epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and feminism and gender issues, particularly transgender issues. She has a 2015 book, The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant, and is currently working on her second book, Things We Do With Assertions.

Gender Transitions in Academe, Part I

In this and future essays, I will offer advice on how faculty and staff members, departmental leaders, and senior administrators can handle the gender transition of an undergraduate or graduate student, staff member, or faculty member so that it can be as smooth as possible for everyone involved.

You may have noticed that trans* issues are becoming increasingly common in the media. (As is largely common convention, I use the asterisk to indicate broad inclusion in whom we describe under the trans* umbrella.) In fact, it’s at a point where it’s hard to miss. This increased visibility is good news, on the whole, as it’s leading to an increased understanding of the difficulties of trans* persons, and to an increased awareness of the presence of trans* people. The fact is that we’re not that rare. One of the benefits of this visibility and understanding is that more trans* people are realizing that transitioning is more possible now than ever before. But it’s far from easy, and I will discuss some ways to continue these positive trends.

In my work, I specialize in the relationship between knowledge and what we say to one another. However, I also do a significant amount of work on gender and gender identity, focusing particularly on trans* issues. Some of that work includes posts such as this where I write about trans* lives in academia. Being a trans* person in higher education, who works on trans* issues, gives me a good perspective from which to offer advice. For example, I have written about what it’s like to transition while teaching and my decision to come out to my classes, and about some special problems that trans* people face on the academic job market.

I am a lesbian trans woman, and I transitioned right at the end of my Ph.D. training. Some people in my department knew before my dissertation defense, but I chose to come out to everyone a few days after my defense. Looking back, it’s a little humorous that I sent out one of the batch emails (with an attached letter explaining my transition plans) on April 1: a few people wondered whether it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. My transition was mostly, though certainly not entirely, smooth. I happily received a tenure-track job offer and a prestigious postdoc shortly thereafter. I decided to take a postdoc year partly for some transition-related issues, such as finalizing documents with the correct sex/gender information, which I will discuss in a future essay.

In this piece, I want to address what college administrators in particular can do to help students and faculty navigate their gender transition. Administration-level changes are especially important. They set the tone for students and employees. They also carry a lot of force, impacting the whole institution rather than just a department.

First and foremost, it is paramount that university administrators put into place robust institutional human-rights policies that explicitly protect people from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and gender expression. The latter protects more than just transgender persons.

Gender identity refers to the gender that a person is, regardless of what they were assigned at birth. (I am increasingly moving away from “identifies as” language. Trans women are women — they do not merely “identify as” women.) Gender expression refers to the various ways that we show or signal our gender to others: our clothes, mannerisms, makeup, hair and so on. While a butch dyke woman’s gender identity may be that of a woman, she may express her gender in nonheteronormative ways such as wearing a button-down shirt and tie.

Thus, we want robust policy protections so that she can do this while free from harassment or discrimination. That the College of Charleston has explicit antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies including gender identity and expression was a significant part of my accepting the position. So I especially applaud them on this, and I recommend their policy as one to emulate. This is particularly important in cities, states and a country without robust antidiscrimination policies for trans* persons. Remember, in most jurisdictions in the America, it’s entirely legal to fire a trans* person for being trans*.

Second, administrations need to have a posted policy on gender identity and expression and bathroom use. In many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, people are legally — and certainly morally — permitted to use whatever bathroom best matches their gender identity. This choice is up to the people themselves, and no individual or organization should police gender. Trans* people are best situated to determine which bathroom they feel safest using and that is most appropriate for their identity and personal needs. And this decision may change over time during their transition: early on, they may not feel comfortable changing the bathrooms they use, but later on, they might. Increasingly in the United States, the departments of Justice, Education and Labor (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have all adopted trans-inclusive policies and directives.

Perhaps the common reason cited to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom policies is that this will give license to (cisgender) men to start entering women’s bathroom spaces for purposes other than using the bathroom for its intended purposes. Let me say that this fear is unfounded and deeply stigmatizing. We refer to this as the “predator myth.” An alternate policy is to begin designating gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use. However, creating a single (or a small number) of such bathrooms and then requiring trans* people to use them (and not to use gender-restricted multistall bathrooms) isn’t acceptable, since that is instating a “separate but equal” policy, which is both unethical and illegal.

Third, colleges and universities should, as much as legally possible, make it easy for students or employees to change their official name. Sometimes we refer to this as someone’s “preferred” name. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, an official, legal name change can be prohibitively expensive, burdensome or simply impossible. Many times, it depends on the goodwill of a local judge, who may not be trans* friendly in their decisions to grant name changes. In such a case, people often require legal representation, which isn’t cheap.

So, one way around this is for a college to have a relatively easy name-change policy that doesn’t require official documentation such as a court order or legal name change. For example, at the institution where I received my Ph.D., the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, one need only fill out a form and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths (like a notary public), who is available to students and employees on campus for free. Colleges and universities can retain the student/employee’s “legal” name on record but use their preferred name for all communications and documents, such as degrees.

In my next essay, I will offer advice for improving department-level policies to best support transgender colleagues, particularly those who decide to transition.

Call For Blog Posts: Sexual Violence In Higher Education

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We invite guest blog posts on the topic of sexual violence in higher education to be featured as a series of posts in spring 2017.  The series will begin in March and will run through June (or later).   We can look no further than the fact than nearly 300 US colleges and universities are currently under federal investigation for mishandling reported rapes and sexual assaults to know that victims of sexual violence are being failed in higher education and that this crisis is poorly understood.  The emphasis on bare minimum legal compliance to Title IX policies has distracted from understanding rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment as expressions of power, often manifesting from systems of oppression (namely sexism, but also racism, xenophobia, classism, fatphobia, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and ageism).  Academics stand to offer a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the crisis of sexual violence in higher education, and hopefully to propose solutions that are appropriate.

We specifically call for guest blog posts that address the following regarding rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and/or intimate partner violence:

  • Advice for what students, staff, faculty, and administrators can do to support victims of sexual violence, eliminate rape culture, and prevent sexual violence.  In particular, how university communities may work together on these issues (e.g., staff and faculty, faculty and administration).
  • Reflections on Title IX and staff and faculty (mandated) responsibility for reporting sexual violence.
  • New models for sexual violence prevention education (e.g., consent, healthy relationships) and prosecuting/punishing perpetrators, and/or critiques of existing models.
  • Institutional practices and arrangements that facilitate or even reward sexual violence (e.g., lenient regulation of Greek Life, alcohol use, minimal or no punishment for sexual violence).
  • Rape culture on campus and how it affects everyone, not just those who are victimized.
  • Sexual violence as a manifestation of systems of oppression other than sexism, and sexual violence at the intersections among systems of oppression.  Also, sexual violence perpetrated against LGBTQ people, (cis and trans) women of color, (cis and trans) men, people with disabilities, and fat and plus-size people.  And, sexual violence as a means of policing nonconformity among marginalized groups.
  • Sexual violence as a manifestation of hierarchies in academia (e.g., student-professor, student-staff, junior professor-senior professor), as well as “contrapower harassment” (i.e., lower-ranking perpetrators and higher-ranking victims).
  • Attention to sexual violence that occurs among/that is perpetrated against staff and faculty.  Also, threatened or actual sexual violence perpetrated by students against staff and faculty or by staff/faculty against students.
  • Effectively teaching about sexual violence, and navigating the controversial subject of warnings for potentially triggering content (“trigger warnings”).  In particular, how faculty survivors can teach on a subject that is very personal and possibly triggering for them.
  • Advice for doing critical research on sexual violence.
  • Professional and personal backlash against anti-sexual violence activists.
  • Addressing sexual violence at academic conferences and other events, and what academic organizations can do to prevent sexual violence and support survivors.

You can see our guidelines here.  We ask that blog posts range between 750-1250 words, and are written in a manner that is accessible to a broad academic audience.  You may email pitches or full blog posts to conditionally [DOT] accepted [AT] insidehighered [DOT] com.  We will accept submissions on a rolling basis, but ask that they be submitted for consideration by February 28th, 2017.