Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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.

Opposition To “Trigger Warnings” Reinforces The Status Quo

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Source: Everyday Feminism

Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title.  I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain.  You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them.  I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass.  (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)

Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???

I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today.  Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense.  Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy.  But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure.  Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students?  From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering?  Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?

One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety.  And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure.  It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.

Faculty Are Clueless

I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this.  The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students.  Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.

On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them.  “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?”  “Can we avoid talking about suicide today?  Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.”  Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped.  Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate.  What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.

In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action.  Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues.  To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible.  Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material.  These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma.  That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort.  (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)

Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo

But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education.  I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education.  And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger.  They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.”  In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way.  They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way.  I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence.  Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?

I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts.  The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses.  We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego.  The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:

crybullies

The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:

crybully

Wow.  The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle.  Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.

Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation.  These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair.  Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns!  Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself.  I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity.  But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out.  The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too.  Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations.  Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.

Closing Thoughts

Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates?  Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.

At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice.  We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion.  Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints.  Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.

Further Reading

 

“Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World…”

Kweder photoMichelle Kweder, a PhD student in Business Administration, is a critical management scholar who occasionally blogs at bricolage.  Below, Michelle has shared her blog declaration to work for change today rather than waiting for the promised “freedom” of tenure.

Check out her full bio here and follow her on Twitter.

Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World

In less than a week, I’ll be back on campus.  Or, more accurately, on one of the three different campuses where I’ve talked my way into classes.  Mostly, when I think about it, I feel stressed out.

Of course, the summer just wasn’t long enough.  I didn’t have enough fun, didn’t do enough scholarly work, didn’t do enough paid consulting work, and failed to put in enough volunteer hours for issues I care about.  House projects remain undone.  And, I’m still not up to running a 5K.  (And, I never did just take a day to smoke pot and watch YouTube kitten videos. I did think about it.)

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to be happy this year — and, through my doctoral program in general.  Finding Grollman’s My 7-Year Experiment (inspired by Nagpal’s Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc) opened my eyes and made me realize that I had my own guidelines to write and something to say about the doctoral student experience for those of us who live on and theorize from the margins.

So, here are my own guidelines based on the work of Grollman and Nagpal:

  1. The goal is to change the world.  Getting a phd is a task with many doable subtasks.
  2. I will be more selective about the advice I take.
  3. I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.
  6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.
  7.  I will have fun now.

1.  The goal is to change the world.  Getting a PhD is a task with many doable subtasks.  

So, this first guideline is my only strong departure from Grollman and Nagpal.  Both have a different goal — surviving the pre-tenure years.  But Grollman wrote something that really made me sit up:  “My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.” I’m 43 and don’t have time to wait for the PhD to liberate me and give me a voice.

Before entering my doctoral program, I was a self-employed consultant working with public sector and nonprofit organizations.  I had gotten to the point where I could work 11 months a year, not worry about marketing, be a bit picky about my clients, and consistently include one pro-bono client in portfolio.  When approached by a potential client with a project, I would ask the following questions:

  • Am I the right person to do this?
  • Is it good for me?  (Which really meant, do I have the capacity to do this and still be sane?)
  • Will it change the world?

So, no surprise, my first year was filled with inner conflict.  My choices had been largely taken away from me and the faculty were strangely transparent about “socializing” us into the world of academia.  No longer could I reject tasks that I thought weren’t going to bring about social justice.  (With that said, I love learning and it was and continues to remain a privilege to be paid to learn; I really hadn’t “worked” so few hours since I was 15.)

Being in a college of management (even a progressive college with a smattering of critical sociologists), means that I was surrounded by driven academics including a few dominant (male) voices who have a Tayloristic approach to publishing; and, as is the case for many in academic, they are evangelical about making the incoming doctoral students believe that their way is the right and only way.

To be fair, there are a few more balanced folks in the department. The most simpatico are great classroom teachers, care deeply about their students, and have the goal of producing meaningful articles about social change both inside of and outside of the academic space.  However, few seem to share my deep passion for bringing about radical action directly through their writing and teaching.

So I have decided to go back to what worked for me as a consultant.  The first priority becomes changing the world.  There will be times when I have academic “tasks” that don’t fit the goal.  I’m a good, fast worker capable of doing the “tasks.” (Yes, I’m in GTD recovery.)  From now on the “tasks”  go on a list and get done well, quickly, and without worry.  Learning and deep understanding are a top priority; satisfying the requirements of the rewards system will happen.   I need to go back to focusing on the urgent concerns concerns of the world — racial, gender, economic, and social justice.

2.  I will be more selective about the advice I take.

I’m not quite in the same place as Grollman when he writes:  “I stopped taking advice, especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations.”  But I’m almost there.

Some of the advice I got before and during my first year caused me to (unnecessarily and repeatedly) bang my head against my desk.  Most of the bad advice came from folks with more privilege and less life experience than I have.  Some of it was just unrealistic — (e.g. never say “no” because you are a doctoral student and need to take advantage of every opportunity, build all of the relationships that you can, etc.)  Some of it was coming from a place of fear about their own desires for socially-defined success (i.e. tenure).  Some of it was just anti-intellectual; multiple faculty advised us to deal with the workload by skimming the reading assignments.  (Really?  I count on faculty to curate our experience and assume that if it is on their syllabus that it is relevant and important.)  So this year, I better know where to tune in and where to tune out.  And, as important, I’ll be better at asking from help from folks I trust to understand me and the change-the-world goal.

3.  I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.

I was told to do this in business school.  This “task” is going on the list and getting done NOW!  Thank you notes from clients, my program acceptance letter, the A+ paper I wrote first semester, my first conference paper acceptance => in the “feel good” folder.

4.  I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.

This is probably the hardest for me.  I kept a general schedule of Monday through Saturday, 9-6ish last year.  But, I often worked more.  I’ve always worked 6 days a week including two nonprofit leadership positions where I was on a beeper 24/7.  (But again, perspective.  Responding to an emergency at a domestic violence shelter is much different than meeting a R&R deadline.)  Overworking is a hard habit to break but I’m going to do my best to contain my work to M-F, 9-6ish this year.

5.  I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.

I find what Grollman says about appearance so liberating:  “This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation. ”  (I know some of my friends must be thinking: “if last year involved some effort, what are we in for now!”)  If one thing business school teaches you, it is to “manage your self-presentation.”  As I often say, we’re trained to look “straight but not available.”  Somewhere in this, I’ve lost myself.  Yep, I’m 43 and want to be “appropriate” (maybe) but I also want primary-colored hair.  I’ll spend some time thinking (but not worrying) about this.

And, when it is easy to do and gets the job done, I’ll do it with my eyes wide open. A quick Prezi presentation can sometimes get a more conservative faculty member to pay attention to my more radical agenda.  I’ll reluctantly “use the master’s tools” if I feel it can meet the change-the-world goal.

The other “whole” person part for me has to do with spending meaningful time in the  non-academic world — with activists, at protests, with white folks who care about doing anti-racist work, in low-income communities, with queers, and in communities of color.  I’m lucky to be at a public university that truly reflects the diversity of Boston — but it still isn’t enough for me.  I had a great conversation this summer with a practitioner friend about an essay I’m formulating.  A long time social justice activist has agreed to “keep me honest” while I embark on this career transition.

The third component of the “whole me” involves travel.  Travel shakes up my thinking in a way that is unsettling and productive.  I truly feel alive when I am out of my comfort zone struggling to navigate a community that is not my own.  I want to better understand how travel shapes my thinking.  In order to do that, I need to, well, travel.

6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.

For what I lack in a bio family, I make up for in a vibrant circle of incredibly supportive friends.  I have them and I’m going to spend time with them.  (My partner is among the best of those friends.)   And, I’m going to spend face-to-face, uninterrupted, cell-phone-turned-off time with them.

I’ve also started to make some great new friends.  Although I won’t start writing my dissertation for a year, I already have an interdisciplinary dissertation writing group of lively feminists.  Perhaps assembling this group is the smartest thing I’ve done over the past few months.  I am looking forward to our 8am morning meetings (yikes!) and getting to know each of them better.

7.  I will have fun now.  

I live in a great city and have great friends.  Enough said.

Our 2013 Recap

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

On July 28, I reintroduced this blog, Conditionally Accepted.  This was the project that I briefly, anonymously started while I was on the 2012-2013 academic job market, but deleted because I felt blogging about academia was too self-serving and “navel-gazey.”  Toward the end of graduate school, and particularly after I finished, I felt the itch to start a new blogging project — and, my mind kept returning to Conditionally Accepted.  So, “what the hell,” I thought; I figured I could return to my personal blog or pursue one of the other new blog ideas if it did not work out.

One motivating force for me to maintain the blog was to promote more transparency around what academics, particularly those who are marginalized, experience in academia.  As I pushed back against my grad program’s expectation to pursue a career at a research-intensive university, even at the expense of living in a desirable place, I knew others must have experienced the same pressure.  But, I could not readily find these stories written or in my memory of alumni from my own program.  In connecting with a friend who was on the job market at the same time, we realized we were facing the same pressure from our departments.  Yet, at least in our paranoid minds, it felt that once we were no longer willing to entertain pleas to give up job offers at liberal art schools (that we actually wanted!), we were asked to quietly exit so that we would not inspire others to follow a similar path.  I suppose it comes as no surprise that I decide to make public my story so I could do just that.

Launch And Take-Off

With only four posts by the end of July, the blog received over 1,200 hits.  (For comparison, my personal blog reached that mark by its fifth month.) In August, Conditionally Accepted really took off and continued to grow.  Dr. Sonya Ann officially came on as an assistant editor, though we had been talking about co-editing the site off-and-on as early as April.  Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza agreed to reblog several of her posts on writing tips from Get A Life, Ph.D., which we featured as a weekly guest blog series.  That month, we received over 14,000 hits, with an average of 450 hits per day!  (Again, for comparison, I received just over 13,000 hits in the year 2012 on my personal blog.)  As the year comes to a close, Conditionally Accepted has exceeded my personal blog in traffic: (at the time of writing this) 62,415 hits in 5 months compared to 56,059 in 3.3 years, respectively.

I keep referencing my personal blog, eGrollman.com, as a comparison to highlight the quick growth of Conditionally Accepted.  One could interpret the differences as less frequent personal blogging, or the less easily accessible structure of my personal site, or greater appeal of the content on this blog.  Those factors aside, I think two major factors in the success and appeal of Conditionally Accepted are 1) the multi-blogger structure, and 2) diversity of voices and perspectives thanks to our wonderful guest bloggers: Dr. Manya Whitaker, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza, “Jan in the Pan,” Jeff Kosbie, Dr. Rashawn Ray, Dr. Michaela A. Nowell, Dr. Nyasha Junior, Natasha Yurk, Dr. Dawne Mouzon, Haigen Huang, Dr. Mark WilliamsDr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, Dr. Shawn Trivette, Casey Buss, Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Dr. Jeana Jorgensen.  That is 17 guest bloggers!  (Please consider becoming number 18!)

And, to my pleasant surprise, our insistence on speaking out and speaking up seems to resonate with other scholars who would like to make academia a more humane and just place.  But, on the same day that we received the nice shout out from Dr. Claire Potter at Tenured Radical (a Chronicle of Higher Education blog), I learned that speaking out pisses some people off — sometimes, enough to threaten legal action.  But, I will take the occasional negative response along the many other informal positive responses we have received for starting the blog.

Some Highlights

Based on traffic, here are our top 10 blog posts for 2013 (in order):

  1. Advice For New Assistant Professors” (by me, Aug. 27)
  2. What If Graduate Programs Empowered Their Students?” (by me, Nov. 27)
  3. The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul” (by me, Aug. 14)
  4. Shit Academics Say” (by me, Sept. 16)
  5. Advice for Attending Academic Conferences (For Scholars On The Margins)” (by me, Aug. 2)
  6. Managing Academic Survivor Guilt Without Losing Yourself” (by Dr. Manya Whitaker, Nov. 8)
  7. Sociology Of Fatness — Critical Perspectives For Teaching Sociology (And Anthropology)” (by Dr. Michaela A. Nowell, Sept. 27)
  8. Cultivating Allies As A Woman Of Color In Academia” (by Dr. Manya Whitaker, Dec. 5)
  9. PhDs Are Taken, Not Given” (by me, Aug. 16)
  10. On Teaching (Trans) Gender” (by Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, July 30)

Looking Ahead

I feel pretty good about the first five months of Conditionally Accepted.  Yeah, I will say it: I am proud of what we have created.  I no longer feel our efforts are self-serving or even a form of “navel-gazing.”  Academia and higher education are important institutions, after all; and, like other social institutions, they warrant analysis, critique, and improvement.  Advocating for greater transparency around what marginalized scholars actually experience is addressing one part of larger forms of inequality.  And, at least for me, supporting marginalized scholars to do their work is helping people outside of academia, albeit indirectly.  There seems to be an entire army of marginalized scholars who are doing similar work, so I think we are on to something!

But, we are celebrating our small victory amidst what feels like growing chaos.  The new majority in academia represent non-tenure-track scholars.  Adjunct instructors are struggling to get by, or even struggling to survive.  Graduate students continue to push ahead with either limited support or even in the face of hostility and discrimination, with little recognition of the pervasive mental health problems they face — all toward what seems like declining options for a career in academia.  And, tenure?  Who knows whether that really provides job securityfree speech, and academic freedom anymore.  But, one must be careful about acknowledging the actual state of academia, for there are lot of people invested in the fairytale of the academia that once was (if it ever was…).

So, it feels we are just beginning to crack the seal.  Good — because we are just getting started.  And, since we do this in our free time and on our own dime, we are fortunate to be one voice in a chorus calling for change, justice, equality, transparency, and support.

Looking ahead, I hope that we can start to reflect experiences at each point in academia: future graduate students; current graduate students; those who left grad school to pursue another career; adjunct instructors; tenure-track faculty; tenured faculty; those in alternative careers (alt-ac); those in second careers (post-ac); and,  administration.  I hope we can continue to represent diverse perspectives, offering a space to be heard, to see one is not alone, and to engage with other marginalized scholars.  And, I hope the site continues to grow as a resource for marginalized scholars — sometimes just in making available and transparent what any scholar should know to succeed that is often denied or unavailable to marginalized scholars in particular.  (Hint hint: guest blog posts welcome!)

C’mon, 2014!  We are ready.

Reflections On Pedagogy And Self-Censorship As The Semester Ends

classroom

Some pedagogy-related mementos from this semester:

  • A student tells me that ze1 never had to write out short answers or responses to essay questions on exams before my class (which ze took hir senior year).
  • Multiple graduate students I’ve met have never heard of Apartheid in South Africa. Graduate students.
  • When a student came to my office hours and I described a recent sexuality studies conference I had attended, ze said, “Oh, is sexuality something you study outside of teaching?” Apparently, I was not revealing this to my students.
  • I received a fortifying email from a student who said how ze appreciated how I continually stress “the balance between connecting with people on a community/interpersonal level while simultaneously assessing the problems on a larger, structural scale.” This email has revived me, in a rough semester.

So, what is this all making me think? Well, I’m worried. (Of course, I’m worried. I’m a tenure-track faculty member. I worry about myself, and I worry about what my students are not learning or hearing. Let me see if I can lay it out.

Memento One

First, I was agog at the revelation that a student major in my discipline, at a large research university, would not have encountered an open-ended means of assessment until hir senior year. Granted, that may not be true of all students, but at least one student was graduating having only had one opportunity to complete an exam where there was not just one specified right answer. I assume the rest were multiple choice, matching, and true/false questions. Those means of assessment give no space for alternative means of thinking or responding to our questions.

mcqchicken

Of course, in our increasingly adjunctified, increasingly corporate educational culture, class sizes are getting bigger and bigger, and we are not hiring additional faculty to teach multiple course sections. So when faced with a class of 150+ students, it makes sense to use multiple choice exams for the sake of our sanity. But the lack of adequate faculty that allows for interactive and open-ended student assessment is a systemic problem that is trickling down to our students.

Memento Two

Second, I can’t even with the Apartheid thing. I CAN’T EVEN. Forget agog; I am aghast. Who allowed these students to get as far as graduate school with so little knowledge of global context and history and racism? Oh. I guess we as faculty did. I mean, of course, not Conditionally Accepted readers. Those other faculty. I CAN’T EVEN.  (I started this post before the passing of Nelson Mandela; which renders this ignorance even more traumatic.)

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

Third, it is truly revealing that a student who has taken multiple courses with me doesn’t know the focus of my research (sexuality, public health, and body size, from a critical and feminist perspective). That means that I am not necessarily drawing on my own expertise in discussing course topics. Of course, teaching about fat acceptance and Health at Every Size and sex-positivity in an undergraduate community health classroom is fraught, because of racism, sexism, sizeism, and an overwhelming focus on “individual responsibility” in terms of how many people think about the construction of “health.” But if I’m not using my own research, my own voice and perspective as a means of conveying course content, then that’s not good. It’s not good for shoring up my own place in the world as a scholar, but it’s also not good for challenging how my students think.

In my personal/social life, I am pretty vocal about being anti-oppression, discussing attempts at being the best ally I can, etc. But this clearly has not translated into my pedagogy explicitly (despite being the owner of the bell hooks pedagogy trilogy!).  I can put some of the responsibility onto the academic culture I entered.  A few years before I arrived here, there was a major dust-up between a long-tenured professor who taught human sexuality, and a state legislator. The professor was accused of showing “obscene” material in his class because it was sexually explicit, and the legislator threatened to withdraw funding from the university. This was the environment I entered when I was hired as someone who specialized in sexual health. But they hired me as someone who specialized in sexual health. I even asked on my interview, “So, is there any concern about the nature of the topics I study?” and the answer was a resounding “No.” So I am definitely self-censoring.

Self-Censorship-Useful-or-Not

The other day in a talk I gave on body shame and public health, my authority and right to critique body-related shaming tactics was questioned by someone who had seen a story on the local news about a “really fat, I mean morbidly OBESE” child. I didn’t even recognize this as a micro (macro?) aggression until after the talk, when another person came up and ranted about the other attendee, “Yeah, it’s not like you have TWO ADVANCED DEGREES in this topic, and she saw a NEWS SEGMENT.” Part of what I have enjoyed most so far about being part of Conditionally Accepted is how the posts and links bring out into stark relief and better explain some of the unsettling experiences I’ve been having. The fact that I didn’t appeal to my obvious authority on the topic to the newswatching attendee reminds me that I have not only structural work to do in the environment around me, but I have to continue to work on myself and my approach to pedagogy and research. I think I need to go re-read some of Eric’s posts on authenticity. Who’s with me?

Memento Three

Which leads me to the last bullet – this shiny little student email that I’m hoarding close like a magpie.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

Of course, I feel immensely personally gratified that this student is making connections between individual actions and the social structures that facilitate and constrain “choices.” That feels awesome. But it also makes me a little sad, and of course, pensive (again, academic; it’s our lot). I am troubled that this may not be a de rigeur way of thinking about the world promoted in other classes. I primarily teach classes for majors, and students join my courses after completing General Education requirements. Now, I imagine many Conditionally Accepted readers are the instructors of General Education courses (or their equivalents), and I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences. Those of you who teach “Gen Ed” courses, are you able/empowered to frame your courses as social justice-oriented? Are you not given that leeway, because you’re supposed to be covering “fundamentals” (because we all know fundamentals are value-neutral, right)?

So what do you have to say, readers/contributors? I would love to hear your recent experiences with pedagogy. As we come to the end of yet another semester, what are your favorite/least favorite teaching moments?

________________

1 I am using gender-neutral pronouns throughout, in this case to mask the identities of my students, a somewhat de-politicized use of these terms. For example, forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education often include narratives with gender-neutral pronouns, in order to protect the privacy of those writing/being discussed. However, the more political use of gender-neutral pronouns (there are a variety of ones that one can use) are used in order to honor the gender identity of an individual when their identification is unknown to you, or if they identify as a gender beyond the gender binary. Here’s a blog discussing the need, as well as the existing options: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/.

Stop Telling Me To Be Quiet

Tenure

“Careful.”

“Lower your voice.”

“Keep your head down and your mouth shut.”

“Don’t rock the boat.”

“You need to tone it down.”

It seems the universe has been dead-set on silencing, immobilizing, paralyzing, and deradicalizing me since my birth.  In simply being myself, which happens to entail being outspoken about injustice, I have been labeled uppity, radical, provocative, militant, showy, hypersensitive, and a trouble-maker.  In choosing to pursue a career in which I make change from within the system, I have struggled much of my life with finding the right balance of keeping my position and speaking out.  Worrying about what others think of me, specifically of losing out in major ways, I remained in the closet until age 17.

You would think it would be smooth sailing since then.  Actually, the further I have gone in my career — college, graduate school, and now a tenure-track faculty position — the more anxiety I have felt about how I present myself to the world.  At the same time, the “innocent” requests to shut up, hide, and stand still have increased.  Even at my quietest, most inauthentic, and politically inert point, I still receive these request.  It seems the universe won’t be satisfied until I completely disappear.  Or, maybe become a white straight man who upholds the status quo.

Enough! 

Recently, I ran into a friend who relayed to me other friends’ concerns that I am “too out there” in my new job.  Their thinking, along with everyone else’s it seems, is that tenure-track faculty should be seen and not heard.  Particularly for me as a young Black queer man, in an interracial same-gender relationship, living in the South, I should be ever vigilant about how I present myself to the world.  Duh.  I did not secure this job without doing that for years in graduate school.  I did not burst through my university’s doors declaring I would radically change the place.  Trust me.  To survive in this racist, sexist, heterosexist society, there is not a single day in which I do not constantly think about self-presentation.

When the quantoid in me lights up, I am really fed up with these requests.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been encouraged, usually from a place of concern, to be quiet, tone it down, hide who I am, etc.  Whatever the number, it far exceeds the times I have been encouraged to speak up, be seen, or shake things up.  And, let’s count the number of people who quietly exist within the status quo.  There are plenty.  We can afford to have just one more person who may make herstory by refusing to be “well-behaved” and quiet.

Where is the limit on being well-behaved?  Is being a good little black gay graduate student for six years enough, just til I get a PhD and a job?  No?  Oh — maybe it is the seven years of wearing suits that betray my genderqueer identity and stressing myself to publish in my discipline’s top journals — you know, to secure tenure.  Assuming I am of the rare sort to finish graduate school before 30, that means I can finally be free to be my outspoken self in my mid-thirties.  That is, you know, banking on tomorrows that are not promised to any of us.

And, outspokenness and activism are not the only things that are policed.  It is my identities as a queer person of color that are seen as a threat.  By entering into spaces that historically have excluded people like me, now shaping the next generation’s minds, I am a threat.  I am a threat whether I hold radical politics or not.  I could play it “safe” by academic standards and still be lynched outside of work because of my race.  Or, I could be denied tenure — you know, because discrimination and harassment occur within academia, too.  It is a damn shame, but the truest reality of them all is that my PhD merely affords me a different kind of policing of black and queer bodies.

I am tired of having to name my career path as one that seems out of the norm.  I am tired of having to justify not pursuing that good, ol’ prized Research I (R1) path, or even the silent, politically inert journey toward tenure at any type of school.  More importantly, in the midst of this miserable first semester, all that I do that is being read as outspoken or radical are merely strategies for my survival.  I am trying to carve out space in the universe so that I can actually get out of bed in the morning to go to work.

I note the good intentions behind the requests for silent inaction.  I appreciate it.  But, they typically come from people who do not know me well enough to give that kind of advice.  They do not know how much I really do negotiate interactions with others.  They do not know how many times I have completely shutdown because something so offensive has been said and I stew in guilt for not speaking up.  They do not know how many mornings I fight with my body and body image issues trying to fit into costumes deemed appropriate for professional men.  They have assumed I am recklessly opening my mouth without thinking, without doing my homework to make an informed critique, and without thinking about the potential consequences.

I am not an idiot.  I know what can happen to “outspoken faggots” and “uppity niggers”.  In a way, I am risking my life, or at least my status and position, to prevent that for myself and others like me.

So, please do me a favor.  Stop telling me to be quiet.