On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession:

Extending The Debate: Are Black Scholars Obligated To Talk About Race? Some Of Us Can’t!

The New York Times recently devoted a Room for Debate discussion to the subject, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?”  Among the five Black scholars, some of them more known than the others, the responses regarding Black scholars’ obligation to talk about race publicly, in interactions with colleagues and students, and in their research, varied.  Black intellectuals should only speak on matters related to their area of scholarly expertise, or, at a minimum, should not be expected to speak about and study race.  And, frankly, we don’t really want just anybody talking about race just because they are of color.  But, given the legacy of racism and racial discrimination, even in the academy, we have an obligation to help future generations of scholars, though too few of us are concerned with anything but our own success.

Extending The Debate

I do not agree with every aspect of each debaters’ responses.  But, I appreciate that the question has been asked, and multiple view points have been offered.  One complication to which these scholars hinted, but did not directly address, is the constraints that exist for all scholars, but especially scholars of color.  Ironically, the securing of a PhD and tenure, rights that symbolically serve as protection against professional harm, have the opposite effect: they silence.  En route to securing tenure, usually around a professor’s sixth year in a faculty position, junior professors must proceed carefully in their scholarship, teaching, academic service (don’t even bother with community service), and interactions with colleagues and students (don’t bother speaking to the public, unless it’s media attention for a new publication or book).  Those six years of watching what you say while on the tenure-track follow 5-10 years of even greater silence and less protection as a graduate student.  Those 11-16 years of constraints on what we do and what we say represent an entire generation of scholars who cannot yet fully engage the academy and the world for fear of professional consequences.

This imposed silence for, hopefully, the protection of tenure to say or do whatever you want (within reason) is heightened for scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  Due to the ongoing reality of racism and other systems of oppression, one must work even harder (the “Black tax“) and be vigilant about any obstacles that may arise to hinder our success.  But, due to those traps, there are even more reasons to speak up.  Graduate students watch as their departments pay lip-service to diversifying the faculty, while they either remain just as white or faculty of color leave in droves.  Black junior faculty navigate their colleagues’ suspicion that they were hired solely because of their race — an ironic twist of the reality of racism and programs like Affirmative Action that aim to challenge it.  Sadly, I fear that even beyond tenure, faculty of color are still relatively silent and hypervigilant well into their careers.

A Personal Anecdote

Though I have a tenure-track job in hand for the Fall, my graduate student status prevents me from sharing too much from my own personal experience regarding race and racism in the academy.  But, I can speak about one “safe” example, given its public nature.  One professor in my department, Fabio Rojas, who generally does work outside of race and racism but has done such work in the past, recently blogged to clarify the misguided discourse about a “post-racial” America.  He suggests, instead, that we live in a “post-racist” America:

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture. We definitely past a time where a law can simply say “Blacks can’t do X.” But race is still around and it’s all over the place. At least we can talk about.

Ironically, even he suggests that “at least we can talk about [it].”  When I first saw this post, I was outraged.  A tenured sociology professor, who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are gone:

  • Racial discrimination is no longer legitimate.
  • Most people don’t sit around and just hate people from other groups.
  • People, though, still enjoy racial advantages.
  • Race is still a big factor in our social lives. E.g., people overwhelming marry in group.
  • It’s ok to talk about race. We can even poke fun at others.
  • Some people are still “classically racist” in that they actually do sit around and hate others, but this, for the most part, has to be done underground.

Yes, “polite” white people no longer intentionally discriminate, at least in terms of saying “we won’t hire her because she’s Black!”  But, that does not deny the everyday reality of subtle exclusion thinly disguised as something other than race (“she doesn’t have good people skills”).  He underestimates the persistence of racial prejudice in America, and just how easy it is to talk about race (e.g., without whites being accused of being racist or fearing such accusations, without people of color being dismissed as hypervigilant or overly sensitive).  The biggest flaw of his argument is missing the continued reality of racism within institutional practices: redlining and mortgage discrimination, the overrepresentation of Black and Latino men in prisons, “standardized” testing in schools, and so on.

My Own Moment

As neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart said in his Room for Debate essay, I should mind my business in this matter, short of being an “expert” on race and racism.  (So, too, should have the professor in question.)  Or, maybe this situation simply represents differing viewpoints among scholars of color: I know from research, history, and personal experience that racism is alive and well, albeit in a new form; this professor thinks “[o]verall, America is a much more humane place for many its residents.”

However, I see this as more than a matter of different opinions.  Rather, I fear every discussion about race and racism contains the urgency of life or death.  To have a tenured professor, who has studied race extensively, and is a person of color himself, suggest all is well in this “post-racist” America is to give license to breathe a sigh of relief to white America that has been anxiously awaiting their “post-racial” society.  “See, even he said racism is a thing of the past!”  I feel a sense of obligation — as a sociologist, person of color, race scholar, anti-racist activist, and human who advocates for equality — to speak up and say, “um, I beg to differ!”

But, initially, I decided keep my mouth shut.  I am three months from the completion of my PhD training, and six away from beginning my exciting new life as a tenure-track professor.  Why jeopardize a drama-free exit from graduate studenthood?

Tell The Truths

Obviously, I have broken that silence in this post.  I agree with Stephon Alexander, a physicist, that I have an obligation to act in this moment, even if I never studied race or taught a course on race.  My expertise on what is wrong, what is right, what is inclusive, what is exclusive, what is discrimination and what isn’t is not limited to literature reviews, statistical analyses, and the peer-review process of publishing.  My own experiences serve as expertise!  Given the ironic constraints of PhD training and the tenure-track, I could end up waiting forever for the appropriate “expert” to come along to call out exclusive or unfair practices, and, even when they come along, sometimes they say otherwise.

Of course, if we all speak, we may have different opinions because, obviously, we have varied experiences.  But, I would much rather we have “many voices, many agendas” than having “the few, the famous” doing all of the talking.  Unfortunately, for now, these institutional constraints silence many for too long, and, ultimately, reward those who are silent, non-threatening, non-radical — the “good” Black scholars who don’t call attention to race and racism.  We have an obligation to speak out and support future generations of scholars of color so that this form of conditional acceptance (“it’s okay that you’re Black, just don’t make an issue of it!”) is eliminated.  The utility and liberating potential of academia and higher education for communities of color depend upon the full participation of scholars of color.

And, of course, we cannot do it alone.  White intellectuals, particularly those with anti-racist politics and scholarship, also have an obligation to speak up about race and racism.  Only then will it be easier to talk about race, and the burden to start and carry on those conversations will not fall on the shoulders of a few tenured Black scholars.