Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

A Call For Campus Safe Walks To Protect Victims Of Stalking

The following blog post, by Dr. Meghan Krausch (bio at the end), is only being published on our site, ConditionallyAccepted.com rather than on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (IHE). Meg is one of multiple bloggers contributing to our ongoing blog series on sexual violence in academia who have been asked by IHE to publish anonymously or pseudonymously for fear of a lawsuit or retaliation from the bloggers’ colleagues, department, and/or university. (Some have obliged, while others refused and withdrew their blog post from the series.) Meg has refused, opting to publish the essay here without anonymity. In what follows, Meg reflects on being stalked by a student, and calls for campus safe walks to better protect fellow victims of stalking.

Stalking on Campus: Safe Walks, Not Security

During the last week of classes of the fall 2016 semester, one of my students did something that I recognized as a stalking behavior. In the two months that followed, I exchanged dozens of emails and had several meetings with upper-level administrators on my campus about the stalking. However, almost nothing has changed.

I told my Dean and department colleagues that I no longer felt safe going anywhere on campus alone because I was being stalked and did not want to be murdered at my workplace. I was not being dramatic; murder is a real risk for someone being stalked — something I confirmed with two nationally recognized experts as I constructed safety plans. I spent the first month of the spring 2017 semester fighting with my university for accompaniment by security officers at low traffic times on campus. The university never expelled or suspended the student who stalked me; on the contrary, the administrators responsible for working directly with the student have worked hard to encourage him to continue his studies.

Throughout the semester, he attended classes as usual. Upper-level university officials in charge of security repeatedly told me that, if I was “that afraid,” then I could feel free to carry pepper spray to work because it is legal in my state. Further, they said that there is simply inadequate security to guarantee any response for anyone at 7pm at night (when my class ended); so I should, in no way, have relied on campus security to escort me or otherwise.

In the midst of all of this, eight people in my life so far — all women — have mentioned to me that they have also been stalked at some point in their lives, including one of the administrators in this conversation. It is not as though this is an isolated phenomenon or that I am the only person who will ever face this problem on my campus. Indeed, 6.6 million people are stalked each year in the U.S. according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Looking at these numbers, it is obvious that this has likely happened before and it will happen again on my campus. By refusing to make any institutional policies or changes, the university specifically avoided setting a precedent for a situation that will certainly occur again.

Is More Security the Answer — Especially for Feminists?

I am an antiracist feminist who believes de-policing is the only path to a just society. I am also an anarchist and sociologist who centers my thinking on populations who have consistently been marginalized by states and by police (which, after all, have their roots in slave patrols). As such, my understanding is that more police make a situation more dangerous rather than safer. However, the immediate need for escorting as a stalking victim put me in what felt like an outright contradiction: pushing for more security on campus. My fierce advocacy with the university on behalf of my own safety seemed to be just another example of “white feminism” — a betrayal of my previous work with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Make no mistake, the institution, as an employer, has a responsibility to guarantee me a safe workplace — one that is free from stalking. And, I do not think a prison-abolitionist feminist position requires me to relinquish that. However, it is important for feminists to recognize that we do not need to turn a call for safety into a regressive call for more law and order on our campuses, but can instead turn to another model which already exists on many campuses: safe walks. Stalking victims and others do not necessarily need a uniformed officer as an escort. All we really need is an additional person whose whereabouts are known to a central dispatch and who is equipped with a flashlight and a link to emergency services to walk us from place to place. Although it was easy for me to become caught up in the existing logic of asking for “security,” what is really needed is a proliferation of dedicated safe walk services like those that exist on many campuses already.

A safe walk service provides something closer to what a de-policed community looks like: community members connected to and looking out for each other in an organized way. And, there is no reason to wait until someone is actively being stalked to put this service in place because we can be sure that someone will need it in the future. If my campus had a safe walk service available, I could have begun using it immediately on the day that the situation began. This would have saved two months of meetings in which I tried to make plans for how I was going to get from class to class, to say nothing of the emotional toll I experienced during this period.

It is important to clarify that a dedicated safe walk service is much better than a system wherein the campus security suggest that they provide escorting to anyone upon request. One major difference is that campus security may not necessarily be prepared or staffed to provide the service (which is what happened in my case) and another difference is, of course, the one I argued above: one service is provided by a shadow police force while a safe walk is a community service.

Like most academic readers, when I imagined the challenges that I would face in my teaching career, I did not imagine stalking. I never imagined the sheer emotional exhaustion of having to make a daily safety plan with my department chair for accompaniment to each of my classes in order to be safe from my stalker in the halls of my building. In fact, I actually worked with stalking victims before I was an academic and had a sense of how common stalking is, but I still did not really think it would happen to me. I did not understand just how ill-prepared my institution was to deal with this situation. As a survivor, I am certain that if a safe walk service had simply been available on campus, then it would have been of invaluable assistance for me.

My story is one example, but I imagine that there are many people on campus in a variety of situations who could make good use of this service if it were simply available to them, without having to spend hours advocating for themselves and proving that they are in active danger as I needed to do. Safe walk services could be useful, for example, to students, faculty, and staff who are in fear when the threat of racist, xenophobic, or queer-bashing violence is on the rise on or near campus. (Think, for example, of the way some communities escorted women who wear hijabs immediately after the 9/11 attacks.) Advocating for safe walks is another case in which advocating for a service for “extreme” situations (e.g., stalking victims) would enhance the campus environment for everyone.

(Note: be sure to read Meg’s follow-up essay on advice for supporting a colleague who is being stalked on campus.)

Author’s Bio:

Meghan Krausch is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Meg studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

Periodically, we will be featuring blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Survivors Navigating Academia

Stalking

Title IX

Critiques of Campus Policies, Programs, and Culture

Intersectionality and Sexual Violence

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia:

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.

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

End Patriarchy by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate Your 2016 Victories (And Failures) As You Enter 2017

happy new year

I have seen friends and strangers declare 2016 an awful year, from the untimely passing of many pop culture icons crucial to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to the election of a racist rapist with no political experience and the global destruction that looms ahead. In the US, we have collectively experienced a tough year, and we have much to dread about the year to come. But, I think it would be unwise to lose hope; hope will be crucial as we dust ourselves off and get to work to save the country from itself.

One way to keep our spirits high as we enter a new year is to celebrate all of the good in our lives from this past year.  Many take time at December’s close to look ahead, perhaps establishing resolutions for the new year: budgeting, losing weight, spending more time with family, taking care of one’s health, giving back, etc.  But, I worry we set lofty goals for ourselves that make it easy to get down on ourselves when we fail to achieve them; and, more importantly, we become so focused on how to be better in the future that we fail to celebrate what we have already done that is good.

I believe academics are particularly hard on themselves. We achieve incredible things in our careers — publications, educating the next generation, obtaining grants, serving the academic and local community, scientific discoveries, creative works, etc. — but, the significance of these victories is undermined by an academic culture that suggests that you are only as good as your latest publication. And, the victories are so drawn out that the joy we experience is always dimmed slightly. Do you celebrate when a paper is conditionally accepted? Accepted? Forthcoming? Online? In print? What about once your department votes for you to earn tenure? Or the dean? The college? Or, the sabbatical you finally get after one more whole year of teaching?

When I graduated in early May 2013, I declined my mother’s offer to have a party to celebrate. It wasn’t “real” yet; I submitted my dissertation a few weeks later, and then defended it in June, and then completed it in July, and started my tenure-track position in August. Unfortunately, just breezing through these milestones without stopping to celebrate left me feeling weepy and ungrateful for my accomplishments by that October. I never celebrated, but I learned how crucial it was to celebrate that I was the first in my family to earn a PhD, that I am among the 1 percent of the population that is PhD-educated — and among an even smaller percentage of queer people of color to achieve such a feat, especially with a tenure-track job in hand. No matter your social location, I believe it is absolutely necessary to celebrate your successes; your institution, which measures your worth by your CV, course evaluations, and grant dollars, will never celebrate you as a living, growing, imperfect person.

Celebrate Your 2016 Victories And Failures

So, I’m taking the time to encourage my fellow academics to celebrate 2016 while also looking ahead to 2017.  Right now, open a Word document. Start making a list of all that you have accomplished in the past 12 months.  A few important suggestions first.

  1. You should probably open the latest version of your CV to remind you of all of your scholarship, courses, service, and grant activity. However, the list you are about to make should not simply be a replication of your CV. I am not encouraging listing all the ways in which you have labored as an academic; rather, I suggest listing those things that constitute a victory worth celebrating or a failure from which you will learn and grow.  (Indeed, we never include failures on our CV, so that is one important difference here.)  What is the backstory behind each milestone?
  2. Do not limit yourself to things that you produced, those things with observable results. Sometimes a publication is just a publication, but sometimes it is an important turning point in your career or even your life.  Maybe not doing something was a courageous act and should be celebrated.  And, starting or continuing a project is worthy of celebration, even it is not yet complete at the close of the year.
  3. Include professional and personal victories.  Did you find a new bae?  Got married or had a kid?  Did you end a relationship that hasn’t been good to you for years?  Did you find god or a new god or confirmed that you don’t believe in god?  Maybe it’s not a singular event, but an ongoing process like prioritizing your self-care and/or family.
  4. Suspend the voice of judgment as you make this list.  It might help to think of yourself in the third person, since we are often better at recognizing others’ strengths than our own and are our own biggest critic.  This is absolutely not the space to deny the significance of our efforts or its importance to us, or to add “but, you know, it wasn’t the top journal in my field,” or any of that academic impostor syndrome BS. In fact, this very exercise is intended to counter the voices that aim to motivate you by tearing you down.
  5. Be sure to acknowledge whether and how others supported you in achieving your victories or helped lessen the blow of your failures.  We get by with a little help from our friends.  Feeling a boost in self-worth after celebrating your victories is just as important as the boost you feel from active gratitude.  You are great, and you are loved.
  6. Save this list.  If you hit low points during 2017, you may want to revisit this list.  I hope what you will feel is a sense of accomplishment, courage, and perseverance.  I hope you will review the list and think, “damn, I did a lot!” and “wow, I was able to get through that.”  Because, you probably did.

My 2016 Victories And Failures

You’ll notice that I did not recommend sharing this list with others or publicly.  I’m not sure that such a decision will change the outcome.  I think it is useful for me to do so here as a demonstration, but, you may feel as I did when I read Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog post, “A Year in the Life of a Tenured Professor: 2016 in review” (that is, left asking yourself what you are doing with your life — or, maybe what I’m doing with my life). But, I do think it is important that we promote our accomplishments because it is professionally required and necessary for the advancement our respective communities.

You are welcome to review my list, but I ask two things. First, please do not judge me. I am not perfect, and I am figuring this shit out as I go.  Second, do not slip into the comparisons game. There is no one way to be an academic, or even a successful academic. We are all on our own journeys, with our distinct career paths and visions. You may not want what I want; we were likely dealt different hands to play in life, including my privilege where you are disadvantaged (or vice versa) and your supportive community where I am isolated (or vice versa). Since I am floundering, trying to find my way as a scholar-activist, and still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and IBS and complex trauma, I strongly discourage comparing yourself to me. You don’t know enough about the crap I have endured, the poor decisions I’ve made, and the privileges I am afforded to make a realistic comparison. This list is intended to be a model for the exercise only — not a model for being a successful (or unsuccessful?) academic.

With that said, here I go.  In 2016…

If I measure the success of my year solely by the number of articles I had published, I have nothing to show for my life during the 2016 year. But: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • My partner and I bought a house.  We’re now homowners!  Fun picture below.  (Yes, we are both named Eric.)
Source: Stephanie Prentice, our Realtor (Virginia CU Realty)

Source: Stephanie Prentice, our Realtor (Virginia CU Realty)

  • There’s been talk of getting married, but neither of us care for wedding-planning and probably will get hitched primarily for tax and legal purposes since little else will change. I’ve definitely been thinking about this since we moved and had a recent health scare that landed my partner in the emergency room.  Given the intense narrative of a fairy-tale wedding that one is supposed to dream of since childhood, I’ve questioned what it means that we’re pretty “meh” about it.  It’s only been a few years that we are even legally allowed to wed, and I’m ambivalent about needing the state to recognize us as a couple.  Inclusion in an oppressive institution won’t liberate us as queer people.  But, not marrying has real legal and financial consequences.  Kinda hard to toss and turn at night over egg shell or cream (those are colors, right?) colored napkins when the more pressing concerns are so practical in nature.
  • To compliment the traditional Western approach to treating my anxiety and related health problems (i.e., taking Lexapro), I began acupuncture, getting massages, and meditating with some regularity. I also began seeing a nutritionist and fitness trainer to work on my overall health.  I tried my hand at yoga for a few weeks, but got busy as my research picked up again in the fall.  At present, I still suffer symptoms of anxiety and can’t fit into my dress clothes; but, I am eating better, feel calmer, and can see some nice muscle development.
  • I am still pretty isolated on campus and in the community.  I have my partner as my main support network, a few close friends, and family only a 2-hour-long drive away.  And, I’ve become part of a writing group comprised of several women of color plus me (get in where you fit in, right?), and have Dr. Krystale Littlejohn as my West Coast accountability partner.  And, of course, I have many fleeting but not insignificant connections via social media.  So, while I may lack plentiful in-person friendships, I rarely feel longing for connection with others.
  • After a late 2015 publication of our article on transphobic discrimination and trans people’s health, Dr. Lisa R. Miller and I co-wrote a research brief for Scholars Strategy Network, “Discrimination as an Obstacle to Well-being for Transgender Americans.” Subsequently, I wrote my first op-ed, featured in USA Today: “Transgender Americans deserve protection.”
  • I had three articles accepted for publication (and five rejections).  They will be published in early 2017.  One is “Sexual Health and Multiple Forms of Discrimination Among Heterosexual Youth” in Social Problems, and another is “Sexual orientation differences in attitudes about sexuality, race, and gender” in Social Science Research. The third, on measuring discrimination, will be published in Social Currents.  I have almost published every piece of my dissertation!  Currently, I have four papers under review.
  • I began collaborating with Dr. Nao Hagiwara, who works at our neighbor school (Virginia Commonwealth University), on a series of papers on the health consequences of discrimination.  The aforementioned Social Currents papers is the first of many to come.  Thanks to Nao, my informal connection to her Discrimination and Health lab will be formally recognized with an affiliate faculty position with her department (VCU Department of Psychology) for at least the 2016-2017 year.  And, I have Nao to thank for reigniting my passion about discrimination research; after several rejections, I was beginning to lose hope and interest, which made the research that was moving ahead in peer-review more interesting.  But, I’m not done with you yet, discrimination and health!  There are several pieces of the puzzle that I plan to identify and put in place in this subfield over the years to come.
  • I continued to reclaim my voice as a critical sexualities scholar, reviving a paper I killed after years of a tortuous collaboration with a neglectful, semi-abusive former advisor.  I have returned to my research roots, revisiting the very topic that drew me into academia.  What was my MA thesis nearly a decade ago is now published, with two follow-up papers currently review, and the idea of a book pinging around in my head.  On paper (i.e., my CV), the outsider just sees one publication; in my heart, I feel a sense of liberation and empowerment after years of losing my way and my voice.
  • I successfully taught a second offering of Sociology of Health and Illness, appropriately refocused on social determinants of health (my area of expertise) away from medial sociology (not my expertise).  However, I stumbled in places during the semester.  There remains an overall disconnect between the sociology students and the pre-health students, with the former already equipped with proper sociological training and the latter being introduced to it for the first time.  And, this time around, I had two students with preexisting conflict that erupted in the classroom, permanently damaging the classroom dynamic; it remained a good, discussion-filled class, but many students noted holding back for fear of tension, judgment, or even being yelled at or mocked by fellow students.  I was not equipped for such classroom dynamics, but learned that I have to be, especially teaching at this small, status-obsessed, hierarchical university.
  • I had a successful mid-course review, which I needed for the year-long research leave that I am currently taking.  My research productivity is high, with the only expectation that I publish work that I have begun since working at my current institution. My teaching is critical, effective, and organized, criticized only by biased intro level students who feel any discussion of oppression is too much.  My subsequent third year review was also successful, recognizing new research that is already under way.
  • I have become more vocal as an advocate on my campus.  I wrote two op-eds for the student newspaper, The Collegian: “A love letter to Richmond students of color” and “On being trans and non-binary at UR: one (sort of closeted) professor’s perspective.” I wrote two blog posts following my university’s mishandling of two sexual/intimate partner violence cases, one critical of the institution and the other praising the women survivors and advocates who demanded change.  To my relief, they sky didn’t fall, the pink slip was never sent, and tenure wasn’t preemptively denied.  But, I did not expect to see my blog post featured in print and TV news!  Given my LGBTQ advocacy, (to my surprise) I was honored with the Office of Common Ground’s Ally of the Year award.  My voice and advocacy have reemerged after years of being beaten down by the anti-activist sentiments in higher education; fortunately, these efforts have been recognized and appreciated by others and aren’t the professional liability I had feared.
  • I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart her Sociologists for Justice initiative to use sociology as a vehicle to end racist police violence in the US.  We got a Facebook page going and had a successful, well-attended forum at the American Sociological Association meeting held in August.  But, we have gotten busy, and things haven’t progressed as quickly as we hoped.  We have proposed another forum to be held at the 2017 ASA meeting, so this work is not ending — rather, we’re just getting started.
  • I launched the Sociologists for Trans Justice initiative, which I currently co-lead with Dr. Laurel Westbrook. We held a successful, packed forum at August’s American Sociological Association meeting, from which we set an agenda for the initiative and created several subcommittees.  This initiative proves to be a fruitful one for eliminating transphobia in sociology, advancing trans scholars, and further developing sociological approaches to trans studies.
  • My sexual violence advocacy has expanded a bit beyond blog posts (like this one on sexual harassment at a sociology conference I attended and this one on trigger warnings).  I have a limited capacity to pick up another cause; indeed, I gave up on trying to make Sociologists Against Sexual Violence a formal effort because I simply didn’t have the time, energy, or buy-in from other people.  So, I resorted to using energies I already have, namely a call for blog posts on sexual violence.  Several blog posts on the subject will be published in the spring.
  • My baby (this blog) was invited to move over to Inside Higher Ed as a career advice column for marginalized scholars.  We began as a biweekly column (publishing every other week), and then moved to weekly.  Then, we began publishing a double feature of two blog posts on the first Friday of every month.  Now, we have grown so big that we have nearly a six-month backlog of blog posts to be published.  While this is a good problem to have, I am hoping that we can find some way to publish even more frequently to alleviate the long lag and capitalize on the growth of the blog.
  • I have shared my voice and experiences on other blogs, including, “Black feminism will save my life” on The Feminist Wire, “On Finding A Feminist Academic Community” on Feminist Reflections, and three pieces on Write Where It Hurts — “Radical Reprioritizing: Tenure, Self-Care, and My Future as an Intellectual Activist,” “Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative,” and, just last week, “Activism as Expertise.”  I also contributed to a chapter on LGBTQ people of color in academia in Tricia Matthew’s brilliant text, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
  • I continued to speak publicly about having suffered trauma during the course of my graduate training, and have made progress seeing a therapist and working with a PTSD workbook to process my experiences and move toward rewriting my trauma narrative.
  • With co-editor Dr. Manya Whitaker, I started an edited volume project called BRAVE, which will feature the stories of courage and overcoming of BRAVE women of color scholars.  I was discouraged from pursuing this project (especially while pre-tenure) because of the labor involved, but pushed ahead because I felt I needed to hear these stories of academic bravery.  What may not be professionally sound on the surface may be exactly what is needed for personal, emotional, spiritual, and political survival.  Alice Walker says it best: “In my own work I write not only what I want to read — understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction — I write all the things I should have been able to read.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983, p. 13).
  • My academic justice advocacy has continued to expand beyond blogging, including a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at February’s Sociologists for Women in Society annual meeting, and a talk at Hamilton College in April and another at the American Sociological Association annual meeting media pre-conference in August on using blogging for social justice in academia.  Dr. Jessie Daniels and I are organizing a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at the 2017 American Sociological Association meeting.

Overall, I am rediscovering my voice and reclaiming my path as a scholar-activist.  It feels as though I crossed another hurdle to becoming an unapologetically vocal advocate for academic justice.  It opened some door that has been closed for a while; and, I became a kid in a candy store for a while, starting more causes than I have the capacity to pursue.  I still waver between feeling I am not doing enough to make a difference in the world and feeling overwhelmed by the causes I’ve picked up to do just that.  Nevertheless, I continue to dream of a Conditionally Accepted book or some other book project about academic justice, a talk show — “Academic T with Denise” — featuring notable scholars and activists, and starting a center or organization devoted to the cause of academic justice.  But, I realize that earning tenure is hard enough without trying to save the world on the side, and even harder when that work is seen as antithetical to your scholarship.

In reviewing this long ass list, I feel confident in concluding that I had an incredible year.  The judgy, elitist academic will only see a gap in my publications for the year 2016.  (Shhh! I have at least three that will be published next year.)  But, I know in my heart that I have achieved a lot in the past twelve months — much of which is infinitely more important to my personal life and well-being than my job, and some which will never appear on my CV but is significant nonetheless.

Yes, happy new year.  But, also happy old year!  We’ve all got a lot to celebrate.

Activism As A Form Of Scholarly Expertise

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.