Why I Am Committed To Fighting Oppression In Academia

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”

A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY.  Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre.  Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).

Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me.  But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life?  Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women.  And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.

I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection.  “I’m not doing enough as an activist.  Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?”  Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me.  And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me.  But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.

The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia.  Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?”  My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use).  This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful.  But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work.  It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.

In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics.  The most obvious is that this work is risky.  And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address.  Academics ask, what injustice?  What discrimination?  What sexual harassment?  What motherhood penalty?  What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty?  The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself.  What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough.  (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)

This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself.  So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy.  Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.

Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important

Because Academic Injustice Exists

Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia.  Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression.  Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation.  These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth.  That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.

Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality

Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society.  There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality.  Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply.  Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do.  Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships.  There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.

And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level.  It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty.  Let me highlight a few examples for faculty.  Take the gender and race wage gaps.  There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions.  You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.

Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality

Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse.  Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work.  It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.

I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first.  Discrimination is a stressful experience.  Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful.  In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question.  This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills.  The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.

Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted.  It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier.  Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)

Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning

Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work.  Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning.  Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias.  Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities.  As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct.  Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances.  Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.

Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice

A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower.  First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions.  Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.

We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean.  We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.

Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)

Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime.  Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society).  We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.

But, it is not too late.  We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks.  We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.

I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.”  Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice.  We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.

Intellectual Violence In Academia

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.

Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.

As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.

There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.

I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)

But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.

Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.

On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.

Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.

Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.

Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.

Shaming Our Graduate Students

Photo by ttarasiuk

Photo by ttarasiuk

I have been quite open about the traumatizing impact of my graduate training. Here I am, on research leave during my fourth year on the tenure-track, still griping about this soul-crushing chapter in my life. In working through the trauma, and attempting to answer questions that haunt me — Why me? Why is this still affecting me years later? — I have uncovered many layers to the trauma that was grad school. Most recently, I have identified one of the most impactful factors of graduate school that explains its lasting impact: the use of shame to train me.

From my own experience, I would define shame as an intense, prolonged feeling of anguish or angsts over who I am (or who I was or who I fear I may become). I will quote Brené Brown here to state more articulately, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love belonging” (p. 69 of Daring Greatly). It is crucial to distinguish the shame that we feel over who we are from the guilt we feel because of what we have done. You can apologize and, hopefully, be forgiven for doing something wrong, but it feels as though you can never apologize enough or be forgiven for being something wrong.

Graduate training is just as much about teaching graduate students what to do (research and, if you’re lucky, teaching) and even how to think as it is about who to be. My graduate program required a three-semester sequence of “pro sem” (professional seminars) in which we learned about navigating graduate school and academe more generally. Though this is the only explicit training centered heavily or exclusively around professional (rather than intellectual, scholarly, or pedagogical) training, so much of graduate school is professional socialization. Professors are in the business of resocializing their students to become scholars, not simply to do scholarship. Unlike undergraduate education, grad students aren’t simply learning from their professors; they are learning to become (like) their professors.

The attempt to actually socialize grad students is where the problems begin, particularly for students who are radical and/or marginalized. With little training for advising graduate students, many graduate professors default to what their professors taught them; thus, they continue the legacy of creating clones of themselves rather than independent and autonomous scholars. For some, this is intentional, owing to their intellectual arrogance; for others, they don’t know of any other models and do not have the time or interest in finding or devising them. Interestingly, this sounds a lot like parenting; you either do what your parents did or you don’t because you hated the way your parents raised you. Indeed, my main advisor’s approach was to be invasive and overly hands-on in my training (sometimes spilling into unsolicited personal advice) to compensate for the neglectful training he received from his own grad school professors.

Like parents, I found that some grad school professors resorted to attempts to shame me for my decisions, my career goals, my priorities, my health status, my politics, and (at least implicitly) my identities. At the time, I simply assumed my professors just had a bad habit of making passive aggressive comments.

One professor, in an effort to make me feel bad (or shame me) for prioritizing activism, remarked — “what… too much service?” — when I revealed to her that I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I did not bother to justify that service was one of the few outlets I had to keep going in grad school. Rather, I simply said that the pressure to publish (which I started feeling as early as my first semester) was beginning to take a toll.

Another professor snidely responded, “OK, ‘Mister Activism’,” when I proposed a collaborative conference session on the social psychology of sexuality between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association. You would think I proposed a queer kiss-in at the conference to protest the discipline’s legacy of devaluing research on sexuality and LGBTQ communities.

A third interrupted my practice “elevator speech,” to ask — “we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” — after only one sentence of my introduction, that I came to academe by way of activism. Her humor did not indicate exaggeration or fiction; another professor’s public message to me confirmed her assessment of the goal of graduate school: deradicalization.

Short of concerns about limited time, I still do not understand these professors’ deep commitment to eliminating activism from my career as a scholar. I have them to thank for my record of “objective” publications. Activism has never posed a problem to my work as an academic; if anything, it has enhanced it, steering me into research that I actually care about and see myself in.

I suppose their concern is purely philosophical or epistemological (or, really, political). Unlike learning my subfields via classical theoretical pieces, debates in the field, and classical and contemporary empirical pieces, they did not offer evidence of the evils of activism. They took the approach of “trust me on this” or “don’t do activism because I said so.” They did not use the tools of scholarship to train the activism out of me, or to convince me to compartmentalize it. Rather, they resorted, from the start, to the use of shame. And, to a fair degree, they were successful in forcing me to learn to hate, be suspicious of, and feel bad about my activist spirit – the consequences of a fragmented, traumatized self. I am still struggling today to see myself as a legitimate scholar because I cannot help but be a scholar-activist. Shame on me!

I am not alone in being the subject of shame-based “training” in graduate school. For example, I know of others who were, like me, shamed for taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts school, thereby “wasting” their advisors’ investment in their careers. Professors aren’t relying on scholarly theorizing or findings to convince their students that jobs at Research I universities are the superior career path; rather, Father (or Mother) Knows Best, and you should feel bad for not wanting that life.

I have directly observed or heard about fellow graduate students being shamed for prioritizing their health, family, or personal life in general over their training. I have noticed an awful trend in the academy broadly to shame women who desire to or actually have children. Despite the possibility of balancing school with family life, some professors (or colleagues and administrators) resort to questioning mothers’ commitment to their academic careers. Mothers are left to feel ashamed if, in the end, they are not able to succeed in the academy; of course, they are discouraged from interrogating the motherhood penalty, sexism, lack of family-friendly policies, and excessive demands to publish as barriers to their ability to succeed.

Graduate programs, I believe, are using the unspoken tool of shame to force graduate students to conform to the ideal academic career. It is an incredibly effective strategy, for grad students will adopt the tendency to self-police for years after they earn their PhDs. But, this shame reflects conformity into a certain way to be a scholar — essentially, the detached and unattached (read: “objective”) middle-class white heterosexual cis man without disabilities who can put his career above all else. Shame on you if you dare to be someone else.

Post-PhD Growth: This Is Where I Stop Apologizing For Who I Am

"Not Sorry" by Alex Guerrero

“Not Sorry” by Alex Guerrero

I am embarrassed to state this… again.

My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSMcomplex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.

But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).

Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”

I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.

But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.

The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.

And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.

I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.

There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.

She Took A Stand Against Rape: My Love Letter To University of Richmond’s Sheroes

Caption: "Your favorite lying sluts." Source: Facebook.

Caption: “Your favorite lying sluts.” Source: Facebook.

Once University of Richmond’s president, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, announced the creation of the proposed Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP), among other important changes to the university’s handling of sexual violence, it all seemed a done deal.  There was nothing more that I could add to the conversation.  But, I did see that some UR students and alumni would not be satisfied until the university had issued a formal apology to CC for publicly implying that she is a liar — a common form of secondary violence against victims of sexual violence.  I doubted CC would ever get it, and she still hasn’t.  But, it does matter.  For, such an accusation, I believe, set the stage for others to harass both survivors who wrote about being failed by the university on Huffington Post: CC and Whitney Ralston.

Source: UR Collegian newspaper

Source: The Collegian, UR’s student newspaper

CC’s and Whitney’s cars have been vandalized; someone scratched the word “slut” into the hood of Whitney’s car.  A picture of CC on a Kappa Delta sorority composite was scratched out (above). This is perhaps the most minor (and cowardly) act of harassment, but I find the symbolism extremely repulsive.  The vandal has sent the message that CC is or should be blinded and silenced.  It is perfectly indicative of what these retaliatory actions intend to do.

But, the harassing messages they have received on social media are perhaps the worst of all:

Source: Facebook.

Source: Facebook.

The above former student, Evan Silverman, also privately messaged CC and Whitney: “you both are very nasty and should just keep your mouths and legs closed.”  Not only do messages like this serve to victim-blame and shame CC and Whitney and all other survivors at UR, they also serve to punish any survivor who dares to publicly talk about it and criticize the institution that facilitates sexual violence and rape culture.

I can only wonder, would people like Evan be so bold in their harassment if the university had not implied that CC was a liar?

A Love Letter To University of Richmond’s Sheroes

For what it’s worth, I want to devote the rest of this blog post to the sheroes of University of Richmond — those women (and a some men) students, alumni, staff, and faculty who have spoken up about sexual violence.  I devoted a fair amount of this post thus far to what I have done and, more so, what I have not done (due to fear).  What appears to be indulgent is actually the context for this love letter.  These courageous individuals have inspired me to do more, or at least to break my silence.

I want to begin by thanking CC for taking the time and incredible risk to tell her story as a survivor.  This entire saga began with her 9-6-16 Huffington Post piece, “There’s a Brock Turner in all o(UR) lives.” Once the story broke, the university responded with a statement to students and alumni and another to faculty and staff, both which implied that CC lied about the mishandling of her reported rape case:

While we cannot address specifically the contentions in the recent Huffington Post commentary, given our commitment to student privacy, and we respect the right of all students to express their opinion and discuss their perspective, we think it is important for us to share that many of the assertions of fact are inaccurate and do not reflect the manner in which reports of sexual misconduct have been investigated and adjudicated at the University.

Refusing to let the university have the final word, CC responded with a second Huffington Post article: “Richmond, all I wanted was for you to say sorry. But instead you called me a liar. So, here are the receipts.”  Her detailed analysis makes plain the cold, bureaucratic handling of her case, and the many times in which the rapist violated the “no-contact” by contacting or approaching her.  CC wrote a third piece in HuffPo on 9/9/16, “Fighting for yoURself is worth it: Report. Report. Report.”

I know from private correspondences with her that this has been hard.  But, CC has pressed on to demand justice.  She continued to show up at meetings and fora held on campus about sexual violence.  And, she has publicly documented the harassment to which she has been subjected.  She has refused to remain silent in the face of being failed as a survivor of sexual violence, then of stalking and harassment by the rapist despite the “no-contact” order, then of the university’s general failure to appropriately protect her, then of the university’s implied message that she is a liar, and now of the ongoing retaliation.  I pray she remains safe, both physically and emotionally, but admire her continued courage and resilience.

Whitney also courageously shared her story on Huffington Post on 9/9/16, “The Other Girl.”  She spares no detail — the ongoing horrific intimate partner violence and terrifying stalking she experienced, the university’s inability (or unwillingness) to protect her, and the gaslighting she experienced as thinly veiled concerns about her mental health.  Unlike CC who only has a couple of months left at UR, Whitney has another year and a half — but, that has not stopped her from speaking up.  In addition to the retaliation, she is being advised (or pressured?) to transfer to another school; it’s unfortunate that the rapists and abusers are perhaps not being advised to leave, rather than forcing the survivors out.  But, anyhow, what I love is seeing pictures of Whitney and CC on Facebook, happily yet defiantly sitting atop the University of Richmond sign, with captions like “your favorite lying sluts,” and “nasty women get sh*t done!”  (obviously echoing admitted rapist Donald Trump’s comment that fellow presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a “nasty woman“).

I will go on record to say that two other brave women, both UR alumni, should be honored for their hard work to successfully propose UR’s Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention: Whitney Schwalm and Gemma Pansch.  In fact, the center should be called the Schwalm and Pansch Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention.  Or, maybe the Schwalm, Pansch, Carreras, and Ralston Center for… ok, yes, it’s a bit long.  But, it would be nice to see a building named to honor these anti-rape activists to counter the overwhelming trend of naming campus buildings after white men with ugly racist, sexist, and homophobic reputations.  I digress.

Whitney Schwalm (not to be confused with Whitney Ralston) was one of the brightest, most conscious students in my medical sociology course a couple of years ago.  Toward the end of the semester, she told me about the SARP center she and Gemma were proposing, and the associated petition.  I have a soft spot for this kind of student activism given my own efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students at my alma mater, University of Maryland Baltimore County.  But, I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for the success of their proposal, just as my proposed center was never created.  Just like me, Whitney and Gemma graduated and moved on, and the university was off the hook for having to take seriously their demands.  But, as the university became the subject of national media attention for failing CC, Whitney R., and potentially other survivors, the demand to create the SARP center was reignited.  And, Whitney S. and Gemma were back to work, though they could have wiped their hands clean of fixing a university they no longer attended, perhaps eventually sending a donation or two as alumni, but nothing more.

A few weeks ago, I met Whitney S. for coffee.  She had reached out to me and other supporters about the revival of her proposal for the center.  She decided to visit her alma mater to see friends, former professors, and attend meetings with faculty who wanted to push the university to take seriously the center.  She was already incredibly mature for her age as a student, wise beyond her years; but, she seemed even more “grown” now.  Whitney told me about her busy agenda for that weekend; she was here on business.  She seemed so focused and so determined, but, above all, so committed to make UR a better place.  I feel such incredible pride in seeing a former student’s activist work become a reality.  How many women in their early 20s (or any age, really) can say that they successfully demanded the creation of a campus rape crisis center?

Of course, others have lent their support, as well.  Countless alumni have spoken up or threatened to withhold donations to force the university to do better in supporting survivors and preventing sexual violence.  Two faculty members in the Jepson school for leadership, Drs. Crystal Hoyt and Thad Williams, created a faculty committee to address sexual violence on campus.  And, under Dr. Mari Lee Misfud’s leadership, the WGSS program has developed an 8-point plan to address sexual and gender-based violence [download it here].  Students have spoken up at meetings held by administrators, or held their own meetings to plan actions, and held other forms of protest around campus. And, kudos to Collegian editor, Charlie Broaddus (a former student of mine) and his staff at the newspaper for tirelessly covering sexual violence on campus.  For a campus with a reputation for being in a bubble from the rest of Richmond, and with little history of campus activism, I am in awe of the ways in which the UR community has spoken up to demand change.

My hope is that this saga rewrites UR’s narrative around sexual violence.  My dream is to see a student researcher conduct a historical analysis of sexual violence and responses to it (especially student and faculty activism) of the university, like alum Dana McLachlin’s analysis of LGBTQ history and culture on campus.   I want future students to know these names: Carreras, Ralston, Schawlm, Pansch, Misfud, Hoyt, Williamson.  I want us to mark 2016 as a major turning point in our university’s history, when we went from one of nearly 300 schools under federal investigation for mishandling Title IX violations to a model, rape- and rape-culture-free institution.  This could be the point at which we offer another, perhaps more pressing Richmond Guarantee: that, just as every student is guaranteed one summer fellowship for research or an internship, each student is also guaranteed safety from sexual violence in their 4-6 years as a student at UR.  Or, maybe this can be the year that we stop shrouding the crisis with silence and, instead, commit to regularly having open, frank, critical discussions about sexual violence; can you imagine something more than the obligatory 3-hour-long training on “don’t rape,” something like a “themester” of critical courses across various disciplines on sexual violence?  What if, rather than being complicit in rape culture, we equipped UR students to lead the next generation of anti-sexual violence advocacy, especially in light of the real threat that an admitted predator may be our next US president?

I can dream.  For now, I will continue to be inspired by these women and their supporters.  If they are capable to move an institution even a few inches, I am hopeful that we can move it by miles in the future.

Black Feminism Will Save My Life

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Note: this blog post was originally published on The Feminist Wire (TFW).

Like most Black folks, I have a Black woman to thank for my existence (my mother) who, in turn, has another Black woman to thank for her existence (my grandmother), and so on. I have them, and my aunts and older cousins to thank for my survival in this oftentimes-hostile world. Black women babysitters, neighbors, friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues have educated me, protected me, supported me, advised me, and loved me in childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood. Now, as I fumble through my academic career, simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of grad school, survive the tenure-track, and thrive as a scholar-activist, I have Black women researchers, theorists, and writers to lean on during my journey. Indeed, Black feminism will save my life.

The Gifts of Black Feminism

I was introduced to the framework of intersectionality and Black feminist theory more generally, as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). In one assignment from my upper-level Women and the Media course, taught by Elizabeth Salisbury (a white anti-racist feminist instructor), I reflected on my intersecting sex, gender, sexual, and racial identities. I still remember being blown away by all that I learned in my Women’s History and Black Women’s History courses, taught by Dr. Michelle Scott (a Black woman history professor); I was shocked by how little I knew about Black women’s involvement in the abolition, suffrage, feminist, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements. Although Black feminism was not treated as a central theoretical framework in most of my graduate school courses, it has remained a focal point in my own research, teaching, and service.

Graduate school – MA and PhD in sociology from Indiana University – is where I first discovered the toxic, soul-crushing nature of academe. This training was not a period of self-discovery and consciousness-raising; if anything, grad school was set to “beat the activist” out of me, to de-radicalize me as a scholar-activist and to sever my ties with my communities. With only one Black woman professor on faculty and very little support of critical intersectional work, my graduate department was not a place that was a welcome home for Black feminists and womanists. These years were soul-crushing – even traumatizing; now three years later, I am seeing a trauma-certified therapist and taking Lexapro for the ongoing generalized anxiety disorder. I was knocked out of my metaphorical Black feminism life raft and nearly drowned as a result.

The Gift of Self-Definition

Late in my last year of graduate school, and subsequently in my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I rediscovered the life-giving force of Black feminism. In a blog post, I wrote about Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’s 2012 book, On Intellectual Activism; I devoured every word of her book as it named the kind of work I aspired to do (intellectual activism) and made such work seem like a natural extension of the career of Black feminist scholars. Her book reintroduced me to the core components of Black feminist theory, which she articulated in her book, Black Feminist Thought – in particular, the intersections among systems of oppression and the importance of self-definition for Black women. I took up her notion of self-definition in declaring that I am pursuing my career in sociology on my own terms – inherently activist, or nothing at all.

Unfortunately, self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the academic status quo. At any given moment, I waver between fear of my grad school advisors’ warning that I will be irrelevant (to mainstream sociology) and smugness as I intentionally buck the system. It is an unfair burden to have to weigh between keeping my job and liberating my communities.

The Gift of Liberation from Oppressive Institutions

But, Black feminism has somewhat eased this ambivalence. The good Lorde – Audre Lorde – once wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Though telling myself that I am simply working within the system to enact change has helped me to sleep at night, I realize that playing by the rules of the Ivory Tower serves to perpetuate the status quo in academe and society more generally. How can I expect to challenge academic injustice by reinforcing unjust practices? Lorde once said that “your silence will not protect you” – a powerful phrase prominently displayed on a bumper sticker on the very laptop I am using now to write this essay. Lorde has shattered any naïve notion that playing it “safe” in academe will ever ensure my safety, livelihood, and status. To be a good little mainstream sociologist is to be complicit in the discipline’s racism.

Yet, contemporary Black feminists have been incredible role models for avoiding the seduction of letting the academy validate my existence. Oh, and have I been seduced, even to the point of internalizing the view that I am only valuable as a member of society so long as I publish and that leisure and relaxation are tools of the devil. I am thankful that a friend, Dr. Abigail A. Sewell, introduced me to The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure – Without Losing Your Soul as we were finishing up our respective dissertations. A couple of years later, I found myself having a phone conversation with the book’s lead author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, to ask for advice about moving my blog, ConditionallyAcepted.com, to InsideHigherEd.com, which also features her biweekly academic advice column, “Dear Kerry Ann.” Through a series of conversations with her, as well as various resources produced by her organization (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity),I have been inspired to let my big dreams and goals guide me, rather than being driven (or coerced) by external validation like tenure and promotion.

Similarly, I was inspired by Dr. Zandria F. Robinson who, when under a national conservative media attack on her online writing (and character, politics, appearance, and menstrual cycle), had the last laugh as she maintained her value and integrity no matter the institution that employed her. Academic institutions, as with any social institution, were overwhelmingly built by and for wealthy white cishet men without disabilities, and they continue to systematically exclude and exploit everyone else. I will never be free if I live my life defined by institutions that hate me and people like me. Perhaps because of the simultaneity of and intersections among racism, sexism, and classism, many Black women have never been under the illusion that an institution will value, liberate, and uplift them; instead, some have taken to carving out safe spaces in these hostile institutions or creating their own institutions and organizations outside of them.

The Gift of Positionality

Black feminists’ emphasis on positionality – that is, recognizing how one’s intersectional social position shapes one’s view of the world – has allowed me to embrace the influence of my personal biography on my scholarship. Through my graduate training, I was taught that legitimate sociological scholarship focuses on social institutions (e.g., medicine), not social groups – especially not marginalized groups. I was encouraged to embrace a professional identity as a medical sociologist who just happens to study Black and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and women; I was discouraged from being a sociologist of sexualities, of gender, or of race. The greatest suspicion of all was of sociologists who were not simply experts on some group, but were a member of the group: Black sociologists, queer sociologists, feminist sociologists, disabled sociologists, fat sociologists. Having expertise “of” some sociological topic creates enough distance between the presumably objective sociologist and her research. But, to be your topic threatens the appearance of objectivity.

It has taken me a few years to actually embrace my positionality in my scholarship. Yes, I am Black, and queer, and non-binary, and fat, and a feminist. And, my work as an activist – to advance these causes and liberate these communities – is the primary motivation behind my research on sexualities, gender, race and ethnicity, and weight. I have Black feminists to thank for taking objectivity to task and for celebrating positionality rather than pretending to be objective. My work has become easier now that I allow myself to say I am a Black queer sociologist (who happens to study health), rather than forcing the label “medical sociologist” (who happens to study race, ethnicity, gender, and sexualities).

The Gift of Self-Care as a Political Act

Black feminist writing about self-care will save my life. This self care is different from the neoliberal “life hack” and yoga-and-mindfulness-fad stuff that fills my Facebook feed. As Lorde argued, self-care is a political act; the audacity of self-preservation within institutions and a national context that is set on eliminating Black women is a far cry from white middle-class folks’ efforts to make their privileged lives just a little bit calmer. When racial organizations slant toward the plight of Black cishet men, when feminist organizations champion the causes of middle-class white cishet women, when the rest of the country doesn’t give a damn either way – Black women are left on their own to simply survive from day to day. Self-care as a counter to others’ efforts to eliminate you is nothing short of an act of warfare.

Black feminism’s emphasis on self-care has forced me to rethink how own efforts to survive and thrive – how I approach and conceptualize them. It convinced me to critically analyze the features of graduate school and the academy more generally that left me with a PhD, generalized anxiety disorder, and complex trauma at the end of my graduate training. Had I been aware of the oppressive structure and culture of mainstream academe from the start – the pervasive micro-aggressions, the devaluing of scholarship on my own communities, the elitist emphasis on Research I careers, and the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me – I may have been better prepared with ways to preserve myself. Hindsight is 20-20; now, I am better armed as I take on the rough road of the tenure-track. I have sought out mental health care, I have looked for supportive critical communities, I have taken on new ways to embrace authenticity in my scholarship, and so forth. Thanks to Black feminists, I am aware that my survival falls in my hands alone; I could find myself dead or near-death on the other side of tenure if I continue to naively assume my department and university cares about my well-being beyond my CV.

The Gift of Entrepreneurship

Beyond simply surviving, I am grateful to Black feminist friends and colleagues who have modeled for me bravery in the face of vulnerability, invisibility, exploitation, and extinction. Since starting Conditionally Accepted, I have become connected with a wide network of smart, critical, and creative people. And, I have noticed an interesting pattern: most of the scholars who are successful public intellectuals and academic entrepreneurs are Black women. Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own educational consulting business, Blueprint Educational Strategies. Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro runs her own business to help academics develop alternative careers (“alt-ac”) – Beyond the Tenure Track. Dr. Michelle Boyd started and runs Inkwell Academic Writing Retreats. Dr. Chavella Pittman runs workshops on bias and incivility in the classroom through her business, Effective & Efficient Faculty. Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming is just beginning to offer professional development workshops. And, of course, there is the Oprah of professional development, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder and CEO of NCFDD.

Giving Back

I would be remiss to devote this essay solely to the gifts I have received from Black feminist scholarship and activism. To me, Black feminism is not simply an ideology and movement from which others (including me) passively benefit. To be a Black feminist is to be committed to advancing intersectionality, positionality, and self-definition and to liberating all Black women. And, to be an ally to Black feminists, I feel a sense of obligation to use my generally privileged status as an individual often perceived as a cisgender man to live into this commitment.

I am still figuring out what that means for the long-haul and on a day-to-day basis. At the baseline, I regularly draw upon a principle of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (for which I sometimes volunteer) to ask, “How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include people and communities of color?” – tailored to ask specifically about Black women.

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black girls, women, and femmes?

Failing to regularly prioritize the inclusion, support, and advancement of Black women means that white cishet masculinity pervades as a norm, as the default; attention to Black women comes up only when they demand it or when the dominant group bothers to attend to diversity (which usually fails to consider intersectionality). When I plan events on campus, I aim to center the voices of women of color, especially when the topic at hand disproportionately affects them and/or affects them in unique ways. For example, I have begun organizing workshops at academic conferences on supporting intellectual activists and protecting them from professional harm and public backlash; since women of color have been the most vulnerable to these attacks, I have centered their experiences. When Black women panelists are available, I center their voices; when they are not, I cite their work and refer to their writing for further information.

Perhaps my biggest commitment to Black feminism to date, at least as a scholar, is the co-editing of an anthology that will celebrate academic bravery among women of color scholars. With my colleague and friend, Dr. Manya Whitaker, I am currently collecting narratives and creative works from women of color academics that reflect upon times that they spoke up, took risks, reconceptualized what it means to be a scholar, advocated for change, overcame adversity, etc. The inspiration from this work came from a comment that Dr. Brittney Cooper casually made as a fellow panelist at the Parren-Mitchell Symposium on Intellectual Activism at the University of Maryland in April 2015. She remarked that there was too much cowardice in academy, and that what we need to best support intellectual activists is more academic bravery. As far as I have seen, no one else is talking about this, despite the widespread culture of fear and risk-aversion in academia. But, from my observations, some of the most innovative, entrepreneurial, creative, and all-around badass scholars today are women of color. I am incredibly moved by their individual and collective bravery and want to document and celebrate it; I want to put it into a single book (for now) so future women of color scholars will already have a manual for being brave, hopefully forgoing years of floundering, fear, isolation, self-doubt.

This is just the beginning. I owe my life to Black women and Black feminism. They gave me life. They have sustained my life. They inspire me. They care for me and love me. Black women rule the world – I’m just doing my part to see that the rest of the world wakes up to that reality!

Advising As A Form Of Activism

Wendy ChristensenWendy M. Christensen is an assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University. Her research interests center on how inequalities and institutions — like the media, the military and the family — contribute to limiting political engagement. You can follow her on Twitter @wendyphd.

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Undergraduate advisement is a chore that few academics want. Advising means more emails, more questions and more meetings. The weeks leading up to registration will be packed, and students will email into the summer months with questions about registering. Despite this time and energy, advising often does not count much toward tenure, reappointment and promotion.

But I admit it — advising is one of the best parts of my job. I love teaching, but connecting with students one-on-one gives me the opportunity to know them as people. Advising is more than guiding students through graduation requirements and academic bureaucracy. It is one of the most powerful ways we can reach vulnerable students who need guidance to get through and succeed in college. Frankly, advising is one of the most important kinds of activism that we do as professors.

Through advising, I have learned that most of my students work full time, and many have children and family to support. Most pay for college through a patchwork of loans and grants, and some get to classes via a patchwork of public transportation, after working night shifts. These are our most vulnerable college students. First-generation students are often a single crisis, job move or financial change away from a failing grade — and from dropping out of college altogether.

First-gen students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds diminish overall school retention rates and are the most likely to drop out of college. In fact, only 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school, according to the Pell Institute. The reasons for this are numerous. For one, first-gen students might have less support off campus and lack necessary support on it, as well.

American colleges and universities are built on the premise each college student goes to school full time, only works part time (if at all), lives on campus and does not have a family to support or care for. Colleges measure completion rates in terms of graduating within four to six years, even though that milestone is difficult to achieve for many nontraditional students.

Even with precollege orientations, success in college requires “college capital” that too many of these students lack. They do not necessarily know what is expected of them, what terms like “syllabus” mean or how to study independently.

When facing a room of first-year students, I try to remember what it was like for me, sitting in my first graduate seminar, feeling ashamed that I did not know what “peer review” meant. We must remember that all of us come to college with different or even partial and limited knowledge.

Most often, first-generation college students do not realize that there is support on campuses, including tutoring, counseling and other services and resources. Many tend to be too shy or proud to seek out help, and they are the shiest about advocating for themselves. Combined with their already vulnerable socioeconomic position, it is not surprising that most of them drop out.

Retention research shows that connections with faculty members outside the classroom make a huge difference in whether a student drops out. If we want to help marginalized students through the often-overwhelming and mysterious process of earning an undergraduate degree, advising is one of the most powerful ways that we can do it.

The one time that I get to connect with each of my advisees is during their registration advisement meeting. At the beginning of that meeting, I always ask a crucial question: “How is your semester going?” I make sure to turn from my computer and make eye contact with them, listening to their answer carefully. I ask follow-up questions. Are they having a typically busy semester? Are more serious issues brewing?

I am not always prepared for what my advisees say, but the following come up with regularity and I have developed ways to respond:

  • If they express exasperation with a certain course, I give them strategies for talking to the professor and getting other help.
  • If they dread their data analysis course (which is frequently the case), I talk with them about tutoring resources, opening up a bit about my own math anxiety.
  • If they are having an issue — say, an illness or a crisis — that impacts all of their classes, I call the dean of students on their behalf to make an appointment so that appropriate documentation can be provided to all their professors.
  • If a student has lost their job and child care, then together we call the child care center on campus to ask for resources to help out.
  • If athletes open up about the crushing stress they are feeling, I validate those feelings, explaining that no one can deal with so much by oneself. I get the counseling center on the phone for them and follow up with their coach.

Other times, a student might explain that she is being stalked by an ex and that she is afraid to go to her night class. Together, we will call campus security and get someone to walk her to and from class. Student veterans often notice the many war-related books in my office and open up about their service. I refer them to our veterans’ center, recognizing how difficult a transition it is from service to college. And sometimes I am able to call financial aid and start the emergency aid process for students. Given my own problems with financial aid in college — many times I was deregistered from classes because loan money had not trickled in yet — being able to help out feels great.

Of course, those students could do such things on their own, but they often do not know what resources are out there or whom to call, or they are afraid to pick up the phone. First-gen students, in particular, often do not know what resources are available on the campus or what various offices do. They need to know not to feel ashamed if they need help. I open up with my advisees and share my own college history of anxiety, failed classes, financial struggle and the like, so they see that someone who has experienced those hurdles can succeed.

Following up with your advisees is vital. After I meet with a student, I send them an email with meeting notes and instructions for next steps about an issue with counseling, another professor or the dean of students. The email also includes a list of campus resources. They can use the email as a to-do list and reply to me if they have further questions.

Yes, this is a lot of exhausting emotional labor. And we know it largely falls on women faculty and faculty of color. Perhaps part of our reluctance to counsel students has to do with all that emotional work we must do when we advise. In the classic model of college education, we professors are to impart students with knowledge from a safe distance, lecturing to a sea of faces in a lecture hall. Mentorships ought to focus on learning and knowledge, planning a course of study for graduation. There is no room in that model for what might seem like hand-holding and mollycoddling. But if we want college to work for everyone — especially students on the margins — we have to teach to, and advise for, those most vulnerable students.

It is possible to advise students by meeting with them, looking at their record, telling them what classes to take and sending them on their way. I am sure that describes a lot of advising. But advising can be so much more powerful — and even a form of activism to challenge existing class-based disparities in higher education. It is an opportunity for us to reach first-generation and marginalized students — those who often do not have support systems and safety nets in place. This is one place in which we can make a huge difference as faculty members.