Teaching About Trauma & Sexual Violence As Contingent Faculty

Photo by Erik Mayes

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. You can follow Dr. Jorgensen on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Teaching Trauma While Contingent

I have been on a trauma-research kick for a couple of years now, and the topic has found its way into my teaching. But as an adjunct professor — thereby lacking job security — I must be mindful of the potential professional costs of teaching about trauma.

I am especially concerned about teaching triggering material because I am an adjunct. I worry about complaints from students, parents and perhaps colleagues — not for mishandling contentious material (which would concern me, too), but for bringing it into the classroom in the first place.

Adjuncts often teach on semester- or yearlong contracts, lacking the job security of a guaranteed renewal and the protection of tenure. In an earlier blog post, “Adjuncting and Academic Freedom,” I reflected on how that affects my ability to teach contentious subjects: “At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor.” When we choose or feel compelled to teach about controversial issues, we become vulnerable to negative responses that could hasten the end of our time at a given institution.

Sexual violence and trauma are still, in my experience, considered edgy or controversial topics to include in one’s curriculum. While it is certainly possible to misstep by handling those issues poorly or insensitively, merely including them should not be a risk. I say this based both on their deplorable prevalence historically as well as on my work today in the sex education world, which has taught me that trauma-informed education is essential.

Based on lessons that I have learned while teaching as an adjunct about trauma (mostly related to sexual violence), I offer the following advice to other contingent faculty members.

Start creating a civil classroom environment immediately. I do not usually lead with trauma topics on the first day or even in the first week of the semester. Instead, I begin to craft a civil classroom from day one, trusting that it will support discussion of tough topics later.

I share my guidelines for discussion in lecture, and the students and I talk about whether we should add anything to this shared agreement about how to comport ourselves in class. It contains basics of adult communication: things like using “I” statements when discussing your response to topics, respecting people’s boundaries and so on.

Instructing students on how to interact with difficult topics and each other is not a panacea. But it does give me something to fall back on if I need to intervene in a discussion in which someone begins to say something that sounds like victim blaming.

That relates back to the precarity of teaching trauma as a contingent faculty member because, if nothing else, we can point at our scaffolding and preparation as evidence that we did our best to create a safe classroom environment. Our best may not be good enough when facing a hostile administration, but it is something.

Learn about and implement trauma-informed approaches. In my time among sex educators and therapists, I have learned that trauma-informed approaches are a must. That means being aware of how trauma impacts the brain and memory, knowing what flashbacks and triggers are, and understanding how to provide social support in appropriate ways. (For example, if you are an educator, then your tool set is different than a clinician’s.)

I have blogged about crafting trauma-aware interactions. Whatever the situation, it boils down to giving the people with whom you are interacting agency in terms of what and how they disclose, and not judging or diagnosing them.

I guarantee that, in most classrooms, you will have someone who has a trauma history, whether it is neglect or sexual violence. It is so statistically likely, especially compounded by intersectional factors (e.g., with college students more likely to have experienced sexual assault), that we need to adjust our teaching to account for this.

Unfortunately, most adjuncts do not have the time or resources to pursue training in trauma awareness. I have attended workshops on my own dime to acquire that knowledge. That is a disservice to students, but I do not see college administrations changing their orientation toward trauma awareness any time soon. And even if that were to change, I cynically believe that full-time faculty and staff members would see the first wave of trauma training before adjuncts and part-time faculty would.

If you only read one book on trauma, I highly recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It is my guide to teaching about trauma.

Destigmatize the experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about what counts as normal and how normativizing discourse is deployed. I appreciate Dr. Debby Herbenick’s Tumblr project, Make Sex Normal, which aims to normalize the daily discussion of sexuality topics. I also think my colleagues who take issue with the word “normal” have a point in stating that it can have negative connotations, implying that normal is something for which people should strive.

For those reasons, I prefer to think about destigmatizing the study of sexualities and its various practices/experiences. I have received some pushback here, but luckily it has not come with consequences (yet?). It has mostly come in the form of students relaying parental complaints at my assigned reading for being “trash” when it focuses on alternative sexualities.

In a gender, women and sexuality studies course I taught on sexuality in fairy tales, we did a unit on abuse and incest in fairy tales, drawing on both texts from the Grimms’ collection and recent rewritten tales. Students spoke up about their own abuse in class and how it was helpful to see trauma and abuse reflected in literary and cultural sources.

When teaching about sexual assault and trauma, I try to destigmatize the very widespread experience of surviving abuse by including statistics about its prevalence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That helps students to realize how common it is, which can lead to a conversation about how we handle the topic. Hopefully, this also makes students who have experienced it — whether they disclose — feel seen and included rather than marginalized.

I have started to incorporate trauma every semester I teach, because it relates to most aspects of human experience. While I am still learning the ropes, I believe that following the aforementioned methods has been helpful, both for my own experience and for my students’.

Recently, I did an hour-long lecture about trauma and folklore in The Forms of Folklore, my large lecture class at the University of California, Berkeley. I was only a visiting lecturer without the possibility of renewal, but I believed that my students deserved to have access to information about how trauma works and how it might impact their fieldwork experiences while collecting folklore. It was nerve-racking for me to prepare this lecture, but it went extremely well. Lots of people thanked me afterward, including a few who identified as survivors.

It can be disheartening to study and teach sexual violence and trauma, especially when faced with the apparent contradiction of administrations who are either apathetic about what we as adjuncts do in the classroom or unduly vigilant about controversial topics that might damage the brand. But students need access to this information as humans traveling a world that is rife with abuse. Knowing that this helps students makes it worthwhile for me to teach trauma, no matter how precarious my situation might be, and I am curious to hear if it is the same for others.

No Erotics Of Professing For Me

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

berkeley_faceI recognize the erotic as a powerful force. In “Uses of the Erotic,” black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource grounded in consensual sharing and exploration. And certainly, education at its best is a sharing of knowledge and skills, consensual and exploratory. The erotic also touches on pleasure and satisfaction, which I am in favor of incorporating in the learning process where possible and appropriate.

Yet as a divorced bisexual woman, I am not in a safe position to be seen as erotic in the classroom when I teach. As a sex-positive feminist, that makes me sad. But as an adjunct, I’m in favor of keeping my job. So there we go.

Bruce Fleming wrote an essay on “The Erotics of Professing” for Inside Higher Ed in which he compared professors to movie actors, stating that students will respond to our bodies the way theater audiences do to an actor, as bodies responding to bodies on a number of levels, including the erotic. And I agree that how we as teachers look and comport ourselves can impact the learning experience.

But I cannot get beyond framing it as “erotics.” Call it “theatrics.” Call it “kinesthetics.” Call it “embodiment.” Call it “metaperformativity” or any other made-up academic jargon-y name, but not “erotics.” Erotics implies sexual availability that is downright dangerous for people in certain (marginalized) identity categories. Being erotic in the classroom is of no interest to me because I am aware that, as a woman, I am already eroticized and objectified when I do not want to be — whether getting catcalled in public or getting hit on while serving on a convention panel. (Yes, that happened.)

Further, the persistence of dualism in Western culture ensures that mind and body remain mutually opposed conceptual categories. Sexuality is relegated to body, meaning that sexual beings are less likely to be thought of in elevated mental terms. This means that my students sometimes do not take me seriously or trivialize my areas of study. On a course evaluation, answering the question “What did you like least about this course?” a student once answered, “That I wasn’t dating the instructor.” No, thanks.

One can’t escape that pesky sexual connotation that the erotic has acquired. And it is here that I feel unsafe attaching it to anything that I do in the classroom. I am totally comfortable lecturing about sexual topics, bringing in my expertise as a sex educator and gender studies scholar. Those things are not about me, my body, my positioning or my sexuality.

Lorde sums up the problem when she reminds us that the erotic is transformed into a weapon and wielded in gendered ways: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.”

I contend that it is professionally risky for marginalized academics to profess too erotically, or even marginally so. Whether you are an adjunct, of an alternative sexuality, a woman — or, like me, all three — you are in danger of being interpreted through the lenses of stereotypes that haven’t died yet. Gay teachers seeking to seduce or convert students. Unmarried women with overheated uteruses. That sort of thing. Outdated, but still pernicious.

Again, I do not have a problem with being more aware of how one uses eye contact while teaching or whether one’s language is suited to the lesson plan. As a body art scholar, I agree, of course, that what we wear impacts how we’re perceived. Similarly, as a dancer and dance scholar, I could analyze someone’s posture, gestures and movement in order to describe the impressions they are imparting to their audience, however intentional.

I am not against professors intentionally shaping their image in order to have a certain impact on students and peers. How we look and sound and move is part of the whole package, and has a definite impact on how our material is received. There are always differing degrees of awareness when transmitting cultural information, on the part of the senders as well as receivers. For every stereotypically oblivious professor, there will be students too enmeshed in their own worlds (electronically aided or not) to really pick up on all the signals being thrown down. Such is life.

I see no problem in academics taking pleasure in how they look, either. I mean, it’s fun to come up with snappy conference outfits that both look professional and express who I am as an individual.

I am lucky to teach in a pretty liberal department; I do not think my colleagues would bat an eye if I brought a male or female partner with me to a campus event. But as an adjunct, I do not feel safe bringing my sexuality into the classroom in any more concrete sense than offhandedly mentioning that I am not straight and “yep, people like me exist.”

And, it’s a bummer for a lot of reasons. When I lecture about the cultural history of belly dance — a dance form I also practice — I know that students are curious about my involvement with it. The stigma and oversexualization of the dance seem too insurmountable for me to ever give in to requests to demonstrate more than a wrist floreo.

It is a shame that women instructors still struggle to get fairly evaluated in the classroom compared to their male peers, pointing at the pervasive sexism still influencing how competence is judged in the ivory tower in connection with gender (and, I’d argue, sexuality). It is a travesty that women professors receive rape threats, as Kristina M. W. Mitchell has recounted. She writes, “Gender bias in academe persists,” and it takes many forms, from misogynist evaluations to rape threats. Her experiences are coextensive with mine, rooted in (among other things) the sexualization of women’s bodies in Western culture.

In sum, I do not want to be seen as erotic (hence a sexual being or sexually available) to my students or colleagues for a couple of reasons: I want to act as appropriately as possible in light of the student-teacher sexual taboo, my contingent position and already being vulnerable to being interpreted as sexually available.

Maybe someday we can all profess as erotically as we wish because we will all be on even footing in terms of both subtle cultural judgments (like sexism and heterosexism) and job security. But I’m not holding my breath.

Campus Sexual Violence And The Adjunctification Of Higher Ed

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Alexis Henshaw is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Miami University. She is the author of Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups and conducts research on gender and armed conflict.

Adjuncts as Allies?

In the United States, a major push to deal with sexual assault on college campuses has coincided with another significant change in the higher education landscape: the adjunctification of college instruction. In 2011, a study by the American Association of University Professors estimated that 70 percent of all faculty members were contingent faculty, with over half of all instructors being part-time adjuncts.

In this environment, it is increasingly important that institutions bring non-tenure-track faculty into the fold when developing responses to sexual assault. Yet that calls into question our assumptions about the role of contingent faculty members, who are often seen as a transient presence in campus life.

I have spent 11 years teaching in contingent positions: as a graduate student, an adjunct and, most recently, a full-time visiting professor. I have also experienced sexual violence. And as someone specializing in the study of gender issues in international politics, I teach and research in areas related to gender-based violence more broadly. As such, I have noticed the conflict between an academe that is increasingly populated by term faculty and one that pledges to do better by the victims of sexual violence.

The paradox of contingency is that those of us who work in these positions often find ourselves drawn into campus life beyond the classroom, even as we are simultaneously kept at arm’s length. Contracts that emphasize that we are instructors only — without research and service obligations — belie the intertwined nature of these concepts, especially for those of us whose teaching connects with the complex social issues that our students face outside the classroom.

For me, the challenge of being contingent is not simply that I want to be an ally to students who have experienced sexual violence but also that students at times look to me to play that role. One factor that is often lost in debates about the adjunctification of higher education is that students do not distinguish between tenure-stream and non-tenure-track faculty in the same way that administrators do. This means that the go-to resource for the student who needs someone in whom to confide will probably be the person they trust — not necessarily the person with the most seniority or who has long-term job security.

For full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members especially, lines become blurred when students look to us for informal advisement. More than that, as the ranks of contingent faculty grow, some of us find ourselves counseling student groups, overseeing independent studies, even chaperoning student trips. Such responsibilities take contingent faculty above and beyond the “instructor-only” role. They also potentially place contingent faculty on the front lines, setting us up to be the authority figures that students will look to in a crisis situation.

Being an ally to students in such cases is an aspiration fraught with challenges for contingent faculty. Making non-tenure-track faculty aware of the resources on the campus for those affected by sexual violence — and keeping them updated on relevant changes to campus policies and personnel — should be essential, but this may not always happen.

To the credit of the institutions I have worked with, responses to sexual violence have always been a part of new faculty orientations that I have attended. However, that may not be the case at all colleges and universities, and especially not for adjuncts or part-time faculty members, who sometimes receive little or no formal orientation at all. Even when contingent faculty members are aware of resources for victims of sexual violence, they may not be given the full picture of campus climate. As of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education was investigating nearly 200 colleges and universities for their (mis)handling of sexual assault reports. Since higher education institutions have a vested interest in keeping such investigations low-key, faculty members who are part-time or temporary may lack valuable insight into systemic issues that contribute to the overall campus climate.

That has a potentially negative impact on students, for multiple reasons. First, surveys on campus sexual assault have generally highlighted an elevated incidence of sexual violence during the so-called red zone between the start of the fall semester and the Thanksgiving break. During this time, new women students in particular are considered vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, non-tenure-track faculty members increasingly teach the high-demand introductory courses that new students tend to take. If new students affected by sexual violence are not referred to proper care (including both short- and long-term care) and if they do not receive meaningful accommodations from their instructors, the result can be that victimized students feel overwhelmed, ultimately transferring or withdrawing altogether. In this sense, preparing faculty members to be allies takes on a sense of urgency.

Beyond the red zone, campus climate studies have also found that there are other high-risk periods for sexual assault that vary by institution. At some colleges, reports of sexual assault are higher during rush periods for Greek organizations or during winter terms when students take fewer classes and engage in more high-risk behaviors. These connections to student life are the type of issues that contingent faculty are likely to be unaware of, given their limited time on the campus. But having the full picture can help faculty members recognize when the student who is suddenly struggling in class could have something more urgent going on.

The debate over mandatory-reporter status is also particularly thorny for faculty members without the protection of tenure. In recent years, tenure-track and tenured faculty have also raised objections to the idea of making faculty members mandatory reporters — largely out of concerns for privacy, respect for the victim’s willingness to report and struggles over the ethical choices between keeping students’ trust versus carrying out an administrative mandate. While these are hard questions for all faculty members, the stakes may be particularly high for those of us without guarantees of long-term employment. What is a lecturer, visiting professor or adjunct to do when approached by a student who has experienced sexual violence but is not yet ready to report? Should they keep that student’s trust, knowing it may possibly cost them their job? It is a risk tenure-track faculty members may be more apt to take but one that could lead to termination for contingent faculty.

Adjunctification in higher education is a concern for many reasons, but the concerns associated with putting contingent faculty in the position to become mentors to students are seldom considered. That is a shame, since many of us stay in academe not just because we love publishing or standing in front of a classroom. We stay because we also want to be a positive force in the lives of our students. In my case, being an ally has meant attending a faculty reading group on sexual assault, attending events organized by student groups focused on sexual assault awareness and making many calls to administrators asking for guidance on how to deal with a student in crisis — even when I do not know the particular nature of the crisis involved. But I am aware that such efforts are above and beyond what is expected of most visiting faculty members. I also know that some contingent faculty members would struggle to take on this sort of unpaid labor at every institution where they teach.

These are the types of concerns that administrators should take seriously. A system that encourages us to demand the best of our students without also fully preparing us to be there for them in their worst moments is a flawed system. It fails to meet the needs of both faculty members and students, and in the long term, it endangers the goal of better serving students affected by sexual violence.

When A Professor Is Sexually Harassed By A Student

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). To avoid retaliation or further violence, the author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is an adjunct professor at a public university

In recent years, we have seen college administrators attempt to raise students’ awareness about sexual assault on their campuses, including what to do if it happens to them. The push we are seeing is often the result of universities trying to comply with Title IX — a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault at any federally funded education program or activity. In other words, this raised awareness is not necessarily the result of administrators’ genuine concern about the well-being of their students but often because institutions are scared of losing their federal funding.

Moreover, as colleges and universities step up to the plate, rushing to create pretty landing pages, handouts and online trainings, some miscommunication and misunderstanding about whom those laws protect remains. For example, efforts to increase awareness are focused on students, while faculty members are often overlooked. When the tables are turned and it is a faculty member who is assaulted or harassed, standing face-to-face with an attacker, what should be done?

Further, the public often hears about superiors showing dominance over a worker and using their authority to keep the victim in a state of oppression. But this model does not reflect incidents when it works the other way: when students sexually harass their professors. What does a faculty member do when they find themselves at the mercy of a student who has no regard for boundaries or authority, and who doesn’t understand that no means no?

Early in my career, at a campus where I no longer work, I was stalked and sexually harassed by a male student. At one point, he locked me in my own office and tried to proposition me. In the aftermath, I experienced firsthand how little the administration at my institution seemed to know about sexual assault and harassment, as well as how few concrete procedures were in place to help me and others in my position to deal with being assaulted or harassed.

The institution’s webpage was not very helpful at all when it came to providing information and whom to contact for help. And when I reached out to my colleagues in the administration and on the faculty, for the most part, they also turned a blind eye to my situation. Meanwhile, the harassment did not stop. I felt alone, scared and unprotected.

In the face of all that, I could have easily given up. When standing in the face of adversity, sometimes we tend to shrink. But I refused to give up; instead, I chose to rise. I spoke out to my institution about my experience and its lack of support. And I’ve continued to work to bring awareness about the issue, to fight for what I believe is right and to try to help others in my situation.

What to Do if It Happens to You

So, fellow professors and instructors, what should you do if this happens to you? What steps should you take if you find yourself standing in the middle of a sexual assault or harassment case as a victim on a college campus? Here are a few tips that I found helpful as a faculty member.

  • Make sure that all of your communication is in writing via email. This serves as both a date and time stamp that can never be erased.
  • Follow the policies and procedures that are outlined by your university. If the institution doesn’t provide a landing page on its website about preventing and dealing with sexual violence, go to the search area and type in “Title IX.” Unfortunately, this information can sometimes be hidden beneath a layer of nobody cares.
  • Remember that you do not have to allow yourself to be revictimized. You do not have to continue to sit in meetings telling your story over and over again.
  • You do have the right to legal counsel.
  • File a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in your state if you feel your case has not been handled appropriately by your employer.
  • Seek out mental-health treatment because — believe it or not — no matter how strong you may think you are, you are never mentally prepared to deal with a situation like this. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, and have worked with a therapist.
  • Most important, take some time to heal.

There is a bright side to this story. Because of my refusal to remain silent, the institution where I used to work has adopted much clearer policies on sexual assault. It has also significantly improved the information it provides people on the campus about the issue — including anyone on the faculty who might be a victim — and how to deal with it. As for me, it is my hope that by sharing a bit of advice, I can also help other faculty members who find themselves having to cope with similar experiences.

Mourning My Academic Career

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. (Many of her academic publications are available through open access here). She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and at Patheos. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Feeling Like a Failure

Have you ever looked back and realized that you were grieving, but did not know it at the time?

berkeley_face

My bittersweet return to Berkeley.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a journal issue containing an article that I had published based on my dissertation research. I almost started crying; I felt like such a failure and an impostor, there was no way I could feel good about that publication. Since then, I have written more for Conditionally Accepted about how my expectations and goals around my academic career have been changing (like not working over the weekend, or becoming a sex educator [pt. 1, pt. 2, and pt. 3]). But, I still think that there is a major piece that I have missed.

Recently, I received a bunch of notifications as I logged into Facebook one morning. I had been tagged in a post by a colleague, announcing the publication of a book in which I had published a chapter. This actually caught me off guard. Since deciding go to #altac over three years ago (see pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, and pt. 4 on this), I had carefully pruned my social media presence. I unfollowed colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, keeping connections only with those whom I considered friends, or whose work I was so interested in that it did not matter whether I felt uncomfortable being reminded that I was, by necessity, backing out of the academic job market.

I spent three years applying for full-time jobs before deciding that part-time work was okay for now, and in fact, it was better: I could focus more on writing, which I had always wanted to do, and on sex education, a newfound passion and my career Plan B. Nothing to be sad about, right?

This time, however, when my Facebook notifications went nuts, I decided to dig a little deeper. I remembered how I did not have any publications appear in 2015, which felt weird given that I had made a habit of steady publishing since I was a graduate student. Now, it was 2016, and I had a chapter appearing in a book that I was unutterably proud of which to be a part. The book, about teaching fairy tales, represents something that I am passionate about on several levels: the subject of fairy tales, the importance of teaching as a way to open minds, and the focus on gender and sexuality that I brought to that course in particular.

I was so excited for this book to arrive in the mail, which happened over a week after the Facebook notifications storm. I held it, and snapped some silly selfies with it. Those went on social media, too. And all the while, I thought: why was there a noticeable gap in my publication schedule? Why did I notice in the first place? Why do I even care? I haven’t turned my back on academia forever, but let’s just say that it would take a damn near perfect job to rope me back in on a full-time level.

That’s when it hit me: of course, I would step back from publishing the things I would normally publish. For example, the rest of my dissertation chapters as articles because there is absolutely no reason for me to publish an academic book right now. I did not realize it then, but that was a sign of grief.

Signs of Grief

Of course, I would channel my energy into teaching because I love it. And, I would channel energy into my #altac/sex ed career because I love it, and it uses my current skill set and knowledge base while pushing me to expand in other ways; I can grow it into a career that pays at least some of the bills, maybe someday most or all.

Of course, I had taken a break from doing the types of things full-time academics would do. I skipped attending and presenting at the American Folklore Society meeting last year, for the first time since I gave a paper there over a decade ago as an undergraduate.

Of course, I accepted requests to do peer reviews for journals with ambivalence.

Of course, I responded to well-meaning friends who sent me job postings with terse, polite notes stating that I was not looking for full-time academic work, but thanking them thinking of me.

And, being the stubborn workaholic that I am, I only really stopped trying to do it all in 2015 (the year when I didn’t attend AFS; the year when I had no publications come out), despite ostensibly being #altac for three years now. That is how long it took for me to slowly reach the truth of the matter. I was mourning my academic career, what it could have been, and what it likely never will be.

For over a year now, the part of me that was quietly sad about the future that I thought I had warred with the part of me that is achievement-driven-no-matter-what. And finally, when I learned to let some of that need to achieve go, I was able to be quiet and calm enough to look around, notice the life I created for myself, and feel the sadness that had been present for some time.

I should note that I am not one of those people who mourn easily or quickly. In this case, it took some other life changes to jostle me into noticing how I was actually feeling, as well as the newfound ability to sit still for more than a few moments at a time (thanks, regular yoga practice!).

Why Grieve?

The dream of a tenure-track job that is normalized for many grad students is not accessible to all of us. Yet, for those of us who internalize it as ideal, reaching the point where we can shed it and aspire to other things without feeling like failures is challenging. And because we spend so long in grad school, at least five years and maybe even ten or more, it means we have spent a long time trying on these aspirations, getting used to them, planning how to achieve them. Thus, it makes sense that we would need time to step away from them and eventually mourn them.

I believe that it is normal to feel sad about unmet goals and abandoned dreams. The longer we have spent wanting something, or working toward accomplishing it, the longer we may need to unpack the grief that may quietly (or disruptively) accompany its loss. Yet this is not something that we talk openly about or even make space to discuss. Part of the cruel situation of leaving academia is that when we leave, we leave our communities. Perhaps we still count colleagues as our friends, but the impact of leaving (whether we choose to go #altac or simply “didn’t make it” full-time) is that we often have less access to the community than when we started.

As a folklorist, I know that grieving is frequently a communal process. Look at the worldwide examples of funeral customs, mourning songs, and rites of passage that accompany the end of life as well as other major life transitions. When we process major changes, we tend to do so best with the support of our community. The internet has provided a community for many #altac scholars, but we have not necessarily developed the customs or rituals to help ease the transition and validate the sad or ambivalent feelings generated by occupying a liminal space.

Even with me remaining friends with many of my colleagues, I still had trouble recognizing that I needed time, space, and support to grieve my career. I can only wonder how other scholars are handling this same transition, and hope that they are reaching out when they are able.

The Opportunity

Around the time I was pinged on Facebook regarding the publication of the new book, I received word that I would be teaching at UC Berkeley for one semester. It is not a tenure-track job; rather, it is taking over the classes of a tenured professor while he is on leave for one semester.

I did my undergrad at Berkeley. I will be teaching in the program in which I first became enamored of folklore, and where I was mentored and encouraged to pursue graduate work.

It is a bizarre, temporary little victory: I am returning to the Bay Area for 5 months, and might even make enough money to afford living there. I get to teach in my home discipline, and perhaps inspire some young adults the way I was inspired all those years ago. But best of all, I get to do so with my #altac mentality, my understanding that maybe I won’t land my perfect professor gig anytime soon, or ever, and that it is okay to have some fun along the way.

Will my time in Berkeley help me grieve, or move through the mourning process better or differently, or perhaps even complete the process? As of this writing, on the cusp of the spring semester’s start, I have no idea. If nothing else, I think the experience will help reinforce for me the reality that being #altac does not mean never getting access to prestigious, rigorous, or neat opportunities. But what I have learned recently while mourning what my career was “supposed” to be is that grief is not linear. Just as my career did not follow the track I thought it would, grieving does not follow the simple “do it and move it” pattern that I hoped it would.

***

Grieving isn’t fun, and it is even weirder when you do not know that you are doing it in the first place. But giving myself the time to grieve my academic career — even if I just thought I was doing a bad job of churning dissertation chapters into articles — turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Academia may not have made room for me, but I made room for it within myself, in a way that I can live with. That’s been worth the emotional turmoil and the wait. Hopefully I can say the same of my time in Berkeley, come full circle after all these years.

On Solving The Tenure Problem

jamieNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Why Most of Us Won’t Get Tenure

The academic job market is bleak, as most certainly all of you reading this are well aware. Over the summer, Gawker gathered some personal stories to highlight just how bad things are out there. One adjunct wrote about how they work at Starbucks to make ends meet, while another realized the janitor at their institution makes more than they do.

This conversation in popular media reveals how out of touch those with tenure often are regarding the future of their students in the academy.

I work in the field of international relations, and a couple of pieces published over at Foreign Policy made the rounds a few months ago about what those of us on the other side should do on our journey to the ever-elusive tenure-track job. First was the piece about how to get tenure. Then some women academics pointed out how gender also factors into the experience of seeking tenure in the academy.

Yet both of these pieces focus on individual actions rather than looking at the larger institution granting tenure. In her response, which Foreign Policy opted not to publish, Laura Sjoberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, wrote in a blog pot for Relations International:

“One the one hand, this advice is solid — after all, to an extent, we all navigate the existing system individually. On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I have two serious concerns about the advice provided. First, I am concerned that providing advice for navigating the gendered system of achieving tenure without strategizing to change the system as a whole puts the primary responsibility for overcoming bias on the victims of the bias. Second, I am concerned that a significant number of the strategies provided are only available to a small percentage of those who might seek professional success as political science faculty, narrowing the spectrum of those to whom tenure might be available.”

I, too, am concerned about the lack of a larger strategy for institutional change. But I am most troubled by how the conversation seems to keep missing the biggest question. This query was raised in a post for Ducks of Minerva by Annick T. R. Wibben: “Why do we keep focusing on getting tenure when most junior academics will never be on the tenure track?”

Indeed. And I would add: Why is it that those in the most precarious position — doctoral candidates and adjuncts — are seemingly left to make a living, and discuss and resolve this tenuous academic landscape on our own, barring a few vocal feminist tenured professors?

Rather, the prospect of a tenure-track future hinges on departments renegotiating institutional infrastructure, creating a new landscape of possibilities for adjuncts and students alike. With this in mind, I offer five ways to address the reality of the tenure track today. I offer these tips primarily for tenured and tenure-track faculty, although they may be useful to graduate students and other members of the faculty as well.

  1. Tenure-track faculty must recognize openly that as the system stands, tenure is not a possibility for most Ph.D.s, regardless of merit or method. Daniel Dreznor reflected on the academic job market in Foreign Policy back in 2013, noting, “The job market is brutal. The academic job market has been abysmal for as long as I can remember, but things have only gotten worse recently. Just click here and make sure that there are no children in the room, because the numbers are so horrific they should be rated NC-17. If you’re not going to a top-20 school in your field, well, those numbers are even worse.”
  2. Talk directly with doctoral students about adjuncts, acknowledging how the labor force has shifted at your institution as well as in the field as a whole. Even a cursory Google search reveals the extent to which the university system has steadily been corporatized, class sizes have increased and the adjunct labor force has exploded. The Adjunct Project of CUNY offers a number of ways to Bring It to Class, including blurbs to put in your syllabi, ideas for class lessons, a video to show and articles about adjuncting. Directly acknowledging adjunct labor creates a safer space for doctoral students to discuss the issue with faculty members as well as other students.
  3. Know that the route to the tenure track is not an equal playing field. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the class, race and gender dynamics of tenure denial — to say nothing of getting a tenure-track job in the first place — have continued to make headlines this year. A great resource for understanding this is the book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris. One of the editors explains, “Existing academic structures facilitate different realities and rules of the game for members of historically underrepresented groups as compared to those of their white, heterosexual colleagues.” The book concludes with a chapter of recommendations and lessons, including a section on tenure and promotion.
  4. Departments should gather data about their work force and practices in the field to share with faculty members and students. They should make information about average class size readily available, as well as how this number has changed over the past five or 10 years. Departments should also make clear the number of tenure-track positions in the department versus part-time or adjunct positions. They also need to gather data about job placement of students in the department and field, especially for Ph.D. students. That information should be gathered and distributed as part of best practices for the department — not something that precarious faculty members, administrators or students are expected to investigate and report on their own.
  5. Senior faculty can use their bargaining power to address low pay, inadequate health care and a lack of job security for most of their department’s work force when negotiating contracts. Placing the impetus for change on the backs of the most vulnerable people within the system is unreasonable. As Jennifer Gaboury wrote in a Facebook status update about the recent contract negotiations at the City University of New York, “When pay was deprioritized as an issue in the last two contracts, what gets said is: that’s too big of a fight, and the support isn’t there among ladder-rank faculty — a minority of the faculty but a majority of voting members in the union. Yes, more adjuncts need to become members of the union and push for pay. So many adjunct activists that I know, having worked on these issues for years, feel alienated from this work and burned by the union.”

During the time I have been part of a doctoral program, a number of colleges and universities have negotiated contracts for adjuncts. We no longer need advice for individual faculty. We are overdue for attending to real institutional change. Hope for most young professionals in the academy relies not on following tips for obtaining a tenure-track job but rather in the solidarity from those with job security when it comes to tackling the growing insecurity of the majority of the academic work force.

At the Intersection of Privilege And Precarity

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Michelle Kweder is a critical management scholar and lecturer in Boston. Her contract expires May 31. You can follow her on Twitter at @AcademicWorker.

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Kweder photo

Last fall, not unlike other faculty members across America, I attended community meetings on my campus to listen to and show my support for black students speaking out against systemic and structural racism in higher education. Where I teach, concerns that traced back 50 years are now urgent demands. At our college’s first community meeting, I sat on the floor listening and thinking about what I still need to learn, what I can do differently in my classroom and what I can bring to the college — specifically as a white, queer, first-generation scholar.

But then my listening and thinking were interrupted by dread. I thought, “I cannot help you.” My white-privileged self thought, “This is not my fight — I have other fights.” I thought of my business school debt of $50,000 and my partner’s worsening Parkinson’s.

The privilege to dismiss racism is real. I checked it, challenged it, didn’t dismiss it and contemplated it for days. I thought about it until I knew that my privilege would interfere with my teaching as little as possible, that I would continue to teach on my learning edge. In my classroom, writing and conversations, I continued to challenge the predominant business school approach to diversity and inclusion with authors and theories that are combinations of black, of color, of less-developed nations, critical, queer, intersectional and feminist. I recommitted myself to addressing my own racism and the racism in my classroom. Not a one-and-done process, but an ongoing commitment.

And yet the precarity of being contingent faculty is ever present. Where I teach, the precarity is real for probably 75 percent of us. And even the 25 percent who are tenure track or tenured don’t feel secure in an environment where institutions are closed or, in administrationspeak, where “admissions are suspended” — and where faculty members continue to work without raises and with cuts to benefits. I see how precarity limits the ability of faculty to address the demands for racial justice issued by students.

There are ways that the struggles of black students — or, perhaps more precisely, the success of those struggles — is linked to the ability of adjunct and contract faculty to organize for job security, academic freedom and a voice in the university. Demands related to curricula, faculty training and mentoring a pipeline of scholars of color assume a stable, full-time faculty, but that assumption is false. Precarity and job insecurity impede racial justice on campuses in specific ways.

The curriculum needs to be updated. When I was an undergraduate student in the early ’90s, my professors explained to me what a syllabus audit was. Those professors weren’t always completely successful in their audits, but they were transparent and self-reflexive. My attempt to move from diversifying to decolonizing my syllabi has been a process. It is a process that does not fit neatly into a one-year contract. It is also a process better done in a community of peers and colleagues who have support and stability.

Faculty members need training. But what does that look like when faculty turn over at alarming rates? When faculty members are increasingly spread out across the country teaching online classes? Will the “rigorous training” end up being a multiple-choice test administered by human resources so that we don’t “get in trouble” — rather than difficult face-to-face theoretically guided discussions about privilege, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism and the intersections among them?

As a white woman teaching in a predominantly white university, I have found myself facilitating conversation in class about race and racism. I initiate and invite these conversations. However, when racist language is used (i.e., “colored students”) or stereotypes are reinforced (i.e., you shouldn’t go to “that neighborhood”), I do my best to ask the perfectly placed Freire-inspired question, challenge racism and create space for a “learning moment.”

But this is my first year as a full-time teacher. I’m learning, and that learning is limited by the fact that I know that, at this college, with this curriculum, and with this student population, my limited-term employment does not include the time for reflection, experimentation and redos of mistakes and failures.

Last semester, I went off syllabus to facilitate a conversation about the 10 demands students had made on the campus where I teach. Knowing it would be a difficult discussion, I grounded the conversation in the social justice theory that we had been using all semester. Despite my prior planning, the conversation veered toward a racist rant from white students who insisted they had the “same concerns” as black students. The students of color in my class were silent. I tried to question, challenge and disrupt the racism. In the end, I shut that conversation down.

What I did was not perfect, but it was the best that I could do without meaningful training. I pivoted and talked about historically and socially situated knowledge in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex and the preschool-to-prison pipeline. By creating a less racist space, I probably alienated my predominately white class. I drove home knowing that those white students were angry. I knew their evaluations of my class would likely reflect that anger.

As a contract employee on the academic job market, my evaluations need to be good, if not excellent. The market is crowded and competitive for tenure-track positions (and even low-paid contract and adjunct jobs). What I suspected about my evaluations turned out to be true: my scores are bimodal in the area of “freedom to ask questions and express opinions.” Anonymous student evaluations in a predominately white university do not encourage professors to tackle the complex issues of racism at this moment in the history of the United States, the world and the neoliberal university.

So, how can I help? I don’t know. I will have about three months to figure that out. During that time, I will be teaching three classes, submitting my dissertation research to journals, consulting so that I can pay down my student loans and searching for a job. Seven out of 10 of the professors at our college will likely have similarly demanding schedules — some with more demanding family responsibilities than I can imagine.

So, what can help all of us? We need to work together. Let’s not be pawns in the game. The faculty is not a disposable resource in the newest business model; students are not customers in a diploma factory. Students, let faculty own our shortcomings and outright failures. Be kind as you critique us, knowing that if we look tired in class it is because we are working second jobs, sometimes at multiple universities, and are always, always wondering where we will be teaching next year. If I have a blank look on my face, I might be calculating the costs of saying what I know versus what I know the university wants me to say.

Until we stop the cycle of precarity for faculty, I’m not sure we can make long-term structural changes. And until we make those changes, we cannot honestly do one of the most important things in academe: encourage students of color to follow in our footsteps as teachers, researchers and public intellectuals.