A Time for Arrogance

“No. 1 in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebody-ness.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

This time last year, I was spreading my wings in the big, bad world: I was a clinical psychology graduate student on the market for a tenure-track faculty job at a major research university who still believed in fairness in academe. Once interviews were over one month later, I was glued to the Psychology Job Wiki, praying for daylight to come so my job-search nightmare would end.

Since long before entering the job market last year, I have struggled with my own somebody-ness while perplexingly being accused of arrogance. Being acutely aware of my shyness and personal insecurity, I felt as if I have worn the scarlet letter — for Arrogant. But in reflecting on my experiences on the job market last year, I’ve recognized the value of fostering quiet arrogance as a woman of color within a system that would rather I didn’t exist.

It is with this newly adopted arrogance that I recount my experiences on the job market to highlight systemic discrimination in academic job searches. In exposing my naïveté and wounds, I have hope for our collective sanity as scholars who continue to be marginalized.

Job Market Expectations and Realities

As a black woman who developed cultural betrayal trauma theory — a framework that implicates societal inequality in the outcomes of violence within minority groups — I expected to experience discrimination before I received campus invitations. Mindlessly assuming my application dossier would eliminate me from consideration in departments that devalue the work of women of color, I looked forward to in-person interviews free of discrimination.

And although the job market was painful, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many positive experiences I had in this process. In the first round of applications, I received six phone or video interviews for faculty positions and three on-campus visits. At various points throughout the interview process, I was shocked by the level of respect I was shown from senior and high-status faculty, junior faculty and graduate students, both of color and white. The professional connections I made at multiple departments have resulted in a growing network of collegial support and respect.

Yet alongside those positive experiences, I also experienced discriminatory behavior throughout campus visits. The first was when a white male faculty member told me that I had explained my own theory on cultural betrayal trauma incorrectly. Next, a senior white female faculty member described cultural betrayal trauma theory to me as my “ideas” with air quotes and expressed her concern that my work was not scientific enough for that top-ranked department. Finally, while I was explaining how cultural betrayal can occur in rapes perpetrated by black men against black women, a white male faculty member interrupted me to suggest that being raped by a black man is simply worse for any woman, black or white.

Perhaps because I had expected kinship from minority faculty, my most painful interaction came from a high-ranking male faculty member of color. In probably a genuine attempt to help me, he expressed concern that publishing my researchfindings for the general public would undermine my academic credibility. Painting a one-dimensional picture of university life, he suggested that academe might not be for me. Having not expected such comments from a faculty member of color, I felt a profound cultural betrayal. Even though I can sympathize with the compromises he has had to make as an elder in the field, to this day, I have yet to forgive him. Yet to heal.

Those experiences were exclamation points amid an ongoing barrage of condescension. I remember leaving interviews, thinking, “Am I stupid? They’re talking to me like I’m a complete idiot.” I checked in with my white colleague allies who told me they were sure everything was going fine: You’re qualified! Your CV speaks volumes, and you explain your work so well!

What I Learned

It was not until the interviews were over, with no job offers, that I reached out to faculty of color. I was validated: they told that I wasn’t crazy (well, except for assuming that I wouldn’t experience discrimination while interviewing –that was a little crazy). I was reminded of things I already knew but had somehow forgotten: the ubiquity of antiblack microaggressions; critical race theory, which centralizes the experiences of people of color (not their supportive white colleague allies); and the vast literature detailing the toll of perceived discrimination.

Facing impending unemployment in a field I had spent 10 years preparing for, I went through my second wave of applications. I received two job offers, ultimately accepting my current position as a fellow in the Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Wayne State University, with placement at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.

The campus visit was unlike most of the others. I was not subjected to any open discrimination. I was spoken to respectfully, with my expertise valued. This interview resulted in a speedy job offer, with a negotiated, stellar start-up package. With one semester done, I feel I am working in a nontoxic environment — a rare academic feat I was unsure was possible after my experiences last year.

Returning to My Arrogance

I do not envy those academics currently on the job market. Nevertheless, the threat of attacks on marginalized scholars is ever looming. Therefore, at a time when so many of us are being explicitly and implicitly devalued — as humans, souls and scholars — I hold my arrogance close to my heart. Instead of waiting for them to please just notice my value, I know who I am and what I have to offer. With my diplomas and awards strewn across my office, I make the decision to not feel ashamed for being good at what I do, while continuing to possess the rebellious perseverance that I hope will carry me for a career to come.

Will you join me?

Bio

Photo of Jennifer M. Gómez

Jennifer M. Gómez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Wayne State University Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute. She developed cultural betrayal trauma theory to examine outcomes of violence in minority populations.

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Jennifer M. Gómez

My Journey With Department Service

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Ph.D. candidate at a large public university.

I was at a brunch hosted by graduate students of color when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at a historically white university in the Midwest. The students shared refreshingly real stories and praised the department’s racial climate committee. This brunch, an act of service by students of color, was the highlight of my visit.

But for students of color, doing service has a dark side. Service can make us hypervisible as problems and invisible as scholars. Unfortunately, it took me four years to learn that lesson.

As a black woman, I believe we should “lift as we climb.” So once in graduate school, I became a service superstar. I sat on panels, sent welcome emails, organized food orders, located paper plates and sent Doodle polls. I called out faculty members when I thought it would help.

I served on the racial climate committee for three years. I helped to revitalize recruitment of underrepresented graduate students, respond to microaggressions committed by white graduate students and support efforts to increase the proportion of faculty of color in our department. I did this while doing typical graduate student work like taking and teaching classes, submitting institutional review board proposals, doing fieldwork and publishing articles.

Being Both Hypervisible and Invisible

My service experience had fantastic highs and concrete results. Our gatherings made us feel better, and we convinced a few prospective students of color that our campus could be a place for them, too. Faculty members said nice things in meetings that made it sound like they “got it.” It felt like my efforts were making a change.

Service also helped my departmental comfort level. As a first-generation college graduate, I often felt insecure as I tried to master ways and skills of interacting that were foreign to me before college. Participating in meetings with faculty members made me feel like I belonged.

But the lows of service outweighed the highs. I already felt hypervisible in my department’s hallways, which were dominated by white faces and by people who routinely confused me with other black women. Doing service made me visible in another way: as the outspoken black woman in meetings and the author of countless emails.

Worse, my hypervisibility as a brown body and as a symbol of “those activist grad students” came with the twist of feeling invisible as a whole person, or even as a scholar. Around my fourth year, I realized that, for all the appreciative nods that faculty blessed me with in meetings, I still could not fill my dissertation committee. When I met with professors who seemed to be an intellectual fit, I encountered indifference. When I met with professors who did support my research, our conversations dissolved into rehashing campus climate controversies. My service was haunting me, even when I wasn’t working on it.

Feeling drained, I stopped doing service. I realized that I was contributing to a disturbing pattern where students of color give of ourselves until we are running on empty. Fortunately for the department, another student of color is usually waiting to serve. The department benefits from our labor while we pay the costs.

How White Departments Avoid Substantial Change

In fact, historically white departments can rely on the physical and emotional labor of students of color to mask larger racial problems. Graduate students of color are often tasked with recruiting other students of color. We are expected to support undergraduate students of color who are harmed by racially insensitive curricula. We are tasked with explaining to faculty members (ad nauseam), that yes, a student of color on campus faces challenges. Undergraduate students of color flock to us for care and emotional support. Those of us who study race are called on to help instructors with no expertise in the subject improve their teaching. This unseen labor is particularly high stakes as more universities turn to mandatory diversity coursesto ease racial tensions on campus.

As graduate students, we do this service from a precarious position. Faculty members hold direct power over graduate students. They approve our teaching, stamp our dissertations and write recommendation letters. In a very real sense, they control our academic fate. Asking those in power to change their practices is a big risk.

Our service may create the illusion that change is happening. Our service adds some brown faces for webpages and keeps some undergraduates happy. But ultimately, our service exempts faculty members from making substantial changes to the structure of the department. Departments need to be changed by faculty: tenured faculty members who have power and a long-term relationship with the university and, ideally, white faculty members who are allies and not already disproportionately burdened by service requests.

Deciding What Works for You

So if you are a graduate student of color, what should you do? I would not advise you to refuse all service. Service has benefits, like making small improvements for your community, generating hope and fostering ties to colleagues and staff. But as you consider service, first refer to some of the great advice for tenure-track faculty of color.

Then continuously ask yourself these questions: Are your contributions making things better for the people you care about? Are your contributions impacting faculty practices and resulting in substantial change? Do you have as many faculty members supporting your research and teaching as you do cheering on your service?

In short, do the benefits of your service outweigh the costs?

Black Motherhood in Academe

“If we had known you were pregnant, we might not have let you into this program — and we would have made a mistake.”

“This is your first child? Maybe you should drop this class. Statistics is a challenging course, and when I had my first child …”

“Your second child? Congratulations! That’s enough now. Two is enough.”

Such comments made it clear to me that academic spaces have firm expectations that career and motherhood are separate. I couldn’t help but also wonder how my race and gender shaped the narrative that people wrote about my choices.

The social ownership of black women’s wombs is not new. Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that black women’s mothering has been denied and regulated for centuries — from slave owners’ economic stake in black women’s fertility to the social politics of excluding black women from any dialogue about reproductive rights. Everyone has an opinion on how to control black motherhood, leaving us conflicted and stressed in workplaces across the United States. In academe, the alleged home of intellect and forward thinking, I was wrong to expect more.

As a medical sociologist, I am hyperaware of the health problems facing black mothers. Contemporary statistics on the mortality rates of black mothers and their infants are startling. Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black mothers are more likely to have preterm deliveries than white women.

Sociologists admit it is typically difficult to disentangle the effects of race and socioeconomic status on a given social problem. But when it comes to motherhood, it is clear that unequal outcomes are driven by race.

For example, research suggests that increased income and education are associated with lower rates of preterm births for white women but not for black women, and that infants born to low-income white mothers have better outcomes than those born to high-income black mothers. And it’s more than just differential access to community resources, as the data also show that high-income black mothers living in white neighborhoods are actually more likely to have low-birth-weight babies than high-income white mothers in white neighborhoods and low-income black mothers in black neighborhoods. The stress of racism, then, has an impact on black mothers that affects their health and that of their unborn children.

When I started graduate school, I felt prepared for the stressors many black women attending predominantly white institutions face, and I was not naïve about how challenging this experience would be. Graduate school is a time of heightened precarity, intellectual insecurity and stress. Black students may be more likely than white students to deal with complex family and personal situations during their graduate career, and they are also less likely to receive adequate mentorship.

Although I certainly dealt with the challenges of being a first-generation Ph.D. student, I had mentors who set the bar high yet created space for my academic babies when I chose to start my family during graduate school. One reason I made this choice is the widespread perception among academic women that graduate school is the best time to have children. If that is true, then academe needs a lot more work.

One week after having my first child by C-section, I was sitting on my living room floor doing a statistics problem set with the help of two colleagues: one studying with me, while the other held my newborn. Just two weeks after the surgery, I was back in classes — theory, methods and statistics. It was physically and emotionally painful, but unfortunately, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an aspiring academic, I felt it was my only choice. At that point, I understood two things about my academic path: racialized motherhood comes with certain expectations, and mainstream organizations were not built for mothers.

The university’s maternity leave policy was not useful for a first-year graduate student. At the time, I could have taken up to six weeks — which is half the semester. I’m still not sure how someone can take half a class, so if I had used this leave, I don’t know how I would have made up six weeks of missed course work. And since first-year courses are consecutive and sequential (for example, Research Methods is a yearlong course with a fall and spring component), I might have had to defer my first year and start graduate school with a different cohort.

Moreover, looming in the background of my decisions was the reality that mothers face social sanctions in the workplace because of the perception that they are less competent than women without children — even though there is no clear evidence supporting this perception. This institutionalized maternity leave policy was, in practice, impossible to use, and the knowledge that informal sanctions from peers and colleagues are harsher for mothers made me push harder.

Black mothers must be superwomen to be taken seriously as scholars and professionals. The stress of racism and the pressures of academe mean that mothers are constantly forced to prove their commitment to research and ability to do the work. But that kind of active coping — working harder to compensate for the strain of discrimination — can be harmful. In his research on John Henryism, Sherman James, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and an expert in racial and ethnic disparities in health care, shows that active coping in the face of psychosocial stressors leads to poor health outcomes. Yet my research agenda led me to move to the Dominican Republic, family in tow, for 10 months so I could complete dissertation fieldwork. I was (and remain) committed to academic research, but what is the price for proving we belong in a place that was not created for us?

For the black mothers in academe who are working hard and wiping noses, I’d like to share a few things that I learned along the way. First, reject the superwoman label. It presumes we can do it alone without self-care. I have a supportive partner, friends and family, tough and compassionate mentors, and a university policy that subsidized some of the cost of child care during graduate school. I am impressive, but I am not superwoman, and I did not do it alone.

Second, be a hustler. Because of motherhood, I cannot always participate in informal gatherings leading to professional collaborations. Because of race and gender, perhaps, I may not be invited. So I reach out to colleagues one on one and, together, we can set the personal and professional terms of engagement.

Next, be attuned to your own needs (mentorship, writing groups, sleep, yoga …) and prioritize plans to get those needs met.

Finally, check out Dean Ashby’s suggestions for overcoming impostor syndrome.

You’ve got this.

Bio

Photo of Trenita B. Childers

Trenita B. Childers is postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research examines social causes and consequences of racial health disparities. Her commentary has also appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, and you can follow her on Twitter at @trenitac.

Scholars Of Color Should Create Supportive Communities To Thrive

Note: this was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Macy Wilson is a doctoral student of clinical psychology, currently completing her internship at a federal prison. She identifies as a biracial (African-American and Xicana), queer, cis woman. Macy’s research integrates issues of masculinity, womanist and feminist issues, and culturally competent proactive intervention.

Self-Care Through Intentional Community

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation on mental health, cultural competence and services for African-American/black folks at the Cultural Impact Conference. This particular conference was one in which multiple cultures were highlighted, and special attention was given to the ways that mental health impacts these groups. It was an inspiration to see so many people collectively dedicated to the advancement of mental health for marginalized communities.

Unfortunately, however, such crucial conversations are more of an exception than a rule, and they are recurrently missing from our personal experiences as scholars of color, particularly in navigating the academy. That missing link contributes to fostering a highly polarizing atmosphere for academics of color. It is important to recognize the value of community when navigating these experiences; the presence of community can often be a form of self-preservation, rejuvenation and comfort.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to self-care and the ways in which we practice it (or fail to). I firmly believe that, as a woman of color, having conversations about what it means to survive and thrive in predominantly white spaces is integral to my self-care and self-preservation. In order to embrace this aspect of self-care, though, I learned that I had to be intentional about the people with whom I spent my time, the mentors I sought out and the opportunities in which I partook outside school (read: the communities I formed or with which I engaged). It was sometimes a difficult balance to achieve as a graduate student, because time is a luxury.

Throughout all of my years of higher education, I have simultaneously worked while taking a full course load. This is a common experience for many college students, but the demands of graduate school add an extra layer of difficulty to the mix. Integrating the totality of one’s identity can also be a difficult task when many spaces are not fully welcoming of those identities — or even “conditionally accepting” at best. The importance of community during such times cannot be understated. Whether it’s having a fellow graduate student take detailed notes in your absence, someone lending a listening ear when you are feeling stressed or having someone with whom to celebrate the good times, I occasionally found myself relying on the help of others in spite of my “strong black woman” complex.

One thing I didn’t realize until the final years of my program was how crucial it was to communicate with, and seek advice from, mentors and scholars of color. Upon beginning my program, I quickly developed a feeling of resentment because it felt as though fellow students and many faculty members were not as invested in (read: vocal about) cultural competence and the myriad ways in which mental health must be tailored to suit the needs of complex individuals. All of this was compounded by the Eurocentricity of our readings. During those times, I felt as if parts of my identity were being dismissed, and I, subsequently, executed poor self-care strategies by isolating even further. I internalized the notion that I was a complex individual and that others would not understand, or care to hear about, my grievances.

In keeping quiet, however, I did myself a disservice because no one understands how to correct a problem that is never verbalized. Further, I prevented myself from making meaningful connections by not voicing my concerns to the scholars of color who had already paved the way and probably experienced similar feelings along their journeys. Had I done that from the beginning, I believe that my approach to self-care would have improved rapidly and that I could have made meaningful connections even sooner with scholars of color whom I greatly admired.

This is not to say that all scholars of color will automatically take us under their proverbial wings and happily share their own stories, but speaking with scholars of color at my institution and in the community (even if it wasn’t directly about how I was feeling) helped to create a safe space in the midst of an experience that sometimes felt unwelcoming or silencing. Hearing some of the frustrations from their time in graduate school was encouraging and liberating, because I realized that I wasn’t alone.

That understanding was especially helpful because it made me feel visible and heard. That visibility was (and continues to be) empowering and it has encouraged me to be more intentional about expanding my chosen community. One small thing I’ve prided myself on over the years is remembering and using people’s names. It goes a long way, probably because it recognizes one’s individuality among an abundance of generalities. Not only does it make the person with whom you are speaking feel good, but it increases the likelihood that they will remember you.

That will definitely come in handy when you need some help down the road. In hindsight, I’ve realized that many of the scholars of color to whom I reached out were beyond happy to share their experiences with me, and part of that enthusiasm may have been because they knew what it is like to be glossed over, ignored, rejected or just not taken as seriously in predominantly white academic spaces.

Standing out positively in academe is important but sometimes difficult, and it can be easy to slip into the comfort of anonymity by just doing your work and graduating, or quitting altogether. As an introvert, I loathed conversations about “networking” because I assumed that meant small talk, but I slowly learned that it doesn’t have to! One-on-one conversations with individuals can be as meaningful as you choose to make them, and a big part of that depends on how much you are willing to share of your authentic self. That is easier said than done, however, because it takes courage to make oneself vulnerable and willing to humbly learn from another.

Scholars of color know well that we must work at least twice as hard to be considered half as good as our white counterparts, and that this work is augmented by our other identities that may further marginalize us within predominantly white spaces and institutions. Attempting to compensate for the “black tax” and other penalties for being a minority can be exhausting. The work that we have chosen to do is important, and it is imperative that we take care of ourselves while staying the course; we owe it to ourselves.

Looking forward, other people will be able to stand on our shoulders as they journey to improve academe and the broader world in which we live, because we were proactive and not reactive. Additionally, we can be a lighthouse for those behind us because we stayed true to ourselves in the midst of the isolation and attempts to silence us — because we were committed to our own self-preservation. In the words of Audre Lorde, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Lorde, and many like her, reclaimed their time in efforts to practice effective self-care, and it will be a boon for us to integrate these same efforts in our personal and work lives.

The academy and future scholars need our voices now more than ever. Speaking out, writing and intentionally connecting with others will enable us to survive and thrive within these spaces, because this work cannot be done alone.

Five Tips For Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jill Richardson studies sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She struggles with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

When I started graduate school, I did not realize that I was a student with mental illness. I knew that I suffered near-daily migraines and sought out disability services. What I did not understand was that my migraines were a physical manifestation of a mental illness, and that the way I felt my entire life was called “anxiety” because the experiences I had as a kid were called “trauma.” Graduate school severely exacerbated my anxiety.

Whether you are a student or a professor, keep in mind that everyone with mental illness is different. I have a lot of trouble attending classes, while another student I know cannot meet with professors one-on-one, and a third has panic attacks every time she attempts to study for prelims.

Additionally, everyone is in a different phase of their mental health problems. Some are not yet aware that they even have a problem. Some students have only just discovered their problems but have not yet found help, or they have sought help but it’s too soon for them to get any relief just yet.

A student can probably function far better in grad school if they have already found medications that work effectively (if applicable), a therapist they like and coping strategies they have learned and practiced. In Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains that you can change your own brain for the better to heal some of the harm from adverse childhood experiences. But that takes time.

I have had to devise various coping strategies to survive the difficulties of graduate school, which I share below. They aren’t perfect — grad school was hell even still. But I earned my master’s degree and lived to tell about it.

Five Pieces Of Advice

  1. Limit things that are most difficult to you, if you can. For me, that meant establishing a schedule that gave me one or two days a week when I did not have to go to the campus. I also set a quota of one extremely difficult class per semester (e.g., those with weekly exams, heavy reading loads or very exacting professors). I only wanted to deal with one of those at a time.
  2. Remember you do not have to do everything. This suggestion flies in the face of the helpful career advice I’ve received that one should assume all “optional” activities are actually required. I’m sorry, but I won’t be at the department picnic, the lecture series or just about anything else that isn’t formally required. I will be busy during that time taking care of myself. There may be consequences for missing events that my professors prefer I attend, but I need to put that in perspective. The consequences will be far worse if I do poorly in my classes or fail to complete my thesis. Completing required work must come first, and anything else is off the table if it will jeopardize my ability to do that.
  3. Find people with whom you feel comfortable and avoid those with whom you don’t feel comfortable. That goes for professors, friends, therapists and anyone else. You are not helping anything or anyone by voluntarily spending time with someone who makes you feel rotten. (You can also block them on social media or, at the least, unfollow them so you do not see pictures of the times when people in your cohort all have a party without you.)
  4. Self-care is essential. This is crucial for everyone but more so if you are struggling with mental illness. For me, it meant weekly massages, therapy and allowing myself to just eat a cookie if I craved one instead of beating myself up for it. Sometimes, it meant reading Harry Potter instead of scholarly journals. (Other less expensive or even free options can be mindfulness meditation, yoga, a hot bath and exercising outdoors.)
  5. Medications. If you decide to try medication, remember antidepressants can take four or more weeks to work effectively. Sometimes the first med you try will not work or will have unbearable side effects, up to and including suicidal thoughts. If you’re a student, have a friend or family member look out for you when you start a new med, in case you have adverse side effects. I would wait until a break from grad school to try a new med if possible. At the very least, don’t start your med the same week your big term paper or grant application is due.

Simple Ways Professors Can Help

While students can promote their own healing and well-being, their professors can help also immensely by taking a just few simple actions.

First in my book is empathy. Empathy is easy, yet few people do it well. As a faculty member, you should listen to students with mental-health issues, imagine how you would feel in their circumstances and say that. Avoid jumping to fix a student’s problems, telling them “it will all be OK” or dismissing them because you think they are begging for a higher grade or special treatment. If they tell you that they are having panic attacks and they are struggling with their schoolwork, just say, “That sounds really difficult.” Even if a professor can do nothing else beyond that, feeling like that person understands me and hears me is helpful in and of itself.

Going one step further, imagine yourself in the student’s shoes and think of how you can make it easier for them to succeed in your class in ways that do not require much extra effort from you, such as giving flexibility with deadlines.

Therapists talk about giving their patients unconditional positive regard, and I try to approach my own students such regard. That does not mean I am an easy grader (I am not) or that I let my students walk all over me (I don’t). But a simple willingness to listen to a student without judging is an emotional balm to one who is struggling. It can even ease a student’s anxiety enough to help them be more productive in their work.

And yet many professors don’t do that. Feeling seen and heard is a big theme in the mental-health world. People need to feel seen and heard. Unfortunately, I never felt that in graduate school.

Students with mental illness often have a very negative self-image. Being in grad school is difficult because it requires students to try new things and to risk failure. Simple positive feedback can go a long way. If a student is struggling through something difficult but they are ultimately normal compared to their peers, tell them. If you have observed progress in their work, tell them that, too. The nicest thing a professor ever said to me was “That’s something that most people come to later in their career. All graduate students struggle with it.” Really? My difficulty is normal? Hallelujah!

Last, don’t expect your depressed or anxious student to kick the problem quickly. Therapy takes time, and even medications can take a month or more to work effectively. Be patient. That doesn’t mean allowing a student to pass a class without doing the work. But it does mean extending compassion to them without judging them for continuing to struggle with the same issues week after week, even though those issues seem easy to fix for you as a mentally healthy person. If it’s frustrating for you, remember that it’s even more frustrating for the student.

A Xicana Scholar Pays Tribute To Her Academic Mama

Note: this blog post was originally published on Xicana, PhD and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, a mama, an educator and a writer based in Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education.

A Letter to My “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after I finished my Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times, for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title but a lived reality. And I thought about how, when I met you, you helped me set down my worries and my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academe — a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person. Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing in faster Puerto Rican Spanish. I soon caught on, just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn.

With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most, however, is how, after five minutes sitting with you, things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears, and I would leave feeling as though I, a Xicana from a community college who became a single mother in graduate school and who survived so much, could finish a Ph.D. under what felt like impossible circumstances. I felt not only that I could finish but also that this feeling would last until the next time, because there was always a next time when I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel as though I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask, “How are you?” every time I saw you, since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class — a course that saved me and many others. You would ask this question of all of us. You asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it is a question that no one seems to care about asking or is concerned with in academe, where they teach you that the personal has no place. But for us, the personal is political. It is everything, and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be here to begin with. “Como estas?” I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know, this became the first line of my dissertation and led to my own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place where I never imagined I would be. I know you remember, because that last year, before I finished my Ph.D., you made sure that — no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform — I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “women’s studies” or “testimonios,” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you fought for me and explained that, as a student of education, I was also a woman of color and a student in feminist studies, and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all of the time in my writing, that I refused to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower. And I still live by that belief, though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me, and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, conducting my research affirmed that I am here. I made it to this place after everyone else told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents’ home at 18 knowing that I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple of states away to pursue this far-fetched dream, I got a Ph.D. — even when the statistics and people told me every day that I couldn’t.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days when I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety, to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother, who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult, two weeks before she passed, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was farther. Your home is an island that cannot be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me but also for many people who walked through the doors of your office and sat in your classroom. Because as women of color in academe, we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected us. You gave strength. You built us up to believe in our own voices and words when so many other people diminish and silence us every single day.

And as we sat in my favorite cafe one week — after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple of days before I left town to move back to California with my toddler son as a single mama — you said no goodbye. But you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said, “We built this ship strong and not to sink, and Irene, you will not sink.” Then, you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and how turbulent these waters have been post-Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent), I make sure I remember I can’t sink, because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here.

You are here. We are here. And there are other women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.

Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.