How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.

Birthing Both A Baby And Ph.D. As A Woman Of Color

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle (@thePhDandMe) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

I freaked out when I learned that I was pregnant during my second year of graduate school. My reaction was not abnormal; neurologists link the flood of hormones to a women’s brain as the reason for increased anxiety among expectant mothers. And while I was indeed overwhelmed by the typical things pregnant moms worry about — Would I be a good mother? Was I eating the right foods? Could my body endure childbirth? — the majority of my concerns centered around graduate school.

How was I going to tell my adviser? When do I have to tell the department? What will they think of me? How was I going to finish my master’s thesis at the same time that my baby was due? Was my graduate stipend enough to support a family?

I did not really have any one to turn to in my program. No current students had children (though one black mother had recently left), and the only two mothers on the department’s faculty had waited until they earned tenure to have their children. No one discussed parenthood, so I wasn’t sure how to do it or even if it could be done.

In desperation, I reached out to my undergrad mentor, who did not have children but always had sound advice. Her words almost became a mantra to me: women are fully capable of birthing babies and Ph.D.s — you got this.

I cut down on my coffee intake, became the queen of catnaps, asked for a few extensions on assignments when needed and raided my partner’s closet for loose sweatshirts. Aside from my adviser and one confidant, I did not announce the pregnancy until I almost five months pregnant. I thought I was on the right track.

What I naïvely did not expect, however, were the additional layers of burden that I faced as a woman of color. You see, I was only 23 and unmarried to my partner at the time I gave birth to my first son. That meant I was young, black, unwed, relatively broke and a new mother. And I found that shaped some people’s perception of me in my graduate school program.

It did not seem to matter much that I had a loving partner with a good job. Or that my mother relocated just to help me out. Many people seemed to ignore or were unaware of my background — of being raised by a young single mother myself — and that I was used to jumping through hoops to find academic success. Despite my persistence, I began to feel left out.

For instance, that year after my son was born, I was not asked to rejoin research projects that I had previously been involved with. I did not receive additional incentives to travel to conferences as I had before. I could not attend department happy hours as often and began to be left out of the grad student social scene, as well. By the end of my third year, I felt more alienated, stressed and unsure of my path than I did in my first year of the program.

The neglect could have been the result of positive intentions: to give me fewer responsibilities and allow for more time to give to my son. But, it seemed that many people assumed that my choosing motherhood meant I was not as serious about my profession. Not unlike Trump’s comments that motherhood is an inconvenience to businesses, if felt as though motherhood was an inconvenience to the Ph.D.

Research shows this is something that mothers have to deal with more than fathers. For instance, Mary Ann Mason and colleagues investigated whether babies matter for academic success. They found that mothers with young children are 21 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children, as well as that mothers are 16 percent less likely to end up on the tenure track than fathers. Women scholars’ online discussions further illustrate their findings.

Not only did I face preconceptions about parenthood as a woman, but I also believe implicit biases about black mothers created additional burdens. In itself, graduate school can be a source of trauma for students of color. And Patricia Hill Collins has written about the damaging Eurocentric views of black motherhood that moms inside and outside of academe have to combat. My position as a black mother and student intersected to pattern my experiences.

My differential treatment became even more obvious when two other students had children after me. One white woman opted to defer her dissertation fellowship for a year so that she could focus on raising her child. Rather than pushing her out (when she had asked to be temporarily “out”), she was actually offered a part-time administrative position during that time. Another white man student became the primary childcare provider after his wife returned to work. Despite his constant working from home, he was suggested to me as a model for being serious about publishing. I do not fault either of those white students for making the right choices for their family, but I did find it troubling that I was treated as less serious, despite my decision to remain embedded in the department and my work.

After one honest conversation that I initiated, a professor actually admitted to me: “I thought you would have dropped out and had more babies by now.” I was shocked. What about me suggested that? I had never mentioned a desire to drop out or to have more children. I had not taken any time off from academe. I had met appropriate deadlines. I showed up on the campus nearly every day. Really, nothing I did suggested that; rather, I believe their perceptions of black women incorrectly painted their assumptions about me.

This was bias, implicit or not, and it was wrong. I attempted to correct their perceptions by delving into my work and confronting misconceptions head-on when I could muster up the courage. I would be remiss not to share my gratitude for the supportive peers and faculty who encouraged my success and bravery — like the grad students who stepped in as babysitters or the professors who invited me over their houses for dinner. I would not have made it through that sometimes toxic space without allies that served as positive antidotes. But even so, it was a struggle to get out of grad school with my Ph.D. and my baby.

Mothers of color should not have to battle in the trenches just to save their babies and degrees. More work needs to be done, and at a larger scale, to create safe space for babies and parents in academe. I share my experiences to shed light on the mistreatment I experienced so students can recognize they are not alone and so that faculty members might reflect on their roles. To this end, I will offer advice and policy solutions in my next post.

Advice For Securing Funding During Graduate School

victor-rayNote: this blog post was originally published on our weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. You can follow him on Twitter @victorerikray.

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In my previous post, I argued that research funding is racialized and that disparities in funding exacerbate racial inequities in academe. Although nothing short of institutional change can significantly reverse those patterns, below I offer advice to help students successfully apply for funding during their graduate training.

Early in my graduate career, I felt insecure and worried about my place in the department. It was clear that my political and intellectual commitments were, to put it mildly, somewhat out of place in my chosen graduate program. Although I was funded, I felt that the support was precarious. In retrospect, perhaps that feeling was overstated. But it was nonetheless real, and I needed a way to combat it.

As a person of color from a working- to lower-middle-class background, funding was extremely important to me. It influenced my decision about which graduate school to attend. When I received my acceptance letter informing me that I would be funded for five years as long as I maintained adequate progress in the program, that was the most economic security I had experienced in my life.

Of course, funding was partially freeing. And given what I felt was my precarious position in the program, the external validation was instrumental in my continuing in graduate school. The freedom that funding brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color whose work may make some (white) colleagues uncomfortable.

When I talk about funding opportunities, graduate students and some faculty members often tell me that applying for funding is a waste of time, that it requires too much work or that agencies are not interested in their type of work. Below, I address each of these concerns with practical advice. Although I am mainly talking about sociology departments, some of these strategies may resonate beyond my discipline.

Understanding the structure of funding. The structure of funding is often a bit confusing. Although there is occasional overlap, grants are typically for expenses related to research, while fellowships pay for living expenses. Federal and private sources of support tend to have considerably different application procedures and expectations attached to their funding. Those applications can be complicated, so I advise you to start them early. Make yourself familiar with a given funding agency’s reporting requirements and make sure you are willing to meet them.

How to find funding. I identified funding opportunities primarily in two places: university databases and the CVs of more senior colleagues whose work I admired. The latter strategy allowed me to see how people were funded at different points in their career and what opportunities I should be looking for down the line.

Many undergraduate institutions have grants and fellowships that are reserved for alumni who are in graduate school. Those are prime places to look for funding, as the applicant pool tends to be smaller. Search your institution’s website, write to the program officers and apply. Although the funding from such sources may be lower than national competitions, they are great places to find seed support for projects.

Once I found opportunities for which I qualified and that were related to my work, my strategy was to apply for everything. Applying for funding, like working in academe in general, is largely about learning to manage rejection. I made a spreadsheet that covered the next three to four years of graduate school and systematically applied every year. Early on, I got a lot of rejections. They were an opportunity to revise and refine my ideas. One success can make those rejections recede from your consciousness pretty quickly.

Another strategy (to use sparingly) is to contact program officers at funding agencies. Make sure you find out the policy regarding contact so as to not violate protocol. However, if the officers are open to talking, send an email briefly outlining the most important aspects of your project and ask whether they are willing to set up a phone conversation. I have had program officers give me information that I think was central to eventually being funded.

Before you contact a program officer, make sure your project description is far along and perhaps even reviewed by a colleague or two. You do not want to antagonize a program officer with a proposal that is not well thought out, as that may ultimately hurt your chances.

Writing the application. If you have colleagues who have successfully received grants or fellowships for which you are interested in applying, ask if you may look over their applications. Many people are flattered by the request and happy to share; others, not so much. Remember, however, that they are in no way obligated to help you and may consider the request inappropriate for any number of reasons. They could be shy about sharing work, view you as competition or resent your success. But while the academy often still functions on an outdated notion that intellectual work is the result of heroic individuals, ideas — and your personal success in deploying those ideas — are the result of a community.

If someone is willing to help you, remember you owe them. Write a thank-you note, take them out for coffee or a drink at a conference, or just generally show that you appreciate their help. Also, never pass along an application someone has shared with you without permission. They agreed to share it with you, not the entire applicant pool.

Grant and fellowship writing is not an exercise in creativity. Grant and fellowship writing in sociology is different from composing papers. Papers can be somewhat meandering because of their standard format. For grants, the punch line needs to hit the reviewer within the first few sentences. They need to know the purpose of the proposed research, the theoretical tradition from which you are drawing and a little about what you expect to find. If you have been fortunate enough to get successful examples of the particular grant or fellowship for which you are applying, make sure you look over them and mirror their outlines.

Tailoring your work to the call. This is a tricky one. Foundations and federal grant agencies issue calls because they are looking for specific niches, have political leanings or are chartered to further research in particular areas. You should never do violence to your own research interests and commitments to land a grant. However, you should look at calls for applications with the widest possible lens when it comes to applicability to your work. This isn’t just pragmatic; it is also an exercise in intellectual growth, as it forces you to think about your work in the widest possible context.

Reusing your work. Writing a funding proposal is ideally the first step one makes on a new project. Agency deadlines can help to force you to write your ideas down. These drafts are then recycled, becoming the first draft of research papers. One of the most useful things that a trusted and brilliant adviser in grad school told me was, “Everything you write has to count for more than one thing.” You should never use a piece of writing that you have spent a considerable amount of time or thought on for just one class or conference. The same is true for fellowship and grant writing. Revise your applications according to the call, but if you had a successful application in a prior round, it indicates that you’ve hit the sweet spot. Use that as the template to apply to subsequent grants and fellowships. It is also a good indication that your proposed research is a potential contribution to the discipline, as the reviewers were likely drawn from a pool of experts in your area. Getting this feedback at an early stage can be extremely useful for shaping your subsequent projects.

On The Burden Of Having To Recruit “Your Own Kind”

Note: this was originally published on Inside Higher Ed columnLauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago.

Program Recruitment From the Margins

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

lauren-m-jackson

Lauren Michele Jackson

Graduate students are hardly privy to ins and outs of application season, even from the other side of the curtain, but we feel the tremors nonetheless. Even before the acceptances roll out, faculty members and administrators depend on current students to recruit the prospective students they want most. As walking representatives of our programs’ successes and intellectual culture, it’s an implicit agreement upon matriculation that we fortify the reputation of our academic homes to the best of our ability, admissions efforts included.

Even if not for this arrangement, the fact that potential students would reach out to us and we divulge in turn just makes sense. Senior and midcareer faculty members toiled over their studies in an era so different as to be unintelligible. Meanwhile, junior faculty, although perhaps close in spirit, are removed by departmental philosophy — they most likely didn’t even go here.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

So, now it is routine. Between summer and spring the question is expected. A little less vague, maybe, filled with consequential details like the college’s name and area specialty. Unwritten is anything that might, on its face, appeal to what many people around here would snidely call identity politics. I am never given the rhyming cute-ism assumed by Dear White People about faces and places. I am never asked what it is like to be a student who is — only one who does, and how that doing looks in the light of day to a campus like this. Prospective students never ask me what it’s like to be academic while black and a woman.

And yet I can feel another thing, the more pressing question that simmers underneath the labyrinthian negotiations and exchanges and codes of respectability that haunt the entire process of even getting to the point of daring to declare interest in something like formalized higher learning — while black. That question does not care that I am an Americanist, maybe does not even know that I work with black texts — “African-American literature” does not appear anywhere on my department profile. My photo is enough: I am merely and not so merely evidence that existence is possible. I am a touchstone.

The visible question “how do you do” is genuine, but so are the ones unspoken: How are you breathing?

Will I be able to breathe?

For its uncomfortable relationship with the public and the state, the academy is pretty content to mirror the enmities of the “real world” when it comes to people. It does not take an insider or an expert to see the diversity of ways academe is openly hostile to individuals it calls “diverse,” the humanities (god bless ’em) included. The instructors are white. The committees are white. The faculty is white. The history is white. The theory is white. The administration is white. The students are white — mostly. Some might say it is a little more complicated than that, but time for nuance is a fantastic luxury afforded if you are, well, white. If undergraduate education belongs to the order Lagomorpha, and M.F.A.s practice eugenics, a literature Ph.D. is like skipping dinner for a party that only serves hors d’oeuvres.

The sympathetic portrait for the overworked, undercompensated grad-student-cum-employee-but-kinda-still-not is a sallow thing: the owl-eyed pixie sustained by JSTOR and carrot sticks or the reedy, inert genius whose underappreciation manifests in depressive episodes soothed by Hemingway plus a Hemingway-approved beverage. Whiteness is the hypervisible champion of grad school apathy, the image implied when the subject is someone whose chosen career includes thinking for money. And as academe revels in its own romanticism, real students are drowning.

From where I sit: grad life is OK. Incredible people doing incredible things who are enthusiastic about blackness — or at very least, enthusiastic about my enthusiasm — surround me in personal and professional networks curated in real time over the course of my time here. There are colleagues who make me feel loved and necessary in an atmosphere that drives even the most privileged into isolation. Even greater is the virtual nucleus of smart-as-hell folks whose tweets and messages sustain me. I am all right. I am breathing. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some more black folks in this bitch, just sayin’.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

That question rubs. As I walk on campus and see blocks brimming with private police, guns holstered, that question rubs. When fraternities and sororities — coalitions for white supremacy — do what they do best, the friction is almost too much to bear. When they are shielded further by administrative dialect, I am white-hot.

The academy is a pyramid scheme, as the old joke goes. Aging scholars coax bright young minds to work tirelessly for jobs they never intended on abdicating anyway. Pro-diversity campaigns in higher education look pyramid scheme-y in their own way: the already marginalized, further minorized in their respective departments, are responsible for recruiting “their own.” We are the one rainbow welcome wagon for the place that already demonstrates a lack of welcome for having to initiate such a campaign at all. More insidious, the directive is seductive and, shucking notwithstanding, feels mutually beneficial. They — the administration and affiliates — get brownie points, we get allies.

What is our responsibility to undermine our responsibility?

If we choose selfishness, the desire to see (more) “black faces in white spaces” outweighs concern for what happens when they get there. Selfishness hoses down the nitty-gritty and makes way for glowing reports on the institutions that would rather we did not exist. If we choose selfish, we do not have to look for allies in the abstract. But who am I to recruit the student with a bull’s-eye on their back from day one.

I continue to believe that nobody looks out for us like we look out for us. If not inborn, endangerment since birth draws black folks — black femmes especially — tighter together. Whiteness pushes out, but we (can) extend a hand, give a heads-up, keep folks in the know. For example, I think about the cumulonimbus-headed brotha who pulled me aside during a campus visit to a choice university years ago. He warned me of the friction between the two departments I would have dearly needed to work in tandem to complete my studies.

No (wo)man, person of color should be an island, nor can we lure our family under false pretenses. The negotiation is not easy. We cannot hide the dirt, we cannot unwrite the damages, but we can still extend the invitation. Honestly. There is work to do here, a lot of it. I will be here for you, but I cannot do it alone.

Addressing Racist Microaggressions In Academia

macy-wilsonNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Macy Wilson identifies as a biracial (Black and Chicana), queer, cisgender woman and clinical psychology graduate student. Professionally, she is most passionate about working with men and male youth, womanist and feminist issues, and cultural sensitivity/integration. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, game nights, reading, painting and blogging (one of which can be found here).

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For most of my younger years, I was known as a kid who did well in school and liked to read. Despite living in a rural and homogenous area, I was never “othered” at school because of my racial and ethnic identities. I took women’s studies courses in college, wherein I began to learn the importance of various social identities and the intentional work that is needed to create and maintain inclusive spaces for everyone. I chose my graduate school because of its commitment to diversity, but I naïvely assumed that it would be a focal point of the majority of my classroom and applied clinical experiences.

As a cisgender woman who belongs to the LGBTQ community and identifies as Black and Chicana, affirming diverse identities is important to me. I remember how, during my first year of graduate school, every student was required to take two diversity courses. During that time, I learned about Pamela Hays’s ADDRESSING model, which provides a framework for acknowledging and assessing clients holistically. Yet, in the subsequent courses I took, diversity was only vaguely referenced, with the exception of fellow students making a point to interject a distinct perspective.

I found that discouraging but was fortunate in having a practicum supervisor who intentionally integrated cultural aspects into our discussions about my clients. I also tried my best to surround myself with like-minded colleagues who appreciated the importance of diversity in all its forms.

My first encounter with explicit racism in a professional setting was at my second practicum site. The first unit to which I was assigned closed, forcing me to choose another unit to complete the remainder of my practicum experience. The deciding factor in choosing the second unit was that a close friend and colleague who conceptualized clients similarly to me also worked there. She seemed to enjoy her work with the clients, but she had occasionally shared her grievances about the unit supervisor (a white male) to me. I went to the unit with all of my academic and clinical knowledge, ready to create positive working relationships with my new team. However, it seemed that not everyone shared this perspective of openness and collegiality, particularly the unit supervisor.

Upon my arrival, and over the course of a month and a half, the unit supervisor never spoke to me. Initially, I excused his behavior as a consequence of him being busy, just not seeing me, or maybe that I failed to greet him loudly enough to hear and see me. But I was also beginning to feel resentful because I was consistently being ignored.

One day, my friend and colleague (a Black woman) and I were sitting in a room with two white women while our clients were in groups. The supervisor stopped by and greeted the white women before returning to his office, as if my colleague and I were not even present. I later realized that I was not on the supervisor’s list for team emails, and I was missing important updates on my clients. I sent an email to request to be added to the list, our first correspondence ever, occurring nearly two months after me joining the unit.

So, I decided to test things: I made up my mind that I would see the supervisor in passing and greet him loudly so there was no doubt he could hear me. I did this, and called him by name with a smile as I passed. He still ignored me. As he continued to walk, he spoke to a white woman who was walking in the same direction as me. At that point, I realized his behavior was not simply a figment of my imagination. Rather, it had to be racism.

I pride myself on my assertiveness in school and the workplace, and I took comfort in the transparency of the supervisory relationship with my clinical supervisor. During one of our sessions, I decided to confide in him about the way that things had transpired between the unit supervisor and me. I shared the aforementioned examples. As I spoke, my supervisor seemed uncomfortable. So, I proceeded cautiously with my next statement: “I’m not calling him racist, but the way I have been treated feels like racism.” My supervisor responded hesitantly and noted that he had heard another person mention the “microaggressions” from other staff on the unit. As he continued to skirt around the issue, I felt frustrated with sharing my experience because he invalidated it by using a term to, essentially, soften the blow — and he did not offer a course for resolution; instead, I offered my own.

When therapy is concerned, I always say, “It is not the responsibility of the client to educate the therapist.” I feel similarly when issues concerning various -isms are involved: it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. Yet that often ends up being the case.

Even in professional and academic spheres, the narratives of the oppressed are frequently excluded and replaced with generic (read: privileged) accounts, placing the onus on marginalized people to inform the privileged about their experiences. Similarly, when the narratives of the oppressed are included, there are many instances wherein the true struggle of oppression is glossed over in efforts to protect the feelings of those who may not empathize with the oppressed group. In a place where I assumed that my concerns would be validated and that my supervisor would advocate for and with me, I was disappointed by his passivity and efforts to sugarcoat what was obviously racism. I had colleagues who validated my experience and shared their own, but it is extremely difficult to change things for the better without those in positions of power on your side.

As I reflect on the courses I was taking during that time, none of them seemed especially appropriate for me to share these experiences of racist behavior. Many colleges and universities pride themselves on their commitment to diversity, yet that commitment often seems to be superficial. When course work focuses on specific examples that regularly showcase white, heterosexual, able-bodied individuals, the narratives of people of color, people who are disabled, LGBTQ people and so many more are dismissed and “othered” in the process.

I firmly believe that it is necessary for classes and academic spheres to provide intentional spaces for reflections on various systems of oppression, whether that be through case material, personal anecdotes from students or readings that consistently address multicultural issues. It is not enough to have two obligatory courses devoted to diversity while using a blanket approach for other courses.

As students and professors in higher education, we are called to do the work of inclusivity, particularly in academic settings so that it is more easily integrated within our respective spaces in the community. That is not to dismiss the difficult nature of intentional inclusivity, though, as it is hard work. We can only achieve goals of inclusiveness and anti-racism by continually challenging ourselves to learn more, by consistently applying and sharing our new knowledge, and through inviting others to share their personal experiences in safe and validating spaces.

Advice For Black Graduate Students On “Playing The Game”

My PhD graduation, May 2013.

My PhD graduation, May 2013.

The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a cohortmate had marked by body as “ghetto,” despite growing up in the suburbs. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking Black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party.

My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism, and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma matter, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe; in fact, they kind of alluded that I was naive to expect otherwise.

Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism that I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.

For Black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.

As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at an HBCU may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token Black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And, given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) PhD program (e.g., sociology).

Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences — with coursework, support from and availability of faculty, with the university, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the surrounding city, etc. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity, or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work, and funded. You might do well with a few concrete questions that you email, and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of Black faculty, but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors; if you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central Black faculty and students are in the department’s functions.

As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to feel your personal, social, spiritual, and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor, and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not center your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear of your actions or words getting back to your colleagues.

I wish I could say this concretely — but navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. Find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But, I saw others in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones, and/or struggled to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.

It is an awful catch-22 that Black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul.

The faculty advisors whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will likely have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But, I strongly encourage a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters, but may have little say over your progress in the department.

Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether these mentors are Black or some other race. A Black professor may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But, there is evidence that white men professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher status professional networks, cultural capital, and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Keep in mind that being Black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable, or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared Black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the white faculty as potential resources; maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may have other means to help you excel in your career.

Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. This is not the rest of your life. There will be times you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy, or feels irrelevant to your goals to survive and thrive as a Black intellectual. But, you’ve just got to do it to get that PhD and then do whatever you want. These professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a PhD, but they can never validate your worth or value.

Intellectual Violence In Academia

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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