On Thriving In A Small Department

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College. She is a regular contributor for Conditionally Accepted.

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WhitakerI’m from a family of four — just me, my brother, my mom, and my dad. Growing up, we each had a role we played in the family and, importantly, those roles complemented one another. If Dad was the free-spirited one who always needed to be happy, Mom was the hard worker whose happiness came second to the family’s needs. My brother was the sensitive, gentle soul, so of course I was the tough-skinned, ready-to-battle little sister. It worked.

When I left my graduate-school family — made up of 60 doctoral students in psychology and more faculty than I likely ever met — I went west to a small private liberal-arts college and joined its education department. My arrival meant the department grew from two tenure-track faculty to three.

Counting a lecturer, we now have four full-time faculty in a department that offers a major, a minor, undergraduate licensure, a ninth-semester program, and a master’s in teaching. We are the only department on campus with a graduate program, thus, we are the only department that operates at full capacity 12 months out of the year.

With only three other faculty, two staff assistants, and an educational coordinator to meet, I quickly settled into our “department” (it’s actually in a house with a full kitchen, living room, dining-room-turned classroom, and bathroom). I moved into my office and easily fell into the groove of the department. We rarely close our doors so we can stop by each other’s offices to chat, and when we need something, we yell down the hall. Even though our only male faculty member — who is also an introvert — gets a bit annoyed with our sometimes rowdy conversations, it works for us. We are productive and we love our “hallway conversations.”

But it’s not easy to be in such close quarters with the same people. Every. Single. Day. Like any group of people sharing a house, we argue and get on each other’s nerves. With so few of us — and so many responsibilities — we’ve had to figure out our roles in our departmental family. Turns out, my professional role involves more than just being the outgoing little sister.

So for those of you who are (or may soon be) newcomers in a similarly cozy professional family, here is my advice for how to thrive in a small department.

Listen and observe. You have to figure out the family dynamics before you can carve out your place. It became clear within a month of my arrival that — as the most junior person, who also happened to be under age 30 — I was tasked with freshening the department. In other words, I was supposed to be the “Arbiter of Innovation” who brought the department into a contemporary educational landscape. Having just received my Ph.D. months prior, and being engrossed in the literature and still excited to attend conferences, I was happy to assume that role.

Don’t get stuck. Once I’d helped the department revise the curriculum, craft a new position for a teacher-preparation director, and create a new major, I was fresh out of innovation. So I changed my role. In fact, this time I created my role. After assessing the needs of the department I became the “urban education expert.” The point is: Don’t be stagnant in your professional development. Become who you need to be to be professionally successful. As your department grows and changes, so should you.

Create strong relationships. In a small department there’s going to be a lot of interaction because there are so few people among whom to spread social niceties. There is no point closing your door and trying to be invisible so you might as well get to know the people with whom you work. Strong personal relationships can even help resolve professional conflicts when they inevitably arise. People who feel respected and valued can more easily distinguish between personal and professional issues.

Be active. Every decision made in a small department will affect you in some way because, again, there is nowhere to hide. Even mundane things — like hiring a student worker — require everyone’s input since that hire will be doing work that affects you. If your department, like mine, has only four people, you are 25 percent of the vote. So however overworked you are, you have to participate during department meetings instead of zoning out and grading papers.

Be an ambassador. One of the most difficult things about being in a tiny department is that people around campus don’t necessarily know you exist. If they do, they may erroneously assume that such a small department can’t possibly be integral to the institution, so they are dismissive of the work you and your department do. That is dangerous, particularly during periods of economic crises or when you are up for tenure or promotion. People need to understand your department’s — and, thus, your — contribution to the campus.

Be your own advocate. Administrators at small institutions wear multiple hats. Your department chair may also be dean of the graduate school and teach a full course load. It is inevitable that they will drop the ball on some things. Don’t let one of those things be your professional advancement. Take it upon yourself to become familiar with tenure-and-promotion guidelines in your department and institution. Go to the dean and request a mentoring committee who — in the absence of senior faculty in your own department — can offer guidance. Invite colleagues to watch you teach and then take them to lunch and get their feedback. Form a research and writing group with faculty from other departments. Make sure you take your annual review seriously. Prepare your documents, meet with your chair, and ask for advice on ways to improve. When a department’s workload is spread across just four people, it’s not always realistic to expect the same type of mentorship that’s available in larger departments.

Don’t do too much. Despite what I said about being active, you have to know when enough is enough. I chose my current position because I value teaching over research. I love interacting with students, creating new courses, and basically anything related to pedagogy. In my first three years I created 17 different courses. That’s an example of doing too much. Another example: I taught every summer my first five years, sometimes two to three classes a summer because, frankly, my department needed me to. I only recently figured out how to stand up for myself and say No — knowing that my refusal to teach a 6th summer in a row means that someone else in the department will have to do it. I was worried my colleagues would be upset or angry, but they’ve been supportive and understanding of my need to prioritize myself over the students for at least one summer.

Those are the strategies that have worked for me. I have strong relationships with my colleagues, I miss them on breaks, and am proud of the work we accomplish together. Every member of my department wrote strong letters in support of my third-year review and were of great comfort when I experienced a death during my busiest teaching summer. Each of them occupy a role in my life that’s something like family.

Academia can be cutthroat and isolating. It helps to have two families with whom to share the struggle, even if I don’t always get to be the bossy little sister.

Advice For Minority Scholars On “Unfriending Friends”

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Dr. Manya Whitaker (@IvyLeagueLady) is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

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Manya WhitakerI, like many other fresh-out-of-grad school professors of color, entered academe with the naïve idea that other people of color on college campuses would be natural allies and perhaps even friends. I’m aware of the statistics and know that I am among a privileged few who have the fortune to land a tenure-track position. I also know that the presence of diverse bodies does not negate the presence of racism. If anything, racism is more prevalent in a space where the majority has become so used to being the only that they have never had to think about how their words, body language, values or even methods of intellectual inquiry can be derivative of white supremacy. Of full-time professors, the 16 percent who are of color bear the burden of educating not only the students but also their colleagues about systemic inequities.

For those reasons it is incredibly important that faculty and staff members of color find allies. At the most basic level, we need the numbers. We need the numbers to recruit more people of color. We need the numbers so that when issues of diversity emerge, more than 12 voices will be arguing on behalf of all marginalized and underrepresented groups. We need the numbers to show our white colleagues that yes, black and brown people can and do earn advanced degrees.

Beyond allyship, it’s important for faculty of color to cultivate friendships because we need the community. We need the emotional support on the days when we’ve had to deal with just one too many microaggressions. We need the ability to talk about things of cultural importance and not have to explain why we can’t just go to any hair salon. We need to be able to wear what we want, relax our shoulders and not monitor our language. We need the space to be ourselves — our individual selves instead of our professional selves.

Yet with that said, not all people of color are interested in getting to know your real self. It took me a while but I’ve figured out how to recognize when someone is not my ally or my friend. I share these insights with you.

You have to accept the truth. It is easy to dismiss ignored emails, absence from social events and even silence during contentious meetings as minor. You can devise reasons why your so-called friends avoid eye contact, arrive late and leave early, and basically do everything in their power to avoid conversation with you. And when they are forced into conversation, you can act as though fake smiles and surface-level banter are simply an attempt to maintain professionalism at work.

But what you can’t dismiss or reason away are when “friends” actively work against you. These actions are not always explicit, but are nonetheless hurtful and impactful. Their silence when they should be speaking with you is indicative of their indifference to issues of importance to you. Their absence when they should be standing beside you speaks to their lack of courage. Most of all, when they consistently find a way to co-opt conversations that are not about them and their problems, they are not interested in building community. Your pain or happiness should not be fodder for their narrative.

It took me so long to identify and interpret such behavioral patterns because I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to believe that people with whom I interact daily were not so egocentric and selfish that they would throw away a relationship with one of the few people who shares their day-to-day lived experiences. I overlooked their consistent disrespect because I might not find other people of color whom I could befriend for a very long time. I ignored the annoyance, hurt and sometimes anger that I felt in response to the ever-increasing negativity they brought into my life for the sake of the larger group, in the name of community. In any other circumstance in which I would have ended a negative or unfruitful relationship with a person, I stuck to it because hey … we all we got.

This has been a mistake. Too often I’ve allowed myself to dwell in relationships with people who do not add to my life. They may not necessarily detract, but they are not pushing me to grow. Being a minority, any kind of minority, in academe is extremely difficult. It took four years for me to realize that I was making it harder on myself by forcing relationships with people whom I am not naturally inclined to befriend, with people who were more interested in using me to reify their worldview than they were in constructing a new worldview.

I have to forgive myself for that. I wanted so badly to build community that I overlooked moments when those with whom I wanted to build were instead tearing me down.

Most impactful were the group hangouts-turned-grief sessions. Complaints dominated our conversations. Complaints about the institution, complaints about the city, complaints about personal lives, complaints about colleagues, ad nauseam. At first I cosigned. I wanted to be supportive and show my understanding of how difficult it is to do the jobs we do in the circumstances in which we do them. I, too, am sick of being The Only. I, too, want to live in a thriving metropolis with an abundance of available singles. I, too, want students to respect what I offer the institution without having to cite my pedigree.

But I also want to be happy. I want to make the best of this opportunity, because it is an opportunity. I am in a tenure-track position at a well-paying institution with amazing benefits. I am given agency to teach the courses I want to teach when I want to teach them, how I want to teach them. I look forward to going to work on Monday. I love chatting with students in my office. I like the challenge of writing grant applications while teaching a new course and finishing a book manuscript. I love my job. I want to be able to love my job without feeling guilty about it.

My “friends” weren’t allowing me that space. I didn’t feel as though I could express my joy at being able to do exactly what I wanted to do in my career. It felt as though my happiness made me a traitor in this politically correct revolutionary world of academe in which I am either with you or against you.

This was unfair.

This was not support or allyship. This was not community. Being in a community doesn’t feel lonely. Being in a community isn’t emotionally taxing. Being in a community does not mean biting your tongue and setting aside your emotional experiences in order to validate those of others.

So I made difficult decisions to end relationships with people whom I once considered friends, and I advise you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be hostile or aggressive. It doesn’t even have to be a thing. When they don’t return emails, stop emailing them. When they don’t show up to events you’ve organized, stop inviting them. When they talk incessantly about themselves, don’t listen. When they dwell on negativity, counteract it with positivity.

Give voice to what you love about yourself and your life. While empathy can affirm that you are not the only one enduring difficult times, trapping pain within a tight circle ensures it is never released. Instead, you need to find ways to release the hurt and begin healing journeys.

And after you’ve stopped investing in undeserving people, find the people who are willing to help you heal — regardless of their identity characteristics. In my experiences, my white colleagues are those most willing to explore self-care strategies in the face of racial battle fatigue. Just because someone looks different than you doesn’t mean they can’t understand your struggle.

But you first have to identify who is helping you overcome your struggle and who is capitalizing from it.

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

happy new year

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

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

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

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

Celebrate Your 2016 Victories And Failures

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

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

My 2016 Victories And Failures

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

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

With that said, here I go.  In 2016…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Grad School Professors as Gatekeepers… And Then Some

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

The best piece of advice I received as a grad student was to think of my graduate school professors and advisors as nothing more than gatekeepers. These were people who had been given power by my department, university, and the profession to train me and award me with a PhD. On the surface, it is well known that I, as the student, had to demonstrate sufficient competency in order to advance: master’s thesis, graduate minor, qualifying exam, proposal defense, and then dissertation defense. And, I did so, hence the three letters behind my name since July 2013. They made the boxes that I successfully checked in a six-year period.

Such a utilitarian approach doesn’t sound so bad. Graduate school was simply a means to an end. All I needed to do was appease my grad school advisors’ conditions for advancing toward the PhD — nothing more, nothing less.

But, graduate training tends to be much more complex than that. The dropout rate would not be 50 percent, mental illness would not run so rampant, and there would probably be a lot fewer folks stuck in lifelong ABD purgatory. But, the utilitarian model, while helpful, has the unintended consequence of serving to blame those very students who do not advance in their training.

Admittedly, I can only speak from my own perspective as a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. So, I need to narrow my concerns to the experiences of marginalized graduate students, perhaps especially my fellow unicorns at the lovely, yet sometimes dreadful, intersections of more than one oppressed status. The utilitarian model — “just play the game” — is naively simplistic when one’s training exists in the context of cissexist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, and xenophobic oppression. We do not start at the same (privileged) starting point, we are not given the same quality training and resources to excel, our take on the game is seen as inferior, and we are less likely to enjoy the spoils of successfully winning the game.

Ironically, I actually intended to write this essay to promote the aforementioned utilitarian approach. But, as I reflect on how I played the game — but still feel as though I did not win in some important ways — I have grown wary of that advice.

First, I should highlight that the actual game of succeeding in graduate school demanded so much more than checking the boxes that my grad school advisors demanded. There seemed to be an infinite number of implied and sometimes explicitly stated expectations that were either 1) required to actually earn the PhD, 2) highly recommended in order to get a (tenure-track) job (at a Research I university), or 3) deemed central to what it means to be a (mainstream) sociologist. I cannot say that it was ever entirely clear which end a particular means achieved. Was the explicit effort to steer me away from gender and sexuality studies — the areas I expressed interest in in my grad school application — actually a matter of getting the PhD? Probably not. Was the explicit effort to “beat the activist” out of me a formal part of PhD training? Doubtful.

This lack of clarity about the motivations behind particular aspects of my graduate training proved to be more troublesome than a problem of uncertainty. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it allowed for my graduate advisors to use their superordinate status to push me into a certain direction professionally. I hope most professors could not be described as manipulative, but I have heard stories that echo my own experiences. I had to concern myself with my status in the department, as greater visibility and status as a student meant more opportunities to advance my training. The students on the periphery of the program were tale-tell signs of what could happen if I ignored too many of the informal and implied expectations.

A second, related concern is the strong seductive power of being in the “in” crowd. I was drawn to the game-playing approach, especially as it became a matter of survival. I did what I had to do to get the degree, but also pursued other things (usually secretly) that fed my spirit. But, I saw that others, usually privileged students, were invited into relationships with professors in ways that were not impersonal exchanges. Some were invited to babysit, catsit, and housesit for professors — I never was. Some remain lifelong friends and/or collaborators with their former advisors; some honor their former advisors by making them their children’s godparents. Across the board, many at least stay in touch with their advisors, occasionally leaning on them for professional advice (and sometimes personal support), drawing on their networks, and writing recommendation letters.

I (mostly) played the game, and what did I get? Strained professional and personal ties with my grad school advisors, generalized anxiety disorder, and an unhealthy dose of complex trauma to work through still years later from the awful experience of grad school. No, I do not actually want those kinds of relationships with my advisors; it seems unethical to ask students (who would fear saying no) to watch your children, pets, or house. But, that kind of intimacy was partially denied to me and resisted as a matter of my own survival.

Source: RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked

Source: RuPaul’s Drag Race Untucked

I would be lying if I said I did not want some kind of personal relationship with my grad school advisors. These were people I saw on a weekly, if not daily basis, who were invested in my training and success, who observed the highs and lows of the roller coaster known as grad school. I never wanted to treat grad school as a game, for I never knew education to be a cold business transaction.

Perhaps that is where my naiveté shows. My professors — trained sociologists — were not my friends, or therapists, or confidants, and — as I learned the hard way — they were not to be collaborators or colleagues of equal status. A power-imbalanced relationship, in which my advancement and career depended upon them, is inherently fraught. My vulnerable position in these student-professor relationships was heightened by the inequality in our social locations — them white, cisgender, middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual, and me Black, genderqueer, a broke grad student, and queer. I was perhaps too open about suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and about being an activist (which they saw as a professional liability).

The funny thing is, as I became more jaded, distant, guarded, and utilitarian as a means of survival, one advisor criticized me for holding back and for not seeming to trust them. Despite having my anxiety dismissed and their efforts to beat the activist out of me, I was expected to still bare my soul to them — the very soul they intended to crush, or at least co-opt.

I suspect that the privileged way of relating to others in the academy is to be unquestioningly open and trusting of one’s peers and superordinates; indeed, grad school was not the last time I was accused of not trusting a (white) colleague. But, for marginalized folks, that kind of openness and trust can open us up for others’ critique, judgment, dismissal, or other violence. Yet, you get dismissed as uppity, guarded, mean, cold, or standoffish if you don’t open up for privileged colleagues’ entertainment/inspection/surveillance. A double-standard for marginalized scholars and students about ways of interacting with (privileged) others in the academy, which, in the end, actually has nothing to do with the quality of our research or teaching.

Frankly, I never found one good strategy to excel in grad school.  Just being good at what I do wasn’t enough because what I really wanted to do — study the intersection of race and sexuality — was dismissed.  And, being “likeable” wasn’t enough or, to be really real, even possible for the long-term.  I fumbled my way through grad school, achieving what I now see as inevitable: I would earn that damn PhD and never look back.  I just wish I was in a position to advise future PhDs how to do so without the scars I endured in the process.

Co-Authorships: Lessons Learned From The Dark Side of Publishing

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Last week, I went on a bit of a Twitter rant in revealing the backstory of my forthcoming article, “Sexual Orientation Differences in Attitudes about Sexuality, Race, and Gender” (Social Science Research). I am taking Dr. Jessie Daniel’s advice to turn those tweets into this blog post, though I doubt this would make for a peer-reviewed article.  (But, never say never.)

From Master’s Thesis to Journal Article (2007-2017)

Let me begin by retelling the ten-year saga that led to the publication of the aforementioned article. I entered graduate school intending to study the lives of LGBTQ people. I made this research interest, and the broader interest in challenging anti-LGBTQ oppression, quite clear to the graduate schools to which I applied.  However, I wasn’t aware that graduate schools might not be as transparent as me.  I chose to study sociology at Indiana University, which boasted strength in sexualities, including two professors who specialize in the area.  I wasn’t aware that one of those professor would leave almost as soon as I got there, and that the other remained on the periphery of the department (partly because of a reputation for sexual harassment, and partly because sexualities was a marginalized subfield).  I wasn’t aware that my admission into the program came with the intention to mold my marginal, radical interests into something acceptable to mainstream sociology.  I realize, now basically in 2017, that Indiana sociology was a poor fit for me, perhaps explaining the ongoing anxiety and complex trauma from which I suffer.

When it came time to propose a topic for my master’s thesis early in my first-year of grad school, I let my passion do the talking.  I proposed an ethnographic study of racism in the local community — Bloomington, Indiana. (That warrants its own blog post: hearing, “I’m not usually into Black guys”; being asked, “why would you tell anyone you’re Black since no one can tell?”; repeatedly being asked, “what are you?” at the lone gay club; assumed to be a “top” with a huge penis and a tendency for sexual aggression simply because I’m Black; a Black friend being called a nigger when he turned down an ugly white guy’s advances in the gay club’s bathroom; etc.)  I was gently steered away from the subject because of concerns about the amount of time it would take to conduct a qualitative project.  Instead, I was guided to do something that could be quickly and easily done with existing survey data.  So, I settled on comparing heterosexuals’ and sexual minorities’ race and gender attitudes using data from the General Social Survey.

I made acceptable progress on my new thesis topic. But, at one point, I proposed doing an alternative thesis wherein I would compare white heterosexuals’ and white sexual minorities’ race attitudes; my passion and curiosity remained fixated on the problem of racism in queer communities.  Without even reading a draft of that paper into which I had put so much time and energy, my main advisor dismissed it, again citing concerns about data (in this case, sample size).  So, I carried on with the topic that was somewhat related to my passion.  I finished the thesis on time, successfully earning my master’s degree at the close of my second year.

My main advisor offered to collaborate on an expanded version of the thesis project, implicitly using the offer as an incentive to finish the thesis on time.  I recognized his respected status in the field and his commendable research record, so I jumped at the chance.  I had already begun to worry about publishing, so the thought of publishing a piece on sexualities, perhaps in the top journal in sociology, excited me beyond words.

Oh, the paper certainly expanded.  Investigating a few racial attitudes and a few gender attitudes expanded to every item in the General Social Survey — a behemoth of a survey that covers every social and political domain imaginable.  I had 280 outcomes to analyze, yet he instructed me to add a second dataset — the American National Election Survey — which added an additional 60 items.  As typical of our field, I had to predict multiple models: sexual orientation on every sociopolitical outcome, then its effects net of the effects of other identities like race and gender on those attitudes, and then its effect net of possible mechanisms linking sexual orientation to attitudes.  Though these findings seemed interesting and solid on their own, he instructed me to also pay attention to how race, gender, and education affected sociopolitical attitudes.  That means I had to collect coefficients for four variables across three models for 340 outcomes; that is 4,080 coefficients for which to account.  To keep track of it all, I had to record these coefficients in Excel and devise formulas (through a lot of trial and error — with more errors than I care to recall) to identify patterns.  It’s no wonder this paper became the most reliable trigger of my newly developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Messing up one code or formula forced me to do everything over again, and usually left me feeling I would vomit right on the computer keyboard.

I once complained about the amount of work involved to my advisor-turned-coauthor.  Regarding analyses, it seemed his role was simply to give orders.  If he didn’t like the results I produced, he’d send me back to redo them.  Oh, did I mention that we had several supplemental analyses of all of the above?  So, 4,080 coefficients was probably closer to 25,000.  His solution, besides doing more analyses, was to bring on another co-author to help me.  Without any passive aggression in that suggestion, it seems like a well-intentioned suggestion.  But, with it, it sounded as though he was implying I couldn’t handle it.  I predictably responded to his implication, replying “of course, not!”  So, I continued on, only to myself and friends complaining about the amount of work I was doing while he had never even seen the raw data.

I wrote a full draft of the expanded paper at the end of my third year. And, several more revised drafts in my fourth year, updating the paper each time the analyses were changed. And, there were multiple revisions of the seventh iteration of this paper in my last two years of grad school. As the years went on with an evolving but unpublished paper, eventually the only thing that was changing was redoing the analyses over from scratch as new waves of the data were released.  I first had to start over by adding 2010 data, and then again with 2012 data.  It was a pain, made more painful by the fact that the results were not changing.  We almost got scooped a couple of times as scholars in other fields began to take seriously sexual orientation’s effect on individuals’ attitudes and political behaviors.  But, my co-author never wrote a single word on the paper.  Ever.  Some of my emails to pester him about it went ignored; to others, he apologized for being busy and promised to get to the paper next month (which never happened).  I fumed as projects he started well after ours began were published within a year or two.  It was clear I was not a priority for him.

Once I graduated and began my current tenure-track position, my impatience with my co-author (and the anxiety I experienced about this paper) grew to an unforgivable level.  The decision, for me, became letting the paper go for the sake of a continued connection to my former advisor or letting the relationship go and publishing the paper on my own. Which was more important: finally publishing this fucking paper, or having him as a potential letter writer and continued mentor?  In my mind, this was an either/or situation because surely he’d retaliate if I published the paper without him.  I had witnessed other students’ careers impacted by his efforts to blackball them behind the scenes.  I was aware of his power in the department and discipline, and his reputation for using it without consequence.

He and other advisors never supported my decision to take my current position (at a liberal arts college), and, when I saw them at conferences, would find a way to stir up my doubts about taking it.  As the 2014 wave of the General Social Survey became available, I had to make the hard decision.  I refused to redo the analyses from scratch.  So, I emailed him to kick him off of the paper.  I was shocked when he responded that I couldn’t do so; he had contributed too much to the paper (I suppose not in words or analyses, but in ideas [read: instructions to me]) to be denied authorship credit.  But, he promised to work on it.  Another promise broken.  Later, I sent him an eight-page handwritten letter expressing how frustrating and triggering this project had been, and how hurt I was that I felt our relationship was undermined by this ordeal.  Another promise to work on it, another promise broken.

I eventually decided to squash the project, also killing every possible follow-up project.  It felt like the only possible way to free myself from it and his control over it.  He could have it if he dared to touch the data that plagued me for years.  I emailed him on March 2015 notifying him of my decision, thanking him for his work over the years.  He never responded, though I later saw he removed it from his CV, so I knew he got the message.  The unspoken message was that I was effectively cutting ties with him, as well.  I’m now a few years out from grad school, so I’d need letters that are more current than what he could offer.  And, I finally accepted that he never had my best interest at heart, and he never supported the career I defined for myself.  So, what good was his letter anyhow?

After a few months, I felt very dispassionate about what was left of my research.  Cutting off the line of research on sexualities — the very topic that drew me to the academy — felt like cutting off a limb.  I felt I was hurting myself more than anyone else by killing that project.  So, I revived it, starting by returning to my master’s thesis.  Starting over felt hard, but it also felt right.  I am pleased to say that the new paper was accepted at the first journal to which I submitted it.  On my own, of course.  I didn’t have to include comparisons to race, gender, and education, which always felt like throwing women and Black people under the bus in order to elevate sexual minorities.  I begrudgingly acknowledged him and other advisors for their support on the paper.  But, from here on out, this line of research is all me, all my passion, all my ideas.  I’ve already submitted the first follow up paper to a journal, and will be submitting the second one in a few weeks.  And, these papers are very me (i.e., with a heavy emphasis on intersectionality).  I’m back!

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

It’s only in this essay that I have ever articulated a sense that attending my graduate program was perhaps a mistake.  I assured myself that transferring to another program wouldn’t solve my problems, as the shaming, marginalization, and the disregard for my goals would be found in almost every sociology program.  And, dropping out, even with the MA, didn’t hold other viable options.  So, I haven’t dwelled on the decision to go to Indiana, or even stay there for that matter.

But, I have spent some time beating myself up for naively (and perhaps greedily) agreeing to co-author with my former advisor.  I had already given up an ethnographic project on racism in queer communities to, instead, use a quantitative approach to compare heterosexuals and sexual minorities’ attitudes.  I conceded again and again when he became a co-author, adding comparisons to other identities that I felt were problematic.  By the end, I had to kill the entire project to remove myself from his control.

What would I say — now at 31 with just a short time left before filing for tenure — to my 24-year-old self at the cusp of earning my MA degree?

IT’S A TRAP!  And, other lessons I have learned the hard way…

First, don’t publish with anyone who has control over your professional (or personal) fate.  (See my Vitae essay on this.)  In a power-imbalanced relationship, navigating the potential minefields of co-authorships and the publication process can prove disastrous.  I was lead author on the paper, but he called the shots.  I didn’t even have the power to kick him off of the paper despite years of neglecting it; yet, ironically, he was quick to kick off a former student coauthor of one of his major projects when she wasn’t pulling her weight.  I know some believe in this model, especially the “apprentice” model wherein the senior scholar/professor is the lead author.  But, I think it is most beneficial for grad students and junior scholars to publish on their own.  That way, there is no question about what the contributed to a project.  If co-authorships are desired, I recommend limiting them to peers.

A related concern about collaborations is to avoid letting existing relationships tempt you to co-author.  Co-authorships can get messy.  The aforementioned one threatened to cost me a relationship with my advisor, and eventually did when I no longer felt I needed him.  I lost two friends over another paper; sadly, my name is nowhere on it, so, in the end, I had neither a paper nor their friendship.  I’ve gotten into a fight with another co-author and friend over the authorship order once I felt I had done much more for the paper.  I’m currently in a collaboration that proves to be successful for many years; we started out as co-authors and a friendship has developed in the process.  I’m not saying don’t publish with friends, lovers, relatives, professors, senior colleagues, etc.  (Well, yes I am.)  But, if you must, don’t let your existing relationship be the reason you decide to work together.  How we are as co-authors maybe quite different from how we are as friends.

Third, treat potential collaborations like you would a relationship.  If you’re open to a quick, one-time “hook-up,” go for it.  (Though someone often gets less out of it.)  But, if you plan to be deeply involved in a project, and perhaps pursue a long-term collaboration, open communication is crucial to decide upon division of labor, authorship credit, goals for the project(s), working styles, availability, and your politics about publishing.  No matter the level of involvement and potential longevity of the collaboration, I believe it is crucial to be upfront with one another about your expectations for the project(s).  I was burned by being opportunistic about the publication with my former advisor, and I paid the price for being greedy.  I feel strongly that the open communication necessary for a healthy collaboration is nearly impossible when one co-author holds power over the other; but, if the more senior person isn’t inclined to abuse their power (though you sometimes don’t know whether they would until they do for the first time), and is able to separate problems with a co-authorship from evaluating you in other domains, maybe it’s OK to pursue such a partnership.

A related piece of advice is to do your homework before you jump into a collaboration.  If you have ready access to their past or current co-authors, ask how they are as a partner in research.  Maybe even ask your potential co-author how past collaborations have gone; if you see a pattern of conflict, they may be the common denominator.  Look at their CV to see if anything stands out.  For example, are they consistently the lead author?  That could be because it was all from their own data, or maybe they are unwilling to play a secondary role.  Do they ever publish on their own (if that is common in your field)?  Maybe they are coasting on co-authorships to get published.  Of course, you should inquire about any patterns that seem off to you.  If I had done my homework, I might have been suspicious that my advisor almost exclusively collaborates, and with people who are former students and mentees.  (Is this about a commitment to mentorship?  Or, is this because these subordinates are easier to control?)  My critical eye might have noticed that few people of color have worked with him as a co-author, and sexualities was never a topic he studied until after we started working together.  Red flags are red for a reason.

Fifth, consider having a line of work or series of papers that are safe for collaboration, while maintaining some that are just for you.  I made the mistake of putting all of my eggs in one basket, so when the co-authored project was stalled, I had to rush to find another project to pursue.  As that sexualities paper was held up for nearly six years, I became frustrated that my primary interest was not reflected in my publications.  Now, it is, while my work on discrimination has become collaborative; the latter benefits me by reigniting an interest that was starting to wane after years of studying it.  Since co-authorships can get held up in ways that solo-authored work doesn’t, it seems worth considering having both to ensure something is moving to print.

Sixth, consider finding other pathways toward advancement that you may feel is exclusive to collaborations.  Being more specific, if it seems a co-author has something you lack — status, expertise, funding or other resources, networks — you could give yourself the time to gain access to it eventually, thus ensuring that the project is independent.  I readily agreed to collaborate with my former advisor because I felt he could easily get us into one of the top journals in our discipline.  But, I could have done that on my own.  Maybe it would not have happened with the first paper; but, I am confident that I could have eventually built up to a big project worthy of a top-tier journal, first publishing a series of smaller papers.  Of course, I do believe science advances by collaborating with those who have something we lack; I see such complementary relationships as beneficial to research.  I just want to be cautious about the opportunism that leads us to get something out quickly that may not be worth the risk of conflict with co-authors.  If something gets held up because of such conflict, that scientific advancement might have been better off being pushed in a solo-authored project.

Seventh, avoid collaborating with anyone who undermines, rather than advances, your passion and ideas.  Compromise and communication are central to a successful collaboration.  But, you should feel as though your voice and interests are reflected in your work.  With your name listed as an author, you are responsible for an article’s contents, conclusions, and implications.  You had better believe in every word that is written!  And, you should feel good about it.  Publishing for publication sake may not prove useful if some opportunistic lines on your CV do not clearly advance your independent research program.

Eighth, take the long-view with publishing.  Beware of quickly agreeing to collaborate on something because you had a great conversation over drinks with a stranger at a conference, or because a friend got you excited about their paper they can’t seem to get published after four tries, or because someone has data they’re just sitting on (but want to get published).  The peer-review process is long, so you should take some time to think on an invitation to collaborate before jumping to say yes.  How does this paper fit into your research agenda?  Will it take time, energy, and funding away from your other work?  If it gets held up, will you have other papers moving through the pipeline to ensure success toward graduation/hiring/tenure/promotion?  You might even want to make a list of all of your ongoing projects, with some sense of a timeline, to see whether (or not) this new project fits, keeping in mind that it may require more work and take longer than publish than you anticipate (as is the case for any publication).

Ninth, be self-reflective.  Take the time to clearly identify a research program, your short-term and long-term research goals, your working style, your schedule and availability, and your strengths and weaknesses.  No one is perfect, so it’s worth assessing whether you might be a potentially bad co-author.  I know I tend to be impulsive, so a similarly impulsive co-author and I may bite off more than we can chew, while a more cautious co-author can reign me in but will make me feel constrained. Generally, it feels much easier to work alone with this in mind; but, this awareness has made my most recent collaborations all the more smooth, peaceful, and efficient.

Finally, forgive yourself for bad decisions you made in the past.  You can recover from them.  And, it may not be fair to you to blame yourself for making decisions out of naivete or ignorance, or that at least seemed beneficial for you at the time.  Learn from the mistake, impart the wisdom you gain to others, and move forward.  If you have had a bad experience with research, consider sharing it publicly so others can learn to avoid your mistakes, or maybe even feel validated that they are not alone in making that mistake.

Thanks for reading.