Black Motherhood in Academe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve got this.

Bio

Photo of Trenita B. Childers

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

Scholars Of Color Should Create Supportive Communities To Thrive

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

Self-Care Through Intentional Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surviving Institutional Racism In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). The author is a Black woman professor at a small liberal arts college. She was strongly encouraged by IHE to remain anonymous for fear that her colleagues or university would retaliate against her for calling out the racism that she has experienced at work.

Readers, I will be honest with you: when I accepted my first tenure-track position, I was excited to formally join the academy. I naïvely assumed the bubble of academe would insulate me from, well, everything. I raced toward my Ph.D. in search of social protection, professional stability and financial freedom. Instead, I found early-career emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

Upon joining the professoriate, I thought I was joining a group of people committed to a similar end goal. I imagined college faculty members as collective change agents transforming the lives of future generations. I was wrong. Colleges as manufacturing plants for little liberal soldiers is a fairy tale created by political conservatives to reconstruct classism around education rather than political affiliation. I have found few liberal “havens” in academic spaces, and I am not sure that there is a happy ending here.

I am sure none of what follows is unique to my experiences as a black woman faculty member at a HWCU (or historically white college or university). The ordinary nature of racism in the academy encourages its growth where it seemed, to me, least likely. A small segment of faculty of color experience extreme harassment, receiving death threats and sometimes termination for their public discussions of white supremacy and privilege. Most of us, instead, experience professional death by a thousand cuts. We spend our days ducking microaggressions, hurdling stereotypes and navigating emotional distress. Most of us will be denied tenure, and many will be too exhausted to protest if we managed to land a tenure-track job at all.

When I went to work mobilizing support for change, I had no idea the toll institutional racism in this setting and academe more generally would take on my physical health, my spirit and my passion for educating. I led poorly attended workshops on “othering” in the classroom. I proposed noncomparative research on black student communities, but reviewers suggested white subjects were imperative to create valid data. I came to the academy to create platforms for change. Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.

Here are some lessons about surviving academe’s institutionalized racism that I have learned the hard way.

The job of a professor is physical work. In graduate school, I rarely heard discussions of the physicality of academe. I did not expect to feel the work so viscerally. The constant tension is a byproduct of the inherent conundrum of my role on the campus. I am expected to exert power where it is not assumed. Fellow faculty and administrators challenge my fit while also thrusting me into the limelight. Students test my steadfastness and institutional authority. My body language is constantly surveilled and therefore must be managed. “Stand taller, take up space, remember you belong here” is a mantra I repeat often to myself. Tenure won’t change this, and publications won’t, either. A short critical comment in faculty meeting requires brute force to momentarily pause my shaking hands as I stand to address fellow faculty. There is no alternative action in this example. To allow my hands to shake would undermine the little power I’ve amassed, but the physical exhaustion I feel afterward is palpable.

You cannot always be the counselor. The impact of white supremacy on campus is often silent in its devastation. Coupled with low levels of student trust in faculty and staff, marginalized students have few spaces where they can speak openly and without fear of recourse. So I opened my door. I let students unload their experiences on me, but it is difficult to maintain emotional distance when we are angry about the same things. What would you tell a black student who has to attend class with a peer who yelled racist epithets at them last weekend, or a survivor who has to eat in the same dining hall as their rapist? I listened to them, tried to console them, to temper the anxiety and frustration plaguing them. I met with anyone with institutional power to plead my case. I lost sleep, I cried. I want to give these students a voice but almost lost mine in the process.

People will try you. I joined the academy because I love to explore, teach and write. I expected to feel at home, but instead of like-minded peers I found antagonists. Instead of solidarity, I found cynicism. I endure affirmative action jokes from white colleagues and passive digs at my inability to “look like a professor.” Students of all races challenge my syllabus, threaten to go “over my head” to their white man professor of choice and reject social inequality discussions in the classroom.

Administrators are happy to use my efforts to promote institutional diversity initiatives but routinely ignore my recommendations for effective structural and cultural change. They ask: Why are you so sensitive? Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to offend you? Who else corroborates your story? What could you have done differently? Have you reviewed the institutional policy on this topic? Perhaps you should discuss with unreachable person X. Many students and staff members regard me as a member of the liberal elite pushing overwrought theories of social inequity on the next generation. I am an outsider. Therefore I can be openly challenged, admonished and ignored at the whim of those around me.

You are not alone. I dreamed of rallying a group of like-minded thinkers to the same table so that we could make a plan to save the world. But that never happened. At first, my colleagues were happy to help champion issues of marginalization on campus, especially when catchy buzzwords were involved. Increase diversity! Improve inclusivity! But the excitement faded quickly in the face of constant administrative resistance. I also found it difficult to use cultural support, once a dependable savior, as a scaffold. I thought myself a burden to those struggling through their own fatigue. I watched from the outside for too long, wondering if other marginalized faculty felt similarly alone and disappointed. I wish I had known sooner that they did.

You can decide your success. I would love to be awarded tenure when the time comes, and I would like to publish social justice research in peer-reviewed journals, but I realize now that may not be my path. The difficulty to produce in this environment, to maintain creativity amid the emotional, physical and psychological strain of this job, cannot be overstated. I have dedicated hundreds of hours to improving the academic experiences of the marginalized at my institution. It hasn’t made a difference, but I will not stop fighting.

Instead, I stopped using institutional change as a marker of success. I prioritize my stability, health and happiness. I don’t need to create a more liberal environment to experience success. Sometimes a day maintaining collegiality far above what I receive is success. Continuing to raise my voice is success. Providing support for those who need it, even when it is difficult to find myself, is success. And most days that’s enough, for now.

Moving Toward A Pedagogy Of Sadness, Anger, And Love

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jenny Heineman holds a Ph.D. in sociology and currently teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Heineman’s work centers on issues related to the body and intellectualism, particularly the intersection of sex work, feminist theory and critical pedagogy.

Where Universes Expand

Recently, a team of Finnish scientists asked people to map out where they felt different emotions on their bodies. The mapping patterns were similar, even across cultures. For example, participants mapped sadness onto the heart, and happiness tended to include the arms, legs and belly. Interestingly, people mapped pride and shame onto the head and described the rest of the body as “deactivated” in prideful or shameful situations.

These findings are significant for marginalized academics, because they demonstrate the embodied experience of emotion. Feeling is of the body. That means that we are marginalized at an intersection of identity, body and emotion. Those recent findings also tell us something significant about the relationship between bodies, emotions and perceptions of intellectual rigor. Emotions of the head are valued more in academe than are emotions of the heart. Pride is associated with intellectualism, while sadness, anger and love are ostensibly anti-intellectual.

I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger last semester, and not just because of the emboldened vitriol of racists and misogynists following the 2016 presidential election. After nearly 20 years of chronic pain, I was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis. The disease, given free rein for two decades, flourished inside several organs outside my uterus. I underwent an emergency hysterectomy, which in turn sent me into menopause at the age of 32.

I didn’t feel sadness and anger, however, because of what these changes meant for me in terms of gender. As a queer parent, I did not feel the pangs of “losing [my] womanhood,” as the aftercare pamphlet (and infinite online blogs) suggested I might. I’ve never been keen on status-quo notions of womanhood.

Instead, I felt the loss of an entire universe, an absence deep inside my body where I once nurtured and grew a glorious child. I felt the imbalance of my body, struggling to survive its new environment, the dearth of estrogen and the surge of testosterone engendering a particular emotionality. If I were to map my pain onto my body, my head would be entirely deactivated.

Given my experience, I was not surprised to read course evaluations from that semester wherein students described my teaching style as “too emotional.” While I am unabashedly open in the classroom, menopause added another layer of emotionality. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to hide a hot flash. Moreover, while mourning the loss of my singularity, my universe, I also grappled with bouts of sobbing and the cruelty of apathy. “I don’t want to talk about your vagina,” a close family member said after my surgery, as if apathy were the only appropriate boundary between good, healthy heady bodies and bad, mourning hyperaware bodies.

Likewise, my emotionality in the classroom obligated students to acknowledge the parts of me below my head. Acknowledging my sadness and my body forced students out of their apathetic bubbles. On the heels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s transphobic comments that “trans women are trans women,” for example, I asked my Intro to Sociology class if I am a “real” woman even though I no longer had a uterus. The topic of the week was gender and the question was understandably uncomfortable. My students squirmed in their seats, unwilling to make eye contact with me or their classmates. I then asked the class to interrogate their sheepishness. “We talk about other people’s bodies in class all the time,” I said.

After a long pause, one student proclaimed, “Because it’s just … embarrassing!” The proclamation sent warm quivers over my flesh as I delighted in her brilliant and unguarded observation. And she was right! Acknowledging the complexity and vulnerability of our own bodies is embarrassing. It is emotional. It requires us to be open to the bodily sensations we actively ignore in intellectual spaces. It requires us to take up residency in our own skin.

But here’s the thing: marginalized academics lack the privilege of invisibility in academe. We don’t have the choice to ignore all those pins and needles below our heads because it is precisely those sensations — and the knowledges they engender — that are constantly up for scrutiny in academe. It is not incidental, for example, that fat bodies, ill bodies, brown bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, sex-working bodies, neurodivergent bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, et cetera, are positioned as biased, subjective, irrational, emotional and divisive in academe. Even cold, hard data show that student course evaluations are biased against folks with marginalized bodies and identities and the emotions they presumably create. Students are skeptical of professors who are more than walking heads. That skepticism translates to criticism on course evaluations, which in turn sours one’s promotional opportunities or perception of intellectual rigor more generally.

For a queer former sex worker like me, sitting at the intersection of queerness, femininity, stigmatized labor, chronic illness and now menopause means that my body and my self are hypervisible. In course evaluations, my hypervisible body translates to a biased emotionality, because my knowledge does not come from just the head. Instead, it comes from a whole lot of anger, a ton of sadness and a great deal of love. Bringing in knowledge that comes from the entire body, not just the head, means stripping down to one’s most elemental human parts. It means standing stark naked in the midst of embarrassment and vulnerability. It means remaining naked even when your exposure threatens your entire livelihood. And most of the time, it means doing all of this without your enthusiastic consent.

Afro-pessimists like Jared Sexton argue for an epistemology that comes from marginalized bodies, emotions and experiences. Sexton argues that marginalized bodies — namely, black bodies — are pushed to the margins of society where they face social and literal death. A truly revolutionary epistemology, then, should not fear or propagate death, but rather begin with it.

I would add that a bodycentric critical pedagogy must also begin with the margins. A bodycentric critical pedagogy informed by Afro-pessimism and queerness must bring the body into the classroom by acknowledging sadness, anger and love as equally valid ways of knowing the world. Rather than demanding regurgitation in the classroom — what Paulo Freire called the “banking” concept of education — we have to center the experiences and emotions that come from the margins. For example, rather than asking our students, “How was your weekend?” instead ask, “Did any of you experience police brutality this weekend?” This is a simple way to center bodies at the heart of necropolitics and the anger, mourning and sadness brimming in those bodies. It is also a love song to those bodies and experiences.

But it’s not just about students’ bodies and emotions. It is about ours, as educators, too. If your body aches with chronic illness, if it carries the everlasting scars of state-sanctioned injustice, if your heart bleeds with the pain of living under a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy, bring that bodily emotionality into the classroom. Let yourself cry when you show the famed Stanley Milgram experiments because you know what unfettered authority feels like. Let yourself delight in talking about Miss Major because you know exactly where resistance and love live in your own body. Let yourself rejoice when students write, “She’s too emotional” on course evaluations rather than settling into that familiar, heady space of shame.

Most important, let us all commit to memory (and heart) the profound and sacred knowledge of the margins. It is only at the margins, after all, where universes expand.

Five Tips For Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Pieces Of Advice

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

Simple Ways Professors Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

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

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Recognizing Emotional Labor In Academe

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Julie Shayne is the faculty coordinator of gender, women’s and sexuality studies and a senior lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. She is editor and author of three books, including Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (SUNY, 2015). Her first blog post for Conditionally Accepted was about leaving the tenure track.

I ended last academic year on a high induced by the pride from watching my students graduate and the appreciation communicated via hugs, selfies, gifts and cards. Yet while academic accomplishments like graduation are visible to most folks, other acts are seemingly smaller and often only noticed by students and the faculty members who supported them.

It is the structurally and institutionally marginalized students whose successes often require substantial emotional labor on the part of faculty and staff members. Experience shows that these students feel most comfortable with those of us who are also minoritized, as well as those of us who teach about injustice and communicate solidarity in the classroom.

Emotional labor is about supporting students as they experience alienation, marginalization and trauma, which prevent them from working to their full potential. Faculty members who perform emotional labor have open-door policies for our hurting students. When students show up clearly in need of support, even if we are buried in course prep, tomorrow’s conference presentation or article deadlines, we take them in, listen and often offer tissues. Through our listening, we hear how our institutions are failing to meet the needs of minoritized and traumatized students. Emotional laborers then work to fill those gaps, ideally through long-term changes so students have more than individual and temporary solutions to structurally embedded problems.

Typically, tasks that fall in the emotional labor category have no clear location on our CVs. The efforts of faculty of color are even further minimized, as people presume that their support of their own communities is natural or self-serving and thus not work. (In contrast, the efforts of white professors are probably at least noticed by those around them.) Although our labor is rewarded by students’ gratitude and successes, our institutions largely ignore it.

How do we make our institutions value such emotional labor? As a white cisgender woman, considered senior in some academic circles, I feel compelled to use my white cis privilege and institutional status to try to answer this question.

Emotional laborers know the work involved in supporting our students so that those students can not only finish college but also thrive during and beyond their college careers. Many students start college feeling entirely entitled to be in school, oblivious to their unearned privilege, whereas others feel completely alienated. Those alienated students include, for example, first-generation ones who went to high schools with guidance counselors who didn’t even mention college. Students who were sexually assaulted by fellow students who remain enrolled and live in their dorms. Undocumented immigrants who worry about their daily security. Muslim women who share public spaces with emboldened white supremacists and Islamophobes. Single mothers without affordable child care. Transgender students who strategize their bathroom breaks because the only gender-neutral bathroom is far from their classrooms. And so on. The social locations of the aforementioned students are the result of intersecting layers of structural injustice, which often intensifies their need for emotional support.

What does this labor look like? This partial list is an amalgam of tasks that I have performed and those that I know my colleagues have. We do this work because institutions are failing our students, so faculty members must ultimately provide the services our campuses should.

  • We advocate for our students. When we see people use our students’ tragedies and “diversity” to market the campus, we confront them and tell them they must let the featured students vet and approve the materials; they cannot manipulate the students’ stories into tearjerkers to inspire donors and others.
  • We exert pressure on our administrations to provide resources. Survivors of sexual assault are chronically betrayed and retraumatized by institutions more concerned with lawsuits and damage to their images than with making sure students feel safe on campus. Faculty members empirically document the absence of and need for services and present the data to the administration with demands for more money and infrastructure.
  • We support our students in their efforts to create diversity centers. Faculty members use their courses as organizational locales and their ability to communicate in administrationspeak to help navigate the long and painful process of establishing campus diversity centers.
  • We challenge colleagues who let classroom microaggressions go unchallenged. Doing that requires workshops, trainings and shared resources that we organize and assemble.
  • We create spaces that remind our students, especially our immigrant students, of home. We make “their” food, especially because it is “our” food, and eat it together, conversing in the students’ first language.

Needless to say, all of this work takes time and emotional energy that ultimately prevents us from doing the academic work that our institutions value more. Furthermore, as my colleague at the University of Washington Bothell Mira Shimabukuro pointed out in a casual exchange about this topic, “Minoritized faculty are performing all of this labor while navigating both microaggressive assaults and the effects of institutionalized oppressions on themselves.” And this labor does not stop. We cannot unlearn our students’ pain, especially as we are experiencing our own versions right beside them.

What should institutions do to value emotional labor? I see a three-pronged approach: institutional support, senior faculty calling attention to this invisible labor and junior faculty developing an evidence-based language for tenure and promotion dossiers.

Institutionally: We need money for support resources, diversity centers, victim advocates for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence, legal advocates for undocumented students, trainings about microaggressions, gender-neutral bathrooms, on-campus child care, and on and on. The money is obviously materially necessary, but it also makes an institutional statement that says, “Marginalized students, we hear, see and respect you. And faculty emotional laborers, we value the work you do, but the burden should not be shouldered by one compassionate professor at a time.”

Senior faculty: We need to initiate conversations about tenure and promotion to make this highly hidden labor “count” professionally. For institutions that have faculty awards for teaching and mentoring, this sort of labor must be acknowledged as a form of mentoring. Other institutions could create such an award or other forms of recognition.

Also, when senior faculty members are in the room for personnel reviews, we must speak on behalf of our colleagues. We must remind the people who are unfamiliar with this labor that much of it happens off the clock (as if that is a thing in academe!) and at the expense of our other work. And we need to say this over and over. We need to tell our deans and department chairs that our colleague who is already overburdened with hidden emotional labor cannot be asked to do another service task, that she is already doing much more than her CV communicates.

Junior faculty: When we talk about our teaching, mentoring and service, we need to explain this labor with the assumption that reviewers have no idea that it is happening and how important it is to students’ retention and how time-consuming it is. As we know, such claims must be substantiated with evidence: letters of support from students and faculty members, the resources and “tool kits” we provide for our colleagues, and perhaps even photos of our community-building events with students.

As a feminist social justice activist in the academy, I see my primary task as supporting students who inhabit social locations with more closed than open doors. I am deeply honored that students trust me enough to share the pains they are hiding from most people in their lives. My office door is always open to my hurting students and, for better or worse, I take their pain home with me. But institutions, especially those that claim to be “fostering diversity,” must acknowledge this emotional labor.

Author’s Note

I would like to thank professors Lauren Lichty, Janelle Silva, Mira Shimabukuro and Victoria A. Breckwich Vásquez, fellow emotional laborers, for letting me use their work as examples in this essay.