Advice For Securing Funding During Graduate School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Ray On “The Racialization Of Academic Funding”

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

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This essay is the first of two in which I will provide advice on getting research funding in graduate school. Here, I outline how disparities in graduate funding are deeply racialized and how that connects to racial issues in higher education more generally.

Let’s first take a brief look at the history of higher education in the United States. American colleges and universities were founded as white organizations. Part of their intellectual mission was to further the ideology and material practices of white supremacy. Profits from slavery, the exclusion of people of color and complicity in scientific racism were much more than unfortunate footnotes to an otherwise noble system.

As Craig Steven Wilder shows in the remarkable Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, higher education in the United States was founded on racial exclusion and explicitly designed to further white privilege. The life of the mind was underwritten by the cut of the whip. Although the civil rights movement and tepid diversity programming have reconfigured the racial relations central to higher education, they have by no means erased them. Colleges and universities attempt to project the illusion of a level playing field, yet racial disparities in funding, admittance and graduation rates remain deeply unequal.

Research funding is a racial issue in ways both easily apparent and occasionally hidden. Race shapes funding most obviously through the fact that the bulk of institutional resources remain firmly in white hands. Racial stratification is a defining feature of higher education at all levels of the hierarchy. For example, despite hand-wringing over supposedly “reverse racist” policies, whites are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population when it comes to scholarships.

According to recent research by Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, black students graduate with higher debt burdens. This bias extends to national funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health. After accounting for a host of factors that influence funding decisions — essentially, to statistically compare equally qualified white candidates and candidates of color — researchers found that black scholars were still 10 percent less likely than white scholars to receive NIH research funding. Such funding inequalities can make it less likely for students of color to be able to support their schooling and research, furthering racial inequity in higher education more generally.

Wider social factors also influence the ability of people of color to self-fund their education. As William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton and their colleagues have shown, deep racial differences in family wealth persist. Black and Latino families have fallen farther behind since the Great Recession, such that the “median black family has $7,113 in wealth, while the median white family has $111,740 in wealth.” The numbers are similarly stark for Latina/os. Those disparities are directly traceable to racist social policies like redlining, subprime lending and educational segregation, and they may make self-funding more difficult for nonwhite students.

Historical inequalities that can influence research opportunities and educational trajectories do not always show up in obvious ways. For instance, most legacy admittances can easily be construed as white racial preferences, given that many colleges and universities were only integrated in the 1960s. Similarly, the bias in so-called aptitude tests — which are excellent measures of inherited wealth — create the illusion of meritocracy while legitimizing educational inequality. Those historical inequalities influence current research realities. For instance, a dustup at New York University, in which the director of graduate admissions told a black student that perhaps he should rethink his application if he could not afford the fee, is a particularly blatant example of this racialized dynamic.

Because people of color are more likely to come from families without an ample and reliable store of wealth, they may not have the economic resources needed to support some basics of research. In my own discipline (sociology), necessary tools of the trade — such as laptops, digital tape recorders, data analysis software and money for transcription — may be unaffordable. A lack of funds for this basic equipment can put you behind your peers. And, psychologically, the very real sense of shame that comes from lacking resources in a society that measures your worth by your wealth can also constrain productivity. As a critical sociologist interested in racial inequality, I see how unequal funding holds implications for who gets to tell the stories of people of color.

Racial inequalities have real implications for conducting research. Sociologists have long argued that early disparities in funding create a Matthew effect that advantages scholars over the course of their careers. Based on the scripture “to them that has, more shall be given,” sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that scholars who found early success in securing funding were likely to have higher career productivity. Early funding provides vital resources — research assistants, course releases, money for travel — that scholars can use to extend their advantages. Those resources are then turned into the capital of academe: visibility, publications and access to social networks. Like compound interest, the productivity of scholars who achieve funding early in their careers is boosted, and that early advantage opens up subsequent opportunities. Racial disparities in funding thus create a cycle of cumulative disadvantage.

Beyond these reasons, the ability to acquire funding is becoming more important on the job market. Increasingly, departments in the social sciences are looking to hire scholars with a proven record of acquiring funding. Given the well-substantiated racial differences in rates of funding, this is yet another hurdle that scholars of color face — one that sets many of us behind.

Although personal action can never serve as a full substitute for institutional change, some strategies may make receiving funding more likely. In my next essay, I will offer practical advice on how students of color can increase their chances of getting funded and why they should apply for everything.

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.

Pre-Tenure Scholar-Activist Blues

Me - Blue Looking

This morning’s tears were brought to you by the ongoing conflict between academia and activism.

About an hour ago, I decided to ask for my partner’s advice on a professional matter. Later this month, I am scheduled to give a talk of some sort at a race workshop in the sociology department at Duke University. My concern, on the surface, is time. The event is scheduled just a couple days after the upcoming deadline for accepted authors to submit their full contribution for my co-edited anthology, BRAVE — narratives of courage and overcoming among women of color scholars. Giving, as well as preparing, the talk means having to hold off on beginning to review the essays and provide authors feedback for revisions. That project, too, triggers concerns about time. Given the amount of work involved, the anthology has to become my sole priority for a little while. But, this is a project that will count little for tenure — if at all — and it is one that my department chair explicitly discouraged (at least while I am on the tenure-track).

What I thought was a simple practical matter — should I just cancel the talk since I feel I don’t have time? — was actually the usual internal conflict I experience between being an activist and being an academic. The question really was why the hell am I giving a(nother) talk on activism. Sure, it’s Duke — but it’s not a research talk or invited lecture.  Why the hell am I working on a book to feature stories of bravery among women of color academics?  Not only is this an edited volume, but it also seems to have little to do with my research program.

Maybe my department was right to criticize me in my mid-course review for failing to prioritize departmental service.  Since I actually exceed the expectations for doing service in the department, it remains unclear to me what else prioritizing such service would mean.  And, months after the review, in asking about it, I was told the department hadn’t yet decided what that could mean — besides pulling my weight around the department (which I do, more than I need to).  I suspect it is less about serving the department, and more about prioritizing the “wrong” kinds of external service — namely, anything reflecting or about activism.  Yet, here I am again, trying to spread the gospel about intellectual activism and doing “non-scholarly” work to amplify the voices of women of color academics.

I do this dance at least a couple of times a week.  I’ll say “fuck it” and do work about which I feel passionate (no matter its worth to my colleagues or the Tenure & Promotion Committee); then, I’ll get spooked by something, and return to resentfully conforming.  Early this week, I decided to change my mindset to be that of a professor who already has tenure, who is not concerned that the slightest misstep would cost them their jobs.  Now, late in the week, I’m back second guessing giving a talk on intellectual activism — a talk I’ve already given, and that I agreed to give again months ago.

I admitted to my partner that I am tired.  I am tired of trying to figure out what these people want from me to keep this job.  I am tired of selling out, shutting up, doubting myself, reading between the lines, begging everyone around me to assure me that my department or university or tenure letter-writers won’t attempt to sabotage me when I go up for tenure. Logically, I am in great shape for tenure, with enough publications and good student evaluations, though it seems I could stand to cutback on service to the discipline, profession, and community.  But, the biases that play out in formal evaluation in the academy are not based upon logic; so, I remain vigilant for words that say one thing and actions that say another.  It’s exhausting.

Then, the tears came, surprising both my partner and me.  Between sobs, I said that I was tired of second guessing doing work that is inherently about my survival and the liberation of my people.  I’m tired of holding out for a department or institution to value my worth as a human being, of deluding myself into thinking I would ever get their full acceptance and validation as a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist.  I am tired of feeling unsettled between what is expected of me and what is exciting to me.  Given the self-doubt, and censorship, and contorting, and… and… and… is it really all worth it?  I told my partner that I would never wish this path on another person, on trying to survive within an institution that devalues your worth.

This morning’s meltdown confirms the importance of my work to champion intellectual activism, and, specifically, needing to give this talk at Duke (probably more for me than any audience I hope will attend).  I know that I am not alone, especially in the midst of widespread political turmoil and civil unrest in our country, in wrestling with the (unnecessary) tension between academia and activism.  That is why I have chosen to share this in this blog post.

I don’t have any advice to impart — yet.  I am still in the thick of figuring this shit out myself.  I invite you to stay tuned on this journey.  Though I have a growing list of role models and sheroes who have found their way, the norm appears to be one of tension — between one’s job and one’s survival.

Check out my other writings on being a scholar-activist:

Also:

Advice For Faculty To Track Their Work

shannon craigo-snellNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Shannon Craigo-Snell is professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is the author of three books, including The Empty Church: Theater, Theology and Bodily Hope (Oxford University Press, 2016), and numerous articles, essays and chapters. Her latest work, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice (co-authored with Christopher Doucot), will be out later this year.

Advice on Tracking Your Work

It is common in academe for women, people of color and LGBTQ people to end up doing a ridiculous amount of work, much of which goes unnoticed and often counts little toward tenure and promotion.

One of the few Asian-American professors on campus ends up being the de facto adviser for every Asian-American student. A queer professor spends hours doing the emotional work of hearing students in pain regarding their own sexual and gender identities and the anti-LGBTQ bias they experience. And, in what I believe to be one of the legacies of white supremacy in the United States, people of color are given workloads that would be deemed impossible for white professionals. Such structural injustice must be stopped.

In the meantime, as we try to survive, I suggest keeping two documents on your computer that you update regularly: your CV and a list of your work experiences. They should be distinct documents.

Four Steps to Creating a CV

  • Before composing your CV, look at multiple examples from scholars in your field. Many can be easily found online. Examine how different academics organize the material, as well as what kinds of things they list. Make sure to look across institutions. A scholar at a top research institution might not list courses taught, while one at a small liberal arts college might foreground teaching experience. Also, notice how scholars at different levels of experience organize their CVs. Younger professors often include accomplishments that a more experienced academic might omit, such as presiding over a panel at a guild meeting. Find a good model CV that coordinates with your location and level of experience.
  • Write up all of your accomplishments and experiences in the format of your model CV.
  • Once you have laid out your CV, scrutinize, edit and polish it carefully. Pay attention to details, such as punctuation and spacing. Ask friends to go over it and give feedback. Polish it once more.
  • Keep your CV handy on your computer so that you can add to it every time you do something. Do not wait until you are asked to produce a new CV. By then, you might not recall a talk you gave or an event in which you participated. Also, looking back over a well-written CV can help in discerning what your own strengths and passions are as you plan ahead.

Keeping a List of Work Experiences

In a separate document, keep note of every single bit of service work that you do in the academic institutions where you’ve been employed. Every. Single. Bit. I would include:

  • Official work, such as serving on committees. In many institutions, women, queer folks and people of color end up doing significantly more committee work than others. Sometimes this is explicit, such as the dean who unapologetically overworked women, claiming it was imperative to have a woman on every committee. At other times, it is unnoticed. I have a friend who did not realize how many committees she was on because she had never written them down and counted them up. Once she had tallied them, she asked other scholars at her institution and discovered she was serving on many more than they were.
  • Unofficial work. Many types of work never appear on CVs, such as introducing a visiting speaker, unofficially advising students, meeting with student groups that ask for input, attending lunch forums, supervising independent studies and so forth. Women, people of color and LGBTQ people often do a disproportionate amount of such work. Furthermore, this kind of work can easily remain invisible and undervalued. Five different groups might ask for a small effort, each not realizing they are one of many. Nobody else will keep track of this. If you keep a record, you will have documentation to refer to in reviews and negotiations. It can also be helpful backup if you need to decline an assignment.

Finally, a note on discernment. Early in an academic career, scholars are eager for every opportunity to publish, speak at a conference or participate in a project. In the past, that has been an expected pattern through which scholars build a repertoire and body of work to secure their standing in the field. However, for those who are not “likable,” for those who are conditionally accepted, that pattern often fails.

Instead of building a reputation as a solid scholar, academics who do not fit within the dominant culture often end up building an overwhelming load of commitments that, while good in other ways, are not recognized as adding up to scholarly standing. That reflects the increased demands upon these scholars.

Also, traditional academic structures often have no means by which to value the types of work that scholars outside the dominant culture do. For example, when a professor invests hours in an interdisciplinary program or a cultural studies center, people in the department where that person works may not fully value it. They can even view such work as neglecting departmental duties. Similarly, they can portray work that attends to the practical needs of non-dominant communities as not sufficiently scholarly.

You need careful and clear-sighted discernment to determine which commitments are valuable and for what purpose — if they are career enhancing or life-giving, or both. Friends, mentors and a clear-eyed assessment of your own goals can all help with this discernment.

For many of us, individual professional success is not the only goal at play in this discernment. We are also hoping to shift the oppressive systems of academe itself — not to become likable but rather to embody a different paradigm altogether, where senior scholars learn with and support younger scholars, where different perspectives are valued and engaged, and where the secret handshake of the inner circle is posted on placards for all to see. Jennifer Ho, professor of English and grammar queen, says that she mentors others because her vision for the academy is not an exclusive dinner party but rather a rowdy potluck where everyone is welcome and brings something to share.

Whatever your goals are, tracking your work carefully can help you stay focused on them and not fall prey to the dissipation of your energies by the endless demands made of marginalized scholars.

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.

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.